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Tuesday, 28 April 1987
Page: 1889

Senator ROBERT RAY(4.24) —I begin by congratulating Senator Lewis for his survival on the front bench. It must have been a little like being an official in the days of Stalin. Over Easter he was wondering whether he would survive. He has. I congratulate him and I hope he serves as a shadow Minister for many years to come. I do not really have much to say about Senator Lewis's contribution today. It was very high on description and fairly short on analysis, but two or three points he made bear some reply. He made a great play of how it is of benefit to rural stations to be able to cherry pick. At least he had the decency later on to admit that possibly they cherry pick on the basis of price rather than on quality of program. I think that too often has been the case. He went on to say that at some stage maybe two services would provide all the necessary quality programming to rural viewers. I would prefer to leave that to rural viewers to make up their minds as to what they regard as quality or otherwise. I do not see anything wrong in television stations occasionally repeating shows because quite often many viewers miss them the first time around.

Senator Lewis raised two points. He made great play of how the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal has made certain stations rich. I cannot contradict that. All I can say is that it was the Liberal Government that set up that series of proposals, to have the Tribunal allocate licences and to thrust windfall gains on particular proprietors. So if anybody is to blame Senator Lewis had better look to his own Party and his own prior Ministers for that. Finally, Senator Lewis made a fairly bold assertion that the Government has rejected any possibility of a television station in Geelong. It simply has not done that, but it has reserved the right to give that longer consideration. It certainly does not have to relate to this particular legislation when making a decision to provide a television service in Geelong now or at a later time. I think Senator Lewis would be very much aware that much depends on whether VHF or UHF wavebands are used to transmit that. Since band 2 clearance is not complete and that whole area is under some doubt, one would hesitate at this stage to make an absolute decision now as to whether Geelong should or should not have another television service.

The Broadcasting Amendment Bill 1986 and the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 1986 have been debated before in this chamber, but, of course, the legislation was sent to the Joint Select Committee on Television Equalisation for consideration. If anyone is wondering why, there is a very simple explanation. The Australian Democrats opposed the legislation, and that was seen as a way of reinforcing its opposition. The Liberal Party simply did not have a policy and that came out very clearly in the debate. What did it do? It could not make up its mind. The issues were too complex, so the legislation was sent off to a committee in the hope that it would disappear forever or that the Committee could be used as a device to try to block a Bill that the Liberal Party did not understand. In the end, the Committee came back, not with one view, not with two views, not with three views, but with four separate views as to what this legislation should be about and what rural television should be about. It came back with four distinct views. It was not just a majority-minority report but a majority report and three dissenting reports. When one looks for an element of commonality in the dissenting reports one will see that it is virtually absent. They recommend three different systems. The Government's response to the Joint Select Committee report was tabled in Question Time. I was not here at the time, but I have to add my criticism to that made by others to the tabling of that response in Question Time. It was most inappropriate and I regard it as most appropriate that a separate debate occurred at a later time that day. I am sorry that I was not here to join in that debate. I certainly do not endorse the tabling of a response to a major committee report, into which all members put a lot of work, by an offhand statement made during Question Time.

However, there have been further criticisms from the Opposition on the speed of the response to the Joint Select Committee report. I must say that this is a first. I have sat in this chamber on many occasions and listened to the Opposition complain that governments have taken too long to respond to reports. But there, for the first time, I have heard criticisms that the Government has responded too quickly. There is no conspiracy about the quickness of the response to the report because when one reads it one will see that the recommendations section is very small. It did not take the Government much time to make up its mind on 13 recommendations. It is much different from another committee that I happened to chair, the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform that has 150-odd recommendations-obviously, that takes time. The Government is to be congratulated for responding so quickly to the report. I do not agree with the Opposition criticism therein.

The Opposition has also made a big point about this majority report being carried on the casting vote of the Chairman. Of course it was. That is in the front of the report. No one on this side has claimed that our views have any more validity than anyone else's because this was a majority report, and any majority report that relies on the casting vote of the chairman is slightly devalued-of course it is. Because the four Government members brought out a majority report, we do not claim necessarily that the majority status of that report gives it any better view than that of the Opposition.

I also noted in both the dissenting report of Senator Puplick and the remarks he made here on another occasion that he is complaining about the lack of time to hear evidence. I do not know how much more evidence we could have got. We had several yards deep of evidence. We gave up much time to public hearings into this matter. I point out that it was not the Labor Party which set the timetable for reporting back to this Parliament; it was the Liberal Party, the National Party and the Democrats which, by majority, referred it to the Committee with a close-off date saying when we had to report back to this Parliament. Even so, we could not meet that timetable and Government senators quite readily agreed to an extension of time. The Committee has been criticised for not hearing all the evidence and for reporting to the Parliament when it did, but the criticism goes back to the Opposition and the Democrats for their setting up of the original Committee with that sort of timetable.

