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Monday, 6 December 1999
Page: 12891

Mr McGAURAN (Arts and the Centenary of Federation) (10:16 PM) —I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

The Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill (No. 3) 1999 seeks to amend the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 to make the Australian content licence condition for subscription television broadcasting licensees enforceable; to limit the scope of international agreements that apply to the functions of the Australian Broadcasting Authority; and to establish a new broadcasting licence regime for international broadcasting services transmitted from Australia.

Firstly, the bill gives effect to the outcomes of the ministerial review of Australian content on subscription television broadcasting services conducted in 1997. The review identified that the existing Australian content licence condition is unenforceable because it does not take into account the operating practices of the subscription television industry. In view of the high level of non-compliance with the existing requirement over successive years, the government has decided that legislative amendments are necessary to make the licence condition enforceable so that the intended policy outcomes are achieved.

The government recognises the important role of television drama in developing and reflecting a sense of Australian identity, character and cultural diversity. The aim of the licence condition is to require the subscription television industry to contribute to the production of Australian drama programming for the cultural benefit of Australian audiences. The licence condition will also promote the further development of the highly acclaimed Australian drama production industry, providing further employment opportunities and new Australian product available for export. The amendments will also ensure that the licence condition complies with Australia's obligations under the Protocol on Trade in Services to the Closer Economic Relations Agreement with New Zealand, by treating services provided by New Zealand personnel to the production of drama programs no less favourably than services provided by Australians.

The government will closely monitor the operation of the enforcement measures contained in the bill to ensure that they are effective in delivering the intended policy objectives. A review of Australian and New Zealand content on subscription television broadcasting services will be conducted by 31 March 2003. This review will, amongst other things, provide an opportunity to assess the effectiveness of the enforcement measures contained in this bill. The government expects the subscription television broadcasting sector to comply with the spirit, as well as the letter, of the new enforcement arrangements over the next three years leading up to the review.

The government recognises the importance of the documentary genre in developing and reflecting a sense of Australian identity, character and cultural diversity, and believes that the extension of the requirement to documentary channels warrants further consideration. The government is also aware of some industry concerns in relation to the treatment of development expenses under the bill. Therefore, the government will be asking the ABA to consider both of these issues and report back to the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Alston, within 12 months.

Secondly, the bill will limit the scope of international agreements that apply to the functions of the ABA following the decision of the High Court of Australia in Project Blue Sky versus the ABA. The High Court held that the Australian content standard for commercial free-to-air television was unlawfully made, because it was not consistent with the CER Services Protocol, which I mentioned a few moments ago, as required by a section 160(d) of the Broadcasting Services Act. Section 160(d) provides that the ABA is to exercise its functions in a manner consistent with Australia's international obligations. This bill will amend section 160(d) to limit its scope to the CER Services Protocol with New Zealand. By doing so it will protect the level of Australian content on free-to-air television so that foreign access to local content quotas under the section will be explicitly confined to New Zealand. The amendment will accommodate the CER Services Protocol and retain the special position of New Zealand, while making it clear that there are no flow-ons under the amended section to other treaties. It will also assist the ABA in the exercise of its regulatory responsibilities.

Thirdly, the bill will establish a new licensing category for international broadcasting services transmitted from Australia. The scheme is being introduced because there is currently no regime governing the content of international broadcasts from Australia. In certain circumstances, such broadcasts could be contrary to the national interest. The bill provides a means for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to determine whether a broadcast service is likely to be contrary to the national interest. In determining this, the Minister for Foreign Affairs will have regard in particular to the likely effect of the service on Australia's international relations.

Under the new licensing scheme, all international short-wave radio services transmitted from Australia and all international satellite radio and television broadcasting services originating in, and transmitted from, Australia will be required to obtain an international broadcasting licence from the ABA. The ABA will refer applications for licences to the Minister for Foreign Affairs to make an assessment of whether the proposed service would be contrary to the national interest. The Minister for Foreign Affairs will also be empowered to direct the ABA to issue formal warnings to international broadcasting licensees or to suspend or cancel an international broadcasting licence if, in the opinion of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the service is contrary to Australia's national interest.

Significant growth in international broadcasting is expected, and Australia is likely to be a base for some services operating in the region. This new regulatory regime will provide a licensing framework for international broadcasting services transmitted from Australia, whilst safeguarding Australia's national interest. I table the explanatory memorandum and commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Stephen Smith) adjourned.