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Wednesday, 30 November 1983
Page: 3061

Mr LLOYD(3.15) —I welcome the statement that has been made by the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) and the fact that he has provided details of the scheme so soon after the basic statement he made two weeks ago on the development of satellite-related broadcasting services and ownership of the satellite system. In other words, what he said today activates the legislation which was passed by this House 12 months ago under the previous Government. It is just as well that the statement has been made so early because, following the statement of a couple of weeks ago, there has been tremendous anticipation, uncertainty, confusion and concern in the regional areas as to what it will all mean, how it will be implemented, and so forth. Obviously, the regional operators of both commercial radio and television stations in this country are concerned about their long term viability and the question of networking and direct broadcasting which is part of this whole concept. They were also concerned by the departure of this Government from the policy of the previous Government by its particular references to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal having to take note of media concentration at the regional level.

Of particular concern to them at present-I think today's statement will not ease their concern on this point-is the time sequence that is entailed. The Minister in his statement today referred to a number of procedural and legislative changes which could delay for some time the actual implementation of the supplementary licence concept. The Minister has made it clear that expressions of interest will be accepted from 1 December and formal applications within six months of that date. That sort of procedure is reasonably clear. The Minister kept referring, as I said earlier, to concern about concentration of media ownership at the regional level. He said that he wanted to ensure that the Broadcasting Tribunal takes that into account when considering whether an independent or supplementary licence should be issued; and that the Broadcasting and Television Act 1942 would be amended to this effect. There could be a considerable delay before the actual amendments to the Act are passed by Parliament and before, I presume, the ABT can really make determinations on whether there should be independent licences or supplementary licences for particular service or market areas.

The Minister in his statement said that enabling legislation would be introduced in the Budget session. The important point is which Budget session? It is my understanding that about one week remains of the present Budget session . If he does not mean this Budget session, he must mean the next Budget session, which does not commence until August next year. As the Minister referred to 'the Budget session', I think everybody who has an interest in this matter will be very concerned to know which Budget session we are referring to. If it is this Budget session, will the procedure be that the legislation will be introduced quickly next week and passed by this House and, hopefully, by the Senate before both Houses rise for the Christmas break; or does it mean that everybody, including the ABT, will have to wait almost 12 months-certainly, at least nine months-before anything can really happen? I believe that the Minister should clarify this point.

In the accompanying Press releases and documentation which was provided with the Minister's earlier statement of two weeks ago he made reference to considering the possibility of two supplementary licences at some stage. He referred to the point that discussions were under way on this subject. I will refer to that subject again later because it also becomes a very important point in the calculations by the regional stations as to the correct paths to follow. The Minister also referred in his statement to the fact that amending legislation will be necessary so that there can be aggregation of the original and the supplementary licence fees. That is an important point also for any potential licence applicant because there would be some uncertainty as to what would be the level of that aggregate licence fee. This could influence their planning process. I believe the Minister should clarify this point as well. First of all, he should give some idea of what the total level of these aggregate fees will be and when amending legislation will be introduced into the House so that all people can be completely clear on what they are subjecting themselves to if they make an application.

There is another area of possible delay before anything is really achieved and that is the definition of a service area or a market that the commercial radio or television station is required to service. The Minister referred to this in his statement and there is more detail in the supplementary guidelines about the discussions about to get under way between the Department of Communications and potential licensees on defining what is a service area. If they cannot reach agreement, my understanding from quickly reading the statement, is that the Minister can intervene to determine what that area will be. This is a very important point for any potential applicant in relation to not just what the service area will be but also any flexibility that that applicant will have as to when he may be required to cover geographically that complete service area with the additional cost of translator stations, et cetera. I ask the Minister: Will any time limit be applied to these negotiations so that once again there can be some certainty in the planning process of calculating the delay before anything really happens, until the ABT determines whether or not an independent or a supplementary licence should be provided in each market?

The next point concerns the vexed question of the concentration of ownership. It certainly does cause concern in regional areas because people are pointing out, I believe with justification, that a double standard is being applied by the Government. The metropolitan networks-the metropolitan radio and television stations-will have the ability, through the legislation, that is, through two television licences and, I think a maximum of six radio licences, for huge markets in the Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane capital city areas. But the same regulations apply in regional and small markets as apply to anybody else. In reality, when one talks about concentration of media ownership the real concentration is not in regional areas but with the metropolitan arrangements. The Government in the statement of two weeks ago has entrenched that media concentration by allowing the networks to operate on the national beam, on the 30 watt transponders, throughout Australia. If that is not concentration of media control of the most significant and important form of media presentation in this country, I do not know what is.

