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Thursday, 13 May 1993
Page: 516

Senator MICHAEL BAUME (10.48 a.m.) —The Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill 1993 seeks to amend part 7 of the Broadcasting Act 1992 to modify the procedures for allocating satellite pay television broadcasting licences as a result of the current fiasco. A related Bill on the Notice Paper, the Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1993, seeks to amend the provisions of the principal Act that deal with pay TV and seek to ensure that MDS delivered pay television cannot begin in Australia until the Government's preferred method of delivery—by satellite technology—is up and running. This gives legislative backing to the Government's intention in this area, now that the legality of the ministerial determination which was issued by Senator Collins to the Australian Broadcasting Authority, designed to achieve this, has been challenged in the Federal Court. In other words, these Bills are to try to fix up a mess of the Government's own creation.

  There is one basic principle that I think the Parliament as a whole should address: the need for government licences of a delivery service where there are no technological reasons for limiting the players. That is a basic principle that the Government has simply not addressed. It has approached this matter as a revenue raising operation, not from the point of view of what is in the best interests of the marketplace, of the people of Australia. To justify the limitation of operatives in any area requires a strong, positive and effective case to be maintained of a need to do it. It is a matter only of social engineering that has prompted the Government, in the satellite situation, to limit the number of players. It believes that it should say to people that there can be only X or Y number of people involved.

  In the good old days of broadcasting on the AM band, there were only a limited number of places available on the spectrum for broadcasters. It was the same with the initial television situation—that is, the free to air television situation. What bothers me, as a matter of principle, is the creation of licence situations—limitation situations—by government of any persuasion where there is a premium put on the licence itself. Limiting the number of players creates a benefit for the licence holder. We have seen that with taxis and the way that taxi plates have become a negotiable asset. We have seen it with television licences where ludicrous prices have been paid for television licences. The licence is nothing more than a bit of paper granted by a government going through its various structures, forms of investigation and so on.

  We have also seen a system subject to heavy intervention, even by a Prime Minister in this case. We have a situation where major items of value are handed out by government. That is a basically bad principle, particularly in this situation where we have a government that is run by the New South Wales right wing of the Labor Party. The right wing in the past has established a magnificent reputation for looking after its `mates' and punishing the people it does not see as its `mates'.

  I believe it requires a very great effort from the regulators to justify intervention in an area where there is no technological requirement for limitation of the number of players. There has been no such effective justification in the matter of satellite television. I can understand why a government would want to put restrictions on such media in terms of material coming across. I can also understand why there is a social policy need for such capacity to intervene; I do not have any problems with that. It is in the public interest for there to be some form of requirement in terms of the broadcasting of material and the imposition of classifications. I believe that prohibition of some forms of material can even be justified in terms of public interest.

  I cannot see what justification there is for interfering in what should be a free marketplace in the area of satellite activity. If people want to set up a corner store they do not have to get a licence from the Government. But if people want to get involved in satellite TV, they have to pay a premium to the Government in the hope no doubt that the premium they have paid will be worth while and that there may even be added value to that licence—they may have got it at a fairly low price and may be able to increase the value of it by attracting listeners. To my mind, that is a corruption of the marketplace and, even worse, provides massive opportunities for corruption in government, particularly, as I said, when one has a government controlled by the renowned right wing of the Labor Party in New South Wales.

  Obviously, this potential to create a premium is something that will attract a great deal of interest from major players as well—people the Labor Party may well regard in some instances as mates and in other areas as potentially hostile. One wonders what the motives that prompted the Government to block Mr Cosser really were, because that is what the Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill is all about. The fact is that there is a clear potential for benefiting mates and disadvantaging enemies.

  I certainly have seen overseas how free the airwaves really are. When I was in Shanghai the year before last I watched Japanese television which was screening—in Shanghai, China—the Australia versus New Zealand semifinal in the Rugby World Cup. I must say the Japanese description did not do me much good; it was much better with the sound off. But the fact is that there is a capacity for freedom in the air and this Government has not justified, in my view, any kind of need to limit that freedom. If people want to take commercial risks, let them do so, but why do we have to justify, or how do we justify, this kind of government intervention which gives a benefit to some people and a disadvantage to others?

  Whether or not these current bidders have a capacity to pay their money and to put on a proper service is a matter which strikes me as almost peripheral, because I think the whole situation is a result of taking a basically wrong policy decision. The fact is, of course, that UCOM and Hi Vision have taken advantage of governmental incompetence. While it is all very well to say that this whole question is being resolved by having an inquiry into the whole matter, which is not going to be subject to this debate, I think it is nonetheless worth noting that, however we try to fix this sort of problem, whatever we do, when a government intervenes there will be consequences which raise questions.

  It is not a matter of great concern to me, but it has been put to me that it is very hard to find someone to run an inquiry into this sort of matter who does not have some involvement one way or another with some of the participants, or potential participants. Even a man as distinguished as Professor Pearce, for example, who is probably the most outstanding administrative law academic we have, has the potential to be involved one way or another. I just think we are crazy to open these opportunities. The legal firm to which he is a consultant has an association with maybe one of the potential people who may benefit from the changes that are taking place. In other words, no matter how distinguished, how significant, the person selected to fix up this kind of mess or to examine this kind of mess, we will always have someone who will be alleged to have some kind of interest.

  That is why, in my view, the Government should not intervene in these things. If there was a free market here there would be no capacity for anyone to make any slurs on anyone—for anyone to suggest whether the Government is favouring anyone or not. That is one of the key benefits of a free market and it is one of the key disadvantages when governments unnecessarily intervene in an area where there is no limitation on the spectrum. That is the key concern that I have on this matter. Senator Bourne says she does not want chaos; she wants government intervention. I know the Democrats want government intervention. They want a lot more government intervention in everything.

Senator Chapman —That will guarantee chaos.

Senator MICHAEL BAUME —As Senator Chapman says, that will just guarantee increasing volumes of chaos. The Democrats want even more government intervention than the Government wants. It is all very well for the Government or the Democrats to say, `We have to intervene here; otherwise there may be too many players, the quality may go down, and who knows what might happen'. What we have seen here is the classic answer to that. The Government is going to get more chaos, more mess, more intervention, more nonsense, more allegations of corruption, fraud and incompetence than it would if it allowed the market to settle the problem. Let the Australian consumers decide what programs they want to watch. The Government can intervene on the basis of content. I think it has a right to do that, but it has no right to get involved, and should not, in this kind of limitation.

  If people have the resources, they can get beamed into their houses a whole lot of satellite programs from other countries. In other words, other countries, other nations, other operatives have the freedom to beam into Australian houses but Australian companies have to be limited. Australians have to get a licence. Australians have to be blessed by the Government. That is absolutely ludicrous. It flies in the face of the basic principles that I think we should be addressing in this matter. I could watch the Rugby Union World Cup final on Japanese TV in Shanghai, and Australians could if they were prepared to buy the equipment.

Senator Collins —It costs only $11,000, including a television receiver.

Senator MICHAEL BAUME —As the Minister says, it costs only $11,000. The Minister, who quite properly interjects on that matter, is masterminding a situation where Australian organisations cannot do that. They cannot have the freedom that foreign countries and foreign operators have who use a satellite to beam into Australian homes. I oppose that discriminatory position. I think it is ludicrous. I think it generates a capacity for corruption and incompetence. We have here clear evidence of incompetence. I hope we do not have clear evidence of corruption. It worries me considerably when I see the sort of intervention that has taken place in this matter in this way.