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Wednesday, 25 March 1987
Page: 1337

Senator RICHARDSON(6.22) —in reply-Tonight I would like to pass some comments on the minority reports, having presented the majority report last week. To begin with, I would like to say that if at the start of the inquiry regional television proprietors saw Senator Lewis and Senator Sheil as their saviours, they must be very sad people today because the minority report presented by those two senators and, for other reasons, the minority report presented by Senator Puplick are prescribing a disaster for regional television. I have never been one to believe in conspiracy theories but having read those reports, I think a conspiracy operates not only to crush regional television operators, but to absolutely crush regional viewers-because rural and regional viewers out of those two proposals get nothing.

First are all the wonderful proposals for cable television-the great saviour and the big answer. The facts are that if cable were begun to be laid now, tomorrow morning, in the streets of Sydney and Melbourne-forgetting about the country-it would take until the middle 1990s before any of the western suburbs in Sydney could be reached. It would be the end of the 1990s before all of metropolitan Sydney would be covered. The realities are that some of the smaller towns in the country would never be covered. Even the larger country areas would not be covered until some time in the next century. That is what honourable senators are advocating. They are saying: `We are going to put this whole plan on the never-never. We will let the monopolies stay in place'. That is what is it all about. As far as the regional television operators are concerned, they will get a few years of joy. But what do they think will be the end result?

Once we get direct satellite broadcasting services regional television begins to get into regional trouble. What is the prescription for DBS in rural Australia? In neither the dissenting report of Senators Lewis and Sheil nor the report presented by Senator Puplick do we find the answer. But the real thrust is to throw all the expense on to viewers and consumers-people who can least afford it. Let them spend thousands of dollars on dishes and in the meantime let us remember one thing: When it comes to satellites and DBS, the enormous cost of transponders means that there will not be any little players in this game. They will all be very big and a betting person would have to take odds that more than likely the control again would be with the networks, the networks these people say they are trying to protect regional viewers from.

The reality is that they will hand all television in Australia to those networks by that. What is more-and this is the devastating indictment on DBS for regional television-people will not advertise on any regional station and will not worry about localism if they have direct services from a satellite. Regional television will be crushed automatically, it will be finished, and what is worse, localism-the thing we have heard so much about in this inquiry when day after day we were told how desirable it was for country viewers, how much they love it and how highly it rates-is finished under any of these proposals. It will be no more. If we compare the effects on consumers, the only expense if one opts for the Government's plan is $80-odd for alterations to aerials to receive UHF. The cheapest decoder and the cheapest head-end amplifier for multi-point distribution services will cost consumers something like $1,500. So any of those things proposed in the end simply mean disaster for ordinary consumers in the bush.

Let us go on to look at Senator Puplick's supplementary licences scheme. His report is worded a lot better than the other. I only wish there were some good sense in it to match the beauty of the prose and syntax. But in looking for the sense in it, we see it is just another shabby attempt to protect monopolies, to keep them intact and to keep them going as long as possible. We are told that supplementary licences are a way of delivering a second service immediately. Senator Puplick says he is really keen to get a second service. But he is entrusting the delivery of the second service to the current operators.

If he looked at the current operators, he would not need to be too bright to work out that those competitive monopoly holders at worst are downright hostile to any change whatsoever and at best they are lukewarm. If all we do as a result of this inquiry and the debate in this Parliament is hand over the future of the viewing of television to those current holders and say: `You can have supplementary licences. There will be no competition and no problem. It is just a free run', all we will get is a shabby service at best, and in some places much worse than that. There is no way that any of those operators will put effort into a second station. It is not in their interests. They do not want it; it would have to be forced upon them. In the end the only way they will be forced to perform is by going for aggregation and making certain there is genuine competition in the market-place.

Mr Acting Deputy President, I think you have heard the old joke: `What do you think about schizophrenia?'. `I do not know, I am in two minds'. Certainly Senator Puplick has been in two minds about regional television because having gone for a supplementary licence scheme he then says that by 1992 he wants to start an open skies policy, so he will give them four or five years and protect their monopolies. At the end, of course, he will crush them completely. Once regional television operators and regional viewers examine these two reports they will know the real effects, which will be to do away with any involvement of local communities in rural and regional Australia in their television services. There will be none if Senators Lewis, Sheil and Puplick have their way.

To turn to cross-ownership restrictions, Senators Sheil and Lewis did something that the majority agreed with. They came down in favour of a figure of 75 per cent. In a report that size presumably they had to get something right. But Senator Puplick has come down for forced divestiture for the Fairfax, Northern Star, Bell and Rouse groups. For those who have gone against what the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) stated on 27 November 1986 we will all agree; but for others, we are talking about forced divestiture for people who have legitimately acquired interests under the law and who have abided by the law under the policies of successive governments for decades. At the end of that time those people will be told: `We know you abided by the law. We know you did the right thing legally all the way. There was never any impediment to your doing what you have done. We will now force you to sell'. Once people know they are being forced to sell the price is diminished and that costs the shareholders of those groups an absolute fortune. According to Senator Puplick, that divestment is `a revolutionary proposal'. For most people it is just revolting.

Turning to ownership limits, Senator Puplick has argued for a figure of 43 per cent. We have heard evidence time and time again of the huge cost of Australian-made programs; just how much they are costing the bigger networks. Sixty Minutes is costing $150,000 a week to put on air and Willing and Able, a new show, is about the same price; but a mini-series like Anzacs, which received so much praise last year, cost $250,000 per hour. Vietnam, which has just been shown, cost a similar amount. The network's partners, that is the networks which receive the programs, do not share the costs and those costs have been outrunning the revenue that networks can get for the programs. Once one restricts the limit to 43 per cent one restricts forever the possibility of high quality program production in Australia. That is something the Government has to protect; it is something all Australians want.

Some extraordinary claims have been made about the costs of equalisation. Senator Lewis and Senator Sheil claimed that all transmission equipment has to be imported from Japan. That is just nonsense. What Mr Sebire said at the Senate Select Committee hearing on Television Equalisation was that the equipment he will order will come from Japan. Germany, Holland, France, the United Kingdom and the United States of America are all substantial manufacturers of that terrestrial equipment and all of those countries are buying it all the time. The only advantage they have is that they got their systems into place quicker, as this country would have done had we been in the fortunate position of having a Labor government with some foresight some years earlier than this Government come to power. Now we have such a government the first steps are being taken to make sure that regional viewers get something like a fair go. We will not protect monopolies and we will make sure the interests of end consumers finally get looked after.

Question resolved in the affirmative.