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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee

BYRNE, Mr Andrew, First Assistant Secretary, Public Diplomacy, Communications and Scholarships Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

SLOPER, Mr Daniel, First Assistant Secretary, Pacific Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Committee met at 08:01

ACTING CHAIR ( Senator Paterson ): I declare open this public hearing of the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee in relation to its inquiry into the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Restoring Shortwave Radio) Bill 2017. I welcome you all here today. This is a public hearing and a Hansard transcript of the proceedings is being made.

Before the committee starts taking evidence, I remind witnesses that in giving evidence to the committee they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to a committee, and such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It is also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee. The committee prefers all evidence to be given in public, but under the Senate's resolutions witnesses have the right to request to be heard in private session. It is important that witnesses give the committee notice if they intend to ask to give evidence in camera. In addition, if the committee has reason to believe that evidence about to be given may reflect adversely on a person, the committee may also direct that the evidence be heard in private session. If a witness objects to answering a question, the witness should state the ground on which the objection is taken, and the committee will determine whether it will insist on an answer, having regard to the ground on which it is claimed. If the committee determines to insist on an answer, a witness may request that the answer be given in camera. Such a request may, of course, also be made at any other time. I remind people in the hearing room to ensure that their mobile phones are either turned off or switched to silent.

I remind senators that the Senate has resolved that an officer of the department of the Commonwealth or a state shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy and shall be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policies or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted.

I welcome the witnesses. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you, I understand. Do either of you have an opening statement?

Mr Byrne : No, thank you.

CHAIR: We will now go to questions.

Senator XENOPHON: We have had a submission from the Prime Minister of Vanuatu in relation to expressing their concerns about losing the shortwave services. What other representations have been made to the department about the shortwave service being ceased?

Mr Byrne : I am not aware of any other representations.

Mr Sloper : I confirm that. In Vanuatu's case there was discussion with the high commission about how to convey the submission to our government for this inquiry, but outside that we have not had any formal representations.

Senator URQUHART: Could I ask a further question on that. Have you made any other representations within the Pacific area?

Mr Sloper : We have made no representations in regard to this issue.

Senator URQUHART: None whatsoever?

Mr Sloper : We have not made any representations on the issue.

Senator XENOPHON: Further to Senator Urquhart's question, has there been any feedback—not formal recommendations but feedback—from embassies and high commissions in the region raising the issue of the shortwave broadcast being ceased by the ABC?

Mr Sloper : To my knowledge we have no records of those representations being made to us—that is, cables or other communications from posts advising of it or counterpart governments advising of it.

Senator XENOPHON: I understand. So does the department assess the extent to which other countries have a presence in the Pacific with shortwave? I think, for instance, that China, amongst other countries, has a very significant presence in terms of its shortwave broadcasts into the central and southern Pacific? Are you aware what other countries are doing? Are you at least aware of comparisons with other nations and their shortwave presence?

Mr Sloper : I am not aware of the detail of individual broadcasts, but certainly China, India, New Zealand and the BBC have broadcasts within the region.

Senator XENOPHON: Sorry—it is China—?

Mr Sloper : China, India, BBC, New Zealand.

Senator XENOPHON: What about Singapore?

Mr Sloper : I am not sure if Singapore do.

Senator XENOPHON: Japan?

Mr Byrne : I am not aware of Japan.

Mr Sloper : I am not aware of Japan.

Senator XENOPHON: Okay. So you have China, India and the BBC broadcasting into the region with shortwave?

Mr Sloper : I do not know if it is shortwave; rather, I suspect there are a range of broadcast technologies—television, radio, some shortwave, some FM.

Senator XENOPHON: Does the department have a view about the importance of shortwave as an exercise in soft power? I am not sure what the lingo is in diplomatic speak. I mean something—having that level of Australian news or giving emergency news, which is what the Republic of Vanuatu highlighted in its submission—that does build bridges with communities. Does the department have a view about the benefit of that in terms of Australia's reputation in those countries?

