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Continuing debate on pay TV

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Confusion reigns in Canberra this afternoon over the thorny issue of pay television. After the Government's third backflip this year, the Communications Minister, Senator Collins, told A.M. this morning that the issue remains fluid. Still in consideration are a bigger role for the ABC, whether all the channels will start up simultaneously, and just when pay TV will reach our screens. The Opposition spokesman, Warwick Smith, is speaking to Andrew Sholl.

WARWICK SMITH: Well, certainly this has not been an easy issue for anyone, but the Government have been caught again by trying to rush policy through. The original dilemma started when we had a Sunday morning TV decision by the Prime Minister which didn't take into account all the ramifications of technology and potential players and so on, and again it looks as though they've fallen into the same trap. Now, I think that they are the ones that have to wear the difficulties that are arising, and what it ends up being is, of course, a denial of a sensible pay TV policy. And we need some consistency from the Government; we're not getting it. They are flip-flopping all over the place.

ANDREW SHOLL: Do you believe that the Government's latest changes are there to accommodate media mates?

WARWICK SMITH: Well, I think it's a little hard to make that accusation without knowing, finally, what the position will be. We've said there should be a migration path into pay TV for existing network operators, which includes Channel Seven, Channel Nine and Channel Ten. And also of course the ABC, we believe, ought to be able to migrate into this new technology and the new services that it might provide.

ANDREW SHOLL: Should the ABC do what it wants to do, or should it be made to move into a purely news and current affairs channel?

WARWICK SMITH: Well, there seems to be some confusion about what the Government wants the ABC to do. Originally they said, the Prime Minister particularly said no pay TV involvement over my dead body; now he's changed. The Minister this morning had a different view, that it should be more than news and current affairs. I mean, we haven't got a consistent position. All we say is: Look, there is a role for the ABC; let's try and sort out something that's sensible in conjunction with the ABC; let's draw upon the values that they have, which is primarily news and current affairs - there may be other values there that they can bring - but they will enhance the menu that people can draw from the new pay TV service. And that's why we think they should be there.

ANDREW SHOLL: Should we wait until there's digital technology?

WARWICK SMITH: Well, I have said yesterday that in common with nearly every other responsible objective commentator, and including the Government, that digital compression technology is the technology that we ought to be commencing pay TV with. Certainly, we don't want to start with a sub-optimal technology.

ANDREW SHOLL: Wouldn't your view though be that if there are people ready to start up now the market should decide what technology is used?

WARWICK SMITH: Well, there are people that would be happy to start now. For example, the NDS services could start now.

ANDREW SHOLL: Microwave services?

WARWICK SMITH: Yes, microwave service. They are niche operators. They could start now, and there's no reason why they shouldn't, and I believe some of them will.

ANDREW SHOLL: Will you encourage them to?

WARWICK SMITH: Well, I would like to see them take advantage of the new legislation and the technology that's there now, yes, certainly. And I think most people would be of that view. But if we're talking about making sure that consumers don't get caught with a technology that's going to visit upon them a huge cost because of a rapid changeover in 12 to 18 months time, I think we have to be mindful of that, and I've always argued that we ought to be putting the consumers' interest first, in terms of the assessment of technology and also about the structure of this industry.

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Shadow Communications Minister, Warwick Smith.