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Tuesday, 24 February 1987
Page: 591

Mr MACPHEE —by leave-The Opposition, with few reservations, welcomes the announcement of the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy). It seems that after a number of delays and a great deal of confusion we will now see additional services for regional radio listeners. It is certainly better late than never and the general approach taken by the Minister is one which we welcome. The Minister has accepted the market groups approach which was outlined in the Forward Development Unit's final report on the future directions for commercial radio. At last it appears that the Government has set a blueprint for the future expansion of regional radio and I am sure that the industry will welcome some clear directions, which have been so sadly lacking in the past. It is quite clear that from the time this Government came to office and abandoned the policy of the previous Government a great many investors have been waiting on the sidelines, have had a lot of money tied up and have had no clear direction at all. But after four years there is at least some ray of hope for some of them.

One of the main reservations which the Opposition has is with respect to the type and quality of programming which the regional listeners will have when new independent operators are determined for markets such as Geelong, Gosford, the Gold Coast and Shepparton. We are concerned that the Minister has, perhaps too readily, ruled out some of the recommendations of the FDU report and the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal. As I understand the Minister, the Mildura and Canberra situations will proceed under the old rules, and we welcome that. We also welcome the new services but serious thought must be given to what types of programs will be provided by the new independent operators. There is a very real danger that the new competitors in these markets will not provide diversity of programming so much as direct competition for what they perceive to be the majority audience. That is, perhaps they will not provide real program choice, which regional people are entitled to but cannot obtain under the existing situation, and which they have been clamouring for.

For many years the Opposition has favoured, in the first instance, the granting of supplementary licences. For a while the Government was sympathetic to that. It moved away somewhat from that concept but has now come back a little more towards it. The Minister knows the argument well but it is worth putting it back on the table. The argument simply is that if one has only two competitors-the market seems to show that if one has fewer than five competitors-each station will try to chase the 70 per cent popular programming, which these days tends to be of a kind of music which very few members of this House are any longer in tune with. Country stations have had the worst of all worlds in trying to provide for all kinds of programming. They have probably rarely satisfied their listeners because of that. But if two competitors are setting out on the same rocky-jockey type of presentation it will be even more difficult to satisfy regional listeners. The Minister is aware of that but I am bound to say that I think he has rejected out of hand rather too soon the format approach that was recommended to him. I would have thought he would have been wise to keep that in reserve.

Mr Duffy —I will.

Mr MACPHEE —The Minister nods. He may keep that in reserve. I thought that his statement excluded it rather too much. `Me-tooism' is the phrase. It is very clear that a supplementary licence in the hands of one person or corporation has the advantage of ensuring that program choice is greater because the programs are diversified. Where now the one station tries to provide for everything it would have two outlets to provide all those programs.

I recognise that there is a problem again where there is a concentration of media ownership in a particular listening area where sometimes the radio monopoly is in the hands of people who own the print and television media as well. That certainly is deemed by the Government and, I think, by most people to be undesirable. In those circumstances the idea of granting a competitive radio licence is clearly desirable. I merely make the point that in the way the Minister has presented this he has not acknowledged as fully as he should that that does not necessarily improve the diversity of choice in programming for listeners in regional areas. There will be competition, but competition for much the same kind of programming. That still is an improvement on the present situation and we acknowledge that.

We want to see a more genuine attempt at alternative programming. I hope that this Minister, or the next Government-which I am sure will be a coalition government-will look at the other options that were before the Minister before he made this statement today. As a result of this statement there are additional quantities of programming but our point is that they are not necessarily more diverse in choice or better in quality. We think that the supplementary licence scheme, which the Minister has partly welcomed back again, still has a great deal going for it in terms of opening up real choice for the listener. These sentiments are in line with the recent Australian Broadcasting Tribunal decision with respect to Canberra commercial radio. In that decision the Broadcasting Tribunal rejected the applications by independent licensees in Canberra and instead awarded the two existing commercial licensees additional, supplementary licences so that Canberra listeners now have two Australian Broadcasting Corporation stations and, in effect, four commercial stations, those four stations being in two hands. We think that that provides diversity of programming.

The Tribunal emphasised at the hearing:

Two supplementary services offer the greatest opportunity to the people of Canberra for a diversity of music and talk services and formats to suit the needs of different interest and tastes.

