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Wednesday, 7 March 2001
Page: 25306

Mr STEPHEN SMITH (5:05 PM) —The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2001 contains a range of minor or technical amendments to the government's digital TV and datacasting legislation, which was enacted in the parliament in June 2000. This bill was introduced in the Senate and is presented to the House in an amended form. The provisions the bill contains, as outlined by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, are, in a sense, technical and minor in nature and cause the opposition no difficulty here—as they caused us no difficulty in the Senate. The bill contains provisions that are different from those presented to the Senate in respect of the codes of practice that were adopted in the Senate, with a trifecta of support—from the government, the opposition and the Democrats, all of whom moved, variously, amendments to effect the codes of practice provisions.

There is one provision of the original bill which was adopted by the Senate but subsequently deleted from the provisions of the bill when the Senate split the bill, when the government colluded with the Democrats to avoid the question of unrestricted multichannelling for the ABC and SBS. That was deleting a provision which the government had contained in the original legislation as presented to the Senate and which had the support of the government, the Democrats and the opposition to enable SBS to multichannel in respect of international news broadcasts. That is not contained in the bill as presented to the House because of the incompetence of the Democrats and the malice of the government so far as the ABC and multichannelling is concerned, and I am unsure as to whether the government is proposing to move an amendment to the bill in this House to rectify that combination of malice and incompetence.

I await the consideration in detail stage with interest. As I have indicated, when the bill was introduced in the Senate it did contain provisions different from the ones presented here. The capacity of the SBS to multichannel international news has not been presented to this House. I await with interest what the government will do, but I put the government on notice that I will be proposing to move an amendment to reinclude that provision in the bill.

There is an interesting history to this piece of legislation. The history starts when the parliament considered the framework legislation for the introduction of digital TV in 1998, and in June 2000 the parliament dealt with the government's detailed legislation to effect implementation of that framework. As the opposition made clear in this House and in the Senate when that legislation was introduced, just as we made clear when the government announced its proposed detailed implementation in December 1999, we believed the proposed provisions in respect of datacasting were much too restrictive. We believed that the content or genre based regime which the government was proposing to introduce would essentially strangle a new industry at birth and would not enable one of the balances to be struck which the parliament had sought when it considered the framework legislation in 1998—which was the introduction of a new industry which would provide diversity of content, namely, datacasting.

When this bill was presented to the Senate, the opposition moved amendments to amend the government's datacasting regime consistent with the amendments that we moved in the course of the parliament's consideration of the legislation in June 2000. Those amendments would have the effect of providing a general regime for the introduction of datacasting, a regime which would not allow datacasting to become de facto or backdoor broadcasting. That central premise, which was found in the framework legislation as one of the balances to the introduction of digital television—that central premise—is part of the fundamental starting point of the opposition's approach in this area. We moved the amendments unsuccessfully in the Senate and in the House in June 2000. We moved them again in the Senate when the Senate considered this piece of legislation recently, and I will put the government on notice that I propose in the consideration in detail stage to again move those amendments.

In the course of the parliament's consideration in December 2000, we also moved amendments which would have had the effect of enabling the ABC and SBS to engage in unrestricted multichannelling. The history of that aspect of the legislation is well known but often misunderstood advertently or inadvertently. In December 2000 the opposition moved amendments in the Senate to the effect that the ABC and SBS, the two national public broadcasters, would be able to engage in unrestricted multichannelling. The Democrats supported that amendment, which presented the government, which was implacably opposed to that measure, with a dilemma as to whether or not it would agree to that amendment. The government made it crystal clear to the opposition that it would not countenance in any way unrestricted multichannelling by the ABC or SBS and, on that basis, presented to the opposition a list of approved areas where the ABC and SBS would be able to engage in multichannelling.

In the course of consultation with both the ABC and SBS at senior management level, the ABC and SBS advised the opposition that the listed multichannelling activity, which the government was proposing to allow the ABC and SBS to be authorised to engage in, covered the areas of content that they, at that point in the cycle, had in mind so far as multichannelling was concerned. On that basis, and given that the opposition did not want to delay the passage of the legislation to effect the introduction of digital television by 1 January 2001, we reluctantly agreed to the restricted list system. I made the point publicly, when the legislation went through the Senate in June 2000, that our policy was and remained one of unrestricted multichannelling for the ABC and SBS and, when in government, we would fix the problem.

The government has provided us with an opportunity in the Senate in recent weeks and we have taken the opportunity of again moving in the parliament our proposals that the ABC and SBS ought to be the beneficiaries of unrestricted multichannelling. Again, on this occasion that amendment by us was supported by the Democrats. That presented the government with a dilemma, because it continues to remain implacably opposed to the ABC and SBS having unrestricted multichannelling, just as it continues to remain implacably opposed to a general datacasting regime. Out of the blue, subsequently we found collusion in the Senate between the incompetence of the Democrats and the malice of the government, which saw the government and the Democrats conspire and collude to remove the multichannelling aspects of the bill as amended from this piece of legislation and to list that as a separate piece of legislation for consideration in the Senate on 6 August 2001.

