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Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Page: 291

ABC Shortwave Radio Service

Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory) (14:10): My question is to the Minister for Communications, Senator Fifield. On 31 January the ABC shut down its shortwave service in outback Australia, cutting of Australians living in remote and regional areas from vital information provided by our national broadcaster. Why has the minister allowed the service to be scrapped on his watch?

Senator FIFIELD (VictoriaManager of Government Business in the Senate, Minister for Communications and Minister for the Arts) (14:11): I thank Senator McCarthy for her question. For those colleagues who may not be au fait with this issue, the ABC discontinued in its Northern Territory domestic and international shortwave transmission services on 31 January. Shortwave services are those that reflect off the ionosphere, and that provides both deliberate and fortuitous coverage for people.

The Northern Territory shortwave service was the ABC's only remaining domestic service in Australia utilising this technology. Comparable remote areas in Queensland and Western Australia do not have access to ABC shortwave services. It used to be common around the country but, progressively, over the best part of about 10 years, these services have been discontinued.

I should make clear that this was a decision made by the board and management of the ABC. As colleagues would be aware the ABC has legislative independence—independence that this parliament has given them—in relation to operational matters. I should also point out that the ABC's decision is in no way related to government funding. The ABC's base funding was confirmed in the last budget for the next three years.

The ABC's view is that the validity of this particular technology is something that has been eroded over time, that it provides a poor-quality service, and that the cost, in the view of the ABC, is disproportionate to its maintenance. I will have some further things to say, no doubt, in response to Senator McCarthy's next question.

Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory) (14:13): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I refer to the president of the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association, Tom Stockwell, who said the decision to terminate the ABC local radio shortwave broadcasts is 'a betrayal of all the ABC has and should stand for'. Will the government ensure that this vital service is reinstated?

Senator FIFIELD (VictoriaManager of Government Business in the Senate, Minister for Communications and Minister for the Arts) (14:13): I should indicate that while I recognise that this is entirely a decision of the ABC I think the consultation that the ABC undertook could have been more extensive. Also, the ABC did give a limited period of notice. These are views that I have conveyed to the ABC and I think the ABC has learnt some valuable lessons when it comes to consultation and engagement with rural and regional Australia. I am also pleased that the ABC has now announced that there will be some transitional arrangements to assist people in the Northern Territory who may have been in receipt of shortwave transmissions to use other mechanisms to connect with the ABC as an organisation. I will share some of those in the answer to the next question.

The PRESIDENT: Senator McCarthy, a final supplementary question.

Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory) (14:14): Given that the Turnbull government has slashed funding to the ABC by $254 million, is it not clear, Minister, that those living in regional and remote areas who are losing this vital service only have the Turnbull government to blame?

Senator FIFIELD (VictoriaManager of Government Business in the Senate, Minister for Communications and Minister for the Arts) (14:15): That is incorrect, Senator McCarthy. As I indicated, the decision by the ABC was one of the board and management; it was not one of the government. It is in no way related to the level of government funding. That is not a claim or a contention that the ABC has made.

I indicated that I would talk a little about transitional arrangements. This may be of assistance to Senator McCarthy and colleagues. The ABC is donating VAST satellite units to all Royal Flying Doctor Service bases and four-wheel drive radio clubs based in the affected region, which will allow the rebroadcast of emergency or warning messages. The ABC has also advised that its local radio service can be received by the majority of people living in the Northern Territory through AM and FM terrestrial transmissions and is also available by satellite via the free-to-air viewer access satellite television service, known as VAST, online, and with the ABC's mobile apps. (Time expired)