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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 32

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) (11:30 AM) —I thank Senator McLucas for that contribution. It was very much appreciated by the duty minister and also the minister responsible for this legislation and the former bill. I want to conclude the debate on the Australian Communications and Media Authority Bill 2004. The formation of ACMA will be an administrative merger of the Australian Communications Authority, the ACA, and the Australian Broadcasting Authority, the ABA. The ACMA will therefore be responsible for the combined functions of the ABA and the ACA.

The government considers the case for an administrative merger to be a sound one. In particular, a combined regulator will be better placed to make coordinated responses to convergence issues. It is important to note that convergence does not dispense with the distinct policy objectives the government has for the telecommunications and broadcasting sectors. The government therefore rejects the assertion that has been made that the formation of the ACMA is a wasted opportunity. The formation of the ACMA will see the creation of a combined regulator which is simply better placed to make coordinated responses to convergence issues. It is an important and, we believe, entirely appropriate step that has received wide support.

The foreshadowed amendments to the ACMA Bill go beyond the formation of the ACMA. They propose fundamental changes to regulation. They risk seriously delaying the passage of the ACMA legislation and the formation of the new regulator. Amongst the recommendations of the report of the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Legislation Committee is a recommendation that the ACMA be requested to conduct a comprehensive review of all communications regulation. I note that this is supported by both the opposition and the Democrats in the form of a proposed amendment to the ACMA Bill.

I wish to say that the government will continue to review the need for reform of the communications regulatory environment. As I have said in other contexts over the past few days, this kind of regulation is not the kind you can set and forget; it is something that needs to be kept under consideration. So the government will continue to review the need for reform of the communications regulatory environment. In fact, a number of reviews are currently being undertaken—for example, involving consideration of the future framework for digital broadcasting, the most appropriate media ownership rules and a range of matters relating to telecommunications. A major review is therefore unnecessary and potentially extremely disruptive to the processes that are already in place.

The Senate committee also recommended that consumer protection measures be added to the ACMA Bill. Senator Cherry has spoken further about this during the debate, as I understand it. The ACMA Bill establishes the ACMA, which will administer relevant acts which themselves contain consumer protection measures. If further consumer protection measures are considered desirable, it is a matter for the legislation administered by the ACMA and not the ACMA Bill. The government has already put in place a range of consumer protection safeguards across the sectors to be regulated by the ACMA, and these appear to be working well.

I think Senator Conroy has raised the issue of cost savings again as a result of the merger. As the government has said on a number of occasions, there will be no significant savings to government as a result of the merger because all of the regulatory and reporting functions of the ACMA will be the same as those that currently exist for the ACA and ABA respectively. There will be no cost to industry as a result of the merger since there will be no change to the regulatory frameworks or regulatory functions. On that basis, the desire to generate savings from this move must be based on either job cuts or reductions in services by the merged regulator. It is difficult to see how you can have it both ways. Obviously, the government does not wish to see it go either way. It wants to make sure that the regulator is a merged regulator of the existing functions, and that will mean there will be no significant savings. This demonstrates, shall I say, the opposition’s lack of understanding of the media sector and, dare I say it, an inability to come to grips with the appropriate policy frameworks—and it is complex—which will enable the sector to thrive and grow in the future.

In line with the administrative nature of this merger, the government has also retained the appointment process that is currently followed for the ABA and the ACA. Each member will therefore be appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the government. Both the ACA and ABA have a number of acting appointments as a transitional arrangement prior to the establishment of the ACMA. On passage of the legislation, the ACMA members will be able to be reappointed. The establishment date for the ACMA is 1 July 2005 or an earlier date set by proclamation. Much work has already been done to enable this time frame to be met. The agencies are well advanced in planning for the merger. It is, in this context, important that the ACMA is formed by the planned date. I want to impress upon my Senate colleagues that the uncertainty generated by any delay will be disruptive to the regulators, the industry and the smooth functioning of the combined regulators. For all those reasons, I am very hopeful that the amendments that have been foreshadowed can be talked through in such a way that this bill will pass without amendments. I commend the bill, its purpose and policy objectives, and the legislation that relates to it, to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bills read a second time.