We know that the Forward Development Unit report mentioned that it might be necessary for the Government to take steps to ensure that diversity of choice did follow from the introduction of new services in respect of the subjects under consideration by the Minister. The Minister said today:

I would much prefer to leave programming to station managers and their view of the market and leave regulation to the ABT and its monitoring of `adequate and comprehensive' services. This Government will steer well clear of any other approach.

I understand that and respect the role of the Broadcasting Tribunal and station management in that. But, as I said earlier, in this very critical issue the Government cannot claim at the next election that it has provided services to regional people if what we see is a similarity of programming. We want to see that those programs that now run and rate lowly are not run by either station. That is one of the important things which the Minister knows that listeners of regional Australia will be looking for.

Mr Duffy —Do you think you would get that through a dry Cabinet?

Mr MACPHEE —I am sure the Minister would not get it through his Cabinet. Leaving aside climatic conditions about which the Minister interjects, how will the Minister give regional listeners a decent choice in the event that station management and the Broadcasting Tribunal are unable to meet the matter that I have raised? The Minister will have to reconsider the format approach again, at least in some areas of Australia, because I would be very surprised if what he outlined today provides the listeners with the choice that he is aiming for. In the Minister's statement, he also alluded to `the possible need for a review of the viability provisions of the Broadcasting Act'. Again, the Opposition favours a review of the commercial viability criteria but we also believe that viability has an important role to play when radio licences are considered and new and existing stations are required by law to provide an adequate and comprehensive service-and decent programming costs money. If an adequate and comprehensive service is to be provided, radio stations must be viable. If viability as a concept is abandoned or watered down too much, adequate and comprehensive services will not be provided. It seems to us that standards must be set and the market will then determine when a station can be commercially viable to meet those standards. So standards of listening quality are essential.

A very important point in relation to this is the question of localism in programming. We appreciate that many people tape network news broadcasts on the radio but local programming, including local news, is still essential. In the United States of America where there are no viability criteria there are 9,000 radio stations, most of which are almost fully automated. They have little or no local programming. We know of stations in the US where everything is recorded. Sometimes they program as much as a week ahead on a kind of continuous tape-a muzak type of station. It has been known for a one man owner-operator to go on leave for as long as two weeks and the tape has simply replayed itself. I hardly think that that meets listener choice or a diversity of programming. One can say that another station can set itself up but when costs are that low there is no real chance for adventure in the type of programming. All one gets is another automated, different type of muzak program. We would not want to see that happen in Australia.

I know that the Minister would not want to see this but I point out to him that the decision taken by his Cabinet could move in that direction if the Government says that it will leave it all to station managers and perhaps the Broadcasting Tribunal. In conclusion, a new streamlined approach was outlined by the Minister. We welcome that very much. It is certainly a step forward in the process of simplifying the approval of licences. One of the most discredited features of the present system has been the cumbersome procedures. We congratulate the Minister for removing them. I also know that the Government intends to amend the Broadcasting and Television Act so that the Minister's powers in relation to inquiries are clarified. That is important.

The new legislation will enable, where necessary, the Broadcasting Tribunal simultaneously to consider the claim of supplementary applicants or applications and applications for potential new operators. That is important, too. A farcical procedure has eventuated, not through the design of any government, but by the way regulations were drawn, which often led to several inquiries about whether there was room for a second licensee or whether a supplementary licence should be granted. I am pleased that that defect is cured by this proposal.

This is a very worthwhile reform. It will do away with absurd and costly hearings. But many questions remain unanswered. More have been raised by this statement, especially regarding ownership and control. I give just one example. On 27 November last year the Minister said that cross media ownership rules would be introduced so that the ownership of a radio station which was in a monopoly situation would be a bar to ownership of a television licence. But it seems from what the Minister has said today that many stations will now no longer be in that situation because of competitive licences being granted. Also, it seems to me that the Minister, in drawing up his new legislation, will still have to look at a number of ways in which he will ensure more diversity in the total reach of the media, both in respect of ownership and control and in the spread of news and information. The sooner we have that legislation before us the better. Otherwise, licensees and potential licensees will be forced to make commercial decisions in a climate of very great uncertainty, regarding the content of the law and government policy. We have seen some horrendous examples of that already in respect of television, and I think it would be a great shame if as a result of this statement today we saw a repetition in respect of radio.