House debates

Wednesday, 11 November 2020


Radiocommunications Legislation Amendment (Reform and Modernisation) Bill 2020; Second Reading

6:24 pm

Photo of Michelle RowlandMichelle Rowland (Greenway, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

The Radiocommunications Legislation Amendment (Reform and Modernisation) Bill 2020, introduced with the Radiocommunications (Receiver Licence Tax) Amendment Bill 2020 and the Radiocommunications (Transmitter Licence Tax) Amendment Bill 2020, amends the Radiocommunications Act 1992 to modernise the policy and regulatory framework for spectrum management in Australia. It is intended to address significant changes to the technological landscape since 1992, to add flexibility, remove unnecessary prescription and legislative barriers and improve processes and help the framework remain fit for purpose in a rapidly changing environment.

Labor acknowledges the high value of spectrum in Australia and understands that a suite of technologies are set to revolutionise the digital economy. Globally, it is recognised that technological innovation and market and service convergence is placing increasing pressure on spectrum management in terms of its complexity, cost and responsiveness. The spectrum review identified the need to update the law to address the truly dynamic and evolving communications landscape.

Australia's spectrum policy and management framework was drafted 30 years ago, and while the framework has served us well, a good fifth of that time has been spent reviewing and reforming it. Labor welcomes these proposals to modernise the framework. Labor supports this bill. Labor notes the pragmatic approach adopted by stakeholders and their general desire to secure some practical, sensible reform. We too adopt this pragmatic stance on the progress that has finally been made. We acknowledge the significant efforts that have gone into spectrum review and reform by the department, the Australian Communications and Media Authority and industry in particular. Equally, Labor acknowledges stakeholder fatigue on this years-long reform process.

Labor won't stand in the way of regulatory updates that, to a large extent, play catch up with the regulator and streamline processes that, years ago, were identified as cumbersome. But we do note that, after so many years, this government has failed to achieve all the recommendations of the spectrum review. After such a significant investment of time and resources by government and industry, this government has proved incapable of implementing reform to address issues that, years ago, they said warranted that reform.

I want to turn to the issue of delay. The bill is the output of a complex and protracted spectrum review and reform process, which commenced over six years ago. According to the government's own timetable for implementation, this reform is well overdue. The bill now before parliament was introduced over three years after the original mid-2017 indicative timetable for passage of the new legislation. The delay means the ACMA has conducted spectrum auctions without the benefit of the streamlined approach, which was identified as a key area in need of reform some time ago.

It's ironic that a bill to clarify the minister's policy role in spectrum management has suffered setback and delay as a result of a lack of policy coherence and clarity from the minister. On many issues this government seems incapable of formulating coherent policy or adhering to it. Spectrum reform has been no exception. Australia has experienced seven years of this government's influence on communications policy. Over this period the contribution of ICT to Australian GDP relative to OECD nations has declined. Furthermore, Australia ranks second last among OECD countries for relative size of the technology sector and its contribution to the economy. We've seen the rollout of 4G and early 5G deployment, and yet there is still no sign of a comprehensive 5G deployment strategy for Australia or an AI strategy. There is nothing which shows ambition or substance when it comes to the potential of this sector in supporting productivity and inclusive economic growth and nothing about remaining competitive in the region and globally. What we have seen is a government that lacks a coherent agenda and as a consequence doesn't appear to be in command of the few processes it has commenced.

The innovation agenda turned out to be little more than a slogan. The sole outcome of the USO review was to produce a new three-letter acronym. The Digital Transformation Office became the Digital Transformation Agency, just as the Children's eSafety Commissioner became just the eSafety Commissioner. And then there's spectrum reform. In May 2014 the then Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, asked the department of communications and the ACMA to undertake a review of spectrum management. The terms of reference went beyond point-in-time streamlining and deregulation in an attempt to craft a more flexible framework suited to the challenges of a complex and rapidly-changing communications environment.

In May 2015 the government released the report of the review. The report found there were substantial deficiencies with Australia's 20-year-old spectrum management regime, which was described as slow, rigid and administratively cumbersome. In August 2015 the minister, in a joint release with the then parliamentary secretary to the minister, announced the government's agreement to implement the recommendations of the review with an indicative timetable of mid-2017 for the new framework. It was all going to be done and dusted in around two years.

