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Tuesday, 25 November 2003
Page: 22728

Mr TANNER (3:34 PM) —Members may recall that in recent times I have been rather critical of the National Party—just a bit—and that on a number of occasions I have accused them of selling out their regional Australia constituents. Some may think this is a little harsh and that there is a bit of life in the old dog yet, as they have not betrayed them on everything. In fact, it is worth noting that the member for Mallee is to be commended on standing up for his constituents who want to keep the asylum seekers that are working as good members of the community in their part of the world. He will go down on the record of history as a man of courage and principle, but sadly he is very lonely in the National Party because I have to report that they are at it again; they are betraying their country constituents yet again.

This time it is the Minister for Trade, the leader in waiting, the man who was supposed to become leader of the National Party only a couple of months ago but got a phone call late at night telling him that good news was yet to be provided. He is now in the United States betraying not only his country constituents but all Australians by selling out Australia's future right to regulate the content that we see on our TV screens—to regulate the local content, the Australian content, of broadcasting in this country—as part of the free trade agreement negotiations with the United States. The government is planning to give away our right to regulate for the future. The government is planning to quarantine existing mechanisms for broadcasting—what we now know as free-to-air television and radio—and say that the existing regulatory arrangements can stay in place but abandon Australia's right to regulate future mechanisms for the delivery of electronic content, broadcasting content.

I have always thought that there is one thing you can rely on with the National Party, and that is culture. Some may say that it is not often that you hear the words `National Party' and `culture' in the same sentence, but I have always been of the view that you could rely on the National Party to defend Australia's culture. They might sell out on Telstra and they might always cave in to the big end of town and their mates in the Liberal Party, but we could always rely on the National Party to stand firm on issues of culture. But not anymore—I know it is difficult to believe, but I think they have even given up on Australian culture.

The Minister for Trade—and we know they are not that sophisticated—has gone over to Washington. He has stars in his eyes: he has seen the bright lights and big buildings. All those blokes in the 10-gallon hats sat him down for a negotiation and they said: `Boy, have we got a great deal for you! You get to keep the right to regulate your existing television and radio in the way you currently do forever. In return, you can put all of your beef, wool, lamb, sugar and other products into the United States markets.' This is a negotiating triumph for the Deputy Leader of the National Party.

What they did not tell him about, though, was the fine print. What they did not tell the Minister for Trade and what they are not telling the Australian people—and even when the Prime Minister gets asked about it, he wobbles around the place trying to explain away what they are about to do—is that they are going to abandon Australia's future right to regulate the local content of our broadcasting sector and of our creative and cultural sectors.

To be fair to the National Party, they are sometimes a bit slow to catch on to these new-fangled things like the Internet, digital, 3G and stuff like that. No doubt they think that, in 30 years' time, our grandchildren will be watching reruns of The Waltons or perhaps McLeod's Daughters on analog TV and that things will be pretty much the same as they currently are. In fact, none of us can know what the future of Australian broadcasting holds, what the delivery mechanisms will be or how we will go about connecting and communicating with each other and conveying our own culture to each other into the future. You can just see the Leader of the National Party down there on the farm saying to his constituents: `It'll never catch on, this new-fangled stuff. We don't need to worry about any of this stuff. We can abandon our right to regulate it into the future because we'll still have good old analog television broadcasting indefinitely into the future.'

The reality is very different. The only certainty in the longer term for broadcasting in this country and other countries is unpredictable change. The digital television world will eventually swamp the government's antiquated regulatory regime. Pay TV is digitising, which means we will have hundreds of pay TV channels. The Internet provides opportunities already for streaming of video. That will ultimately become a mechanism for competition in broadcasting that will have enormous impact on television as we know it. Radio is in the early stages of shifting to digital. And, of course, we have the very early days of 3G mobile phones.

The existing media landscape is going to change beyond recognition in this country. It will be a little while and certainly we are not at the point where we can get rid of the regulatory regime for cross-media ownership under the existing rules. Nonetheless, what the Howard government is proposing to do is to get rid of all of our options into the future indefinitely, without any guarantees whatsoever for local content. Technological change will eventually eat away at our existing local content arrangements, because it will eat away at the delivery mechanisms that provide them. It will become much more difficult than it currently is for us as a nation to ensure that we have decent local content provisions in our broadcasting.

We have all seen how hard it proved for the government to try and regulate pornography on the Internet because of the capacity for people to locate web sites outside Australia and still service an Australian market. Those kinds of problems are going to hit broadcasting and our ability to regulate it. Therefore, at a time when it is getting harder for us to produce deliverable outcomes, local content and guaranteed outcomes, it is complete madness for the Australian government to propose to abandon our capacity to regulate local content.

