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Thursday, 13 February 2003
Page: 11798

Mr CIOBO (10:56 AM) —Before I begin to discuss the various benefits that the Australian people will enjoy as a result of the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 2002 and this government's commitment to introducing one of the best high definition television standards in the world, I would like to address some remarks to what the shadow communications minister, the member for Melbourne, has been speaking about for the past 25 minutes. I need to highlight one thing, which is really quite telling of the Australian Labor Party today. The shadow communications minister had 30 minutes to outline ALP policy on why the government's high definition TV legislation was wrong and why our regime for digital transmission was wrong. He had that opportunity for 30 minutes. But, for 25 of those 30 minutes, or 85 per cent of the shadow communications minister's speech, what did we hear? We heard an absolute diatribe and nothing but vitriol about the Prime Minister and the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. Stringing all of this together was the promulgation by the shadow communications minister that the government's policy for digital TV came down to this:

It is about brilliant reception for the minister and nothing for anyone else.

That is the position of the Australian Labor Party. The Australian Labor Party say that the government's policy on digital television transmission is all about providing `brilliant reception for the minister and nothing for anyone else'. What absolute rot! What a telling indictment of the Australian Labor Party it is that in this chamber the shadow communications minister should use 85 per cent of his speech to do nothing but engage in this kind of foolishness. It really speaks volumes about why the Australian people rejected the Australian Labor Party at the last election and why I am sure, if they maintain this course, they will be rejected at the next election. That is because, fundamentally, they are an opposition without any direction and an opposition that is a complete and total policy vacuum.

I notice that the member for Blaxland is going to speak on this legislation. I look forward to hearing a more robust contribution from him about what the Australian Labor Party's policy actually is on this matter. We certainly have not heard it from the shadow communications minister. Let us hope that we get something more robust from the backbench members of the Australian Labor Party. I certainly hope that the captain of the ship does not set the standard. I also have to say that I am concerned to hear that they have gone back to playing wedge politics, the politics of division—the typical Labor Party trump card. I will throw in some of the vernacular that was used by the shadow communications minister. As part of his 25-minute diatribe we heard references to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts `wallowing in luxury', `feathering their own nests' and `exploiting their power', and we heard indications that `all they are concerned about is greed and arrogance'.

This is absolutely disgusting behaviour from someone who would like to consider himself a member of the alternative government. Does the policy position of the alternative government amount to simply slinging mud at the communications minister and the Prime Minister? We have seen that approach in the debate on Iraq, and now we have seen exactly the same approach to digital policy. When you are in opposition, you are duty bound to provide an alternative vision—a vision about what your policy would be if you were in government and about ways in which you believe the government is doing things wrong and what you would do to fix them. In the absence of all of that, it must be very easy for the Australian Labor Party to sit there on the benches and not actually put forward any ideas about whether standard definition television or high definition television is better or about why we should or should not have annualised quotas for program content. But we get none of that. Even the amendment that was put forward by the shadow minister makes no reference at all to what the Australian Labor Party would do. Let those listening to this debate be very aware that the only party in this chamber— and, indeed, in this parliament—that is putting forward a position on digital television broadcasting is the coalition. All you are getting from the opposition is diatribe.

We saw the failed policy that the Australian Labor Party used to have on pay television. Australia was one of the very last countries in the world to have access to pay television, because of the failed policies of the Australian Labor Party. This government, when it was elected originally in 1996, moved to quickly redress that through a comprehensive and detailed communications policy, which was brought about through long consultation with consumers and stakeholders in the industry. We have many things to be very proud of with respect to the coalition's communications policy. Regarding digital broadcasting, the coalition has been implementing a framework that allows for the gradual transition to digital television. We are seeking to do this to ensure that Australian consumers have access to the enhanced television that is offered through digital broadcasting technology. Through the more efficient use of spectrum, digital television provides better sound, better vision and wide-screen effects. It is our expectation that, eventually, it will also provide interactive services.