In May 2017 an exposure draft for a 2017 bill was released for consultation by then communications minister Senator Mitch Fifield. At the time, Labor welcomed progress on the significant and complex reforms but also noted with caution that the overarching policy intent on key matters was yet to be articulated. The consultation was conducted in the absence of draft ministerial policy statements as fundamental as the single licensing system, including licence issues and conditions and renewal rights, for example. This meant the exercise was challenged by chicken and egg style absurdity. Ultimately the biggest reform of spectrum policy and its management framework in a generation ground to a halt.

Some time later, in June 2019, the current minister for communications indicated that he would not restart the stalled spectrum reform process until he was satisfied that the proposed new regime would provide superior benefits to the system it was to replace. So, four years after starting the reform process, the new minister was back at square one asking basic questions such as: What benefits will the proposed reforms deliver? Is wholesale or incremental reform necessary? That is, he had to reconsider the decision he had made in August 2015.

One would assume that the government had a well-considered view on such questions before deciding to commit years of significant public sector and industry resources to a wholesale reform process. The point is that the stalled work program is emblematic of a government without a coherent sense of what it is trying to achieve. For all their rhetoric about the need for efficiency and certainty for industry, they've been unable to deliver on it throughout this process.

In late June 2020 the exposure draft of the 2020 bill was released for a short three-week consultation period. Finally, in August 2020, the introduction of the bills into parliament was met with industry press CommsDay reporting a departmental insider describing the spectrum review and reform process as 'the Canberra version of Hollywood development hell'. Indeed! Ultimately the project wasn't abandoned, but it certainly hasn't been fully realised either.

I want to return to reforms not achieved and there being no certainty. Spectrum reform is yet another example of this Liberal-National government failing to do what it says it will do. Not only is the bill before the parliament over three years late; it doesn't address all the recommendations of the spectrum review. A number of issues that were identified for reform are not being progressed at this time. The bills do not integrate the management of broadcasting spectrum or create a single licensing system, for example. The department explained why, stating that the consultation which had occurred in 2017 indicated significant concerns about the approach that was being proposed in terms of the complexity, the transition costs for stakeholders and the number of issues that the department and the government then needed to work through in terms of considering where to in light of the views expressed during that consultation process.

The department provided more information about the transition costs associated with a single licensing system on notice:

After considering the responses to the 2017 consultation process, as well as views received through subsequent additional stakeholder engagement, the Department undertook further work to identify a possible transition pathway to a single licensing system.

The transition to a single licensing system would involve the transitioning of over 167,000 apparatus licences (with over 60 licensing options) to the new system. The transition of spectrum licences would have, in effect, required two regimes to operate in parallel for an extended period, likely to be in the order of six years, with complex arrangements necessary to manage the transition from a spectrum licence to the single licensing system to protect the rights of licensees. Maintaining this two-regime approach for a number of years would have introduced inefficiencies during the transition period, requiring the resources of spectrum users and ACMA to be dedicated to supporting the transition, and maintenance of two sets of systems and processes for an extended period.

In relation to the management of broadcasting spectrum, the department explained that one of the things the 2017 consultation process drew out was the complexity and potential changes to the broadcast spectrum arrangements, so the government made a decision to focus on priority reforms that will achieve quicker benefits to spectrum users.

In terms of when future changes to broadcast spectrum arrangements may be addressed, the department said it would be a matter for government in light of broader broadcast policy and media objectives. The government has not outlined how or when these things may be addressed in future, beyond a general business-as-usual commitment to continuous reform. At inquiry, the department was asked whether it will undertake ongoing cycles of review and targeted legislative reform and whether there is a plan for that to happen. The department advised:

I think we would regard that as almost our business-as-usual approach in terms of ongoing responsibility for administration of the legislation and regular check-ins with stakeholders. There isn't a specific process mapped out for reform by another deadline at this stage.

So the government provided no certainty or predictability around its ongoing reform agenda in this area. In the meantime, there will be a focus on implementing the proposed reforms.

Turning now to the proposed reforms that do address the recommendations of the spectrum review, it is instructive to consider how substantial they actually are. The bill amends the Radiocommunications Act 1992 to clarify the object of the act. But while the legislative objects may have been simplified, the complexity of spectrum management remains. Meanwhile, the changes to the object give rise to a degree of uncertainty for the public broadcasters, the ABC and the SBS, which they outlined in their submissions and at the inquiry into the bill. As the ABC states:

There are conceptual and practical benefits in clarifying the overarching object of the Act and streamlining the aims that sit beneath it. It is also important that the aims reference both the commercial and non-commercial uses of spectrum.