Mr Sloper : We made clear to the ABC that we want them to continue to meet their international charter, that they need to continue coverage within the region, but we have not given a particular view about shortwave itself. We have left the decision about the technology to the ABC. We do not have the expertise on the particular technology.

Senator XENOPHON: Sure.

Mr Sloper : But I would just say that we do appreciate the advantage of soft power—if you want to use that phrase—or conveying our views in the region, be it through broadcasting or be it through the actions we do ourselves.

Senator XENOPHON: It builds good relations in regions, doesn't it?

Mr Byrne : ABC broadcasts into the region contribute to a broader perception of Australia as engaged in the Pacific and as a country that cares about the Pacific. As I think Mr Sloper was just about to say, it is one of many elements, one of many factors, that contribute towards a positive perception of Australia in the Pacific.

Senator XENOPHON: Is there a danger that some countries may have the perception, notwithstanding the position of the Australian government about the importance of the central Pacific and South Pacific to Australia, that the withdrawal of those broadcasts send a signal that we are just not as engaged with the region?

Mr Sloper : I would say that is a question about technology. I do not think we have lost coverage in most of the region, and we provided previously, in estimates hearings, a list, if you like, of a range of the FM frequencies that are rebroadcast in a range of countries throughout the region. Our understanding is that the ABC is looking to further its coverage through other technologies. Shortwave certainly has a certain coverage that other technologies do not, but I do not think, in terms of projection of information about Australia, that there is a significant drop-off.

Senator XENOPHON: Can I just go back a step? Is it beneficial for Australians to get a perspective of Australia—Australian news, an Australian perspective, an Australian voice—into the region? That is something that is helpful—correct?

Mr Sloper : We would like to see increasing understanding of Australia, in our view, within the region.

Senator XENOPHON: Sure. And that increasing understanding of Australia in the region can be facilitated in part by those in the Pacific, in the region, being aware of what goes on in Australia—Australian news and Australian perspectives. Is that fair to say?

Mr Sloper : I think that is fair, but I do not see it as being contingent on one particular technology or form of broadcast.

Senator XENOPHON: Let me get to that question—if I can get to that question. Obviously, the effectiveness and the beneficial nature of that is maximised by the more people that hear news from Australia.

Mr Sloper : It is a contributing factor. It is one of many other—

Senator XENOPHON: Just look at this logically. If you say that it is beneficial for an Australian broadcast voice to be heard in the Pacific, doesn't it follow that the more people who hear that voice, the more beneficial it is—the greater the reach, the greater the effectiveness?

Mr Sloper : I understand the point you are trying to make. I would just point out that that analogy could apply to any service in Australia or globally. I do not necessarily think the number of people listening to the voice—

Senator XENOPHON: No, just answer my question. You are trying to second-guess me.

Mr Sloper : I am just trying to say that I do not think—

ACTING CHAIR: Senator Xenophon, please allow the witness to finish his answer.

Senator XENOPHON: He is not addressing my question, Chair.

ACTING CHAIR: You can ask a follow-up question if you like, but let him finish his answer.

Senator XENOPHON: You are a ruthless chair, Chair.

Mr Sloper : I was just trying to make the point—

Senator XENOPHON: That was a compliment!

Mr Sloper : that the quantum of listeners does not always equate to a positive outcome. Of course we want coverage. We want a better understanding of Australia internationally. I do not think we would use, always, the audience number per se as a measure of success in terms of building that understanding of Australia.

Senator XENOPHON: But it is a measure of success.

Mr Sloper : It is a measure of reach.

Senator XENOPHON: It is a measure of reach; that is right.

Mr Sloper : What I am getting at is that the nature of the broadcast, the information within the broadcast, what images are projected—that all contributes to impressions of Australia. There are positives and negatives associated with that. It is a debate. I would not go as far as to say, necessarily, the reach in itself equates to an advantage in soft diplomacy. It is a tool towards that.

Senator XENOPHON: That is right. So the reach is a tool towards that. Assuming that there is a high-quality broadcast with interesting news, an Australian voice, which has been the case with the ABC shortwave broadcasts, if you reduce that reach then that could have some impact on the effectiveness of getting that Australian voice, and an understanding of Australia, out there in the region?