The problem for the government—and more acutely for the Democrats—is that the government and the Democrats, engaging in their GST-like collusion on multichannelling, displayed their incompetence and removed from the bill the provision which related to SBS international news multichannelling and we now find that provision absent from this piece of legislation. We will see whether the government is able to find the competence to amend this bill as presented to the House to reinstate that provision, which was one of the central bulwarks, as I recall, of the rationale for the introduction of this piece of legislation and certainly at the very heart of the Democrats' desire to see the passage of this piece of legislation.

So the malice of the government and the incompetence of the Democrats in their handling of the ABC and SBS multichannelling may well see, from the government's perspective, a perfect outcome: no extension of the list of areas where the SBS can engage in multichannelling, no need to revisit this matter in the Senate next month, and the Democrats with more egg on their face than they had previously on this matter. That is because, despite their passion to see this piece of legislation dealt with in a non-controversial fashion by the parliament, it has now been put off by their own actions to August of this year. `O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!' Indeed, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive on the GST and on the ABC—it rings true for the Democrats, the party that gave you the GST in collusion with the Liberal-National coalition, the party that did not give the ABC and SBS unrestricted multichannelling as they colluded again, this time in an incompetent fashion, with the Liberal and National parties on multichannelling.

As I have indicated, we will again be pursuing the array of amendments we moved in the House previously to seek to ensure that we have a datacasting regime in this nation that will not allow de facto or backdoor broadcasting but that might enable the development of a new industry. The general regime which we proposed in the Senate and in the House in December 2000 was met with quite wide acclaim in the industry. That the government's restrictive regime essentially leaves a new industry with the notion that it may well be strangled at birth and with no great place to go is reflected in the fact that the current datacasting spectrum auction has seen effectively only two major players remaining in the field: Telstra and NTL.

In debate on this in the Senate the other day, I noticed Senator Alston waxing lyrical about how all the players were there, including Fairfax and News. The truth, of course, is that News was never there and Fairfax withdrew, leaving two quite difficult problems as far as datacasting is concerned. One is that the sale of spectrum only for Melbourne, Sydney and Perth will be conducted on the basis of a competitive auction. The second is that the only two principal bidders, Telstra and NTL, are carriers rather than content providers. That is, the only two major players in the field, Telstra and NTL, are essentially transmission agencies or carriers rather than content providers. The opposition has argued—and it is reflected in the second reading amendment the circulation of which I have authorised—that the government should take this opportunity before the spectrum is auctioned to pause the datacasting spectrum auction to enable the parliament to adopt a more general regime for datacasting and to give a new industry that will add diversity of content the chance to develop. Once the datacasting spectrum has been auctioned on the basis of the government's current regime, it will be a difficult exercise for a future government to unpick. So this is the government's last chance. I would have thought that they would have got the message. With the industry demonstrating its opinion by walking away and by not bidding, I would have thought that they might want to take this last opportunity to ensure that there is some semblance of a datacasting industry in this country.

It is quite clear that the government's datacasting regime is a manifest failure. There are two fundamental problems with the spectrum process. One is that there is no competition in any area other than Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. They are the only centres where a competitive bid is possible, given the structure of the bid and that players have subsequently withdrawn. The other problem is reflected in the lack of interest in the auction process: you have only two principal players, both of whom are carriers rather than content providers. The government have an opportunity to fix it. This is their last opportunity. They could pause the auction, fix the legislation and still enable the auction to be conducted in the course of this financial year so that they could, as they want and in accordance with their stated budget position, return those funds to the Commonwealth this financial year.

I will not digress too much but, when the government nominated in the papers associated with the May 2000 budget a $2.6 billion figure for the collection of revenue from spectrum auctions, that was a first in monumental and historical incompetence as well—the first time that we have seen the Commonwealth essentially identify in the budget papers what it expects to receive as proceeds from spectrum auctions. The $2.6 billion is looking nothing like $2.6 billion today, so the whole basis upon which the government fabricated a surplus for that budget—$2.6 billion worth of spectrum proceeds—is now blown away entirely. That was another fundamental mistake in the handling of this matter by the government, with Treasurer Costello nominating for the first time in history what the Commonwealth expects to receive from an auction process. That is why you have an auction process: to enable the revenue to the Commonwealth to be determined by an essentially unencumbered market process.

Insofar as the ABC and SBS are concerned, as I have indicated, we will re-run our amendments to enable the ABC and SBS to have unrestricted multichannelling. We will also re-run our amendments to ensure that neither the ABC nor the SBS have to pay datacasting fees. I note the undertakings that Minister Alston has given in the Senate—that it is not the government's intention to charge the ABC or SBS datacasting fees—so, in that sense, we are heading in the same direction, but there is no reason why that cannot be formalised in legislation. That is what the government is currently saying, but it would not be the first time that they did something different in respect of the ABC or SBS, and you would not be surprised if they did. So I am not surprised that we are not able to see the colour of their money by their supporting a legislative provision in that area.