As currently drafted, the use of spectrum by public broadcasters is not explicitly recognised as one of the vital non-commercial uses of spectrum; proposed new paragraph 3(b)(ii) currently references only "defence purposes, national security purposes and other noncommercial purposes (including public safety and community purposes)". In the ABC's view, the stated "other non-commercial" uses of spectrum in the legislation is not sufficiently broad.

The ABC submits that, to underline the importance of public broadcasting, the new Object section of the Act should explicitly include the term "national broadcasting purposes" as one of the non-commercial uses of spectrum … This is particularly important given that the Object section is a key interpretive provision of the Act and will be used as a reference point for future ACMA spectrum decisions, including application of the proposed new "public interest test" when considering the renewal of licences for periods of 10 years or more. In the alternative, at a minimum, the ABC submits that the term "public services" should be added to the stated noncommercial uses of spectrum.

In the absence of this type of amendment to the Object of the Act, there is potential for future spectrum decisions to place too little weight on public broadcasters' use of spectrum vis-a-vis commercial uses in instances where these uses may be in direct conflict.

The government's responses as to why this was not addressed were not altogether persuasive.

Another change is that the bill requires the ACMA to prepare an annual work program covering a minimum five-year period to support transparency—a good idea. The thing is, the ACMA has been doing this for over a decade already, with the publication of its five-year spectrum outlook, or FYSO, since 2009. The bill merely plays slow catch-up in this regard.

The bill also updates the system for equipment regulation to better reflect modern spectrum needs and supply chains. Device supply systems and equipment regulation will be streamlined, and the ACMA will be empowered to provide new exemptions in appropriate circumstances to facilitate testing, development and manufacturing of otherwise controlled devices. Again, the updated equipment arrangements also reflect much of what the ACMA has been already doing—something the department and industry both acknowledge.

On compliance and enforcement, the introduction of a modernised compliance and enforcement regime with more graduated enforcement mechanisms for breaches of the framework gives the ACMA a greater range of options beyond the institution of criminal proceedings. Again, it is not groundbreaking stuff. This aligns the framework with the general and established trend of empowering regulators with graduated compliance and enforcement options, something the regulator has been focused on for some time, including in other areas of its remit.

The bill also amends the act to provide for the minister to issue ministerial policy statements, which the ACMA must have regard to in exercising its spectrum management. The roles of the minister and the ACMA are clarified. The minister will have less involvement in day-to-day spectrum management decisions that are properly the responsibility of the regulator and will have the power to issue ministerial policy statements to guide the ACMA in its spectrum management functions. Spectrum allocation and reallocation processes have been streamlined. The ACMA will have greater flexibility to develop fit-for-purpose allocation arrangements in order to bring spectrum to market within shorter time frames where this is appropriate. This fixes some known issues such as the need for bespoke solutions to shortcomings in the system. However, it does not address the growing need for the ACMA to be able to defragment spectrum at the end of 20-year spectrum licences to ensure the most efficient use of spectrum while minimising the cost and disruption to government and other operators of having to clear spectrum—an issue that I'll return to shortly. The flexibility and regulatory barriers between licence types have been improved. The maximum licence term for both apparatus licences and spectrum licences will be extended to 20 years, with fewer regulatory barriers and more flexibility in the allocation process, and clearer processes governing renewal of licences.

I want to turn to the efficient use of public resources and, in particular, community television. Labor is concerned that, for all its rhetoric about efficient use of the spectrum and the benefits of reform, this government is unable to walk the talk. For example, this government wants community television broadcasters to move off air to an online-only model of delivery, despite there being no planned alternative use for the spectrum they now occupy. The minister's mishandling of the relatively straightforward matter of the extension of community television broadcasting licences—which the minister left until the eleventh hour in June 2020 and plans to end in June 2021—demonstrates an inability to govern with predictability in the public interest.

The benefits of community TV are many. Australia has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world, and community TV provides much-needed diversity and localism. At a time when newsrooms are closing, community TV supports local news and provides a training ground for emerging journalists and screen practitioners, including in partnership with universities. At a time when social cohesion, national culture and identity should be fostered, community TV provides a platform for local multicultural, sporting and arts events as well as small business. At a time when social distancing makes participation in religious services difficult, community TV provides accessibility, particularly to elderly citizens without internet access.

