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Community Affairs References Committee
01/11/2017
Delivery of outcomes under the National Disability Strategy 2010-2020 to build inclusive and accessible communities

AHLIN, Mr Sam, Director, Copyright Law, Content and Copyright Branch, Department of Communications and the Arts

HRAST, Ms Jacqueline, Acting Director, Intergovernmental and Program Support, Access and Participation Branch, Department of Communications and the Arts

JOHNSON, Ms Marie, Board Director, Australian Information Industry Association

McALINDEN, Mr Kevin, Government Relations Lead, Australian Broadcasting Corporation

OWENS, Ms Helen, Assistant Secretary, Content and Copyright Branch, Department of Communication and the Arts

SILLERI, Ms Kathleen, Assistant Secretary, Consumer Safeguards Branch, Department of Communication and the Arts

[14:45]

Evidence from Mr McAlinden was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: Welcome. I remind witnesses that the Senate has resolved that an officer of a department of the Commonwealth or of a state shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy and shall be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policy or factual questions asked about when and how policies were adopted. I will double-check that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Yes? Excellent. I invite you—whoever wants to—to make an opening statement, and then we'll go to some questions.

Ms Silleri : The representatives of the Department of Communication and the Arts today are collectively representing a number of areas from across the department. Our department advises the Australian government about the communications, content and arts industry sectors. This includes television, radio, internet, phones, post, changes in digital technologies, and access to content, including arts and culture, as well as the regulatory settings that support these areas of policy. We provide advice and develop and deliver programs so that Australians can enjoy the benefits of modern communications and access to content across all platforms that will ensure that our cultural identity is maintained and built upon. We also develop policies and develop programs that encourage excellence in the arts and help to protect our cultural heritage and support public access to and participation in arts and culture in Australia.

We have representatives from consumer safeguards, copyright, content, and arts access and participation—quite a broad area. We hope we are able to answer most of your questions. I'm from the Consumer Safeguards Branch. I have responsibility for issues related to consumer safeguards in primarily telecommunications and public interest services but also access to content via audio description and captioning. So, I think the issues I will be able to speak to you about today that are of most interest to you will be the national relay service, which provides equivalent to a telephone service for deaf, hearing impaired and vision impaired Australians, as well as captioning and audio description.

Ms Owens : As the assistant secretary of the Copyright and Content Branch, some of the areas of interest that I may be able to help you with are what we are currently doing in terms of copyright reform and also some details on the Marrakesh Treaty and the impact those reforms are having in the disability sector. I can also answer some questions on access to content across platforms, if that's of interest to you.

Ms Johnson : The AIIA is pleased to be here today and we'd like to thank the committee for the opportunity to participate in the hearing today. I'll cover three areas in this short opening statement to help with context in the discussions. My own background is a connection with disability and accessibility, the AIIA role and purpose, and a perspective on the role of technology and innovation to the achievement of accessibility and inclusion outcomes. I'm the managing director of the Centre for Digital Business. I advise organisations globally, mentor start-ups, and speak and commentate on issues such as innovation, technology, digital identity, co-design and artificial intelligence. My background includes public and private sector experience in Australia and internationally. I'm a board director of the Australian Information Industry Association, a member of the New South Wales Digital Government Advisory Panel and a member of NZTech. For a number of years and until recently I was the contracted head of the technology authority for the National Disability Insurance Agency. I was responsible for the full-scheme technology business case and led the co-design and co-creation effort with people with disability to deliver Nadia. Previously at Microsoft, I led Microsoft's worldwide public services and e-government business. I have family members with disability and I understand and share their struggle. I believe that humanised technology can make a difference in their lives and in the lives of millions of Australians. I have this submission and I have my CV attached to it.

Regarding the AIIA role and purpose, the AIIA is Australia's peak representative body and advocacy group for those in the digital ecosystem. AIIA is a not-for-profit organisation that has since 1978 pursued activities to stimulate and grow the digital economy, to create a favourable business environment and to drive Australia's social and economic prosperity. AIIA's members range from start-ups and incubators that house them to small and medium-sized businesses, including many scale-ups and large Australian and global organisations. While AIIA members represent about two-thirds of the technology revenues in Australia, more than 90 per cent of our members are SMEs. The national board represents a diversity of the digital economy, and more information is on the website.