So far as the extension of the ABC Act and charter provisions to ABC datacasting or online activity is concerned, again we will pursue that amendment in this House. And there is a history to that provision as well. When the ABC-Telstra online deal was floated in the course of last year, I made public comments which reflected my very grave concern about that proposed arrangement, and the opposition was successful in ensuring that a Senate committee examined that arrangement and also looked at the long-term question of the applicability of the act and charter to the ABC's online activity or datacasting activity. I noted recently public statements by Senator Bourne, the Democrats spokesperson, giving the Labor Party the appropriate credit for pursuing that matter, which in any event they supported.

We have seen the ABC-Telstra online deal go down, and we have the Senate still giving consideration to the more general structural question about the applicability of the act and charter to the ABC's online activity. It is well known by people who follow this matter that currently the ABC Act and charter do not apply to the ABC's online activity or to any proposed ABC datacasting activity. It is currently an editorial decision of the board which sees that those provisions generally apply. So we have moved in the Senate a very simple amendment which would have the effect of extending the operations of the ABC Act and charter from that which the ABC does traditionally to ABC online and datacasting activity.

There is a very simple and obvious example that will crystallise that. Currently, of course, the ABC Act and charter prevent the ABC from engaging in advertising on radio or TV. The adoption of an extension of the act and charter to the ABC's online or datacasting activity would have the effect that online and datacasting of the ABC would not be allowed to engage in advertising. It is quite straightforward.

So I was absolutely gobsmacked when the Democrats colluded with the government in the Senate to refuse to extend the protection and provisions of the ABC Act and charter to the ABC's online and datacasting activity. I was absolutely gobsmacked that the Democrats would put themselves in the position of supporting the government in a public policy position which could see the ABC advertising online and by way of datacasting. If I was gobsmacked about the collusion on the GST and gobsmacked about the collusion on multichannelling, this one was a complete mystery. There we have the GST-supporting Democrats out there supporting the notion that the ABC could advertise on its datacasting services or online. This mystified me, coming from the Democrats, the party which has allegedly stood up for the ABC over the years. Then again, after they colluded with the government and introduced an unfair taxation system called the GST, what would really surprise us in the end so far as the Democrats are concerned?

So we will be rerunning those amendments in this House to extend the provisions of the act and charter to the ABC's activity online and by way of datacasting. We have moved the codes of practice provisions which I referred to earlier by way of amendments in the Senate—one of the rare occasions in recent times where there was a unity ticket. The government picked up those amendments, as did the Democrats, and they are now, as the minister has indicated and I have noted as well, contained as part of the legislation. Those sentiments are reflected in the second reading amendment which I will formally move. And I am pleased that my colleague the member for Lilley, who takes an intense interest in matters ABC, is in a position to second this second reading amendment. I move:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading the House

(a) condemns the Government and the Australian Democrats for colluding in the Senate to delay consideration of ABC and SBS unrestricted multi channelling until August 6 2001; and

(b) calls on the Government;

(i) to suspend the auction of datacasting spectrum until the Parliament has completed its consideration of the bill while still allowing the auction process to be completed this financial year; and

(ii) to rectify its failure to adequately resource the ABC to effect the national public broadcaster's transition to the digital world”.

I might conclude on that point, so far as resources to the ABC are concerned. There are, if you like, two sorts of resources which a government of the day can give the ABC as the national public broadcaster. One is the intellectual resource, or the leadership resource, which comes from the government of the day proselytising the notion that the ABC, as the national broadcaster, is an important institution in our society. Rather than doing that, we have seen the government of the day, since it was elected in 1996, tear up the promise that it made in the course of that election campaign and do nothing other than place the ABC and SBS under enormous financial and political pressure. Secondly, we have seen, so far as the financial resources of the ABC are concerned, the government rip $66 million out of the ABC in the 1996 budget, and that has continued per year since that time. We have also seen the government refuse to adequately resource the ABC for its transition to the digital world.

What stark contrast do you find between the government and the opposition, the alternative government, so far as these matters are concerned? If you want a viable datacasting industry and a viable datacasting regime in this country you have obviously got to change the government. If you want the ABC, the national public broadcaster, to be adequately resourced you have got to change the government. If you want the ABC and SBS, our national public broadcasters, to engage in unrestricted multichannelling to the benefit of Australians—in particular to the benefit of those Australians who live in rural and regional Australia—you have got to change the government. If you want to ensure that the protections of the ABC Act and charter—for example, protection from advertising and commercialisation—apply to the ABC's activity equally in the new digital world as they do to the ABC's traditional broadcasting worlds of radio and TV then you have to change the government. We will pursue these amendments with vigour in this House and, if we get the opportunity again in the Senate, in the other place as well.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mrs Gash)—Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Swan —I second the amendment.