Mr Sloper : It could have an impact.

Senator XENOPHON: Therefore, has the department assessed the alternatives that the ABC say they are putting up in terms of getting that Australian voice out there in those regions?

Mr Sloper : We continue to say to the ABC that we would like them to meet their international obligations and that we would like to see ongoing content delivery within the region. We have not conveyed a specific view in terms of the technology. In the end that is a decision for the ABC.

Senator XENOPHON: Have you assessed what the most effective technology is to get to the biggest number of people?

Mr Sloper : Across the region there is certainly a change in what people are listening to and the way they are listening to services, and also the languages they are listening in. We were just having a discussion prior to the hearing about the fact that, while we broadcast in English and some of the main languages, there are many, many people in the region who are not fluently conversant in those languages, so there is a limitation there. We have not looked at—

Senator XENOPHON: So what languages do they broadcast in?

Mr Sloper : What I mean, for example, is that English—or pidgin, or Bislama—is often the language of the broadcast, and that is very welcome, but for many people that is their second or third language already. And as you go into the broader regional areas you may find a smaller number of people who can understand fluently. That is not an argument to say we should not be projecting into the region. I am just pointing out that we are never going to reach all the audience and we need to look at how we do, and the way that audience now interacts, if you like, with broadcasts from the ABC and others varies. We see an extraordinary pick-up in mobile technology across the region, but there are limitations to that.

Senator XENOPHON: Sure.

Mr Sloper : We see a pick-up in FM technology. We see AM in urban areas, and shortwave, as you have said.

Senator XENOPHON: Sure. AM is pretty limited, though.

Mr Sloper : Yes.

Senator XENOPHON: So my final question for now is: do you have an understanding of the size of the reach of these broadcasts with shortwave and since then? Has any assessment been carried out? Are you aware of any surveys as to how many people in the region, and where, were listening to ABC shortwave?

Mr Sloper : We have not done surveys ourselves. We would not see that as a key activity for us in terms of the listening audience, but certainly I am aware of some of the evidence that has been put forward through the submissions to this committee and the varying views within those.

Senator XENOPHON: Thank you.

Senator URQUHART: I think you said that you had not undertaken any monitoring or investigations since the cessation; is that correct?

Mr Sloper : Any formal assessment?

Senator URQUHART: Yes.

Mr Sloper : Yes, that is right.

Senator URQUHART: What about informal?

Mr Sloper : We look at the report when it comes from our posts, and my point was that we have not had formal representations made to us conveyed by posts—our Australian high commissions or embassies—to us.

Senator URQUHART: Following on from that, since the cessation of the service, have officers, either yourselves or out in the posts, been asked to consult local communities in the remote Pacific islands about the impact?

Mr Sloper : No.

Senator URQUHART: So you have not been asked by either those communities or the Australian government to do that?

Mr Sloper : To undertake surveys? No.

Senator URQUHART: What feedback have either yourselves all your outposts had from, say, academics, journalists, NGOs and others that are working across the Pacific?

Mr Sloper : I am not aware of direct representations, but certainly there has been some discussion in the region, as is evident in the submissions to this inquiry.

Senator URQUHART: So you are only aware of the feedback through the submissions, not because you have gone out and asked?

Mr Sloper : Indeed.

Senator URQUHART: You have not been approached and your high commissions have not been approached.

Mr Sloper : To explain that, that is not a specific role we would normally undertake—to review, if you like, the impact of a decision made by a separate body. Obviously, we are watching it and we are aware of the submission and the inquiry, but it would not necessarily be normal business for us to reach out to civil society and other groups and ask them about this.

Senator URQUHART: I find that quite bizarre given that, as I think you agreed in answering one of the questions from Senator Xenophon, shortwave and other means have some sort of a role to play in the public diplomacy of Australia into those regions. You do not see a role at all for your high commission or whatever to at least talk to people in those communities about the cessation of a program?