Senator Puplick is very generous, of course, with his criticism of Government members, although if one reads his dissenting report and then his remarks later one will see an enormous dichotomy. In his dissenting report he said that he did not want in any way to impugn the motives of the Government members of the Committee and when he came into this chamber he did exactly that. He clearly implied at one stage that Government members-and I assume that he means me-are just at the beck and call of the media proprietors and that we in some ways are looking after our mates. I am not at the beck and call of any media proprietor. In fact, I have never met one. I have never had a discussion with one. I will probably go through the rest of my life never having done so. Senator Puplick's imputation is a disgrace.

Senator Puplick's espoused views on this subject remind me very much of the old Sherlock Holmes case which really revolves around the key question of the dog that did not bark. That is very much Senator Puplick's attitude, because at no stage has he commented on the other two dissenting reports that are totally different from his dissenting report. He is quite happy to criticise the Government, the legislation and Government members of the Committee, but he says absolutely nothing about the other two dissenting reports. There is total silence.

For instance, two of Senator Puplick's close colleagues support the 75 per cent audience reach. Senator Puplick does not, but he is totally silent on what his colleagues have said. Two of his close colleagues oppose any action on cross-media ownership. Senator Puplick supports strong action on cross-media ownership. What does he say about his colleagues? There is absolute silence. Two of his colleagues argue in an entirely different course on where rural television should go. What does Senator Puplick say? There is total silence. He does not utter one word either of criticism or praise of the Democrats' proposals. There is total silence again. It is clear to me that the man of principle is really a man of straw when it requires the courage to criticise his own colleagues.

Senator Puplick and his colleagues criticise the Australian Labor Party for espousing one view on this issue. Apparently, there is some crime in four Labor Party members agreeing on something. We happen to agree that the Government's proposal and the Government's Bill should go through. What happens to a person in the Liberal Party who puts a different point of view from the rest of his Opposition colleagues? If he is ambitious he is not promoted to the front bench. If he is on the front bench he is demoted. The honourable member for Goldstein (Mr Macphee) went from being the rooster of communications to just a feather duster on the back bench. The Opposition should not come into this chamber and preach to us about diversity of view and how wonderful it is, because the moment someone in the Opposition goes into a diversity of view, he gets the bullet; he gets put back on the back bench as Mr Macphee has been. The Liberals totally lack a coherent policy on the media. They have no commitment to rural viewers. On the other hand, the National Party of Australia has a commitment to rural viewers, but it does not seem quite sure how that should be best achieved.

I do not intend today to canvass the merits of the 75 per cent audience reach rule or the cross-media ownership provisions. However, I acknowledge that they impinge on television equalisation for rural areas. They do have some influence on it, but that will be subject to a later debate in later legislation. The first question we should ask is: Why should we have equalisation? The fact is that in Australia we try to give, as much as possible, equal provision of services to city and rural people alike. However, we all know that people living in rural areas do not, have the same choice and the same privileges as many people in the cities. That comes down to the price of goods, the provision of telephone services and the cost of petrol, and it manifests itself in many ways.

One of the clearest manifestations at the moment is that people living in metropolitan areas have the choice of three commercial television stations and, generally, they have the Special Broadcasting Service and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. People in rural areas get the ABC and, at best, one commercial television station. That means that, more often than not, they cannot view many of the programs they would like to see. For instance, in the peak of summer, half the people in a rural area might like to watch the Davis Cup or the Australian Open, whilst the other half wants to watch the one-day internationals and the test cricket. As sure as anything, when the station puts on one event it gets a massive amount of criticism from the other half who want to view the other program. That sort of thing is replicated time and again. Some people enjoy the soaps such as Dynasty and Dallas; yet others would prefer to see movies or situation comedies. Those in rural areas do not get a choice. They have to go out of the room for two or three hours on end because they do not like the program. What we are saying is that we want three commercial services in country areas, free to air, in which people can make their own choice as to which programs they watch.

There are three routes towards equalisation. The first is by way of supplementary licences, which is something that the Government and the Opposition have dabbled with. In many cases, that will impinge on viability. If we go into an area-for instance, Mildura-and issue a supplementary licence, or if someone else takes a licence in that area, there is no way in which the two television stations could compete successfully and survive from the point of view of viability. They would go down the drain. I do not think that any Opposition member would contest that.

The second way we could go would be through the multi-channel service. That has an advantage whereby we could easily get two and then three channel services to an area. However, we must remember that when we go down the multi-channel service route we are entrenching a major monopoly in the area. There is nothing to tell those proprietors that they must run quality programs or anything else. There will be no competition. I have read in some of the minority reports that there is a great deal of stress by market-driven forces to actually entrench monopolies, and I would have thought that that was anathema to many members of the Opposition.

