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Thursday, 30 September 1999
Page: 9236

Senator MARK BISHOP (11:12 AM) —in reply—In response to the various contributions to the debate, I thank all senators for giving serious thought to the issues raised in the motion. It is fair to say at the outset that the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Act is an act that the opposition looked at in the context of the times—`the times' being when the government had an imperative, for whatever reason, to gain the passage of that particular bill. We all know that the numbers changed on 1 July and a different dynamic now exists in this chamber which has a different effect and impact upon the government. It is no secret that the opposition has regarded the imperative to have that legislation passed prior to 30 June as somehow tainting the integrity of the legislation. We made those comments at the time, and we do not resile from them.

It is also fair to say that Senator Harradine was somewhat critical of the bill as it was being discussed. He voiced the view that it did not go far enough in its intent or application. As I recall, he characterised it as a relatively modest attempt by the government to address this problem. I do not think those comments are particularly untoward. If one analyses the spectrum of positions in this debate, it is clear that you can start at far left field, if you like, with absolutely no regulation at all—that is, a totally laissez faire approach in that the market will deliver and consumers will purchase whatever is offered to them at a particular price. In between that you can have regulation which has varying degrees of effectiveness and purpose which will catch with varying degrees of material and varying grades, if you like, of treatment and punishment for breaches of those regulations. We then move to the extreme far right field where you block access to all content characterised as offensive, pornographic, racist or whatever which comes from offshore.

The central feature of this debate is that nearly all of the offensive, racist and greatly pornographic material and the material that is targeted to cause great dissension in our society comes from Europe and the United States. That is a matter of fact. Accordingly, if you are going into the spectrum of effective legislation to target a real problem that exists, that legislation has to impinge somehow or other on the material that comes from offshore.

The central issue, as we have said time and again, in this debate is that you might be able to have effective resolution of material sourced out of Australia in that the complaints driven mechanism whereby consumers make complaints to the ABA about inappropriate material sourced out of Australia and the industry codes of practice of varying degrees will have a significant impact on material sourced out of Australia. But that is only part of the problem. As we all know—and it has been underground in this debate as far as the government is concerned—the great bulk of offensive material comes from offshore. Yes, the government can claim credit for having an effective regulatory system of locally sourced content, but it can claim no credit at all for material that comes in from offshore. Indeed, it can claim no credit for solving the problem.

Out there in the community, most people who pay attention to this debate think that the government's bill has achieved its purpose. But they are incorrect. That is the central problem in this debate as far as the opposition is concerned. If 90 per cent of the offensive material of whatever nature comes in from offshore but the overwhelming bulk of our population thinks that the government's bill is effective, as they think that there is a sound regulatory system for TV, newspapers or magazines—as there is—and they think the same system applies in outcome to regulation on the Internet, that is a lie. It does not serve the government well to continue this masquerade and to parade this information that the problem has been solved. That is why the opposition is particularly keen that paragraph (c)(iii) should be passed by the chamber today. As I understand Senator Harradine's comments and some of the comments made by the minister in the debate, they also agree.

Whilst we say the legislation has been tainted and we view it through the prism of the context of the times in that the government had other imperatives in June this year, the second criticism we have is that there has not been informed community participation or debate. Every time I re-examine this issue, I am confirmed in that view. People who bother to raise issues say the government has solved the problem. The government has not solved the problem, and that is why paragraph (c)(iii) to table a report on the effectiveness and consequences of the act in the Senate at six-month intervals from the date of implementation of the obligatory regime is a critical piece of information.

I have always been a strong believer that, when government wants to go into contentious social or cultural areas, a long process of public education about purpose, intent, outcomes, justification and need for government involvement in that particular area is worth while in itself. Indeed, the same argument applies in a lot of the areas of competition policy in economic debate. Over the last 15 years, there has been radical change in this country. As we witnessed in Victoria three or four weeks ago—and as we are witnessing now in the dairy industry debate, notwithstanding a massive transfer of $1.8 billion of consumer resources to producers to exit from that industry—there is now a serious danger that the reform, if it can properly be characterised as reform, will not proceed. That is because there has been, I suspect, insufficient education, public awareness, debate and discussion as to the need, the worth and the imperative to have that change in that industry. Similarly, in this discussion, it has been hidden to some extent that this is a debate driven by other imperatives. The opposition has not only been uncomfortable but opposed the position of the government in the final analysis. One of our core reasons for doing so is that there has not been that degree of community awareness, discussion or participation.

The opposition views paragraph (c)(iii) as critical to that discussion over the next two years. To date, we have not had sufficient empirical advice from the ABA or the government about community and consumer attitudes on a range of issues. We have our views, and we have adopted particular positions. To some extent, the government has the same. The opposition is of the view that—by tabling a report every six months to address the objects of the act and the matters outlined in the minister's second reading speech and the opposition's second reading contributions, the issues identified by Senator Harradine and the various committee processes putting that into a regular format where it is published in the Senate, undergoes discussion and debate, as is tabled, and draws press comment and the like—you are going through the process of public education, public awareness and community participation.

That may change the position of the opposition in two or three years time, if we should be the government of the day. It may indeed confirm the position that we adopted in the debates last June—that is, the legislation is unworkable and should be repealed. That is not our current position. We have an open mind. We see that there will be a wholesale review, as required by the act, in 2½ years time. We see the six-monthly tabling report on the effectiveness and consequences of the act as an important part of that debate. You will be able to develop, with the four or five reports that are tabled prior to the final review, some trend analysis and some sequencing of community attitudes and the effectiveness of the act.

We urge passage of this motion. Little that the government has said today has dissuaded us from the worth of the entirety of the motion. I repeat my earlier comments that the opposition are of the view that paragraphs (c)(ii) and particularly (c)(iii) are critical. Accordingly, we urge passage of the motion before the chamber.

Question put:

That the motion (Senator Mark Bishop's and Senator Stott Despoja's ) be agreed to.