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Wednesday, 12 September 2012
Page: 6703


Senator RONALDSON (Victoria) (11:53): I am pleased to be finally in a position to give this speech. I rise to speak on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Anti-siphoning) Bill 2012. This bill amends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and seeks to amend the Anti-siphoning Scheme which ensures that major sporting events are broadcast on free-to-air television.

First let me put on record what a mess this bill has been. Amendments are still being finalised and approved by Senator Conroy's own side. We understand there are many amendments to come which have not been circulated. The opposition has no specific idea what is in the amendments or how they would alter the bill before us—there are just the rumours from stakeholders to go on. It is clear that Senator Conroy has abused the process and his responsibilities as a minister and to parliament. It is sloppy work from Senator Conroy; but, to be fair, Senator Conroy is nothing if not consistent.

The Anti-siphoning Scheme was introduced to ensure that, with the advent of pay TV in Australia, all Australians still had access to major sporting events without having to purchase pay TV services. The scheme operates by preventing pay TV broadcasters from acquiring the rights to designated events—that is, events listed on the antisiphoning list—before free-to-air broadcasters have the opportunity to bid to acquire them. The scheme does allow for a wide range of sports not on the antisiphoning list to be broadcast exclusively on pay TV; however, events like the Melbourne Cup and the AFL and NRL finals are protected.

For many years this scheme has faced criticism on a variety of fronts, including that too many sporting events were protected and that in many cases events were not shown by free-to-air broadcasters but at the same time could not be shown on pay TV. Sports themselves have also raised concerns that, by specifying that events must be shown on free-to-air TV, they receive lower licence fees than they may have been able to secure had pay TV also been able to bid for the rights to televise their sport.

I am pleased that some of the concerns stakeholders have had about the antisiphoning regime are being addressed. This bill will allow free-to-air broadcasters to make greater use of their digital multichannels when showing listed sports which, considering the digital switch-over is well underway, is a sensible move which will increase the programming flexibility of broadcasters without impacting on the ability of Australians to access free-to-air sports. I am sure that when antisiphoning is next reviewed, after the switch-over is complete, further relaxation of restrictions on multichannels will be considered.

This bill also increases the period before an event is delisted. Where free-to-air broadcasters have not purchased the rights to an event and the event is therefore not being broadcast on free-to-air TV, the event is automatically delisted from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. This will enable pay TV providers to better assess, prepare for and manage their purchase of rights to such events and sports bodies to better negotiate and engage with broadcasters for the sale of their broadcast rights. I hope this change will see more sports being televised, providing greater revenue for sporting bodies and more choice in sports content for viewers.

In a similar light, the bill introduces must-offer provisions which require free-to-air broadcasters which hold the rights to an event, but which cannot or do not cover the event, to offer those rights to other free-to-air broadcasters within 120 days of the event for $1 to prevent hoarding of rights by free-to-air broadcasters. If another free-to-air broadcaster fails to acquire those rights they must be offered to pay TV 90 days from the event. This provision will also ensure that more sports are shown on TV and reduce the number of occasions where rights to an event are held but not used.

Under this bill, we will also see the introduction of a tier system for antisiphoning while new category A and category B quota groups will enable different conditions to be applied to different events. Tier A events include iconic sporting events such as the Melbourne Cup, the Australian Open final, and the AFL and NRL finals series and must be broadcast live or with as short a delay as possible. Tier B events must be broadcast within four hours of play commencing and may be broadcast on digital multichannels. Quota groups are rounds of AFL and NRL matches where a minimum number of matches—a quota—must be shown on free-to-air television. This therefore provides flexibility for certain listed events to bypass particular antisiphoning provisions. This quota is four for AFL matches and three for NRL matches, meaning pay TV may acquire the rights for the remaining matches. The system will also enable the minister to determine which is the best Friday night match to be shown on free-to-air and matches involving local teams to be shown in their state market. The listing of particular events is a matter of ministerial discretion and adds to the sense of some stakeholders that the system is overly complex and provides too much ministerial control, which I will refer to again later.

The changes we are considering in this bill have been a long time coming. The government first announced changes to the scheme in November 2010—almost two years ago. Since then these changes have been subject to much consideration, commentary and examination, including by the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee which reported in May.

The committee found that the bill should be amended to expand the quota group mechanism to include sports other than the AFL and NRL in competitions such as tennis. Including tennis under the quota group mechanism would make it likely that more tennis would be shown live on TV, with tournaments such as the Australian Open being able to be shown on free-to-air and pay TV, subject to commercial arrangements. The government, however, has not agreed to this amendment, leaving a confusing situation where different multi-round sporting events are treated differently, with AFL and NRL given preferential treatment, leaving other sports at a financial disadvantage.

The committee also recommended amendments to relax the reporting requirements placed on broadcasters in relation to the acquisition and cessation of rights. It was found that the current arrangements where free-to-air broadcasters must notify ACMA both when it acquires rights and ceases to hold rights is an undue administrative burden. It was recommended that this be amended to require broadcasters to notify ACMA of the expiration date of broadcast rights at the same time as rights are acquired. I am pleased that this issue is being addressed via the amendment bill and that this bureaucratic red tape will be cut.

It is worth noting that the antisiphoning system is a controversial one with free-to-air broadcasters, pay TV and sports holding varied views on its existence and operation. The Productivity Commission found that the regime was:

… a blunt, burdensome instrument that is unnecessary to meet the objective of ensuring wide community access to sporting broadcasts—

and is—

inherently anti-competitive.

