Thursday, 4 December 2008
Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television Switch-over) Bill 2008
Consideration in Detail
Bill—by leave—taken as a whole.
by leave—I move government amendments (1) to (7):
(1) Schedule 2, item 3A, page 4 (lines 14 to 17), omit the item.
(2) Schedule 2, page 4 (before line 18), before item 4, insert:
3B Clause 2 of Schedule 4
quarter means a period of 3 months beginning on 1 January, 1 April, 1 July or 1 October of a year.
(3) Schedule 2, item 4A, page 6 (line 1) to page 7 (line 12), omit the item.
(4) Schedule 2, item 4B, page 7 (lines 13 to 28), omit the item.
(5) Schedule 2, page 11 (after line 5), after item 12, insert:
12A After clause 11 of Schedule 4
(1) The commercial television conversion scheme must require the ACMA to:
(a) prepare a report for each quarter about the following matters:
(i) the extent to which the objective in paragraph 6(3)(f) is being met for each licence area to which that paragraph applies;
(ii) if that objective is not being met for a particular licence area—the steps that holders of commercial television broadcasting licences are taking to ensure that the objective will be met; and
(b) publish the report on the ACMA’s website.
(2) Subclause (1) does not apply to a quarter that begins after the end of the simulcast period for the licence area concerned.
(6) Schedule 2, page 11 (after line 30), after item 17, insert:
17A After clause 25 of Schedule 4
(1) The national television conversion scheme must require the ACMA to:
(a) prepare a report for each quarter about the following matters:
(i) the extent to which the objective in paragraph 19(3)(f) is being met for each coverage area to which that paragraph applies;
(ii) if that objective is not being met for a particular coverage area—the steps that the national broadcasters are taking to ensure that the objective will be met; and
(b) publish the report on the ACMA’s website.
(2) Subclause (1) does not apply to a quarter that begins after the end of the simulcast period for the coverage area concerned.
(7) Schedule 2, page 12 (after line 8), after item 20, insert:
20A At the end of Schedule 4
(1) As soon as practicable after:
(a) the 6-month period ending on 30 June 2009; and
(b) each later 6-month period;
the Minister must cause to be prepared a report about:
(c) progress in converting self-help television re-transmission services from analog mode to digital mode; and
(d) the identification and rectification of blackspots in relation to the reception of:
(i) commercial television broadcasting services; and
(ii) national television broadcasting services;
in digital mode.
(2) The Minister must consult the ACMA in relation to the preparation of a report under subclause (1).
(3) The Minister must cause copies of a report under subclause (1) to be tabled in each House of the Parliament within 15 sitting days of that House after the completion of the report.
(4) In this clause:
self-help television re-transmission service means a television re-transmission service that:
(a) is covered by subsection 212(1); and
(b) is provided by a self-help provider (within the meaning of section 212A).
I present a supplementary explanatory memorandum to the bill.
The opposition opposes these amendments. These amendments are to create a veneer of accountability around decisions that would affect everybody who watches television around this continent from the Yankalilla district, which I know the member for Mayo is very concerned about, to communities right across the country that rely on 1,100 retransmission devices, who have not had the opportunity to be heard tonight when the government gagged its own speaker on this bill. These amendments deserve to be opposed. They do nothing more than shift the burden for digital transmission away from the government and away from the minister and put it fairly and squarely in the lap of the national broadcasters. We have heard a lot tonight about this being a collaborative exercise. These amendments do nothing of the kind. In fact, they free the minister. This is free Stephen, not free Willy, from any accountability to do with the very significant decision of saying there is no more analog television available to communities across Australia.
The coalition’s amendments are thoughtful and principled, and they have been developed in full consultation with the stakeholders. They are inspired by the national interest and, once again, the Liberal and the National parties in this parliament are the voice for the ordinary people who want to make sure they have got television. It seems as though all the government is interested in is grabbing hold of the spectrum and flogging it—maybe to sell the spectrum and the people of Mildura, the guinea pigs for this exercise. The member for Forrest has been denied the opportunity to speak. An opportunity for him and all the other members in this place to represent their communities has been denied by the government. This is about ensuring that Australian viewers are not disenfranchised, not left in the dark and not left with an analog television that serves no purpose other than ornamental value in their lounge rooms. They want to know that they can keep watching television, and they want to know what the government is doing to replace those 1,100 retransmission devices. We consulted up until the last moment to make sure that this amendment has the support of industry and is something that provides safeguards to all TV viewers across the country.