To give a perspective on technology innovation, jobs growth and accessibility, the impact of technology and innovation on inclusion and accessibility is well known. Humans have always sought to augment their own capacities. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability refers to augmentative and alternative communication, modes and formats of communication of their choice, and for people to receive information and ideas on an equal basis. The Productivity Commission report on the NDIS in 2011 placed heavy emphasis on an ecosystem of technology innovation as essential to scaling and sustainability of the scheme. This is beyond the administrative operations of the NDIA. The PC's report referred to the anguish in searching for information as confusing. Technology innovation design and data analytics are also key themes of the Productivity Commission inquiry into introducing competition and informed user choice into human services—the Harper review, which noted the increasing demands on services from an ageing population as a driver for innovation in service delivery. Public and private expenditure on human services is significant. The PC estimates almost $300 billion in 2013-14 with demand projected to grow as people live longer, incomes grow and technology breakthroughs increase the range and number of services available to users. The traditional and templated approaches to service delivery have not worked, and this point is heavily emphasised in the Harper review.

The NDIS is the first social reform to be based on choice and control, and the various Productivity Commission reports point to others that will potentially follow. All are fundamentally dependent on the adoption of technology innovation and its diffusion throughout the service delivery ecosystem and the economy more broadly. The NDIS assistive technology strategy estimates that when the scheme is fully rolled out in 2019-20 NDIS funded supports for assistive technology will reach $1.06 billion per annum. But what if the market is much larger? If, as the Productivity Commission has estimated, the spending on human services is expected to reach $300 billion per annum, the AT market could potentially be around $4 billion per annum instead of the $1 billion per annum estimated. This market growth opportunity is of significant interest to the AIIA and its members. Spending of this size will accelerate innovation in the AT market in Australia, encouraging investment and the development of emerging solutions. As knowledge of this spend filters through the Australian and global technology community, the expectation is that Australia could become a hub of AT innovation, and this is expressed in the NDIS AT strategy.

The global AT and technology innovation market will increasingly see the Australian market as a potential incubator of new technologies and will explore the market opportunities. There is also significant research efforts across the global technology innovation ecosystem into the demographic convergence of disability and ageing populations. Emerging from global R&D efforts underway, breakthroughs in computing power and design are driving the convergence of technology solutions for disabled and ageing populations, with considerable mutual benefit. The two can no longer be treated in isolation to one another. This research is showing also that people experience functional or situational disability in different circumstances.

Situational disability is a term used to describe a temporary state imposed by a person's current environment that results in accessibility issues, such as not being able to look at your phone when you're driving the car. Situational disabilities impact all people universally and there are opportunities and unrealised potential for all people to benefit or leverage technology advancements that were initiated to reduce the impact of physical or cognitive disability. An example of this is SMS, which is now pervasive. When SMS was introduced into Australia, it was accelerated as a result of the intervention of the Human Rights Commission so that people with hearing impairment and their families could communicate with one another with the same access opportunities as the general population, as mobile technology and devices became mainstream. So the need to address situational disability means that supplies of technology have far greater commercial incentives for improving the usability of their products and lessening the impact of situational disabilities for all people.

In the policy development and decision-making process, however, there is a challenge in how awareness is raised regarding high potential and high impact technology and service innovations. This challenge is a potential barrier to further innovation cycles and the mainstreaming and timely application of these innovations more broadly. The following is a real-life example, illustrated to prove this point. I have this person's permission to use his example. Australian entrepreneur Jim Barrett is an exercise physiologist, operating a spinal cord recovery centre, Making Strides, on the Gold Coast. Part of the great work that Jim Barrett and his team do involves a wearable exoskeleton called the ReWalk so that people with spinal cord injury get the benefits from getting upright and walking around while achieving a number of health benefits. The ReWalk offers clients a form of passive gait training in a wearable exoskeleton. Each step is initiated by a user by changing the user's upper body position and powered by motors in the hip and knee joints. The ReWalk exoskeleton is enabled by an internet-connected software that has 200 personalised measurements and sensors for each person. This means that the rehabilitation professional—in this case, Jim Barrett—can connect remotely to the exoskeleton while a person is wearing it and conduct a remote consultation. The exoskeleton generates data about a person's rehabilitation progress—not previously possible. Attached to this opening statement is an article about another of Mr Barrett's clients, Mr Paul Jenkins. A motorcycle accident left Mr Paul Jenkins wheelchair-bound in 2006. He believes the exoskeleton will revolutionise spinal cord injury recovery in Australia.