Mr Sloper : I would like to make a few points. Firstly, as outlined in our submission, we recognise this is a decision by the ABC. Certainly, coverage from an Australian broadcaster can contribute to soft diplomacy, and, as I said before, it is the content that actually influences that outcome. But that is one element of many. What we manage in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is part of that broader effort, if you like, to convey understanding about Australia. We would certainly like to take advantage of the positive stories and build understanding, and that is a core element of our advocacy overseas, but we do not then also go forward and seek views, necessarily, on particular aspects of broadcast in Australia, be it for the ABC or commercial broadcasters, as part of our normal business. But each post is looking to build understanding about Australia and our interests.

Senator URQUHART: In the last estimates, the ABC said that they were planning to build more FM transmission towers to service PNG. Do you know how this will help very remote communities in PNG? What involvement is DFAT having in the location of these towers?

Mr Sloper : If I could answer in reverse, to the extent of my knowledge, I do not think we have any involvement in that decision. That is an operational decision for the ABC. We are aware from meetings with the ABC that they do plan to increase their coverage through the FM network and we have received—

Senator URQUHART: But you have no involvement?

Mr Sloper : Not in the determination of where that occurs, no. We operate independently from the ABC.

Senator URQUHART: Do you know if there are plans for other Pacific island nations in relation to additional towers for transmission of FM?

Mr Byrne : Not through the ABC, as far as we are aware. I think we have the same information as you on this.

Senator LUDLAM: Thank you both for coming in. Item 4 of your submission states:

In consultations with the ABC—

And these were presumably happening in late 2016 or early this year after you were notified of the decision to close down the shortwave service—

DFAT has strongly encouraged the ABC to maintain broadcasts throughout the region that maintain quality of service for Pacific audiences.

Why did you take that position in your discussions with the ABC?

Mr Sloper : That reflects the points I tried to make earlier with Senator Xenophon. We see advantage in Australian broadcasters operating within the region, be they the ABC or otherwise, for the reasons we discussed—to build an understanding of Australia—and we think it would be beneficial for us to have the ABC continue that. So we have asked them to do that. We have not talked about the particular technologies. We have recognised the decision they have made and encouraged them to look at greater content and expansion of the FM network or to look at using other technologies to reach audiences.

Senator LUDLAM: I guess there are two sides to it, and one that we have spent a bit of time discussing this morning is the public diplomacy side. The other side, which has come through to some degree in your submission and the submissions of others, is the fact that, as a last-ditch emergency broadcaster, shortwave services are often the last technology standing in a big storm. Item 7 of your submission states that you have 'encouraged the ABC to take account of these concerns', by which I mean the technology concerns. So it sounds as though somebody within DFAT has taken the time to develop an understanding that this technology is cheap, is quite widely distributed, reaches very remote parts of the Pacific and can continue broadcasting during major storm events. My question is: given that you have encouraged the ABC to take account of those concerns, do you have a view on the fact that they appear to have set those concerns aside?

Mr Sloper : If I may answer in two parts, firstly, as I understand it, the ABC decision comes out originally from a review conducted in 2014. At that time, we advised that we supported the review of more cost-effective alternatives for delivery of Radio Australia but that access to the service in the Pacific should be maintained. That goes to the point that we continue to make with them now in our consultations, which are regular. But this particular issue, as you suggested, occurred last year, when we were notified. We are aware of the points you make about shortwave, but we are also aware of the changing demographics, if you like, in the region and the use of mobile technology and so on. We do not have concrete data on all of that. In some cases we do; in some we do not. As to emergency management, ultimately that is a responsibility for national governments, but we do work with governments in the region about how we support their responses to that. That can be through means of radio communication, SMS alerts, support for national disaster management offices and so on. That is a key priority for the region, and as we have seen in responses to Pam and Winston, the tropical cyclones, recently.

Senator LUDLAM: Yes, I was going to come to those because that is such a recent case study.

Mr Sloper : In our view, the ABC broadcasts provided a complementary warning capability there. Their capability relates to weather forecasting. They do not actually broadcast emergency information—that is not part of their charter and it is not part of the practice—but that complementary information is useful sometimes.

