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Thursday, 4 December 1986
Page: 3420

Senator VIGOR(8.52) —The Broadcasting Amendment Bill 1986 and the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 1986 represent the Government's effort to produce a new commercial services plan for regional Australia. In nearly four years we have had a very sorry record from the Department of Communications. On the positive side are the four remote commercial television services, which are designed for those in the remoter parts of Australia rather than in the regional or provincial areas which already have one commercial service. On the negative side is the totally inept handling of the supplementary licence scheme-no new television licences under the scheme, and three new radio licences, one independent and two supplementaries, determined by the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal.

Senator Robertson —Madam Deputy Speaker, I take a point of order. We have been very understanding with Senator Vigor but I ask you to draw his attention to standing order 406.

Senator VIGOR —I am quite happy to comply with it. There have been inordinate delays with this program. A system of aggregation of television regions has been proposed by the Government. The regions are quite artificially set up by the Government and one region includes such disparate areas as Mackay and the Darling Downs. South Australia has been missed out in the program. It is not considered to be sufficiently important to warrant inclusion under the aggregation scheme. The major inequity of the aggregation scheme is that if one licensee within the area requests that aggregation should take place, the other licensees in the area must submit to an aggregation program. The Australian Democrats believe that when one is considering regional television it is very important to consider both the ownership questions and the service questions at the same time. That is why we support the Opposition amendment, which has been worked out in concert with us and which seeks to refer the Bills to a select committee which can examine the program sensibly and put a view the Senate can consider.

The major problem we have is that this legislation comes from the forward development unit of the Department of Communications. This unit was given the job of examining the very long term requirements of the Australian media industry. In fact, it seems to have concentrated its efforts mainly on very short term issues. This is one of the most disappointing aspects of this country's media policy. The forward development unit, which is known in certain quarters as the forward defence unit, seems to be mainly interested in defending a conservative attitude towards communications policy.

The major problem with the aggregation program is that it will hand over on a plate the regional stations directly to the large multi- media networks. With the magic number of three stations in each region, we shall end up with programs being networked out to each of the transmitting stations within each region. That will mean that localism will be pretty well wiped out and people in regional Australia will be unable to get a local service-a local news service, a local current affairs service-with which the community can identify. The Government seems to be completely in the hands of the multi-media networks. I am disturbed at the amount of lobbying by people from those networks to try to get us to agree to pass this legislation fast. There must be something in the fact that we would be handing over those regional stations to the media networks.

The Democrats have alternative solutions to this problem. They involve trying to get much more diversity into media programming. We need diversity of choice in each area. The Government's program will not give diversity to viewers; it will hand over the regional stations to the multi-media networks. The important feature of the program that we propose is that it seeks a diversity of choice in programming, optimal guaranteed levels of Australian content, a reasonable diversity in media ownership, and programming directed at all sectors of the Australian community, including groups such as women and migrants.

I hope that we can develop a sensible system which would involve as one part of the system a reasonable Channel 4-type model as has happened in England, which could be supported by a levy from the city based networks. That type of system would provide a much better service to the people of Australia and give everybody a service of which we could be proud. We already have on the books a system which was supposed to give diversity out in the regions. It is called the supplementary licensing system, which was set up in December 1982. This is what is being repealed by the Broadcasting Amendment Bill which the Senate is debating. This system has not been properly supported by any resources within the Department of Communications. The Department has insufficient engineering staff and resources are not being provided by the Government. Not enough engineers were available for the Department to produce the regional network planning proposals under this scheme. As such, the supplementary scheme has failed. It has failed not because it was not politically acceptable-it did in fact pass this Parliament-but because insufficient resources were provided. There is absolutely no reason why the new scheme should have any better chance of success because the Government will not be giving the Department any more resources. It seems to me that Senator Robert Ray and Senator McKiernan, who are trying to interject, are quite intent on not listening to any of the common sense that I am speaking.