Mr Barrett has clients in remote areas of WA—areas that do not have a spinal cord rehabilitation facility or even a physio. Mr Barrett would be very happy to travel to Canberra to provide the committee with a demonstration of the ReWalk exoskeleton. This is an example of technology innovation and the internet-of-things changing the servicing model, opening up service provision and growing new tech industry sectors, improving lives and, at the same time, reducing lifetime costs. What this example illustrates is that we need to redefine service delivery and move beyond the contracted-out and traditional funding model to envision smart homes, internet connected assistive technology and servicing innovation as part of the servicing ecosystem—that is, to understand these service innovations, the ReWalk and smart homes, for example, as part of funded supports.

As a growth driver in this country, the AIIA is focused on maximising this phenomenal opportunity and preparing for the skills for the future. In September this year, the AIIA released a report, Skills for today. Jobs for tomorrow, a position paper which calls on the urgent need for government and industry to develop a practical strategy and action plan to prepare Australians for the jobs of the future. This report drew on Department of Employment figures, which projected total employment to increase by 948,000 over the five years to 2022. Significantly, two areas with the biggest projected employment growth are health care and social assistance, and professional, scientific and technical services, with, altogether, a full 37.8 per cent employment growth just in these two categories. The AIIA paper also highlights that people will need a minimum level of digital skills to find employment in the future. With almost one in five Australians, or 4.3 million people, reporting that they live with disability—that is the figure from the ABS—this employment demand and skills gap is both an opportunity and a serious human capital challenge for Australia. AIIA's paper identifies technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning and how they are impacting 10 industry sectors. But the jobs will be different, augmented by new technologies, and I believe this is of great importance to the scope of this committee and the AIIA.

I've already mentioned the ReWalk and the internet of things. The AIIA paper also calls out virtual assistants, enabled with artificial intelligence, as an innovation to transform customer engagement through a highly personalised and contextual experience. This is particularly important for people with disability, the disadvantaged and the ageing, who struggle with websites, forms, bureaucratic information and call centres. A workforce where humans and virtual assistants, or digital humans and employees, work together is emerging. This is not a distant future, and already the Nadia innovation is rapidly being applied in commercial settings internationally. We need a workforce skilled in science, technology, engineering and maths that can create and not just use the technology across all industry sectors. While the focus on STEM training is not new, if Australia's to be a global leader, we need innovators who can solve complex problems across multiple disciplines and for this to be applied in the area of accessibility. Psychologists, for example, play an increasingly important role in co-design. So we will see human science, technology science and the science and creativity of design combining in new ways and generating new jobs. As the example with Jim Barrett and ReWalk illustrates, digital skills are not just about IT and STEM but about innovation and co-design in new servicing models. This is a real example of the internet of things and interconnected devices transforming lives and servicing that is happening now. Importantly, the AIIA would like to emphasise that digital skills and co-design need to extend upstream to new policy and program design. Digital skills and co-design skills cannot be an afterthought; these are essential competencies for executive and policy leadership.

In summary, while history shows that technology has been and continues to be a significant driver of job creation, effort and thought are required to ensure that Australia reaps the benefits of its own innovations to build inclusive and accessible communities. Equally importantly, Australia should not be shy of the magnificent opportunities and interest that have been sparked globally in the fields of co-design, natural language, artificial intelligence, empathetic systems and service innovation by the remarkable public policy of the NDIS and other user-choice models flagged by the Productivity Commission. The AIIA looks forward to making further public policy contributions through the following questions. How do we get the innovation and technology industry involved in co-creating outcomes so that the transition of these key policy areas is sustainable and the economy and the Australian technology industry grow with this opportunity? How is awareness raised regarding these high-potential and high-impact technology and service innovations amongst policymakers, planners and other decision-makers, not only in the NDS but in other programs, for these to be considered as reasonable and necessary funded supports? This is a key challenge and potential barrier to innovation and a challenge to the diffusion of innovation and its mainstreaming throughout the economy. The AIIA looks forward to continuing to participate in these conversations.

