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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 2827

Mr TANNER (10:49 AM) —The opposition supports the government's changes to the antisiphoning regime that are put forward in the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Anti-Siphoning) Bill 2004. The main change being promulgated with this legislation is that the period of time in which the free-to-air networks can get exclusive coverage of a particular sporting event that is on the antisiphoning list has been narrowed to a period up to 12 weeks prior to the commencement of the event. Under the previous arrangements, that period was up to six weeks prior to the commencement of the event.

The opposition supports this change. It provides a greater opportunity for subscription television to get the rights to an event and to properly publicise that event should the free-to-air networks not take up the opportunity offered to them by the antisiphoning list to get exclusive access to that event. Under the previous arrangements, I think the subscription broadcasters had a legitimate complaint that, if the event had not been taken up by free-to-air television prior to that six-week period, the six weeks was too short a period for them to genuinely be able to publicise the event through, for example, their monthly magazines sent out to subscribers. The government's initiative to expand that window of opportunity to 12 weeks is something the opposition therefore supports.

I do, however, want to make a couple of comments about some associated issues with respect to the antisiphoning regime for the government's consideration. One is that there is a loophole in the existing regime that has been exposed recently by the fact that Fox Sports has acquired the rights to broadcast on pay TV the Ashes tour to England next year, well before that six-week period—or 12 weeks, as it will now be—comes into effect, thereby effectively circumventing the operation of the antisiphoning regime, which is intended to ensure that free-to-air TV gets an unencumbered opportunity to get exclusive rights, including buying the pay TV rights as well as the free-to-air rights to a particular event. Having an associated entity which is not a broadcaster—in this case Fox Sports, which is a content provider to a broadcaster and which is, of course, owned by two of the co-owners of Foxtel, the actual broadcaster—acquire those rights in advance of the time when it is illegal for the broadcaster, Foxtel, to acquire the rights exposes a loophole in the antisiphoning regime.

I have indicated that Labor in office will plug this loophole, and I reiterate that commitment. It is true to say that, if the use of this loophole stays at its current level with events like the Ashes tours in England—which have been subject to rather sporadic and debatable levels of coverage on the part of the free-to-air networks in recent years—then the problem is not great. My concern is that, if this becomes entrenched, the opportunity for associated entities which are not directly covered by the antisiphoning rules to circumvent them and thereby completely undermine the spirit and rationale of those rules will be substantial. If Labor is elected in the forthcoming election, I intend to take action, after consulting with all the various interests, to ensure that this particular loophole is fixed.

Secondly, I would like to make some observations about one particular sport which has been the subject of some controversy recently regarding the antisiphoning rules—that is, soccer. I am a soccer fan and huge numbers of Australians are soccer fans. A growing proportion of Australians are interested in this sport. I am pleased to see ASTRA and Foxtel representatives here because they will no doubt be interested to hear some of comments that I make. As a result of considerable public interest in the Euro 2004 competition, previously known as the European championship, there has been a lot of controversy about the fact that it was not available on free-to-air TV.

I have indicated publicly that, in my view, the primary rationale for sports being listed on the antisiphoning list is that they are sports that actually or potentially involve Australians. By definition, the European Championship cannot involve Australia and cannot involve Australians in any sense representing Australia, although there may well be the odd Australian who ends up acquiring citizenship of another country and actually does participate. For that reason, I have yet to be convinced that that tournament ought to be on the antisiphoning list. However, I have undertaken to have some discussions with all of the relevant interests involved in that debate before making any kind of final decision as to what I would do. I do, however, believe—and I have also indicated this publicly—that the exclusion from the antisiphoning list of the World Cup for 2010 and the preliminary games involving Australia in the World Cup is a mistake which ought to be corrected.

The final observation I make is that negotiations between Foxtel and SBS with respect to SBS being able to broadcast some UK Premier League soccer on free-to-air TV appear to have reached some difficulties or maybe even broken down. I regard that as a serious problem. My rationale for the antisiphoning list—the involvement of Australia—at one level precludes the notion that the Premier League ought to be on the antisiphoning list. I certainly do not have any present intention, should Labor be in government, to add the Premier League to the antisiphoning list. However, it is important to emphasise to both sides of the debate—to the free-to-air TV networks and to the subscription TV providers—that a certain amount of commonsense and give and take is necessary on both sides in order to ensure that the underlying logic of the antisiphoning list prevails. Therefore I urge Foxtel and Fox Sports to do everything possible to reach agreement with SBS to ensure that some Premier League soccer does remain on free-to-air TV. I think the previous arrangements have worked well and have provided a good balance. The more serious zealots, like me, who do have Foxtel, are able to watch whole games—when we have the time, which is not often. Others who may be slightly less fascinated by the Premier League soccer but still follow it are at least able to get some coverage on SBS. I urge Foxtel and Fox Sports to do everything possible to bring agreement about.

I have expressed similar views to the free-to-air networks on other matters to do with making the antisiphoning list work. For example, I pointed out to Channel 9 a couple of years ago that, if they continued to gobble up virtually all of the major sporting rights—as they did when they had the AFL, rugby league, World Cup soccer, Wimbledon and I think one other thing all at once and therefore significantly detracted from their ability to provide full genuine coverage across Australia for all of these events—that would undermine the integrity of the antisiphoning list as well. I said that there therefore needed to be at least some sharing of rights to these events across the free-to-air networks, otherwise the capacity for ordinary Australians to see these events on free-to-air television would be diminished and the effectiveness of the antisiphoning list would be affected and ultimately its integrity undermined.

I do think it is important for all parties to maintain a commitment to ensuring that the list works as it is intended to work. I support the recent modifications that the government has made and I certainly have a view that the antisiphoning list should operate according to a `use it or lose it' approach, which means that, if the free-to-air networks are not broadcasting events, then the question of whether they should be on the list should be viewed in a very different light. I think Australian soccer fans have some legitimate complaints. It is not easy to resolve these issues, because there is a difficult balance to be maintained here. I am committed to ensuring that Australians can continue to see their favourite sports on free-to-air TV as they have traditionally done, but I am also committed to ensuring that subscription television has an opportunity to promote, sell and make money from a premium product. That requires striking a very difficult balance between those competing interests to ensure that everybody ultimately gets a reasonable go.

The antisiphoning list is an extremely difficult issue to deal with for both the government and the opposition. I acknowledge that it will never be perfect. But, in order for it to function properly and in order for governments from either side of politics to be able to get the outcomes that are necessary in the interests of all Australian consumers, that degree of give-and-take and commonsense from both sides concerning pay TV and subscription TV is, I think, extremely important.

I commend this legislation to the Main Committee and to the parliament. The opposition broadly supports the government's decision to slightly liberalise the list and to reform it. I have indicated a couple of exceptions that I think need to be fixed up. But, broadly, I think the movement of six weeks to 12 weeks is entirely sensible. It gives the subscription TV sector a much more realistic opportunity to promote and develop particular sporting events as products that it is going to show which have not been taken up by the free-to-air sector.