Community television has been serving Australian audiences for 25 years, but the Morrison government wants to boot Channel 31 Melbourne and Geelong and Channel 44 Adelaide off air. This minister's disregard for the valuable use of spectrum by community television broadcasters underscores the need for clear legislation and clear roles as between the minister and the ACMA. Labor appreciates the importance of getting spectrum reform right and the cost and complexity of failing to strike the right balance between flexibility and certainty when it comes to spectrum management. That is why Labor is concerned that this government has missed an important opportunity to ensure sufficient flexibility for the ACMA or the government to defragment spectrum licensed holdings where existing configurations represent a very wasteful use of spectrum. Where the use of spectrum is wasteful, it can result in costly and disruptive refarming exercises.

According to submission 181 by Professor Jock Given and Mr Giles Tanner to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts' inquiry into the deployment, adoption and application of 5G in Australia, this issue is growing even bigger in future as technical standards evolve. Giles Tanner is a senior research fellow at Swinburne University of Technology. Until December 2018, he was the head of the ACMA's division responsible for radio frequency spectrum management. Jock Given is Professor of Media and Communications at Swinburne University of Technology and chief investigator on an Australian Research Council funded project, 'Spectrum after scarcity: rethinking radiofrequency management'. Their submission examined the shortcomings of the Radio Communications Act 1992 that may hinder deployment of 5G and other advanced technologies, and made legislative reform recommendations designed to overcome them.

Around the world, including in Australia, governments place a high priority on work to make additional spectrum available for 5G and other advanced wireless broadband technologies. As it turns out, the bill addresses the recommendation that the ACMA should have greater flexibility to create and issue new spectrum licences, including wider recourse to administrative rather than price based allocation where appropriate. However, the bill does not address recommendation 3:

The ACMA’s power to re-issue spectrum licences in the public interest and the Minister’s power to make class of services determinations should be reviewed so as not to compromise the regulator’s freedom to optimise the efficient configuration of a band or bands following licence expiry. For example, the ACMA could be empowered, with sufficient warning and following proper consultation, to offer a different licence, of equivalent or greater utility, if to do so would maximise the overall public benefit obtained from the band or bands in question.

The current system critically relies on markets to do this. The high-grade fully tradeable nature of spectrum licences means licensees can negotiate some of these changes themselves. And when they don't hold all the spectrum that is required, which is also going to be an increasingly common scenario in future, the new law will allow the ACMA to simply directly allocate spectrum licences to a person, meaning that, between them, carriers and the ACMA have a lot of discretion to negotiate for more efficient configuration of existing spectrum licensed bands. The trouble is that everyone has to agree, and it often doesn't suit carriers to agree on the most efficient overall configuration of a band.

As we move from a norm of 15-year to 20-year spectrum licences, the very long tenure proposed for spectrum licences, combined with administrative renewal, does call into question what the government's reserve powers might be to push markets to utilise spectrum efficiently, at least as licence renewal time approaches.

At the hearing on this bill, Labor asked the ACMA if the proposed bill helps it deal with rapid change, the speed of evolution, and the efficient use of bands in relation to defragmentation. An ACMA official confirmed that yes, the process changes that are enabled by the bill allow the ACMA to do this through consultation with industry, whereas in the past they had to make multiple steps through the minister. There is greater freedom in process, to do things faster, where appropriate. When asked whether it would be useful to have the power and flexibility to solve issues by defrag of spectrum, the ACMA official said:

The ability to defragment either at the end of a licence term or, if possible, through agreement in the middle of a licence term does improve the spectrum efficiency and therefore could potentially decrease the pressure on finding additional spectrum to be made available. So I think the answer is: potentially, yes, in the circumstances, it could help.

It is anticipated that this issue will have to be revisited in future. Of course, it isn't just inflexible spectrum management processes that are costly. Policy and regulatory reform is costly to industry and to government. Government resources applied over a number of years are significant and involve many stakeholders, as was advised by the government and the ACMA in answers to questions on notice to the Senate Standing Committee on the Environment and Communications.

In conclusion, Labor supports reform to modernise the spectrum management framework to assist government and industry, given the high value of spectrum and the rapid pace of technological change. The benefits of the bill include reduced regulatory barriers, more-efficient spectrum management processes, and more-proportionate compliance and enforcement options. Labor acknowledges industry stakeholders who have participated in multiple round tables, meetings and consultations and made many submissions at considerable time and cost, and the public servants who have been working to settle the reforms in this complex area for years.

I acknowledge the Senate scrutiny of this package in the public interest. This scrutiny has prompted the minister to provide advice on a range of matters, including the use of computerised decision making by the ACMA; whether ministerial policy statements should be legislative instruments; whether the regulation of equipment should be left to delegated legislation; and whether the ACMA should be able to exempt people from the compliance provisions in the act by legislative instrument. The committee also asked that further information be included in an addendum to the explanatory memorandum, which I understand will be tabled by the minister.