Senator LUDLAM: That is what some of the submitters have put to us. You have mentioned that some people—and maybe this is a demographic thing—are moving to mobile telephony and, presumably, FM radio, but those two technologies are often the first to fail in the kind of big storm event that we are talking about. I do not know whether you are aware of a service called Women's Weather Watch in the Pacific. Is that something that you have come across before?

Mr Sloper : I am not personally aware of it, no.

Senator LUDLAM: I think they would be one of the beneficiaries of the service. You have also indicated that DFAT is not a broadcaster and it is probably not something you want to branch into. Have you given consideration to the idea that DFAT might fund the shortfall but let the ABC continue to take care of the transmission?

ACTING CHAIR: That does sound a little bit like asking for an opinion on policy. Please feel free to answer it, but bear in mind—

Senator LUDLAM: I can attempt to rephrase it, if you like.

ACTING CHAIR: That is probably a good idea.

Senator LUDLAM: Has there been any consideration? Has any work being done? That is an objective yes/no question.

Mr Sloper : DFAT has never funded shortwave radio or Radio Australia, including during the Australia Network contract from 2012 to 2014. We see funding of shortwave radio and transmissions to the Pacific as a matter for the ABC.

Senator XENOPHON: Are you aware of other countries funding shortwave? You mentioned China, India and the BBC going into the region. Are you aware of any direct funding from departments of foreign affairs in relation to that?

Mr Byrne : I am not aware of departments of foreign affairs or foreign services funding broadcasts directly, but certainly the UK, for example, through the agency of the BBC, does fund broadcasts—likewise the Chinese and so on.

Senator XENOPHON: China has been expanding shortwave broadcasts, has it not, in the region?

Mr Byrne : I am not sure about that.

Senator XENOPHON: Could you take that on notice?

Mr Byrne : Sure.

Senator XENOPHON: Further to the Senator Ludlam's line of questioning about emergencies and natural disasters, in Operation Fiji Assist an LHD was deployed, which took a few days to get there, to assist in the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Winston at the beginning of last year. Has there been any assessment made of the effectiveness of shortwave to get the message across?

Mr Sloper : There has not been a formal assessment of the effectiveness of shortwave radio when it comes to those emergency activities, largely because the ABC has not broadcast emergency information in the past. It complements local national broadcasting efforts. Through our cooperation in the region in the development program, we are supporting deployees, international disaster management officers and early warning systems, which have been determined by their own governments. They sometimes include FM transmissions, SMS messaging and shortwave in some countries, and on a limited scale we have supported that through emergency management procedures. We also work, of course, more broadly. We have humanitarian supplies now pre-located, if you like, across the region in almost every country, I think, in cooperation with the international Red Cross. So there are a range of activities we work with national governments on, but our focus is on them leading those efforts. As to responses to date, as I said before, the ABC has provided a complementary role, but it has never provided a leading role in conveying emergency management.

Senator XENOPHON: It can provide emergency data, though.

Mr Sloper : To my knowledge, it has not done so in the past. It has provided weather forecasts.

Senator XENOPHON: I think it did in Vanuatu for some natural disasters. I think that is what Senator Ludlam was alluding to. Anyway, I just wanted to raise that as an issue.

Senator LUDLAM: Just to be clear, and maybe these are questions more properly put to Defence, was any evaluation done by DFAT or Defence, to your awareness, after that intervention, in which I think the Australian Navy were the first responders, effectively? They were the first ones on site after that cyclone.

Mr Sloper : Australia and New Zealand.

Senator LUDLAM: And New Zealand, yes. Was any evaluation done that might canvass the way that communications technologies in various formats were used during that disaster?

Mr Sloper : I cannot speak for Defence, but, in regard of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, our Office of Development Effectiveness did a review of the response to TC Pam. That did not focus on the shortwave broadcasting, though. Areas of communication were more to do with our communication with the national government and how that could be more effective. It did not look at broadcasting.

ACTING CHAIR: I thank the witnesses for their time and evidence this morning.