CHAIR: Thank you. Mr McAlinden, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Mr McAlinden : I do. Thanks, Chair, for the invitation to the ABC to appear at today's hearing.

One of the key outcomes of the National Disability Strategy is to ensure that people with disabilities live in communities that facilitate inclusion in social, cultural and civic life. As Australia's pre-eminent cultural institution, and as a public broadcaster, the ABC strives to be inclusive and accessible to all Australians. We understand that access to news, information and entertainment helps to ensure that people can participate in society as equal and active citizens.

The ABC has long been at the forefront of delivering media-accessible services. We were the first broadcaster to introduce captions as a regular service on Australian television, captioning out the television news broadcasts in 1990. Today, the ABC delivers more captioned programs than any other broadcaster, and well above the legislated hours set by the Broadcasting Services Act. This includes the provision of captions on many programs on our multichannels and, importantly, more than 12,000 hours of captioned programs on iview.

At the government's request, the ABC has conducted two technical trials of audio description in Australia: first on the broadcast platform in 2012, and then the 15-month trial on iview in 2015-16. We are also currently an active contributor to the government's Audio Description Working Group, and look forward to the Department of Communications and the Arts report later this year. The ABC was also pleased to broadcast a full Auslan-interpreted news bulletin last Thursday in recognition of national deafness week.

The ABC delivers its services working within a defined funding envelope. This requires the corporation to be innovative and creative in its approach it. It also means that there is an opportunity cost for any additional service that we provide. The ABC recognises that there is further work to do to make our content more accessible, particularly as the digital divide shrinks and more people go to their mobile devices for access to information and entertainment. The ABC is in the process of developing a corporate strategy that delivers a coordinated approach to media access, and we hope to release a public document in the near future.

I'd be pleased to answer any questions you have. Thank you.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Firstly, to the department: do you have a disability committee within the department that directly relates to the National Disability Strategy?

Ms Silleri : I'd have to check on that. I'm not sure that we have a committee that relates directly to the strategy. We may have a stream of work, but I'm not sure that we have a committee. But I'm happy to get that information for you.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Do you have a stream of work?

Ms Silleri : I think that we regularly report against an indicator that draws on all the areas of work within the department. I think it occurs across government, about parts of government that are contributing to broader strategies around disability and inclusion.

Senator CAROL BROWN: What is the formal process in the department to report on the implementation of the National Disability Strategy?

Ms Silleri : That's something I'd have to take on notice for you.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Okay. So, to everyone: what are the key barriers to people with disability accessing appropriate communication channels and technologies?

Ms Silleri : I think that's many and varied, depending on the form of disability and the form of technology or communication access that is being sought. In the area that I'm responsible for, we deal primarily with an equivalent to a telephone service for the deaf, the hearing impaired and the speech impaired. Often the barriers there are information—knowing how to access the services that are available and knowing how to use the various devices that enable access to communication.

Another area that I work in relates to caption and audio description, which our colleague from the ABC mentioned. Often, again, it's understanding how you can access the services that are available. It's not so much with captioning because that's become a very well-known tool that's available in many broadcasts to enable content to be enjoyed by deaf and hearing-impaired people. Audio description, while it's not a legislative safeguard at this point in time, is available on a number of different streaming services, and many people are not aware that they can access it. I think Kevin from the ABC may tell you that when the trials were held on the ABC in 2012 and 2015 people who inadvertently stumbled across audio description weren't entirely sure what it was. So there is always a barrier around information and understanding of the technologies that are available and how to access them. So when you can get through those you can accomplish quite a bit.

Senator CAROL BROWN: So before other people respond, are you also responsible for the National Relay Service?

Ms Silleri : Correct—yes.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Are any of the funds that are currently allocated to the National Relay Service being transferred to the NDIS?

Ms Silleri : No, they're not.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Has there been any roll back of the service at all?

