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Wednesday, 12 September 1984
Page: 1088


Mr LLOYD(10.07) —In the brief time that I have in which to talk about communications, I want to concentrate on two aspects, but particularly the fact that, in the 18 months of the Australian Labor Party's term in office, no progress has been made in finalising the arrangements for a commercial television and radio service for the people in the remote areas of Australia. The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal inquiry, which was instituted last November by the Government, was an attempt by the Government to pass the buck on decisions that it found too difficult to make. Sections of the Labor back bench had prevented the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) from making the sensible decision of following the previous Government's policy of giving priority to the high-powered transponders on the second satellite, to be provided in four spot beams, to give commercial services to remote areas. Those sections of the Labor Party were ideologically opposed to country media interests gaining supplementary licences for regional radio and television if they had any other media, radio or television interests. That was an illogical and inequitable position, as they showed no similar reservations about the metropolitan media and about the greater concentration of media control that those metropolitan interests exercised in those larger markets.

The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal reported in late July, some eight months later after a considerable cost in terms of resources and time was incurred by the Department of Communications, the Broadcasting Tribunal and, in particular, the various regional and metropolitan television companies. The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal effectively told the Government that it would not make the Government's difficult decisions and that the decision was really one for the Government. The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal also delivered a few backhanders for good measure.

The ABT's greatest concern was the even greater dominance of Australian television program control and purchase by the major networks unless new licensing criteria were established-it would be based not on the number of television licences but on population or total market control. The ABT recommended against the networks being allowed to telecast directly to remote areas, and reconfirmed the prevous Government's policy of specific licences for the remote areas, using the 30-watt spot beams similar to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation service, so that the service to remote areas would be free and the reception cost minimised.

The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal also indicated its attitude to restricting the ownership of regional television interests in an opposite way to that which was being considered; that is, of changing the licensing basis from two licences , whether they be Sydney or the bush, to population covered by a licence. That would allow them to obtain several licences if necessary so that their strength over a period of time would be built up to match the strength of the networks, and thus encourage greater diversity in programming purchase and creation. The ABT specifically stated that the Act should be relaxed and amended to allow groups of regional stations to apply for these remote area licences. So 18 months after achieving office, 10 months away from the first domestic satellite launch, this Government is no further advanced than was the previous Government when it lost office in March 1983 in sorting out the problem of providing a second or a commercial television service for the remote areas of Australia similar to that which will be made available by the ABC when the satellites go up next year. Eighteen months ago when the previous Government lost office we were on track in putting those policies in place. That wasted 18 months now leaves insufficient time for the remote and underserved areas to have any hope of a complementary commercial service to the ABC Homestead and Community Broadcasting Satellite Service No. 1 system in time.

That system for the ABC may also be delayed because of the need to change the satellite transmission system from that originally proposed, the PAL system, to one that is more technologically competent, or capable of carrying more audio signals, such as the MAC-B system, which I understand the Minister acknowledged in a recent interview. The Government must act quickly as a further two months has elapsed since the ABT report throwing the whole matter back at the Government. The Minister must now convince his irrational left wing colleagues and the Cabinet of the urgent need for a Government decision to proceed with the HACBSS1 and the HACBSS2 proposal of the previous Government-that is, the uniform high-powered spot beam transponders for both the ABC and the commercial services .

The Minister must advise the Tribunal to call for applications for a remote area commercial television service using the 30-watt transponder and/or, if considered better in some places, the 12-watt transponders as required in spot beam formation for the separate areas of Australia, for the Western Australia section, with either the central ones together or separately-as I think is more practical for the Northern Territory and South Australia-for Queensland, and for the south-east of Australia. The Minister must tell the Tribunal that applicants can be a consortium of existing regional and/or metropolitan television and radio interests and that the service they will provide should be at no actual viewing cost to the consumers, so that the whole cost of reception of people in remote areas receiving a commercial service and an ABC service is as cheap as possible. The Government has let down the people in remote and underserved areas of Australia and Government decision and action are now needed, late as that may be, and it must be real action and real decision, not just window-dressing and passing the buck to get Labor over the next election.

The second point concerns public broadcasting. The Public Broadcasting Association and thousands of people associated with public broadcasting in Australia were confident that they had been advised and promised by this Government that they would be granted $5m in this Budget to assist with a public broadcasting foundation, the investment of which would provide income so that public broadcasting would not always be the mendicant asking whatever government was in power for assistance in its budgetary process each year.

When it became known to me prior to the presentation of the Budget that it appeared that the Government was backing away from its promise, I agreed with the public broadcasting people in a bipartisan spirit-I think there is a bipartisan approach to public broadcasting-not to say anything about it in the hope that something would happen and that the Government commitment would be honoured. Well, it was not honoured. Immediately after the Budget was presented the President of the Public Broadcasting Foundation, Mr Keith Jackson, issued a Press release which stated:

The Foundation was expecting at least $5m endowment so that 54 radio stations and another 40 public broadcasting groups could receive reasonable funding.

'We are extremely upset that the Government has broken its election promise and ignored last month's ALP Conference resolution calling for a substantial endowment to the Foundation', said Mr Jackson.

That was all public knowledge within the public broadcasting group, yet Senator Button in the Senate Estimates hearings recently, when a question about the $5m promise was put to him by Senator Lewis, said:

There were some widespread suppositions in the community and the honourable senator clearly got hold of one.

I believe that that is not good enough either from Senator Button, who was one of the major proponents of the $5m, or from the Government generally. People in public broadcasting and the Australian people in the rural, remote and underserved areas of Australia want some action and decisions from this Government so that they will know where they can go in the future.