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Parliament House, Canberra , 29 June 2000: transcript of doorstop interview: Digital Television and Datacasting legislation; ABC; and SBS and multichanneling.

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Doorstop Interview

Stephen Smith - Shadow Minister for Communications

Subjects: Digital Television And Datacasting Legislation, ABC And SBS And Multichannelling

Transcript - Parliament House, Canberra - 29 June 2000

E & OE - Proof Only

JOURNALIST: Why did Labor agree to watering down its own amendments to give ABC and SBS total freedom on multi-channelling?

SMITH: Because this is a great day for the ABC and SBS. We have now secured for Australia's national public broadcasters the capacity to multi-channel and the capacity to multi-channel in the areas they have indicated to us are important to them.

When you look at the list of areas which the national broadcasters are allowed to multi-channel, the things that are effectively excluded are some movies, sit-coms, some drama and national news. Now the ABC and SBS would always run national news on their primary channel.

I have had the opportunity of speaking to the General Manager of SBS after the passage of the legislation through the Senate and he has told me he regards it as fantastic news for SBS. And on the basis of my discussion with the Managing Director of the ABC, I expect that he will, likewise, be happy.

Let's understand precisely what has occurred here. We have always said that the ABC and SBS ought to be able to multi-channel and multi-channel in an unencumbered way. I made the point this morning that we had called upon the Government to accept the amendment the Senate had passed during the week.

I repeated that argument to the Minister at a lunchtime meeting. He refused and said the very strong view of the Cabinet from the highest level was that it would not allow the ABC and SBS to multi-channel in an unencumbered way.

He presented a list, and it was a list that I said, provided the ABC and SBS indicated covered the areas of activity they had in mind, we would contemplate supporting. The advice I received from the Minister and the ABC and SBS was that there was nothing on the list that prevented them from doing the things that they had in mind.

And as I have said, the General Manager of SBS has indicated he regarded the outcome as fantastic. So far as our policy position is concerned, as was made clear in the Senate, our policy position remains the ABC and SBS ought to be able to multi-channel and multi-channel in an unencumbered way.

I have been authorised by the Leader of the Opposition to indicate that that will remain our policy position in the run-up to the next election and after we are elected to office I will have great pleasure in implementing it in an unencumbered way.

JOURNALIST: If you had already secured all this yesterday then why have you backed down?

SMITH: Well last time I looked I had a very strong memory of waking up one Sunday morning in October and discovering that we didn't have the numbers in the House of Representatives. It is the same point I made in respect of datacasting. The Government of the day made it crystal clear that it would not countenance ABC and SBS multi-channelling in an unencumbered way.

What has the Labor Party forced upon the Government. The Labor Party has forced upon the Government the ABC and the SBS being the first of the terrestrial television broadcasters to be able to multi-channel in digital form. That gives them an enormous head start so far as multi-channelling capacity is concerned. This is a great day for the ABC and for the SBS and when we come to office we will tidy up the minor details that remain outstanding.

JOURNALIST: If the Government was desperate to get this Bill through this week , then you could have pushed them further? I mean they are not going to go to a double disillusion on this.

SMITH: When you are dealing with a potential impasse with the House of Representatives and the Senate, you never know who is going to blink until you see the whites of their eyes. We were faced with the certainty of enabling the ABC and SBS to multi-channel in the areas that they said were most important to them. We have secured an outcome that the General Manager of the SBS has said is fantastic. We have secured an outcome that the Managing Director of the ABC, before the matter was put to the Senate, indicated to me covered the areas of primary and essential concern to the ABC. This is a great day for the ABC and SBS. Those things, those areas, that the ABC and SBS are prevented from doing on their secondary channel, they can of course do on their primary channel.

JOURNALIST: Why shouldn't they be able to have sports on the multi-channel?

SMITH: Our policy position as I have indicated it, has been long standing. We first articulated it in 1997, and it remains our policy position today. It was our policy position I urged upon the Government this morning and this afternoon and that is that the ABC and SBS ought to be able to multi-channel in an unencumbered way.

JOURNALIST: When did you first discuss these matters with Mr Shier and the General Manager of SBS?

SMITH: When evidence was given to the Senate Committee in respect of the ABC and SBS multi-channelling you may recall that the free to air commercial broadcasters and the subscription or pay TV industry gave evidence and made submissions opposing the notion of the ABC or SBS multi-channelling, and said that if they were allowed to multi-channel, then restrict their areas.

In the course of discussion with both the ABC and the SBS at that time, I indicated our strong support for the notion of the ABC and the SBS being able to multi-channel in an unencumbered way.

I also said that it was highly likely that the Democrats would support that position and I also believed it was highly likely that the Government would seek to stare down that view and might well come up with a compromise given the Government's attraction these days to program or content or genre restrictions.

My instinct was that it was highly likely to come up with a list of inclusions or exclusions and I effectively put the ABC and SBS on notice that they might want to be ready to consider a request from the Government as to what areas they would expressly like to multi-channel in. In the event, that proved to be perceptive. I had put the ABC and SBS on notice because I could see this possibility coming. We had preliminary discussion and then in the course of the last 24 hours there has been speculation by the Government in the media that they might be going down this road. I pursued further discussions and had what I regarded as formal discussion with them on the Government's amendments in the course of the day.