In closing, I emphasise the importance of getting spectrum reform right, given the far-reaching consequences of the changes, and the government's inconsistency on the policy scope and delay in the delivery of these reforms. Labor supports this bill and emphasises that getting spectrum reform right is not a set-and-forget task. It is imperative that the government develop a clear reform agenda as the experience of operating under the new framework informs future reforms. As Chris Althaus, the CEO of AMTA, said to the committee inquiry on the bill:

If there were a lesson to be learned from this whole process—and this is really important from our point of view—it is that, with such a dynamic environment , government needs to stay more attuned to the incremental changes that could be applied to the new act in the next licence period, for example. So there's been a lesson learned, I think: we all need to stay attuned to change and adapt. That's becoming more and more important, given not only the complexity of the spectrum environment but also its fundamental importance, as we've seen during COVID, to how we live our lives. We've got to get it to an optimal level at every step, and, if we need to do that through incremental change, so be it.

To that end, I move the second reading amendment circulated in my name:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes:

(1) the economic value of electromagnetic spectrum in Australia has been estimated at $177 billion over 15 years;

(2) the rapid evolution of technology and markets is placing increasing demands on spectrum management;

(3) the cost and complexity of failing to strike the right balance between flexibility and certainty in spectrum management;

(4) the work of the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills, the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights on the proposed reforms; and

(5) that the proposed reforms do not address all of the recommendations of the 2015 Spectrum Review report and were introduced over three years after the Government’s own timetable for implementation".

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment.

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Greenway has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House, I will state the question in the form that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question. I understand it is the wish of the House to debate this order of the day concurrently with the Radiocommunications (Receiver Licence Tax) Amendment Bill 2020 and the Radiocommunications (Transmitter Licence Tax) Amendment Bill 2020. There being no objection, the chair will allow that course to be followed.

6:51 pm

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to first of all thank the member for Greenway for giving a fine second reading amendment speech but also for her constant commitment to community radio and television. The member for Greenway and I have had many conversations over the last few months about some of the stresses that community media organisations have felt because of the mismanagement of the frequencies by this government. These are not big media organisations; these are community organisations that are crucial to the multicultural fabric of different corners of our communities. The member for Greenway understands this deeply and properly and has been a champion for those small local organisations, especially in my electorate, of which I will talk a little bit later in this contribution. I just want to note on record that the member for Greenway has been a champion for those local organisations and it has been much appreciated.

This bill, the Radiocommunications Legislation Amendment (Reform and Modernisation) Bill 2020, is a bit overdue, but it is a bill whose importance we on this side of the House understand. Obviously, with the frequencies changing and the technology changing over time, so must the governance arrangements for them. I'm going to focus my remarks more heavily today on the organisations that this bill affects—organisations that, as I previously mentioned, have really gone through a difficult time because of the way in which this government has not prioritised the community media landscape and has not prioritised TV, radio and other forms of community media.

Community broadcasting does a few things. First of all, community broadcasting can be the connection for communities, especially multicultural communities. In my electorate of McNamara, we have a number of big public housing buildings where there are many apartments. A number of the people who live there are migrants who came to this country with nothing and have made this their home. English is not their first language, and often they watch programming in their first language on community television, on channel 31. Every time I go and visit my friends who are public housing tenants, I walk out with a sense of pride and a sense of community and togetherness that they have been able to foster after being welcomed in Australia. I am proud of our public housing community. They watch community television. They watch television that's not in English. They watch television that makes them feel at home, and we need to support them. That's what community media organisations are all about. They're about supporting different communities—not trying to appeal to a large group of people but trying to appeal to a group of people who don't otherwise get programs that are relevant and purpose built for their community.

Sputnik TV is one of those great local programs. It is a Russian broadcasting program that has been around for over 20 years. I remember when my friend Gregory, who is one of the producers of Sputnik TV, called me in a panic when Channel 31 was set to be shut down by this government. This is a guy who has dedicated literally decades of his life to try and put on television—not to make money off it but to try and give his community a voice and a sense of home and belonging in my electorate. This government made Gregory and others like him go, unnecessarily, through a really anxious period, when the uncertainty around community television and community broadcasting was heightened. Instead of managing and supporting local community television, local community organisations like Sputnik TV and people like Gregory—who is a wonderful person—the government dragged these community organisations along, didn't commit to anything and then told them, at the eleventh hour, that community TV was going to be removed in Melbourne. That was devastating for programs like Sputnik TV and The Shtick. I note the presence in the chamber of the member for Gellibrand, who appeared with me on a recent episode of The Shtick. It was one of the highest-rating episodes of The Shtick.

