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Thursday, 17 August 2017
Page: 5922

Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (10:48): I am an ardent supporter of the public broadcaster—the ABC—and its role in our rural and regional communities. Its independence needs to be protected to ensure that it can make operational and editorial decisions free from public interference or influence. The ABC is critical in providing news, information, current affairs, weather and emergency service broadcasts to those of us that live and work in regional Australia. However, being independent doesn't mean you should be beyond scrutiny. Being independent does not mean that wrong or poor decisions can't be made, and it's not unreasonable to scrutinise the decisions of an entity spending $1 billion of taxpayers' money annually.

Through the Senate inquiries conducted into my own bill and that of Senator Xenophon, which we are debating here today, we would see that, on the balance of probabilities, the decision of the ABC board back in December was made in error and as a result of a failure of process and proper governance. The ABC board's decision in December 2016 to terminate its remaining short-wave radio services into the NT—and, I might add, northern WA, northern Queensland and the Pacific region—on 31 January this year is a case in point. I thank Senator Xenophon for bringing this bill as an attempt to address that issue. It was a short-sighted decision that has and will continue to have far-reaching consequences. It adversely affects many people directly and indirectly, as the Senate committee inquiry into this issue and this bill has found. Short-wave radio may be an old technology, but it is cheap, effective, reliable and unaffected by factors such as bad weather or topography. Unlike many of the technologies the ABC has offered as replacements, it is able to cover vast areas from each transmission point.

It is inevitable that short wave will, at some point, be permanently withdrawn. However, this must not occur until solutions that are superior in quality, reliability, coverage and access become available, and right now they are not. That is the contention of both Northern Territory senators in this place from both sides and, indeed, Senator Xenophon and me, who have been very critical over a long period of time of the ABC's decision in this particular area. The ABC unilaterally decided to terminate its short-wave services from 31 January this year without consultation and without firm evidence to validate that decision, As Senator McCarthy and I have prosecuted in estimates since the decision was made, the ABC has failed to give us substantial or credible evidence as to why it made the decision. By unilaterally deciding to terminate its short-wave services, the ABC has effectively abandoned huge areas of the NT, in addition to breaching its obligation under the ABC charter with respect to our neighbours in the Pacific. Despite clinging to the assertion that fewer than 500 people access short-wave broadcasts in the NT, the ABC admitted in its evidence to the committee on 16 June this year that it had actually not undertaken any surveys of short-wave listeners prior to its decision to axe the service. We were told that the reason no surveys of short-wave listeners were conducted is that the ABC suspected listeners might be in regions where it's very difficult to survey them. Surely this is part of the whole point of continuing short-wave broadcasts in the first place: it reaches people in areas that are too remote or difficult to be able to broadcast to through other available platforms.

Given nobody asked the listeners what they thought, the predictable outpouring of anger to two Senate inquiries that followed has hardly been a surprise. Whether or not short-wave radio listeners in the NT live in places too difficult to ask them what we think—we call them GIs, the geographically impossibles—the fact that the ABC guess about just how many listeners its short-wave service attracts fails to take into account the farmers, fishermen, cattlemen, truck drivers, tour operators, transient users of short waves, residents of Indigenous communities, grey nomads and other mobile users who depend on this catch-all service into the NT, who now literally have been left in silence. That is outside of those in the Pacific that Senator Xenophon has been discussing. The Northern Territory government, which gave evidence to our inquiry, has estimated a non-resident tourist population making approximately 600,000 visits to remote parts of the Territory annually, in addition to a minimum of 650 fishing and fishing tourism operators in NT waters every year. These groups are also likely to be adversely impacted by the ABC's short-wave decision. I could go on and on about the lack of consultation.

The ABC didn't seek advice from its own advisory boards or from Friends of the ABC—despite some of those people living in remote areas of, particularly, northern South Australia and the NT—in deciding to kill off the ABC short wave, despite saying the savings from axing the short wave would be reinvested to grow digital services in places like Darwin and Canberra. Those communities are already well serviced with other platforms on which people can access the ABC's broadcasts.

It didn't consult the Northern Territory government either to have any understanding about where connectivity existed within the boundaries of the NT. The National Association of Shortwave Broadcasters estimated that at the time the ABC board made its decision approximately one per cent of the population used short-wave radio. The Northern Territory, in turn, accounts for one per cent of Australia's overall population. Even without making any adjustments for the fact that these users are likely to be disproportionately located in rural and remote areas, it suggests that 2½ thousand listeners in the NT would be affected—more than 400 per cent more than what the ABC estimated the affect to the community would be.

