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Wednesday, 25 February 1987
Page: 728

Mr DUFFY (Minister for Communications)(5.15) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

The purpose of this Bill is to amend the Broadcasting Act 1942 to implement a government decision to impose penalty fees for the late payment or non-payment of radio and television licence fees. These fees are payable by licensed broadcasters under the Radio Licence Fees and Television Licence Fees Acts 1964. The Bill complements amendments in the Radio Licence Fees Bill 1987 and the Television Licence Fees Bill (No. 2) 1987. Neither the Broadcasting Act nor the licence fees Acts presently contain any penalty provisions for the non-payment or late payment of licence fees. The only sanction available to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, which is the delegated collection agency for licence fees, is the ultimate and disproportionate sanction of revocation, suspension or non- renewal of a licence. The Bill provides an additional sanction through the imposition of a monetary penalty calculated as a percentage of the amount owing. The provisions will provide for a small amount of additional revenue from penalty fees for late payments and will assist in ensuring collection of the full revenue due to the Commonwealth.

I now turn to the detail of the amendments. Sections 6 of the Radio Licence Fees and Television Licence Fees Acts provide for licence fees to be paid by licensees on each anniversary of the date of commencement of the licence. Sub-section 86 (11d) of the Broadcasting Act empowers the Tribunal to refuse to renew a licence if it is satisfied that the licensee has failed to pay the amount due under the relevant licence fees Act. An equivalent provision, paragraph 88 (1) (b), deals with suspension or revocation. Use of this ultimate sanction would be so drastic that there is, in effect, no effective penalty for late or non-payment.

In the past, the Tribunal has expressed concern that some licensees were allowing time to elapse after an assessment had been issued before paying their licence fees. Any delay in payment of fees is, of course, a cost to the Commonwealth in terms of interest forgone. The amount of revenue due to the Commonwealth in the form of broadcasting licence fees is quite considerable. The total licence fees payable by commercial radio stations during the period 1 July 1985 to 30 June 1986 was $7,396,452 and for commercial television stations during the same period the amount was $60,915,505.

The principal provisions in this Bill are contained in clause 5. New sub-section 123a (1) provides for the imposition of a penalty fee at the rate of 20 per cent a year on overdue fees. The penalty provisions operate only where the fee becomes overdue by two months, but in these circumstances the penalty fee is calculated from the due date. The existing provisions in section 123 of the Act allow six months from the end of each accounting period for the licensee to prepare accounts and documentation. Consistent with these provisions, new sub-section 123a (6) provides that the due date for the purpose of the penalty fee provisions will not be before six months after the end of the accounting period.

New sub-section 123a (2) provides for the Minister, or an authorised officer, to remit the penalty fee. The decision to remit must take into account such factors as whether the delay was due to the fault of the licensee, whether the licensee had sought to minimise the delay and whether there are special circumstances which mean it would be fair and reasonable to remit the fee. Honourable members should note that the penalty fee and associated remission provisions are closely modelled on relevant provisions in sub-section 207 (1a) of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936.

Clauses 3 and 4 of the Bill amend sections 86, licence renewal, and 88, licence suspension or revocation, to take account of the new penalty fee provisions. Instead of the licensing sanctions of the Tribunal being applied for a failure to pay fees, the Tribunal must consider whether there has been unreasonable or repeated delay in licence fees payment. In considering whether to exercise these licensing powers, which are still the ultimate sanction for failure to pay licence fees, the Tribunal will clearly be required to assess whether the exercise of power is warranted in the individual circumstances of each case. Clause 6 of the Bill is a technical provision to ensure that the amendments in the Bill apply equally to old system licences; that is, licences which have not yet been converted to the service-based licensing system.

The provisions in this Bill form part of a package of measures to introduce greater certainty and more efficient administration in the assessment and collection of radio and television licence fees. In particular, this Bill will help to ensure full and prompt recovery of fees owing to the Commonwealth. I commend the Bill to the House. I present the explanatory memorandum to the Bill.

Debate (on motion by Mr Tim Fischer) adjourned.