Mr Watts interjecting

As the member for Gellibrand likes to remind me, he brought the magic that day. The issue that the member for Gellibrand and I appeared in relation to was this unfortunate stress that the government had placed on community TV organisations. My friend Henry, who is the producer, the star, the director and the driving force behind it, has documented Jewish life in Melbourne for over 600 episodes and has done it in his living room. He has never received a cent of any government support over that whole period—over hundreds and hundreds of episodes. He has driven this project that enriches community life and enriches the uniqueness of our multicultural community and our multicultural life.

Yet this government didn't understand that you can't just drag these organisations along and not provide some certainty. In fact, the government told these organisations that Channel 31 in Melbourne didn't have a future. Channel 31 is not a commercial moneymaker. It's there to enrich Melburnians lives and to give people who are from all different corners of the globe a voice and a platform that they should have. This government dragged programs like The Shtick and like Sputnik TV to the absolute breaking point. They were told they didn't have a future. That was devastating. It was hard to accept. Thankfully, because of the pushing and stressing of people on this side of the House, the government did, at the very, very last moment, reverse their decision to shut down Channel 31—after they had announced it was going to be closed—and extended it for one year. But that's not good enough. The fight isn't over. The government shouldn't just postpone Channel 31's demise; the government should make sure that there is no demise of Channel 31 and other community TV programs and community television platforms. It is not enough to reform some of the governance arrangements. The government actually needs to make sure we're supporting the different corners of our community and the different voices who need a platform in our community.

It's not just TV. I know that you, Deputy Speaker Zimmerman, are a big fan of community radio. And I, as a younger, budding politician, cut my teeth on community radio. The first radio interview I ever did was on J-AIR, on a Tuesday night at 8 o'clock. I sent my mum a text saying, 'Mum, listen, I'm going to be on the radio,' and the frequency was so bad that she didn't even get the frequency at home! But it was a great example. J-AIR was the radio station I was on, and I'll actually acknowledge the member for Goldstein who, in this place, moved a motion urging the government to give J-AIR a frequency and a permanent home on the radio frequencies, and, thankfully, the government has done that. So I acknowledge the member for Goldstein's work in that. He pushed that.

Community radio has been a home and a place where people have learnt their craft, and it has produced stars. One of those stars lives in my electorate: John Safran, who is an identity in St Kilda. He cut his teeth on community radio. He was also briefly on community TV, on Channel 31, and then on SRA-FM and SYN, as it was known then, before he became too famous. And now he is living the high life! But I take this moment to acknowledge John and his commitment to community television and community radio in our electorate.

I will also take this moment to acknowledge one other great radio station—a great local radio station—in JOY FM. JOY FM is the voice of the LGBTIQ community in Melbourne. It is a brilliant organisation that gives voice to people and to a community. It is all about being proud and embracing LGBTIQ life in Melbourne. I'm absolutely delighted to say that, in my electorate, in St Kilda, the Pride Centre is being built. It is going to do wonderful things in Fitzroy Street in St Kilda, as it's going to be a hub of community life. But it is also going to be the home of JOY radio, and I look forward to being interviewed in the new studio in St Kilda when that project is finished. I give a shout out to my friends Macca and Tass, who are the Saturday morning presenters on Saturday Magazine. Macca likes to remind me that it is the highest-rating podcast of all the JOY FM shows; so, if it's not, you can take that up with Macca!

But, in all seriousness, community radio and community television are not about the big bucks. They're not about big corporations. They're about people who turn up and try and add a sense of home to our communities and a sense of culture and vibrancy to Melbourne life. These last few months in Melbourne have been some of the most challenging that I think any Victorian has had to go through. It is so wonderful to be able to come back and to know that the great state of Victoria is in a much better place than it was a few months ago. But, in those times of quietness and loneliness and of people being isolated, that sense of community and togetherness is something that needs to be rebuilt, and the way in which people can gather and connect with other people is not through programs that may appeal to everyone; it's through programs that have a uniqueness and celebrate the different parts of multicultural Australia, the different parts of community life in Australia and the different individuals that live in this wonderful country.

