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Thursday, 13 May 1993
Page: 518


Senator CHAPMAN (11.03 a.m.) —The Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill represents just another part of the fiasco with regard to pay television that we have seen emerge as the result of the Government's policies and maladministration, particularly over the last 10 days or so. The Bill relates to a different part of that fiasco from the one we have been dealing with and focusing on over the past 10 days. Nevertheless, it is just another part of the collapsed deck of cards that is this Government's so-called framework for pay television. We cannot excuse this Bill, let alone support it, any more than we can excuse the sorts of behaviour and maladministration that have been evident over the last couple of weeks with regard to the issue of satellite pay TV licences.

  The legislation before us today is to be condemned equally with government interference and government manipulation of the marketplace. It is also manifestly unfair to those who went ahead with investment and planning for multipoint distribution service delivery of pay television following the passage of the Broadcasting Services Bill in November last year.

  It is worth pointing out to the Senate that, especially in the past five years, in this chamber we have had to deal with a constant stream of amendments which the Government has needed because of unintended consequences of poorly drafted, ill-conceived, ill-advised or rushed pieces of legislation across a whole range of issues. That is simply not how governments are supposed to operate. Now we have got another amending Bill, albeit at this time for rather different reasons.

  The coalition believes—and certainly I would argue—that this is an amendment Bill of supreme cynicism and with just one purpose: to allow the Government to continue to manipulate the whole pay television process. Because of actions such as this, the whole pay television situation is in increasing disarray. The crisis management MDS handling is indicative of the Government's determination to orchestrate for its own purposes, or for the purposes of some outside parties, the delivery into Australian homes of pay television services.

  This Bill seeks to make law the quite flagrantly out-of-line announcement by the Minister for Transport and Communications, Senator Collins, in January that microwave television technology would not be allowed to proceed until satellite television is, to all intents and purposes, established—however long that might take. Why is the Government trying to do this? Why is it seeking to halt a new technology that could have installed cheap, workable pay television to most major cities within the next nine months—at least two years before any satellite television is available?

  Certainly in March, in the Federal Court in Perth, Justice Lee stated that the Minister, Senator Collins, had acted beyond his power in attempting to halt MDS technology. But those remarks, and the court action of Mr Kerry Stokes and Mr Steve Cosser, have not caused the Government to reconsider its decision. If anything, the Government has simply dug in deeper. It has proceeded with this amendment and, at the same time, is losing no public opportunity to make sure that the Australian community is left with the impression that all they would get from MDS technology on their screens is ghosting and squiggly lines or, worse, no access at all. It is attempting to discredit MDS as the poor relation of pay television.

  As well, the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) tried another line of offence by stating this week that MDS technology could not be the primary pay television service because it could not supply all of Australia. If we apply that ridiculous logic, the Nine, Seven and Ten networks would never have been allowed a licence in Australia—they have never been able to cover all of Australia. What is offered in some rural parts of Australia is far from the choice or quality available in major cities. By such actions of the Prime Minister and the Minister, Senator Collins, it is apparent that, at all costs, the Government is bent on not only halting the delivery of pay television through MDS technology until satellite technology is operational, but also leaving around enough suspicions about its value so as to damage it as a competitor to satellite in the marketplace.

  The defeat of this legislation is the only way that that has any hope of being turned around. At the same time, we need to consider what this type of legislation indicates. The ramifications of this legislation being passed are far wider than just pay television. We need to be extremely wary of being seen to allow governments the power to have this level of control in the marketplace. We also need to be wary of allowing this level of control over what is and what is not considered acceptable technology. It is the equivalent of saying that there should be no rotary engines in cars, and it is just as ludicrous as if the Government had said that we could only have VHS and not Beta video systems, AM but not FM radio, and tapes but not compact discs.

  When technology interference by government begins, where does it stop? For whose benefit is this interference? It is certainly not for the benefit of the public; we can be sure of that. It is simply not good enough to keep saying—as this Government does continually—that television is different. Why is it different? We have had no explanation from the Minister that is even half valid or half logical about that amazing assertion.

  The coalition has always maintained that a technology neutral stance is the appropriate one. We do not believe it is this Parliament's role to do anything less. In other words, we are not about trying to favour one technology over another. We do not see that as either a government's role or a government's right. We are not about trying to impose our views on what is the best pay television system. That is the right of the community. It is, after all, the general community of consumers who choose what is best for them, as they do with every other commodity.

  Is the Government saying that in this particular instance the community does not have the intelligence to make an informed choice about what it wishes to purchase as a pay television service? The coalition is definitely not about picking winners. That is a system which, at its worst, favours mates, repays favours and is open to dubious practices and suspicious decisions.