We have moved to gradually implement digital broadcasting over the next eight years. We did this because we recognise that a case needs to be made to the Australian people that it is worth while. We demonstrate that it is worth while by doing two things. We let those who are more technically advanced and who are willing to spend money on new technology go out and purchase set-top boxes and wide-screen televisions or digital televisions. No-one is disputing for one second that the purchase of this type of equipment is expensive at the outset. Like any emerging technology that goes onto the market, it is generally expensive at the outset. No-one disputes this. What the Australian Labor Party fails to see—but, importantly, what we know the Australian people do not fail to see—is that in time the costs of all these products and materials will decline. The costs will reduce as there is greater take-up of this technology around the world.

The slow uptake of HDTV is not unique to Australia. I note that the member for Blaxland is laughing. No-one is disputing that it is not exactly rapid. But why would it be? Why does the Australian Labor Party put forward the point of view that everyone should take their televisions, throw them in the garbage bin, race out to their local Harvey Norman store, or some other store, and buy up new digital television technology? Of course they are not going to do that. But as people, through attrition, slowly get rid of their existing analog televisions, or put them into the second bedroom and those types of things, they will purchase the new technology—the new digital televisions, the new wide-screen televisions. They will do it because they recognise the superior benefits that flow from it and, as more of them do it, there will be a growing critical mass of people that will help bring down the unit price on each of these types of items. As that unit price comes down, there will be even more incentive for more Australians to invest in this type of technology. Through its communications policy, the coalition has put in place a very reasonable framework that combines long-term vision with a reasonable expectation that, over the long term, people will switch to the superior benefits of HDTV.

Another part of the coalition's communications policy is that we have been looking at and working on making a financial commitment, as well as an effort commitment, to enable the ABC and SBS to switch to digital but also to provide multichannelling in genres that provide an alternative to the commercial and subscription broadcasters. Further, because we have this eight-year phase-in period of digital TV, not only have we ensured that consumers have time to adapt to the new digital environment but we are also requiring that broadcasters, over time, begin simulcast transmissions of analog and digital formats and slowly increase that over the same time frame. In addition, it is part of our policy to ensure that existing broadcasters offer additional TV services to areas of Australia with only one or two commercial television stations. We have introduced captioning for prime time television shows, news and current affairs, and we have also provided funding of $260 million, as part of the regional equalisation plan, to facilitate the conversion of television broadcasting from analog to digital in regional and remote Australia. The coalition has most certainly met its commitment to rural and remote Australia, as well as to metropolitan areas.

All these policy platforms were incorporated when we went to the last election with our `Broadcasting for the 21st century' policy document. It is a lot more than we saw from the opposition. After this debate, despite the fact that the Labor Party is supporting this legislation, let us hope that this support also translates to an actual policy position from the Labor Party. Let us hope that it matures enough to make a contribution to the debate rather than engage in mud-slinging.

The legislation that is immediately before the House works to ensure that, with regard to HDTV, the quota for digital television includes a change from a weekly quota to an annual quota. It also incorporates provisions which allow for advertising and promotional material to count towards this quota. It also delays the commencement date for the statutory review of HDTV for the purposes of quota arrangements. I will deal with each of these matters in turn.

I will start with the last one, which is the delay of the commencement date. This government, through previous legislation, extended to 1 July this year the time for the simulcast of digital television broadcasts. We also looked—and this is what this bill does—at altering the date upon which we review the success or otherwise of the quota as it is introduced. What is the opposition's position on this? The opposition's position was to say, `We want to bring the date for the review forward, not push it back.' I have to say again that this, to me—and, I am sure, to most people—makes no sense whatsoever. Effectively the Labor Party's position on this is that we should be conducting the review within months of the transmission commencing. What is the purpose of conducting a review within several months of it actually commencing? It is far better to take a longer term view over a year or two and look at what has been the success or otherwise of the introduction of the quota and of HDTV. It is a more rational position to take and it is also one that makes good commonsense.