The third route along which we can go is that of aggregation. What is proposed in the indicative plan is for four areas-one in Queensland, two in New South Wales and one in Victoria-to aggregate; to provide three competing services. It means that a proprietor in Bendigo can compete in the Ballarat and Wodonga areas against two other stations and they, in turn, can compete in his area. Through that competition, and through a desire to maximise the audience, a wide provision of services would ensue.

There are some objections to aggregation. The first and obvious objection is that a rural proprietor with a monopoly in the area would not want competition. If I owned a rural television station I would be hardly likely to invite two competitors in who may in some way reduce my profits. The stations have made it quite clear that they are not happy with the one-in all-in rule because, as Senator Lewis indicated, they regard that as a minority dictating to a majority. I am happy enough with the one-in all-in rule. I was also happy to say directly that we must aggregate in those areas by a certain date because I think that the result will be the same.

There are technical problems which have been alluded to by Senator Lewis and no doubt other speakers. They do not relate to this Bill but to another proposal for band 2 clearance which will require many stations to go to the UHF alternative. That will not be resolved whether the Bill is passed or not. It will be resolved in another area at another time. Another objection to aggregation concerns profitability-whether we will just reduce the profits of the television stations and make them paupers. It is very interesting that the price of shares of those which have been listed on the stock exchange since the Government first announced its aggregation plans has gone through the roof. Obviously someone else out there thinks that the stations will continue to be profitable under aggregation, or there are many idiots out there who are investing a lot of money in rural television who have got it awfully wrong. Someone has to be wrong somewhere.

We know that currently rural television stations are extremely profitable. For a start, they have a monopoly position. They can cherry pick programs and get them virtually for nothing. They have absolutely no competition and they have had to invest very little money in capital equipment over the past few years. It has almost been a licence to print money. It may be true that under aggregation their profitability will be reduced, but I have a belief that they will still be able to operate profitably in those areas, certainly more profitably than any of the metropolitan stations.

The final criticism of aggregation is one that concerns us all, and it is whether localism in those areas would be reduced. I think that in some ways the Committee was fed a bit of a line on localism. It was indicated to us that there was a lot more localism in rural television than there actually is at the moment. I think that many of the programs that are supposed to be local simply are not. We would not countenance a situation where rural areas lost their local news programs, because everyone concedes that that is a key element of rural television and if it was removed it would be to the detriment of all country viewers. It is very unlikely, as I think Senator Lewis conceded, that programs such as the local news would go by the board. They rate very well and it would be mad to dump them.

Looking at what the other various groupings opposite seem to recommend, it is very hard to know what their cohesive media policy is. Senator Lewis and, I suspect, Senator Puplick have been very good at criticising the Government position, but when it comes to those on the other side putting a coherent policy that they think will actually work two things are indicated to me: One is that they will certainly not get back into government in the near future, otherwise they would have produced more detailed plans, and the second is that they have not thought one up.

Let us deal, first of all, with Senator Lewis and Senator Sheil. I do not know how to term them, but let us call them the dries. Firstly, they make the very strong point that they want free enterprise; they want this thing to be market driven. As I have said once before-and I still have not heard the definition-what is `market driven'? What do those opposite mean by that? Senator Lewis spent half an hour on his speech today and I still have not heard an adequate definition of what `market driven' is. Secondly, they say: `We can have pay television and we can use Aussat'. That presumes a lot about Aussat 2 and how it is designed. There will have to be an awful lot of transponders up there to enable us to introduce pay television. As well as that, what they are again saying is: `Look, for rural areas we will not give you a free-to-air service; we will give you a pay television service, so you can pay a lot more to watch television directly than the people in the city'. Again, it is nowhere near achieving a position of equalisation.

They also advocate-without having heard much evidence before the Joint Select Committee on Television Equalisation, so I do not know what they base their views on-that they should have cable television. I have pointed out once before that cable television-if one is worried about balance of payments, et cetera-is an extremely expensive process. I think the 1982 figures indicated that the cost of putting cable television into a major metropolitan area was $500m. If that is multiplied around Australia in the capital cities, we are looking at a couple of billion dollars. But the real crunch comes when considering putting cable television into rural areas: It is massively expensive. We already know the expense of putting in rural telephones. We know there has to be a massive cross-subsidisation to be able to justify putting telephones in rural areas. If there was not a cross-subsidisation and if, for instance, Telecom Australia were privatised, it would be a massive expense. Just multiply that several times and consider how much cable television is going to cost. It will cost an immense amount and will put immense strain on our balance of payments. In the end it would be extremely unpopular in country areas.