  The Government is guilty of all of the above; and again we have to ask why. Whose bidding is it doing? What does it expect to achieve? How on earth is any of this to help the community, which simply wants access to pay television without one delay on top of another, as it is currently experiencing? What exactly is behind this interference, this insistence on putting the Government's stamp of approval or otherwise on what is a purely commercial venture? So far we have had no answer forthcoming as to why the Keating Government has decided that digital satellite technology is the only acceptable method for pay television in Australia.

  It cannot be accepted that, when the Broadcasting Services Bill was passed late last year, it passed without anyone realising that microwave technology was suitable for far wider broadcasts than narrowcasting, such as in hotels, schools or convention centres and so on.

  Even if that were the case, the fact would be quite irrelevant now; and it would have been just as irrelevant then. Is the Government saying there must be no competition to satellite in the marketplace at this point, because that certainly appears to be the case? How can it say this with its satellite licence procedures totally discredited, as we have seen over the last 10 days or so, its first two licence choices looking increasingly less certain as realities, and the Optus satellite in fragments somewhere in the wilds of China? Satellite pay television looks further away each day—not closer—while MDS technology is a reality for right now.

  It is also not good enough for the Government to say that it is saving us from ourselves by ambushing MDS technology because of alleged inferior broadcast quality. If someone such as Steve Cosser, who has acquired 12 of the 19 MDS licences available in both Sydney and Melbourne, wishes to invest his capital to supply MDS to those cities, why should he not do so? Let the viewers be the judge. If it is inferior quality when in difficult line of sight situations, no doubt Mr Cosser and others so inclined to invest their money in MDS will lose heavily as the public rejects the system. That is no different from a car manufacturer which invests in a new model which the public rejects or, for that matter, a new brand of cornflakes awaiting the market's decision on its quality. Pay television is a commodity and ought to be treated in no other way.

  It must, therefore, surely remain the public's right to have that choice. Is that not what the marketplace is supposed to be all about? The Minister's continued insistence that he wants the best quality broadcast for Australians frankly smells. He has not been so keen on other issues to convert Australia into a nanny state, so why is he starting now with pay television?

  If a family in a major city wishes to spend $400 on a decoder to receive microwave television this year, rather than $1,000 for a dish and a decoder for satellite when it does eventually arrive, so what and why not? Senator Collins has made much in past years in this chamber about his social conscience. We have to ask: how real is that social conscience? Has he considered that he may be depriving the less affluent in our community of access to pay television by stamping on the least expensive option for the consumer? Or is social conscience so selective in this case that he believes that if a family has $400, it must then have easy access to the other $600 to pay for eventual satellite technology? Has he even considered that maybe many consumers would be happy with the less expensive option—happy to trade some broadcast quality for dollars, if they have to?

  We have got to realise that in California MDS has been found to have a quality at least as good as satellite transmission. Some have judged it as being superior even to other pay television systems. There are no complaints about poor quality in California. In fact, it seems it was a visit to California to see MDS in action that created strong interest from Australia's Channel 9 in that system. As each facet of the debate is dissected, the Government's case is displayed to be totally without substance, whichever angle and whichever argument is used and considered. We may understand better the desperation to promote only satellite if we were privy to why the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) personally and so blatantly interfered to stop MDS. The Minister cannot expect us to believe, surely, that the Prime Minister's widely reported fury at discovering in January that MDS could be used for pay television was simply because he did not want a supposed inferior quality pay television broadcast at home in the Lodge. I am sure Mr Cosser is as interested as we in the coalition are to know which outside interest leaned on Mr Keating to lean in turn on the department and then Senator Collins so that he accomplished such an athletic backflip on policy.

  It is time this Government faced reality. As far as pay television is concerned, it is lose, lose, all the way. As it appears at this stage, before we have the results of the independent inquiry in relation to satellite transmission of pay television, by not insisting on a five per cent non-refundable deposit from the licence bidders for satellite transmission the department has managed to slam the first satellite doors on the established media players. The resulting fallout means that they are turning their attention also to MDS. If they cannot have satellite they want some other stake in pay television. With some 220 MDS licences available in all the capital cities and other major population bases, it is expected that competition will be intense. It adds up to yet another fiasco created by the interference of this Government.

  What we want of government is regulations which provide viewers with guidance and programming protection, regulations which are about standards of service, not regulations which interfere with the technological delivery of those services. There are seven different delivery systems for pay television in existence and all should be treated equally and separately when anyone in the business community is willing to develop them further and risk capital in seeking to develop those facilities. Government is not about creating monopolies; but in the case of pay television it seems that government is also not about admitting its own mistakes. Therefore, it is essential that this legislation be condemned and, indeed, be defeated in this chamber.