Witnesses who appeared before the committee inquiry into my own Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Advocacy) Bill 2015 in Darwin put a human dimension to the consequences of this complete lack of meaningful consultation and the apparent disregard the ABC's decision showed for any consequences. Bruce Davey, a cruise boat operator, told the inquiry:

We have had absolute silence now. I do not know what is happening to the world … I will implore the Senate committee to fully understand the hunters, fishermen and numerous other stakeholders that have just been thrown to the winds here.

Also, representative bodies like the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association noted:

Mental health problems are already a considerable problem in remote areas—sitting in silence while the rest of the country has a radio dial chock full of stations …

It is absolutely unacceptable, when you think that some cattlemen—we had this evidence—who may be travelling 300 or 400 kilometres in a round trip on a day from the station to check bores are sitting there now in absolute silence. With short wave, they would have been able to access the public broadcaster's information, news and current affairs. That is only, I think, a fair and just use of the $1 billion Australians give to the ABC to service our communities.

Again, the Cattlemen's Association described the decision as an 'unjust and dishonest policy of exclusion and discrimination against remote and regional Australians'. I absolutely agree with their assessment of this board decision. The point here is that however few listeners there may have been, short wave was a connective tissue that allowed these users in remote places to still be part of the outside world. It kept them in the loop of what was going on. It brought them news, information, entertainment and sometimes even Senate debates. Now these people are stranded in silence.

The ABC's answer and response to our questions and their public media releases to the community was, 'It's OK, FM broadcast is the bedrock.' Or, even worse, 'You can download the digital app to access all of our broadcast services.' The problem around the FM/AM argument—even the ABC's director of regional admitted this to a Senate estimates hearing on 6 March—is that AM and FM transmission cover four per cent of the Northern Territory's land mass. Yes, that is 84 per cent of the NT's population, but when you are thinking about the fishermen, the transient workers and the truckies that Senator Xenophon spoke to who are traversing the other 96 per cent of the land mass of the NT, there is an incredible issue when you look at emergency service broadcasts, having an understanding and being connected to the broader world—something that the ABC board completely ignored and, indeed, tried to cover up in their public commentary and their media commentary around the time. By contrast, short wave covered everyone in the Northern Territory, irrespective of where they were. Aside from the coverage problem, AM and FM are affected by bad weather, and can only be received between 20 and 90 kilometres from the transmission point. Short wave covered the entire territory, an area of more than 1.4 million square kilometres, from three transmitters.

In fact, every alternative to short wave the ABC has put on the table through this public debate has something seriously wrong with it. The ABC has nominated mobile phones as part of the answer for internet streaming. As those of us from the bush know all too well, mobile phones are dependent on signal strength and coverage, and this can be often limited, particularly in areas as remote as the NT. It says satellite phones are part of the answer. These don't receive radio signals directly, though, and they are too slow and expensive for internet streaming of what signals they do receive.

Again, it pulled out the old classic, 'You can all just get VAST, the Viewer Access Satellite Television, technology.' That was going to be part of the answer. But, again, the ABC fundamentally misunderstands how we live and work in the regions. VAST has to be stationary. You can put it on your house. You can put it on the homestead. Yes, you'll be able to access the ABC services. But you can't put it on your ute. You can't put it on your motorbike. You can't put it on your fishing vessel. You can't be mobile, so it is of absolutely no use to the four-wheel-drivers, travellers, people on horseback et cetera that short wave could have actually assisted.

It all adds up to not very much. Sure, some of these technologies are very impressive. They're very impressive, but they aren't much use to those particularly remote listeners in the Northern Territory. And unfortunately it's the same story where the ABC short-wave broadcasts to the Pacific are concerned, as these too were shut down in January. Look at the issues around diplomacy. Look at other entities filling that gap. Look at the charter obligations of the ABC to be the international broadcaster, the purveyor of Australian culture and context and language to our nearest neighbour. In discussing this issue, I was told of an Indian taxidriver whose English was exceptional. When asked why, he said, 'Because I listen to the ABC. So I know that it's footy season. I have some understanding of the Australian culture and context, and my English is getting better.' That is important for our nearest neighbour to the north, that being Indonesia.

