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Wednesday, 7 March 2001
Page: 25327

Mr McGAURAN (Minister for the Arts and the Centenary of Federation) (6:47 PM) —I thank all those members who have contributed in this debate on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2001, especially mentioning the admirable efforts of the members for Hinkler and Moreton and their continued interest and involvement in the shaping and forming of public policy in the telecommunications and communications area. It is a very important social and economic issue for the community, and both members are diligent in putting across their points of view on behalf of their constituents while, at the same time, always interpreting the unfolding future for the constituents' benefit.

In summing up, I would like to address a couple of the points that have been raised by opposition members. The first is the allegation that the government has inadequately funded the ABC's move to digital broadcasting. I wish to remind the House that, in relation to the ABC's transition to digital broadcasting, in 1999 the ABC advised the government that it could provide a range of multichannel services for `minimal additional costs', based on efficiencies derived from its radio content, co-location and low-cost digital equipment. However, in its 2000-03 triennial funding submission, the ABC decided to seek funding for a range of digital content proposals, including one relating to multichannelling services, for a total estimated cost of $124 million over three years. At the risk of stating the obvious, there was a range of competing priorities in the budget context, including the digital capital, distribution and transmission funding requirements of the ABC and SBS. For this triennium, the ABC's funding was maintained in real terms. In the 2000-01 budget, the ABC received $642 million for operating and non-digital capital expenses—a very significant amount.

The government's priority in the last budget, however, was to ensure that all Australians have access to digital television, particularly in rural and regional Australia, where access to the media is so important. To ensure this, the government has committed itself to funding the costs of the ABC's digital transmission. The ABC's digital services, when fully rolled out, will match the current analog coverage. The government has therefore committed itself to up to $1.2 billion over the next 10 years to fund the digital transmission and distribution services of the ABC and SBS. This will fully fund all distribution and transmission costs.

As identified by the Mansfield report, the ABC has utilised some of the proceeds from property sales and depreciation to fund its phase 1 capital costs. It received a $20 million contribution from the government. The ABC also received almost $37 million over four years from the government in the 2000-01 budget towards its phase 2 capital costs. The government's commitment to regional viewers echoes that shown in its funding of extensions of SBS's analog television services at a further $70 million and in the funding of the current black-spot program addressing reception issues in regional areas. Therefore, you can conclude that, despite the budgetary pressures of recent years, the record shows that the government has made a very significant commitment to additional funding for ABC and SBS digital services. At this early stage of the delivery of digital services, the government has made access the priority rather than the provision of additional content funding.

Looking at the discussion and debate about the datacasting auction, I make the point that there is no need to suspend the datacasting spectrum auction pending debate on this bill. If the opposition amendments were passed by the parliament, it is likely that the auction process would need to be abandoned and recommenced once the policy was finalised. The nature of the product on offer would have changed; therefore, the documentation for the auction would need to be revised and republished and new applications would need to be called for. In addition, consideration would need to be given as to whether the Australian Broadcasting Authority's proposed determination process would need to take place before the auction. It is highly unlikely that under this scenario the auction could then be completed this financial year.

In any case, the government does not support the proposed amendments. It is only eight months since the parliament considered these issues and rejected the model being proposed by the opposition. To suspend the auction process now on the chance that the opposition amendments are passed by both houses would be to waste valuable time in getting the auction under way and getting datacasting services up and running as soon as possible. The government would never agree to the amendments in the other place. We should work to ensure the speedy consideration of this bill to provide certainty to potential applicants. I again thank members for their contribution. Whatever the quality of their contributions, at least they are showing an interest in vitally important broadcasting legislation. I commend the bill to the House.

Question put:

That the words proposed to be omitted (Mr Stephen Smith's amendment) stand part of the question.