Also what about the concentration of media ownership in not just that market but other markets? Is that to be taken into account as well? From the regional stations point of view there is no complete definition or to me equitable definition on what is concentration of ownership. This brings with it the point of a defensive application by a regional commercial holder. In smaller markets, whether they be television or radio and whether it be, say, in Mount Isa, Loxton or Kalgoorlie or some other area with a radio station-I will not go into details but there is quite a number, particularly those running at a loss-there is no viability or even potential viability for a second licence, a supplementary licence, let alone an independent licence. Such stations feel that they will have to make a defensive application for a supplementary licence to protect their position. The next question I ask the Minister is: Is there the flexibility in the guidelines to the ABT to ensure that if it is not sensibly viable to create or permit any second licence whatsoever, supplementary or independent, the viability of the existing licence holder will be protected?

The next question that arises is one about the consortium. I accept the point that this is more applicable to radio than to television because it is probably only in the commercial radio areas outside the capital cities where we have competing licences in the same area. I think Canberra is a very good example of this. The Minister made the point in his statement that a consortium approach will be allowed; that is, the two existing licence holders or whatever number there are, will be allowed to combine to apply for a supplementary licence to cover that area. I acknowledge the point that this will add flexibility to the ABT but I think it brings with it a potential contradiction. Obviously it is only in those markets that are big enough, such as Canberra where there are two commercial radio stations, that it appears that the argument for an independent licence is stronger than it is in those market areas where there is only one licence. Therefore, if one provides a supplementary licence one is really creating more concentration of media ownership and more restriction than in the ordinary regional areas. One is really saying that one will allow, say, three radio stations to be under this combined control rather than just in the ordinary regional market where there are two radio stations. I believe that matter requires further explanation.

The next point concerns the licence or service area. The Minister has made the point that on this very vexed and difficult question negotiations are already under way. He has also made the point that the supplementary licence for radio will be in FM and for television it will be in VHF or, where that is not possible, in UHF. If it is UHF for television and FM for radio, one's transmission reception area is more limited than it is under the present AM radio and VHF television. Therefore if one is going to cover the same geographic area with these new frequency arrangements one will need translators as well as the basic transmitter to cover that same area. I raise the point that if one has a mix of VHF and UHF, which the Minister implied in his statement, this adds to the complications and problems for the applicant station. This also raises the question that it may not be viable for the licensee to go to the additional cost of the translators to cover the same geographic area as the original AM or VHF transmission because on the fringes of the market the population is not there to cover the additional cost. This is a very important point that I think requires further clarification. There should at least be some allowance of a phasing arrangement or perhaps a requirement not to have to provide the same geographic area in the first licence period-the first eight years. I believe that flexibility is very important, particularly as the Minister does make the point in his statement that total coverage does not have to be provided just from a single high-powered transmitter; it can be provided from lower powered translaters as well. I do raise the very important point that in many market areas, the service areas, the viability will not immediately be there to justify this additional cost.

There is the question of the continuing problem of frequency allocation which has bedevilled governments for some time. As I have mentioned already there will be potential delays if we are waiting for amending legislation which may be introduced in the next Budget session rather than in this Budget session. There are the hearings and the other legislation on aggregation of licence fees. But there is then the question of if one goes through all of this what happens if there is not a frequency available for the licence applicant? That is a critical point. I believe it will be very important for all potential licence applicants, all of those radio and television station people in regional Australia, to know exactly what reassurances they have from the Minister on this, on some sort of time-table. When will band two of the VHF spectrum be cleared to allow FM radio? The difference in the statements of the Minister is that at one time all of the supplementary television stations had to be on VHF frequency and he is now saying that they can be on VHF if there is room. I certainly commend the Minister for greater flexibility about that. But I do recommend to him that he consider allowing the potential licence applicant to declare that he has a frequency rather than waiting for the Department of Communications in its time to declare that a frequency is available, using the United States of America deregulated approach and saying: 'We have a frequency and if nobody challenges it will be allowed to proceed'. There are other important points too concerning the second supplementary licence. However, I draw the Minister's attention to those outstanding questions.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Les Johnson) —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.

Debate (on motion by Mr Sinclair) adjourned.