I would echo the comments made by the member for Greenway that Labor does support this bill. We do support the updating of arrangements for regulations around radio communications. But it is not good enough to set these regulations and to forget about the people who rely on them—to forget about the small local organisations that we are all so proud of and that we love attending as local MPs and as people who celebrate our local communities. So I would conclude by saying that this bill is important not in order to forget the people but in order to remind us of the work we need to do to support our wonderful local community organisations—the wonderful people who give up their time, not for glory but for others and for the very fabric that makes Melbourne a wonderful multicultural community, makes Victoria a wonderful multicultural state and makes Australia a wonderful multicultural country.

7:06 pm

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to start my comments on this long-awaited bill before the House tonight, the Radiocommunications Legislation Amendment (Reform and Modernisation) Bill 2020, by acknowledging the contribution of the member for Macnamara and providing a shout-out to that outstanding community television show that he referred to earlier, The Shtickan institution of the Melbourne Jewish community that I've had the privilege to appear on. As the member for Macnamara pointed out, it's a salient reminder to us that, in any debate about communications policy or technology policy, the reason we're really here relates to what these technologies, these infrastructures, can do to enable human-to-human interaction and to enable the communities we all serve here today.

As I was saying, I'm delighted to be able to speak on this long-awaited bill. Spectrum policy is a real passion of mine. It's the geekiest part of communications policy. It's where the pointiest heads of economics get together with the pointiest heads of physics and the pointiest heads of network engineering, and they all make something so impossibly complex but so incredibly important to our modern society. In a previous life I had the privilege of working on spectrum policy in the commercial sector, and I can tell you that the combinatorial clock spectrum auction model is an outstanding conversational topic for any situation; I recommend it to all members in the chamber for first dates! It goes really well—some really engaging material.

Spectrum policy is complex, but it's consequential; it's crucial. Radiofrequency radcoms spectrum management is like land title management for a new settlement. With the rapid pace of change in the communications sector you could think of radcoms spectrum management as being like a land title system during a gold rush: rapidly changing and asking: 'How do we establish the rules of conduct in a land grab? What are the rules of the road so that the radcoms spectrum used by a microwave doesn't interfere with your television reception and doesn't stop you from being able to watch The Shtick on community television in Melbourne? What are the rules of the road to make sure that your garage door opener doesn't interfere with your wi-fi router or that Telstra's 5G mobile network doesn't interfere with Optus's 5G network?'

We don't want radcoms spectrum management to be like a 21st century Deadwood, with device manufacturers operating like modern-day Al Swearengens. In that gold-rush, no-rules, winner-takes-all scenario, you really want to have government setting the rules of the road. It's not a free-for-all in Australia. For some time now, we've had rules to grant exclusive licences to some and to provide rules for management of shared spectrum spaces for others. But the current framework is nearly 30 years old, and we can always manage spectrum more efficiently. New technologies enable new uses and new ways of sharing and utilising spectrum. So we do need the regulatory framework for spectrum management to evolve with the times to incorporate these new potential uses, and that's what the bill before the House is about.

The bill before the House is a response to these changes in the technological landscape and seeks to modernise the policy and regulatory framework by adding flexibility and offering regulatory streamlining and efficiency. It goes to a range of aspects of spectrum management. The objects of the act are clarified, and the respective roles of the minister and the ACMA in spectrum management are clarified. There are changes streamlining the allocation and reallocation processes for spectrum management of licence types, equipment supply regulation, and compliance and enforcement.

As I said earlier, Labor broadly supports these changes because they are the result of very significant consultation with stakeholders in the sector. I, and Labor, want to acknowledge the industry stakeholders that have participated in many round tables, meetings, consultations and rounds of submissions at considerable time and cost. I also want to recognise the public servants and the employees at the regulators who have been working to settle the reforms in this complex area for years—in fact, for many years. By this stage, the Morrison government's habit of being there for the photo op, but not being there for the follow-up, is well-established. Ironically for a bill about streamlining and increasing the efficiency of regulation, the process of bringing this bill to the House today has been utterly shambolic. It's a shambolic policymaking process that we have seen across the communications portfolio since this minister took on the job, but this bill does stand out for the dithering and squibbing of big decisions over time. The communications portfolio is supposed to be where you find the cutting-edge technology. But the infrastructure that gets the most work in the current communication minister's office are the bookshelves heaving with neglected and ignored regulatory reviews, waiting for a government response and action. They're slower than the 14.4 kilobits-per-second fax modem that I begged my father to connect in 1995. There's perhaps no better example of this dithering and slow movement in policymaking than the bill before the House.