JOURNALIST: Just on the datacasting amendments, Stephen, do you think that paves the way for viable datacasting business to be formed?

SMITH: While we are pleased with the outcome on multi-channelling for the ABC and SBS, we do of course remain committed to the view that the outcome as far as datacasting is concerned is that we have been able to effect some modest amendments to what we regard as a flawed regime.

I think the prospective datacasters need now to examine the bill as it has emerged from the Senate and make a judgement as to whether they think there is a viable opportunity for them there.

I would encourage them and hope that they take that opportunity up. I think some of the changes we have made to the Government's very restrictive content regime might provide that opportunity, both in terms of content on the datacasting regime and content via the internet.

I hope they closely examine it and I hope they take it up. I again repeat the point we have always made: the Government's datacasting regime runs the risk of stifling an industry at birth, runs the risk of not enabling Australians to take maximum opportunity of new information technology and new services.

JOURNALIST: Would you revisit that if you won Government as you might revisit multichannelling?

SMITH: Well that one in a sense would be more complicated because by then we would have had 12 or 18 months experience. So that is something we will look at closer to the election. But we have also secured in the passage of the legislation, a whole series of early and orderly reviews of the legislation itself. So the Parliament is going to be, and this was always a deliberative mechanism, obliged to consider the regime at an early opportunity in any event. So I think the first thing we need to do is see whether the prospective datacasters take up the opportunity and then see what we learn from the experience of the operation of the regime.

JOURNALIST: Neither the ABC or the SBS still have any money to offer new channels for multi-channelling. Their request in the Budget was knocked back. Would Labor in

government consider giving them extra funding?

SMITH: Again, as we get closer to the election, we will closely examine and make public our precise financial outlay promises and commitments. However, we have generally made the point that it is a responsibility on the part of the National government to ensure that the National Boardcasters are adequately resourced. It is clear to all concerned that this Government has gone out of its way to deliberately ensure that neither the ABC in particular nor the SBS in general are in a position to properly effect their conversion to digital.

JOURNALIST: Given that lack of funding in the last Budget for a separate channel is this an empty victory, a hollow victory, for the ABC and SBS.

SMITH: No, because we have seen, particularly with the ABC, in recent times it has been developing a very extensive on-line experience, effectively off the smell of an oily rag. I hope there are a few multi-channelling oily rags hanging around the ABC at this point in time. But the opportunity is there for the ABC. They are very enthusiastic about taking it up and I hope they do, and I am confident they will.

JOURNALIST: Could you just outline how the datacasting amendments eased the restrictive nature.

SMITH: Well, we managed to make amendments to some the convoluted content restrictions and we have loosened up the definition of information only, we have loosened up the definition of news and current affairs, and we have tried to make the information collected off the internet, the wall garden, it is freer and looser. We have enabled presenter based datacasting programs. There is a whole range of items which are freed up from some of the absurdities of the Government's regime. I think it's a matter for the datacasters to just go through the bill from start to finish see if these changes give them a viable and effective plan to start a new industry.

JOURNALIST: And this depends on the ABA..?

SMITH: In recent times the Government and the Parliament has placed more and more responsibility on the ABA as a regulator and I think that will find the Parliament obliged at some point in the cycle to provide the ABA with more resources to effectively carry out those tasks. That is one of things that we will learn from experience, the way in which the ABA interprets some of the provisions, keeping in mind the objectives of the legislation as it now stands.

JOURNALIST: It all stands in the hands of David Flint doesn't it?

SMITH: Well it puts appropriate regulatory arrangements in the hands of the regulatory authority. We will see how they perform. As I say, they have been given increased responsibility in a range of areas in the last couple of years and that is one regulatory arrangement we will need to watch closely.

JOURNALIST: Why didn't you accept the Democrats' two amendments and their option A plan for datacasting?

SMITH: Well I said at the time that the Democrats own proposal in terms of the beauty contest was unworkable. The Democrats' amendment to our regime was on one of the aspects that our regime was predicated on, that was, enabling datacasters to have

unrestrained access to information contemporaneously available on the Internet. The starting point of the Democrats' amendment was to wipe that out, which was worse than the Government's own provision. In a range of the four point amendments, there were two mechanism which we thought were potentially more restrictive than the Government's ten minute limitation. So we rejected that because it cut right across the capacity of datacasters to have unrestricted access to Internet content and it was potentially more restictive in some areas than the Government's ten-minute limit to the datacasting regime.

JOURNALIST: Just back to the multi-channelling issue, what priority areas have the ABC and SBS indicated to you are priorities which make them so happy with this ..

SMITH: The ABC has said consistently they are looking at regional programming. That's included. They are obviously looking at education for children and adults, that's what they describe as life-long learning. That's included. They are very keen on children' programming. That's included and that will be met with some discontentment by the pay TV industry. So be it. They have also indicated that they want to look at history as part of its programming content. And so far as the SBS is concerned, the SBS's objects of attention are illustrated by the amendment itself and just about anything that the SBS wants to do is covered by the amendment.


Authorised by Geoff Walsh, 19 National Circuit, Barton ACT 2600.