I hope that the changes we are examining today will improve this system even if it remains a point of concern for some.

This, of course, is just one area where we are examining the regulation of media in this country. It seems that this government has an unhealthy obsession with media regulation and one wonders if before too long newspapers will have to be vetted before they can be printed each day to ensure that their content is acceptable to the government.

What the Labor government has failed to realise—or is incapable of comprehending—is that media coverage critical of the government is the result of its own poor performance and not the imagined vendettas of the media. If the government wants to limit critical coverage, it does not need an overarching News Media Council but simply needs to end its appalling policy failures in programs like pink batts, school halls and green loans, the Australia network tender debacle as well as promising no carbon tax then implementing a carbon tax which fuels poor coverage.

Poor performance breeds critical media coverage. We can all see that. It is remarkable that those opposite choose to blame the messenger rather than reflect on their own shambolic government. Take for instance the member for Bendigo, Steve Gibbons. A few weeks ago he came out with the bizarre statement:

In my view, fines such as these for publishing blatant untruths or misleading reports, or temporary suspensions of the right to publish or broadcast, would lead to a major improvement in the accuracy and fairness of our media.

Quite frankly, that was truly remarkable commentary. Labor MPs suggested newspapers be fined or even shut down if the government believes their reporting is misleading. I was concerned by the reporting of the comment of Mr Gibbons because Ben Packam's article posted on the Australian website failed to include anything on Mr Gibbons saying that politicians who state blatant untruths or mislead the public be fined or suspended from parliament. Perhaps Mr Gibbons did not make such a comment. Perhaps he realised what was good for the goose was good for gander and as such Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister, would be thrown out of parliament for the blatant untruths she has told the Australian people.

Can you imagine the witch hunts the new rules of Mr Gibbons would create. However, an upside would be that newspapers would no longer be able to print stories on the rollout of the NBN because we all know that the figures NBN Co. produces are misleading, if not blatantly untrue. They have never met a single deadline they have set for themselves so I assume printing NBN Co.'s 'pie in the sky' promises of millions of homes being passed by fibre would fail the truth test of Mr Gibbons. But suppose a newspaper was brave enough to print NBN Co.'s claimed rollout figures, when the deadline passes and they are found to be untrue, who would pay the fine—the newspaper or NBN Co. for misleading them? Attacking the freedom of the press surely is a sign of the desperation permeating in Labor's ranks. It is the desperate, embarrassing bleating of a government incapable of dealing with its own failures.

Finally, in regard to the antisiphoning bill at hand, it should be noted that in a converged world we are seeing increased coverage of sports from online sources and on mobile devices and with Australians having more television channels than ever before, thanks to digital TV, consumers are coming to demand greater flexibility in the way they access and view sports coverage. There is also increasing pressure from sporting bodies to ensure that they are able to maximise the return they receive from selling the rights to cover their sports. Time will tell whether this iteration of antisiphoning rules has struck the right balance or not, but in any event I expect this is a debate we will be having again in the not-too-distant future as convergence accelerates and the preferences of consumers for more flexible access to sports coverage matures.

Due to the shambolic nature in which amendments to this bill have been handled by Senator Conroy and Labor, this bill will not be ready to be finalised today. Yet again there will be more delays, mess and another disgraceful show by this dysfunctional Labor government. This scheme is an important piece of public policy and sports-loving Australians do have the right to expect that any changes to this scheme will be carefully and thoroughly considered. The coalition will ensure that such consideration is given once the Labor Party finally gets its act together.

I will make some comments in relation to the ministerial council control issues that I raised before. Quite legitimately, there is a sense from stakeholders that there is too much ministerial control and indeed that this amending bill does nothing to address that and it may even worsen that. But we have seen another example in the last 24 hours of a government determined to place the interests of individual ministers and the Australian Labor Party against the good of all Australians. We saw this bill introduced today in relation to the trawler—I will call it the 'trawler bill'—and what is in it? It is 'ministerial discretion' again: again, there is the ability for Minister Conroy to impose his will on the Australian people. Quite frankly—

Senator Ludlam interjecting

Senator RONALDSON: I will take that interjection: I think you are going to move some amendments in relation to this matter. If you believe this minister can maintain the level of ministerial discretion that is there at the moment, that is okay. If the Greens think it is not an issue, I accept that that is what they are saying. But that is not what the stakeholders are saying in relation to ministerial discretion and these antisiphoning rules. If the Greens say that it is not an issue, that is fine. The stakeholders know the Australian Greens do not think the level of ministerial control in relation to this matter is an issue. We think the stakeholders are right. We think the view of some stakeholders that there is far too much ministerial control is right. The Greens do not think it is. That is fine. Maybe the spokesperson can clarify the matter when he speaks, and perhaps the intervention of his colleague was not terribly helpful on this occasion.

I will finish on this note. This bill was due to be debated, from recollection, on Monday morning. We are none the wiser in relation to what Senator Conroy actually wants out of this amending bill. We are none the wiser as to what the potential amendments are going to be. We are none the wiser as to what the impact of those amendments will be on the amending bill, and I believe there will be a course of action recommended by those in the Australian Greens and, subject to that being the matter being discussed with other people in the other place, we will be supportive of that.