Ms Silleri : No, there hasn't. There has been a rebalancing between the outreach service to service that—I will step back a bit. The National Relay Service has two components—the contract has two components. The first is the delivery of the actual communications service. The second is the delivery of an outreach service to support that communications service. What we've done is: we're in a process of refocussing the outreach service to do exactly the things that Ms Johnson was talking about in terms of pushing the outreach to encourage and make people aware of a number of mainstream and new technologies that are available to provide assistance to communications, and not just the National Relay Service. There has not been any roll back of National Relay Services. The full suite of options is still available. In fact, we're trying to look at ways to make more options available.

ACTING CHAIR ( Senator Carol Brown ): Is it a 24/7 service?

Ms Silleri : It's 24/7, except for video relay services, which is Auslan via internet.

ACTING CHAIR: And seven days a week?

Ms Silleri : Correct.

Ms Owens : I will add to that. From a copyright perspective, with some of the barriers that were around previously before the government actually did quite a bit of a work on the ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty and the introduction of the bill, the disability access and other measures bill earlier this year, it was difficult for people with a disability to access copyrighted material. Those materials were not produced or made accessible in formats that were readily consumable by people with a disability. So the ratification by Australia on the 10 December 2015 did mark an important advance for us to help overcome those significant barriers that limited the availability and accessibility of literature, and precluded some Australians from full participation in society. Even with the significant amount of digital content made available online, the vast majority of published materials worldwide is not presently available in accessible formats. So that's still a barrier—and that's a technological barrier. It's important then that the Marrakesh Treaty is a mechanism to provide disabled people with equitable access to books and other material in formats accessible—for example, in large print, braille and audio. To facilitate the cross-border sharing of that accessible content across the nations that are signed up to the treaty is important for accessibility going forward.

The Copyright Amendment (Disability Access and Other Measures) Act 2017, which largely will come into effect on 22 December, 2017, replaces the current exception and statutory licence schemes for disability access in the Copyright Act, with two new simplified and more flexible exceptions. This includes a fair-dealing exception that allows people with a disability or those assisting them to make accessible copies of material and, secondly, a new exception for organisations that will allow educational institutions and other not-for-profit organisations to make accessible copies, for people with a disability, where material can't be obtained in the correct format and within a reasonable time at an ordinary commercial price. Not only are we addressing the issues around the cost of accessing the material but also it's a much broader access.

Under the new regime, a person with a disability is more broadly defined to cover any disability that causes the person difficulty in reading, viewing, hearing or comprehending copyright material in a particular form. A wider range of organisations will be able to assist people with a disability, including schools, libraries and other not-for-profit organisations that are assisting them. And organisations will be able to make accessible copies of a wider range of copyright material, including printed material, sound recordings, films and television, and sound broadcasts.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Owens. Would anyone else like to comment?

Ms Hrast : In terms of the National Arts and Disability Strategy, one of the priority areas is to address barriers to access and participation. We recently had an evaluation of the strategy and how it's gone so far. Broadly, the review found that the culture of participation of people with a disability has improved and we're seeing different methods of application and improvements to physical access of national cultural institutions. So I think we are identifying barriers and being able to work through them through the cross-jurisdiction of the NADS strategy.

Ms Johnson : I'm speaking on behalf of the AIIA and in my own capacity of running my own business. I'm not speaking for the NDIS or with knowledge of it, I just want to be very clear about that. Overall, the innovation technology industries are doing a huge amount of R&D in this area. Globally, the issue of accessibility is a huge commercial opportunity. As populations age it then becomes a mainstream feature in different technologies. The AIIA believes that we've got a very significant contribution to make, not as an afterthought through a procurement process but up-front in policy design so that policymakers can have early access and perspectives to what's coming, not in the distant future but quite soon.

From a person who's been across this space for many years, if not decades, I have to say that the accessibility of government forms, applications, websites and even call centres is really a huge barrier for people with disability—from a cognitive disability, through to physical and sensory disabilities. While the NDIS is doing huge work, to be commended, people with disability also run businesses, also are great technologists, also have insight into technology that a great many people in the bureaucracy simply don't have because they haven't had to navigate that way. One of the things that the AIIA itself is very focused on is co-design and how co-design can bring to policy formulation insights that people with lived experience actually have, rather than them just being recipients of the output of the policy process. The AIIA itself is a very strong advocate and is involved in a whole range of forums, to do with accessibility and inclusion, across the Commonwealth as well as state governments.

