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Thursday, 17 August 2017
Page: 5919

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (10:33): I introduced the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Restoring Shortwave Radio) Bill 2017 a number of weeks ago. This bill is in direct response to the decision of the ABC's board and management to cease its short-wave transmission radio service to international audiences and to the Northern Territory on 31 January 2017. The purpose of this bill is to require the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to restore its short-wave transmission services, following an announcement by the ABC in December 2016 that it would end its short-wave transmission services in the NT. Indeed, because of the nature of short wave, those broadcasts actually went to the far north of South Australia, north of Coober Pedy, in the Pit lands. I imagine there would also have been parts of Queensland and the far north-east of Western Australia that would have benefited from this as well.

The decision was a bad decision because the ABC's short-wave transmission service is the only option for many people who live, work in and travel through rural and remote communities, including in the Northern Territory, South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland. It is a vital service for emergency broadcasts, for news and for weather forecasts. Short-wave transmissions are reliable, are long range and are not interrupted by adverse weather conditions, unlike FM radio. For the ABC to say, as it did in the course of this inquiry: 'You can get your ABC app,'—hello!—the fact is that, unless you have online coverage in the middle of nowhere, where there isn't any mobile coverage, or unless you use satellite, which can be expensive, that is a fanciful suggestion.

The decision to cease the short-wave transmission service from the Northern Territory will mean ABC programs from Radio National and ABC local radio will no longer be available to those in vehicles and with portable radios in the remote parts of Australia referred to, including the top two-thirds of South Australia. It will also significantly impact on our near neighbours in the region, where these broadcasts have been a reliable source of news and current affairs, including emergency information.

Ceasing these broadcasts diminishes Australia's role in the region. In relation to that—and I acknowledge that this is a matter for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to deal with—why is it that we have cut our short-wave services to our near neighbours in the Asia-Pacific when China, for instance, is doing the smart thing by expanding its short-wave coverage, by investing heavily in short wave, as are other countries? That footprint is a form of soft diplomacy that is very effective and that wins over hearts and minds in countries in the region. It seems a foolish and retrograde step from a foreign affairs perspective to retreat from the region, from our near neighbours, when other countries such as China are doing the smart thing and expanding their short-wave footprint in those regions. For instance, short-wave radio played a valuable role in providing information to communities during the civil disturbance that occurred in East Timor in the lead-up to independence. Short-wave radio was absolutely fundamental during the cyclone in Vanuatu. No less a person than the Prime Minister of Vanuatu, the Hon. Charlot Salwai, outlined how the people of Vanuatu relied on short-wave radio when Cyclone Pam struck in 2015. Prime Minister Salwai stated in his submission:

In times of crisis when other forms of media like FM and digital services are damaged or unavailable such communities rely on broadcasts safely transmitted from outside the disaster zone. This is exactly the role Radio Australia shortwave broadcasts played during Cyclone Pam.

… people around our nation relied on Radio Australia's shortwave broadcasts to stay up-to-date about the cyclone's progress and they took the thorough and expert advice on the shortwave service very seriously indeed. It is undoubtedly the case that Radio Australia's shortwave service helped save Ni-Vanuatu lives.

It is unusual to get the Prime Minister of another nation to put in a submission to a Senate inquiry. It happened in this case because the Prime Minister of Vanuatu said that this is a big deal. Effectively, he was saying these short-wave broadcasts saved lives.

Leaving aside the issue of emergency broadcasts, having that Australian voice in the region—I think it was broadcast in pidgin, as well—through those short-wave broadcasts, builds good and strong relationships with our near neighbours. It builds good and strong relationships that lead to further strong bilateral relationships, further trade, economic development and strengthening our neighbours. It is a good thing for Australia to have strong and stable neighbours.

So I do not understand why the ABC board did this—and it is not a criticism of the government as such, because it was the ABC board that did this. I understand issues of editorial independence very much and I value that independence. But it seems that the ABC board made a decision to reallocate resources to digital services in capital cities. It made a decision that ignores the bush. It made a decision that actually means that we are going backwards in terms of our relationship with our near neighbours and for all those Australian expats who live in our near neighbours. So this has been a bad move. This is not about compromising the ABC's editorial independence. We are not telling the ABC what they should put in their broadcasts. We are just saying: you need to reallocate some resources so that we have this valuable service for the bush and for our near neighbours.