Why is this important? It matters at two levels: at an economic, practical level and also at an emotional level. I am not a protectionist. I am a strong internationalist and a strong supporter of Australia being integrated into the world economy. But, in this particular industry, there are unique dynamics, which means that, for Australia to be able to compete and be a significant exporter of creative content, we have to protect ourselves against the impact of the enormous economies of scale that prevail. When the United States make an edition of Law and Order or a Seinfeld program, they spread the costs of that, including the inflated costs of stars' salaries and all those things, over a market of 280 million people. The additional marginal cost of then selling that or exporting it to other smaller markets is negligible. They can therefore on-sell the product at very cheap prices because they are getting their money from the huge domestic market.

It is virtually impossible for a market of Australia's size to compete head-on directly with a market that is so much larger. So, in order to ensure that we are able to compete, at least at a basic level, and that we have a base of Australian activity, skills and creativity in this sector, it is crucial that we have some regulation of local content to ensure that that can occur. We have a great future in the 21st century as a major exporter of creative content, particularly if the government can unshackle itself from the antiquated digital television restrictions that it has imposed, get broadband out to people much faster and generate more competition in telecommunications and broadcasting. We do have a great future in these industries. But, to ensure that future, we need a minimum level of local activity in creative content, involving all of the specialised skills that are involved in producing and creating television content and films. We need a minimum level of local activity to ensure that we do not end up purely as an exporter of talented people. We have a lot of talented people in Australia, but, without some guarantee of the existence of an industry in Australia, we will simply export those talented people rather than export the products that they ultimately produce.

Our broadcasting market is already very open. In fact, it is one of the most open in the developed world. We could not be said to have a highly protectionist regime. Guaranteeing some local content is going to be significantly harder into the future. For example, we will see the ABC become much more important as a means of developing local content. The ABC will have to play a crucial role as a funder and a direct deliverer of local content. But, if the Howard government signs up carte blanche with the United States and gives away our right as a nation to ensure local content, we will not even be able to fund the ABC specifically to produce local content because that will be in breach of the free trade agreement with the United States. The relatively limited local content restrictions at the moment matter in one particular respect more than any other: they guarantee high-end, top-quality productions as well as basic things like game shows, news and things of that nature, and drama—things that employ people and involve serious and substantial skills.

I said before that there is also an emotional factor to this issue. There is an issue about what it is to be Australian, about who we are and how we communicate and continue our cultural expression; what it is that makes us unique and what it is that defines our identity as Australians. People probably know that I do not really go for the phoney sort of John Howard-National Party version of the Australian character and Australian culture—the `Chips Rafferty on steroids' sort of thing. That is the caricature that is always wheeled out to support interventionist wars elsewhere, to keep asylum seekers out, and to whitewash Australia's past oppression of Australian Aboriginal people. I do not really go for that version of Australian identity, but I will tell you what I do go for: I want my kids to grow up saying `zed' not `zee'; I want my kids to grow up knowing what tomato sauce is; I want my kids to grow up calling a barbecue a barby, not a steak fry; I want to be in a situation where my children and other people in this country are able to continue the distinctive and unique features of what it is to be Australian. I do not like the idea that things like Halloween are gradually permeating the Australian culture. It will not be long before you will see Thanksgiving.

Mr TANNER —The lickspittle of the tory ruling class here may well mock these things, but these things are ultimately about whether or not our Australian cultural expression is going to have true rein and the capacity to be reflected on our TV screens; whether there is some space for the continuation of the Australian identity or whether our idiom—the unique features of what it is to be Australian, with our communication with each other and how we feel—is going to have some space in our world of broadcasting or whether eventually American expressions and other expressions are going to prevail completely.

We cannot prevent that huge influence; nor should we seek to prevent that huge influence from American expressions. But what we should do, what we must do—and what this government is about to abandon our capability to do—is ensure that there is space for the uniquely Australian expressions, ensure that there is somewhere that they are going to get a run and ensure that there is a mechanism for continuing those things which determine our unique cultural identity. Without local content rules, without the capacity for future governments to regulate in ways that we cannot yet predict, we will not be able to ensure that into the future. We might have newsreaders with Australian accents but that will be about it. We will not be able to give true expression to the Australian culture, the Australian identity, that we all as Australians want to ensure into the future.

It is getting harder to ensure that we have local content in our broadcasting world as technology changes. The Howard government wants to give up our capacity to do anything about it at all. That is something that all Australians should abhor, and it should be taken off the table in the free trade agreement negotiations with the United States. We should retain our freedom and our capacity to decide what is on our television screens, and we should retain the ability to ensure that all Australians see themselves being reflected in the world of broadcasting that exists in Australia and into the future. (Time expired)