I believe that we have to try to concentrate our efforts on trying to get a reasonable level of resources within the Department in order to plan for these schemes. We have to make certain that the Department can service the type of political hare-brain schemes that are put up to it. I point out to the Senate that currently there are 157 outstanding expressions of interest in commercial television stations throughout Australia; there are 497 expressions of interest in regard to commercial radio stations; and there are 280 expressions of interest in the public radio station area. This is on top of the 71 detailed radio supplementary proposals, and 31 television supplementary proposals which are being killed off by this legislation.

It is really disturbing that we have this type of backlog. Although we are putting a new scheme in place, we have Buckley's chance of putting it into effect. I believe that the committee will have to look at that proposal and make certain that when it comes back and reports it has considered whether the resources will be available to implement any scheme that is proposed and that there are no inequities in the scheme as there have been in the previous proposals. Senator Mason has pointed out to me that currently there is a deep freeze on public radio and public television licences.

Senator Mason —That is absolutely scandalous.

Senator VIGOR —It is scandalous in a country in which those types of resources should be developed. If we are to plan properly the use of our media, we have to make certain that that media is properly available to use--

Senator Robert Ray —You are just wrecking the ABC right now. Think what you are doing to the ABC audience. They are turning off in droves.

Senator VIGOR —Senator Robert Ray says that we are just about to wreck the ABC. He is obviously talking about the wrong Bill. The Bill before the Senate is concerned with regional television. Senator Robert Ray is speaking to the wrong debate. This debate is about regional television. We are trying to offer a service to the Australian people. We are trying to get communities involved in providing their own television. We are trying to guarantee localism; we are trying to guarantee a service to everybody. The Department and the Government must give consideration to providing a level of service which the people of Australia deserve. I commend to the committee my belief that its main aim should be to consider the provisions of such services to the people rather than just concentrating on the interests of the large multi-media networks and the interests of current owners of the regional stations.

The Democrats will be supporting the Opposition's proposal to refer this Bill to a committee. We will be sitting on that committee and working hard to try to develop a sensible and reasonable model which can be proposed for the ownership, distribution and use of the television frequencies and television services within Australia. This is an important aspect of which people in this country must be aware. We owe it to the people of regional Australia to get it right. We must make certain that the committee develops some standards which can be recommended to the Senate and the Government and which will produce a workable--

Senator McKiernan —What about standards in the chamber? What about Standing Orders? What about reading speeches?

Senator VIGOR —Senator McKiernan asks me about reading speeches. Obviously that is a speciality of his, but not of mine-as everyone will have noticed. If the honourable senator believes that I have been reading my speech, he must think that I have been reading it off the ceiling.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Colston) —Order! There is far too much audible comment.

Senator VIGOR —I am finding it quite difficult to get across a reasoned argument with the interjections that have been going on. I hope that the people who are listening to this debate will have got the picture-

Government senators interjecting-

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! There is far too much audible conversation and far too many interjections. I ask the Senate to allow Senator Vigor to continue his speech without the interjections.

Senator VIGOR —I thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I will support the recommendation that these two Bills should go to a committee. I recommend that the committee should consider in depth the implications of the ownership rules and the interrelation between television, radio and newspaper ownership and the type of service and the type of news which is delivered to the Australian people. I hope that the committee will be responsible enough to make certain that, as a result of its recommendations, the services which are offered will take into account local input at a local level, regional input at a regional level, and have a proper understanding of both the economics of running a station and the need for good Australian drama and other programs. I recommend to the Senate that we should pass the proposal to refer these two Bills to a committee. I thank the Senate for its attention.

Senator McKiernan —I ask Senator Vigor to table the documents from which he was quoting.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I do not believe that Senator Vigor was reading from a document.

Senator McKiernan —He was quoting from copious notes.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —If the honourable senator wishes to have certain documents tabled, he must move a substantive motion. I believe that he does not wish to do so, therefore the matter is closed.