For those people in this House who want to know what the opposition’s amendments were, let me run through them again. There were some amendments relating to the need to set readiness benchmarks so that everyone knew upfront where communities needed to be before their analog televisions were shut off. They wanted some benchmarks, some objective criteria. What could possibly be the public policy argument against that? Is there anyone in this place who could argue—knowing what the state is of the conversion to digital and where that is at—that it could possibly be a bad thing to have objective criteria to make that decision?
The other part of the amendments that the opposition introduced is to actually have a reporting arrangement where, six months prior to analog television being cut off, a report is prepared, with the minister having the responsibility to know what the situation is on the ground—whether people had taken up the opportunities to convert and whether there are going to be tens and thousands of people who will not have any television. Let us remember that, if there are only a couple of per cent who are not ready to make the conversion when the analog signal is cut off, there will be tens of thousands of people with no television.
Let me also refer to one of the other criteria. The third provision that we argued for was that if there was clear evidence that a community was not ready to have analog television services in their community finish—with the guinea pig being Mildura—then there would be an open public process to establish the degree of readiness. It cannot be a bad thing—can it?—to know whether a community is ready to have the information available and to make the minister accountable for such a big decision affecting the lives of many in our community.
Just so that members of the House have not been confused by that waffle, I want to point out clearly what the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television Switch-over) Bill 2008 is all about. This debate is being broadcast and there are many millions of Australians who want to know what is going on here and they have not been edified by the good member for Dunkley. So let me remind you. The bill allows the minister to determine local market areas for switch-over, switch-over dates for those markets and the simulcast period for entire television licence areas. This would mean that some areas could switch off analog earlier than currently permitted—common sense. And the geographical areas smaller than television licence areas could be the basis for a switch-over timetable—common sense.
The bill allows the minister to vary the switch-over date three months either side of the initial date. No problems with that—common sense. This will effectively provide a six-month window which the government can use to finetune dates for switch-over in particular areas to respond to specific local circumstances. Switch-over can be extended beyond three months only in exceptional circumstances where the initial date would cause significant technical problems for broadcasters and where those problems could not have been reasonably foreseen up to six months before the switch-over date—common sense.
So having an understanding now of what it takes to get a service in a regional area up and running, I believe we need to allow time for the changeover but also flexibility. That is the key word: flexibility. This flexibility may also include areas that are ahead of schedule, although there are not many ahead of schedule currently and that is the problem we have. Few Australians are taking up digital television, and the reason is the mob on the other side did not do anything about it. And now they want to slow it down.
This flexibility may also include areas that are ahead of schedule, as I mentioned, and ready to switch off analog services before the planned date, saving costs on simulcasting—common sense.
Common sense, Member for Hume—and you are out your seat. A staggered switch-over will also reduce the potential for significant strain on retailers, equipment suppliers and antenna technicians and technical and engineering resources of broadcasters across the country if analog switch-off were to be attempted at the one time. Digital television, colleagues, is a wonderful advance in technology and should be extended to every corner of the nation as soon as is technically and financially possible. Digital switch-over is important for all Australians as it not only provides access to such things as better picture and sound quality and additional channels but it will also free up spectrum which can be used for delivery of new and improved broadcasting and communications services.
Colleagues, I can imagine how my village at Forth will feel when it can finally convert to digital TV in the future. I am fortunate enough to receive pay TV at home and can vouch for the quality of the digital signal even on a four-year- old, 106-centimetre plasma TV. Colleagues, my fellow TV watchers on King Island—a beautiful part of my electorate and I hope you can visit it—will hopefully be viewing five-channel digital TV by April of next year thanks to this government’s $300,000 commitment made before the last election to convert the island’s signal from a relatively-okay-to-terrible analog signal to digital.
