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Thursday, 9 June 1994
Page: 1675

Senator BOSWELL (Leader of the National Party of Australia) —by leave—I would like to draw to the attention of the Senate tonight an anomaly in the Australian Broadcasting Services Act 1992 regarding rental agreements for pay TV. This anomaly fails to provide any consumer protection whatsoever for the future subscribers of satellite pay TV services.

  As honourable senators would be aware, pay TV will be introduced to Australia later this year, probably in August or September, and will present millions of Australians with the opportunity to take advantage of this new technology to expand their choice of television stations. Transmission of pay TV services will be undertaken by a number of suppliers transmitting through various mediums, including cable, MDS, microwave and satellite. The Broadcasting Services Act 1992 regulates these suppliers through applying certain requirements and restrictions on pay TV services.

  A serious anomaly has been uncovered in the Broadcasting Services Act showing that the act fails to provide consumer protection to purchasers of satellite pay TV subscriptions in the manner in which cable subscribers are protected. Section 100(6) of the Broadcasting Services Act states that the Australian Broadcasting Authority must impose a condition on all non-satellite subscription television broadcasting licences requiring that, if a licensee rents domestic reception equipment to a consumer, the rental agreement must allow the consumer to terminate the agreement on giving one month's written notice to the licensee.

  The anomaly that I am referring to relates to the fact that this rental agreement condition does not apply to satellite pay TV services, which are expected to be major suppliers of pay TV services in Australia. In effect, what this means is that under the current arrangements consumers who subscribe to satellite pay TV services would have no possibility of being allowed to cancel the agreement.

  I am concerned at the prospect of consumers making a hasty decision regarding expensive satellite TV equipment and then having no recourse to terminate the agreement. It is important that the oversight is corrected as soon as possible, bearing in mind that pay TV will be up and running within the next couple of months. I have drawn this to the attention of the representative of the Minister for Consumer Affairs in the Senate, Senator McMullan. I hoped that he would be down here at an appropriate time to give me a response to this anomaly in the act.

  I am going to ask the government to remedy this anomaly forthwith and amend section 100(6) of the Broadcasting Services Act. Alternatively, I put it to Senator McMullan that he give an unequivocal guarantee that protection will be extended to cover satellite subscribers through consulting with the state consumer ministers on how to best apply state legislation to overcome this glaring loophole in consumer protection. Surely if consumers can be protected from buying encyclopedias or vacuum cleaners, for example, and have safeguards such as 30 day get-out provisions, they can be protected from satellite pay TV licences when a large amount of money is going to be at stake.

  One pay TV operator, Australian Media Ltd, planned to lease its receiving equipment and decoders through the means of a $500 signing-up fee and then monthly subscription fees of about $40 to $50. This will represent a major financial burden and undertaking for many consumers. Therefore, it is essential that there be no opportunity for it to become a major financial burden. Consumers must always be given an opportunity to opt out of agreements, as many can be the unwitting victims of impetuous decisions. They may fall for the hard sell and, as a result, make a hasty financial undertaking which they cannot meet.

  In view of the potential seriousness of this matter and the need for quick resolution, I will ask Senator McMullan to give an assurance to the Senate—he has indicated he will be here later—that satellite pay TV subscribers will have the same degree of consumer protection as that afforded to non-satellite pay TV subscribers in the Broadcasting Services Act.