This legislation delivers on the government's election policy that we would consider amendments to the digital broadcasting regime with regard to HDTV arrangements. The reason we have looked at shifting the current 20 hours per week quota to an annual quota is that it was clear that broadcasters needed the flexibility to have an annualised quota arrangement rather than a weekly quota arrangement to take into account that they are also required to make commercial decisions. The government are about letting the free market operate as much as possible. The free market would dictate that it is far better that commercial decisions be made about what is appropriate in terms of HDTV content on the broadcast than it is in terms of mandating that it be a quota of 20 hours per week. It is very reasonable that a consequence of that could be that non-commercial decisions are made by broadcasters because they need to comply with the 20 hour per week quota. By introducing this more flexible arrangement we have ensured that, because it is now 1,040 hours per year of HDTV programs, broadcasters have the flexibility to make commercial decisions whilst at the same time meeting the quota.

With respect to making HDTV programming more readily available, we believe that the introduction of this more flexible regime will result in HDTV programming being more readily available. This will also go to the heart of addressing the problem by ensuring that there is quality content on HDTV that helps to trigger the demand in the marketplace for consumers to purchase set-top boxes, digital TVs and the like. It becomes a vicious circle otherwise. People are not willing to purchase digital TV because there is not enough HDTV content, and broadcasters are not willing to invest in HDTV programs because there are not enough consumers to watch the programs. By mandating this quota we overcome that problem by creating the incentive and by putting the onus on broadcasters to broadcast 1,040 hours per annum, which in turn will trigger and help grow the demand in the marketplace for HDTV programming.

The other particulars with respect to this legislation deal with what may or may not be included in terms of the quota. We do, where it is appropriate, allow for ads, sponsorship, news and weather breaks, and the types of things that are broadcast to be included as part of the quota arrangements. This is entirely reasonable. I think the assertion made by the shadow communications minister that we are going to have a whole range of foreign advertisements, for example, that are in HDTV format being used by broadcasters to fill their quota is preposterous.

Mr Hatton —It is part of the bill.

Mr CIOBO —It is part of the policy, I say to the member for Blaxland, and part of the comments that have been made by the shadow minister in the past that foreign language and foreign-sourced advertisements would be used. Does the Labor Party genuinely expect the Australian people and those in the industry to believe that we would be using these types of things to fill the quota? That we would use advertisement after advertisement just because we want to try to reach the 1,040 hours per annum? It is absolutely absurd.

I am pleased to commend this legislation to the House. It goes a long way towards ensuring that the government's comprehensive policy position with respect to communications—which sits in stark contrast to the Australian Labor Party's policy vacuum—results in tangible benefits not only for Australian consumers but also for those seeking to invest and make the most of this new technology. The Australian people will be richer for it. The Australian people will be richer for the leadership that is displayed by our communications plan.

I say this in the full knowledge that on the Gold Coast, the region that I am pleased to represent, there is a growing demand for exactly the types of programs that we have been talking about today. There is a growing demand for the types of initiatives that the coalition government has been making not only with, for example, digital television but also with TV black spots. Residents in my electorate in the suburb of Parkwood are some of the principal beneficiaries of the $35 million television black spot program that the coalition government introduced. This is just one limb of a comprehensive communications plan, another limb of which is the legislation we are discussing here today with respect to quotas.

I would say the proof is in the pudding. When you look at the fact that the coalition government have also committed to fully fund the ABC's digital transmission and distribution costs, which we expect over the next decade will amount to in the vicinity of over $600 million, you see that the government are not just engaging in rhetoric and broad generalisations but also putting money where our mouth is. I have to say that I am pleased that this legislation is another concrete step forward that the coalition government have made towards ensuring that the people of Australia enjoy a rich cultural programming content that is available through digital television but not available through analog television. In conclusion, I would hope, as we hear from Labor members opposite, that we hear a more comprehensive outlining of their policy when it comes to ways in which the Australian Labor Party believe communications policy should be shaped in the future.