ACTING CHAIR: How do you think the Commonwealth and state governments are faring, in regard to compliance of the web content accessibility guidelines?

Ms Johnson : Okay. I think there's a long way to go, to be frank. While the web accessibility guidelines may be met in terms of compliance, if you speak with people with disability, with cognitive disability, for example, what is there is almost incomprehensible. This is a barrier for people with cognitive disability. What are the new tools and mechanisms that can present content, not just content, but in a way that people are able to actually understand, without always having the intervention of a third party to do that? So whilst it certainly, I think, has helped in some way, for people with visual disability, and to a certain extent in some areas from a cognitive disability in having some more-simplified content, I think there's a long way to go. All you have to do is go to any government website and put in the word 'forms' and see what happens.

Senator CAROL BROWN: I have! Who is responsible for ensuring that government websites are compliant?

Ms Owens : I will answer that. Each agency is expected, within the context of their own website, to make sure that their web content is accessible. But the central policy around that lives with the Digital Transformation Agency.

Senator CAROL BROWN: I wanted to go to captioning regulation and the consultation that was undertaken. The submission period ended on 29 January. Has a report been produced?

Ms Silleri : Are you referring to the department's consultation?

Senator CAROL BROWN: Is that the one about captioning regulation and reform consultation?

Ms Silleri : I think that was the ACMA's report. That was Australian Communications and Media Authority's report. We had an early consultation process around captioning, which was looking at a slightly reduced set of issues than the ACMA's.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Have you produced a report?

Ms Silleri : No, we haven't produced a report.

Senator CAROL BROWN: When did that complete for you?

Ms Silleri : It was some time ago. It was in 2016.

Senator CAROL BROWN: So, probably January 2016.

Ms Silleri : I could be. There were two processes at around the same time.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Was a report produced?

Ms Silleri : No.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Why is that?

Ms Silleri : We were consulting on prospective changes to legislation. That's currently being considered by the government.

Senator CAROL BROWN: What is being considered?

Ms Silleri : Prospective changes around what we were consulting on. Prior to our process—

Senator CAROL BROWN: You did a report coming out of the consultations?

Ms Silleri : Not at this point.

Senator CAROL BROWN: I'm confused.

CHAIR: So am I.

Senator CAROL BROWN: What is the government doing?

Ms Silleri : We're considering changes to the current legislation around captioning. We were consulting on specific issues around captioning quota arrangements, the reporting requirements, and the consistency around the way the exemption regime was applied. There had been some earlier regulatory reforms looked at, through the deregulation act of 2015, and there were some issues that weren't picked up in that process, which we were consulting on.

Senator CAROL BROWN: What is happening with that information that you gathered through your consultations?

Ms Silleri : The government is considering the options around what potential changes can be made.

Senator CAROL BROWN: So, that consultation informed recommendations to government?

Ms Silleri : Yes.

Senator CAROL BROWN: When did they get those recommendations?

Ms Silleri : Some time in 2016.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Mr McAlinden, I want to ask you about captioning, as well. You talked about the amount of captioning you do. What is the percentage over your programming does that apply to?

Mr McAlinden : The ABC, like other broadcasters, is required by legislation to caption 100 per cent of programming between 6.00 am and midnight on our main channel, which we comply with. But, overall, over 24 hours a day for last financial year on our main channel we captioned 90 per cent of programming. For our multichannels, we captioned the majority of programming on those channels, as well. For example, on ABC2, from 7 pm to midnight, we captioned 97 per cent of programming. Across 24 hours a day it was 76 per cent of programming. So we do caption well above our legislative requirements under the Broadcasting Services Act.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Do any of your programs include audio description?

Mr McAlinden : The ABC conducted two technical trials of audio description: one via television in 2012, for a 13-week period; and a second online trial via the iView platform, for 15 months from 2015 to 2016.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Nothing now, though?

Mr McAlinden : No.

Senator CAROL BROWN: You're just involved in the government working group, or whatever it's called?

Mr McAlinden : That's correct. We're participating in the government working group on audio description.

Senator CAROL BROWN: We have talked to people around the ABC's development and operation of Ramp Up. That not operating, is it?