The ABC abdicated its responsibility under its charter obligations, not just to rural and regional people in the Northern Territory itself but indeed across the Pacific. The same factors that shaped the short-wave decision in the Northern Territory—no consultation, no evidence, no solutions—were also evident in its decision to kill off the Pacific broadcasts. The ABC again claimed that just 300 people in Papua New Guinea listened to the ABC short wave. To back this, it told our inquiry into my bill on the ABC, earlier this year, that it drew this conclusion from a 2016 media research survey that showed 15,000 Radio Australia listeners were in PNG. Needless to say this survey, its fieldwork and methodology were not disclosed. They were claimed to the Senate, when we requested this information, to be commercially in confidence. Unfortunately for this part of the ABC story, it also stated in another answer to senators' questions that two per cent of PNG's 160,000 population used short wave to access the Radio Australia transmission—again contradictory. So 80 per cent of PNG residents actually use short wave and can access the ABC.

There is a strong flavour to all of this of saying whatever seems expedient on one hand and refusing to answer or disclose anything inconvenient on the other, to which I would say: ABC, you can't have it both ways. This contrary and frankly incredible approach to justifying the ABC's December 2016 board decision on short wave also extends to their account of the number of complaints they received. We were told, 'Look, it's okay, senators; we only received 18 complaints from the NT and a couple from Fiji,' but there were complaints from Laos, from India, from France, from the USA, from the Prime Minister of Vanuatu, from the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association—that's not just one person—from the truckies, from the tourist operations, from the fishermen. There were thousands of people that made complaints. The ABC admitted that they didn't even take into account as a complaint somebody who rang their ABC Alice Springs studio to complain. That wasn't a real complaint. I think the ABC have just been too cute by half in the way that they've dealt with this very, very serious issue and the way they have completely disregarded the Senate's attempts through estimates, two Senate inquiries and one hearing in Darwin to scrutinise this decision and this absolute failure under public expectation in the spend of public dollars and service delivery to those communities that need it most in the NT.

Where the Pacific is concerned, I think Senator Xenophon outlined quite nicely the Prime Minister of Vanuatu's concerns, particularly around natural disasters and how short-wave radio, and indeed the ABC's broadcasts, were of particular help during the disasters experienced by his country.

I think most Australians, based on past actions, irrespective of anything that may or may not appear in the charter, recognise the ABC as the emergency broadcaster. That came out clearly in our hearings. It's not unfair to say that most Australians expect to be able to rely on the ABC in an emergency. I was very, very concerned when we got the evidence that says, 'It's alright, senators; it's alright. You can get your weather information from the Bureau of Meteorology.' Unfortunately the ABC director who gave us that information failed to add the additional sentence that the BOM in the Northern Territory really only covers the coastal area. So, if you have a flood, a fire or some other emergency in inland Northern Territory, the BOM isn't going to be a place where you can access emergency service information.

Let's face the facts: the unilateral decision to cull short-wave services by the ABC board was a bad decision, made worse because it was based on very little evidence and even less consultation. It was backed up by a refusal to submit to the scrutiny of the Senate when questioned. As examples I've shared today show all too clearly, the ABC's story on its decision to cancel short-wave simply doesn't add up. It claims infinitesimal listener numbers but produces no evidence to substantiate it. It even admitted that it didn't even bother to talk to anyone who was invested in short-wave as an end user. That is all in the face of a mountain of anecdotal evidence that suggests that the short-wave listenership is not only far higher and more widespread than the ABC claims but also, very simply, that the ABC board got it wrong.

Whilst I am unable to support Senator Xenophon's bill and its substantive measures, I thank him for bringing this issue to the Senate. I too thank the Northern Territory senators who, when inquiring into my Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Advocacy) Bill, obtained a lot of substantial evidence around this decision. If my bill had become law, this would never have been able to occur. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Advocacy) Bill is a private senator's bill that is already before the Senate. It seeks to add to the ABC charters measures to include an explicit responsibility for the ABC on service provision to rural and regional Australians, a responsibility to deliver not just a culturally diverse service but a geographically diverse service. The bill would also add a requirement that there be two board members of the ABC who have a substantial investment and experience in rural and regional Australia. I believe that if we had had two people from rural and regional Australia sitting on the ABC board in December 2016 somebody would have asked, 'Have you talked to the NT cattlemen? Have you talked to the Indigenous communities? Has somebody spoken to how this will actually affect 96 per cent of the NT's landmass and people's ability to access public broadcast information?'

The third thing my bill seeks to do is to set up a rural and regional advisory council. I do not want to impinge on the independence—management, editorial or otherwise—of the ABC, but under principles of good governance the council would require the board to consult with rural and regional people and then publicly disclose what that advice was. The board could ignore the advice if there were other imperatives, but it would have to ask the question and see whether that advice from rural and regional Australia materially affected the board's decision on the matter.

I commend Senator Xenophon. In my recommendations there are solutions. The board should absolutely reconsider this decision, which is based on poor evidence.