The final point made by Senators Lewis and Sheil is that we should tender for licences. In some ways that overcomes one of Senator Lewis's biggest problems and maybe one of mine; that is, once the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal or anyone else gives someone a licence, it can be a licence to make money. It can be a massive windfall gain. But we also put conditions on the licence. I do not know how we are going to be able to maintain the local content conditions, plus send the licences to tender. It is going to be extremely difficult to do. By getting this windfall gain, television stations will also have to provide a fair degree of Australian drama content, et cetera. I cannot see how that would occur under tendering for licences. So that is the dries.

Let us move on to the wets. I hope no one takes offence at that term. Senator Puplick seems to be more concerned in his dissenting report with the 75 per cent rule and the cross-media ownership. I do not criticise him for that, but that is not directly what is under consideration here today. As I have said before, it does impinge on it, but it is not of a direct responsibility here today; we will have that debate at another time. Senator Puplick is very strong on criticism of the Government's policies, but is very weak on providing alternatives. I have read his dissenting report-it is a long one-two or three times to find what the alternatives are. There are a couple of stingy, mingy little paragraphs that sort of put the fingers and the toes into the water; he dabbles around for a while and then escapes without really letting us know what in fact his policy is. Senator Puplick dabbles with pay television and Aussat without expanding on it at all.

He also advocates this great national survey of viewer needs. If it worked, I would be with him, but I doubt it will. I doubt that we can run a survey that accurately tells us what viewer needs are. One of the best ways to survey is to put up a lot of services and see which ones the public watch. I could draw the analogy that the differences between what those opposite are suggesting and what I am suggesting is that they could run the country by opinion polls but I would prefer to do it by elections. Opinion polls give an indication of what the people want, but an election tells one exactly what they want. It is the same with this national survey.

Senator Puplick also goes on to advocate looking at what I think is called narrow band viewing, the Channel 4 concept in England. I have a lot of sympathy towards that proposal, but Senator Puplick would also know that that grant concept has been somewhat fuzzy around the edges in England. It is in a classic dilemma again: Does it provide programs of a sometimes iconoclastic nature to a narrow audience or does it also try to chase ratings at the same time? Channel 4 in England seems to have fallen between two stools. That is a pity because Channel 4 was a great concept. If that sort of concept can get off the ground in Australia, I for one would be a major supporter of it.

Coming to the last of the dissenting reports, Senator Powell seems to suggest early in her recommendations that she wants multi-channel services prior to aggregation. I can understand that, but I would have thought that all the evidence that was given to the Committee suggested that there was no way that people would really want to go to multi-channel service prior to aggregation; it is too expensive. The Government leaves that option in the Bill, but I think it is very unlikely that it would be taken up and even more unlikely that we could compel people to take it up because, once one goes to aggregation, the equipment one had for multi-channel services is basically useless. I just do not see it as an economically viable alternative.

Secondly, if that point be accepted, Senator Powell says that there should be no aggregation by 1992. I think that is too late. It is the latest by which, under the Government's plan, in reality all those services will be provided. Senator Powell is saying that none will be provided until then. I certainly do not agree with that. Senator Powell also takes up the question of a nationwide survey of viewer preferences. That again worries me. If I thought that it would work, I would be a supporter of it; but I do not think that people always respond to those sorts of surveys. What they say they want there is not always necessarily what they want. Some people take those surveys as an ego trip. They might put down that they want chamber music and four hours of news a day; and as soon as it is provided they would really rather be watching Dallas, Dynasty or something else. I really cannot see how we can construct a national survey that would tell us enough in that area.

The final point in Senator Powell's dissenting report stresses diversity of choice. That is a good concept. Who is going to determine the diversity of choice-the viewer, some government board or someone else? I would need that point to be expanded before I could be convinced on it. What does `diversity of choice' mean? Does it mean saying we want more chamber music on television, or that we want the tiddlywinks competition televised? Exactly how do we do it? The only way I can see that it can be done is as it is done at the moment-by putting the programs on. And the networks and the television stations tend to respond to the most popular programs.

In conclusion, I am a supporter of this legislation for rural people. That is really what we have to get down to. Forgetting all the pernickety criticisms, we have got to go down to our assessment of what rural viewers would like. The clear message I get from country Labor Party members whenever I go to country areas is that they want a wider viewing choice. It is very frustrating to be living in Bendigo, Cairns or anywhere else where there is only one commercial service. On a Sunday afternoon, for instance, a football buff can watch only rugby league and cannot watch Australian rules, or vice versa. That causes immense difficulties for viewers in those areas. I commend the Bill. I wish it a speedy passage, but I am not sure whether it will be given one.