This process of licence gathering and technical planning has been long and thorough and I wish to thank the relevant communications authorities, particularly the ABC, SBS, the King Island Council and the technically brilliant project driver and adviser, Peter White. Without Peter’s contribution this funding and project may not have occurred. Well done to everyone involved and I know the long wait will be worth the effort—much better TV reception for more people spread over a much larger area. Merry Christmas to all you TV viewers. (Time expired)
Notwithstanding the levity of the last night in the parliament, this issue is very important to the people in my electorate. In this debate I could barely hear the previous speaker, and even less the member for Dunkley. I say to my colleagues tonight that this Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television Switch-over) Bill 2008 is a very ill-considered, rushed through piece of legislation that every member of this House on both sides is going to burn on. Let me explain to you why I say that. If you turn off analog television for digital before you have the right mechanisms in place you are going to do two things. You are going to force an extraordinary expense on regional television stations which may cripple some of them. That is No. 1. And No. 2 is: pray tell how the 20 or 30 per cent of people in cities as well as in the country are going to get digital television when the analog is switched off. Where have we discussed in this debate how people are going to do it?
This is not confined to the country, my friends. There are black spots in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and the rest where people will not have television. The fact that the minister has some overriding power to consider will not do it. The British parliament has been through this, and what they have done is to create a method whereby people who cannot afford digital television can be provided by government with a set-top box so that they can convert, albeit in a very basic way, their analog television to digital.
I am surprised that we can treat a matter of such gravity and seriousness as the prime media outlet of this country, television, with such great levity. The chamber tonight—with the greatest respect to you, Mr Speaker—has degenerated into a circus. We should pull ourselves together and think seriously about this bill. We are opposing the bill not for some political purpose against the ALP but because it is not going to work.
The member for Braddon was boasting lyrically about all the hard work he has done on television broadcasting down there in Braddon. Let me tell you the story of Mallee. Let me tell you of the indignation the constituents of mine feel at being the guinea pigs of this so-called transition. We have had 15 years of the fight to get decent television across the north-west of Victoria. In 1993, when I was first elected, they had one commercial channel and one ABC channel and nothing else. Most of the rest of the nation had full aggregation, which came through in the mid-1980s. I finally got things settled down on television in Mallee and could get on with battling for veterans and all the other things we are confronted with as members of parliament.
I have been through two conversions from analog to digital. Despite what the member for Braddon asserts while wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, this is inferior technology in terms of its geographical coverage. We went through this with mobile phones and it was a nightmare. Where analog used to work because it is different technology—it could go through trees unaffected by the atmosphere and all the rest—digital cannot provide that quality in geographic coverage.
All that these amendments to the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television Switch-over) Bill 2008 that the opposition have put will do is give some assurance that there will be proper process, that the ACMA will be out there making measurements to fill the holes—despite all the work I have done with two black spots programs—where digital will not deliver so that remote areas do not miss out and become black spots. All the good citizens of Mildura, Ouyen and Murrayville want to know in advance is what the process will be by which they can be assured that at the cutthroat stage, which is only 12 months away, they are not going to be disadvantaged in terms of their television reception. That is all our amendments are asking for—a description of process.
I wrote to the ACMA last week and invited them to come down and calm down the good constituents I have in Ouyen and Murrayville who know they are going to miss out because, like me, they know that digital is not the same quality. So I will make one more plea. I note that the government has made some response with its amendments, but they are extremely—
Government members interjecting—
No! I am going to have my say. I am not going to be denied an opportunity to speak on behalf of the citizens of Mildura. I notice on the schedule that the first 10 sites to be converted to digital are all in coalition seats. What is to stop me from being cynical about that? Why not practise on guinea pigs in the cities where people are more concentrated? It is alleged that Mildura is first because it has the highest concentration of digital set-top boxes and digital technology. I am not convinced by that. I want to see the process that we put in our amendments put in place and I want the regulators and the authorities out there making sure that, when analog is switched off, my constituents do not miss out.
That the amendments (Mr Albanese’s) be agreed to.
That the bill, as amended, be agreed to.
Bill, as amended, agreed to.