Mr McAlinden : No, that ceased publishing new material in June 2014.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Why did that happen?

Mr McAlinden : The ABC was funded for the Ramp Up portal from 2010 to 2012, and then received additional funding for two years, from July 2012 to 30 June 2014. When that funding was exhausted, the ABC was no longer able to maintain that service.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Why was that? You couldn't find the money within your budget?

Mr McAlinden : That's correct. At the time, we were also funded for discrete funding by government for our education portal, Splash. The communications department at the time was undertaking an efficiency review into the ABC. We had to absorb a number of cuts at the time and it just wasn't possible for the ABC to make an ongoing commitment to the Ramp Up service.

Senator CAROL BROWN: There's no other discussion around it at the ABC?

Mr McAlinden : No. The portal is archived, so material produced for Ramp Up is available. We also have a curated site for our news service, which contains all stories on issues around matters of disability. But at this stage there's no further consideration of reinstating the Ramp Up service, as it was.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Can you recall what the budget for Ramp Up was?

Mr McAlinden : It was approximately $250,000 per year for the four years, plus just under $60,000 for the set-up costs initially.

Senator CAROL BROWN: It was very well received, I understand?

Mr McAlinden : Certainly. Stella Young, the editor at the time, is very much missed by everyone in the community. She was a very strong advocate for the disability community. Yes, it was a fantastic site for people with disabilities to have a voice in the community.

Senator CAROL BROWN: You said $250,000 per annum?

Mr McAlinden : That's correct, yes.

Senator CAROL BROWN: It's not a great deal of money.

Mr McAlinden : As I said, at the time, we were absorbing other costs as well. The funding for Splash was no longer being provided by government. We were in the middle of an efficiency review being undertaken by the department which indicated there would be further budget cuts to the ABC. Our Australian network contract was also cut in May 2014. There were a number of issues at the time that made it a difficult financial environment to continue with the ramp-up service.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Just to go back to the National Relay Service, we have had concern around how that is working. Is there a refocusing of the National Relay Service?

Ms Silleri : We did our consultation process last year, 2016, and we did report on that. From that report, there were a number of recommendations, one of which was that we would retender for the service in 2018, which is when the current contract expires. We were exploring a number of issues in our consultation process, primarily around the rapid increase in usage of the NRS and whether or not the current budget was enough to sustain that and whether or not the service was structured in the most sustainable way to deliver it for the long term. We spoke about a number of options through our consultation process and, out of that, we are going to retender and consider how we can deliver the service more efficiently and more sustainably.

We also are looking at the introduction of a registration process so that we will be able to understand the various aspects of the National Relay Service which are being used more than others and how they are being used. We are also, as I mentioned earlier, thinking about a refocus of the outreach service so we are not purely focusing on a relay service to facilitate communications but we are promoting and exploring the use of more mainstream technologies which a number of people with disability will be able to use as well as and, in some cases, instead of the relay service.

Senator CAROL BROWN: I've got a couple of questions that I'll ask Ms Johnson but she may have to take them on notice, if you don't mind.

Ms Johnson : No problem.

Senator CAROL BROWN: What specific recommendations would your organisation make to this committee on improving accessible online information? Are communication accessibility standards best delivered through a regulatory intervention or industry based initiatives?

Ms Johnson : So those are on notice?

Senator CAROL BROWN: Yes. The secretariat will contact you. My only other question is to Mr McAlinden. Did the ABC consider self-funding Ramp Up at all?

Mr McAlinden : I think we took a lot of things into consideration at the time. As I said, in the context of the broader financial environment at the ABC in 2014, we couldn't make an ongoing financial commitment to Ramp Up.

Senator CAROL BROWN: I'm not sure if that was a yes or a no, actually? Specifically regarding Ramp Up, was it ever considered that the ABC would take over the funding, considering it's $250,000 per annum?

Mr McAlinden : At the time, we would have considered it but we also had to consider the broader environment, knowing that we were undergoing an efficiency review and that there were other cuts being made at the time. We did consider it but it wasn't possible.

CHAIR: Thank you for your time today. The secretariat will be in contact about those questions on notice. Your attendance is very much appreciated.

Proceedings suspended from 15:34 to 15:45