Truck drivers use the short-wave service on their regular trips from Adelaide to Darwin and back. Having no access prevents these drivers from having easy access to essential news, emergency announcements and weather information. It was Gary Williams, a long-haul truck driver based in Adelaide, who alerted me to this issue some months ago, and I thank Gary very much for that. He does about 40 trips each year from Adelaide to Darwin and is one of the thousands of people who relied on the ABC short-wave service. In the context of Senator McKenzie's bill, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Advocacy) Bill, Gary responded to the ABC's suggested remedy—that is, to go online—by plainly and simply stating: 'Mobile phone coverage only covers about 2,200 kilometres of the round trip. We are told by the people at the ABC that you can access the ABC via the app on your phone or over the internet or by the VAST satellite service. It's physically impossible—you just cannot do it.'

That brings in the question of those remote communities, particularly Indigenous communities, that will miss out on that short-wave broadcast because they are simply out of reach, particularly when they are on the road. Of course, if you have an antenna or digital coverage, you can get that coverage, but, if you're in a remote area and you're on the road, you're not going to get it. You can buy these portable short-wave radios. I think they are about 50 bucks and you can fit them into your truck. I think most truckies nowadays have that short-wave service. They won't be able to get Radio Australia. They'll be able to get Radio China's English language service or other countries' services, but not ours. And that is wrong.

This is an important piece of legislation for those people who live and work in and travel through rural and remote areas of Australia. That is why I urge my colleagues in the Senate to support it. I think that we could have an alternative approach—because it is all about finding a solution here—and that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade needs to look at this seriously, because a very small investment of several million dollars a year would make a big difference in terms of our footprint in the Asia-Pacific, and we have already shrunk that footprint over the years.

Radio Australia does terrific work. Their program Pacific Beat, for instance, is highly regarded and highly respected in the region. It seems a terrible decision has been made by the ABC board here, and this bill seeks to remedy that.

A committee inquired into this and made a report. That was a very useful exercise. The report deals with the size of the ABC short-wave audience prior to shutdown. The ABC suggested the size was relatively small. Others suggested that the ABC had significantly underestimated the size. What is clear is that there was no serious effort made to actually measure audience size. I am of the view, considering all of the evidence, that the audience size was much larger than the ABC calculated. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of truck drivers driving in those remote areas who use short wave. I know you can't respond from the chair, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle, so a nod will suffice; it is quite disorderly, I know. My understanding is that, if you're a long distance truckie, it doesn't cost much more to get short wave added to your truck. That's what Gary Williams and, I believe, others do. It is pretty much a standard feature. If you are out in the bush, you get short wave as well. He can get China Radio International but he cannot get Radio Australia.

I think there are some question marks over the methodology used by the ABC in relation to this. There are some real issues in terms of ignoring concerns from the bush and, given the benefits to those Australians in remote areas and in the Asia-Pacific, it has been a bad call. I think it's worth reflecting on the issue of the international significance of that. We heard from Mr Dobell, who has particular expertise in foreign affairs issues. I think Mr Dobell is with ASPI, but I don't have that information in front of me. He does have a history of being involved in diplomacy and in these issues. He said:

… My understanding of China's shortwave investment is that it is taking up as many of allotments of shortwave frequencies and shortwave slots as it possibly can. Its investment in broadcasting is ratcheting up at a very large rate. So my answer is that China is investing in shortwave in a big way.

1.20 As Australia ramps down, China is filling the void.

That is a mistake. The other aspect of this is the international charter of the ABC. We heard from Mr Daniel Sloper, First Assistant Secretary, Pacific Division at Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He said:

We made clear to the ABC that we want them to continue to meet their international charter, that they need to continue coverage within the region, but we have not given a particular view about shortwave itself. We have left the decision about the technology to the ABC. We do not have the expertise on the particular technology.

That is fair enough, but they understand the importance of it. If you're in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea or on a remote island, there is no FM or digital coverage, and if you are on the move, short wave is the best way of getting information. If there has been a power blackout and towers have come down, short wave is the best alternative by far. The fact that there is now digital short wave shows you how technology has evolved in relation to this. We heard from Mr Gary Cratt, the director of Tecsun Radios Australia, a company that imports and resells portable short-wave receivers. He provided a very useful and contemporary analysis of the audience derived from his extensive customer contact. You can buy short-wave receivers for $50. It is quite inexpensive.

This is important for the bush. This is important for our near neighbours. This is important in the context of the ABC's charter obligations to all Australians and its international obligations. A massive mistake was made. I want to pay tribute to those members of parliament from the Northern Territory who have been very outspoken on this issue, and those from both sides of politics who are very concerned about the impact of this.

I commend this bill to my colleagues. It is an important issue, and it is not too late to restart those short-wave services. The content is there. We just need the medium in which to get it out there both to those remote communities in Australia and to our near neighbours.