This is a bill whose genesis can be traced to the Turnbull era. No, not the Turnbull prime ministership, but the former member for Wentworth's stint as communications minister in 2014. Malcolm Turnbull, as communications minister, initiated the review process that is the source for the reforms in this bill before the House in May 2014. The then Department of Communications and the ACMA handed the product of this spectrum review to the minister in March 2015. The government agreed to all of the recommendations of this report and set itself an ambitious timetable to implement the recommendations over the next two years—an ambitious implementation target that they then proceeded to miss by three years. In the time that we have spent waiting for the report and the response to the spectrum review to be implemented by this government, we've seen three prime ministers. We've seen Malcolm Turnbull moved on from being the communications minister to become the Prime Minister, to then being deposed as the Prime Minister, to resigning from the parliament altogether. We've seen the entirety of the rise and fall of Donald Trump as US president while this bill inched its way through the bureaucracy of the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments. Well, almost. We're nearly there.

The government department that undertook the original review, jointly with the ACMA, the Department of Communications, is no more. It's been absorbed into the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. Political careers have started and ended. Bureaucracies have risen and fallen in the time that it has taken this bill to reach this chamber. And this in one of the fastest moving areas of policy that we confront as legislators. There are real-world consequences for this laggard action. Spectrum auctions are being conducted without the benefit of the streamlining and efficiencies to the regulatory framework outlined in this bill. It's no way to make policy. But it's the policy process—and I use the term fairly loosely—that we've come to expect from this government, particularly in the communications portfolio.

We saw another extraordinary example of the shambolic policymaking process in communications policy in this country earlier this week with the passage of the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Regional Commercial Radio and Other Measures) Bill that the minister took through this chamber, finally. It wasn't the contents of that bill that were extraordinary; the bill represented relatively minor, though desperately needed, regulatory relief for regional media outlets. Labor was happy to support those measures and to facilitate the expeditious passage of that bill through the parliament. However, what was extraordinary was the process that preceded that bill's passage through this House. The fact that the bill was necessary at all was extraordinary. In September 2017, Malcolm Turnbull released a series of changes to media laws addressing the very issues dealt with by the broadcasting services amendment bill which he described as 'a new era for Australia's media'. He boasted:

The government is strengthening Australia's media industry, enhancing media diversity and securing local journalism jobs, particularly in regional areas.

Unfortunately, this new era for Australia's media, particularly in regional areas, lasted only three years. Less than three years later, the explanatory memorandum for the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Regional Commercial Radio and Other Measures) Bill 2020 stated:

The Department is of the view that broadcasters' difficulties in meeting content requirements can be taken to be an early warning sign of market failure.

The Australian Financial Review summed it up with the headline, 'Regional TV on the verge of market failure'—market failures that would limit regional Australians' access to Australian content and entirely unaddressed by the new era of regulation proclaimed by the Turnbull reforms of three years earlier. In the face of that market failure, however, the government dithered and then tinkered around the regulatory edges, proposing a bill that represented much-needed but modest regulatory relief for regional operators.

What followed the drafting of this bill—which was of modest regulatory relief, uncontroversial, and neither challenged nor impeded by the opposition—was one of the most bizarre parliamentary processes that any bill has seen in this House for quite some time. First we saw a crazy rush—a headlong crash-through. The bill was brought on for debate just days after it was introduced, in the June sitting. It was such a rush that the government guillotined debate on the previous bill without allowing a single opposition speaker, in an extraordinary trashing of parliamentary convention, bringing the bill to debate at a headlong speed. You might conclude there was a speedy passage through the House. It was not to be. Despite the rush, the government then proceeded to do nothing. The bill was listed on the Notice Paper for debate in the next five consecutive sittings, and nothing happened. Those of us on this side of the House who are interested in these things were left watching, sitting day after sitting day, wondering: 'When will the bill get its day in the sun? Will it be this sitting week or the next?' It was quite bizarre. More significantly, industry stakeholders who were relying on this regulatory relief were also left waiting and wondering. Just as stakeholders in the radcom spectrum bill currently before the House have been left waiting and wondering for years and years.

Stakeholders for the broadcasting services amendment were kept waiting until this week—five months after the chaotic introduction of the bill into this House. I'm sure even the minister's own department was incredibly frustrated at being left wondering just when they would be able to get to work on implementing the bill. We know that those opposite feel that, once the photo-op is done, once the media release is released, once the doorstop is held, it's job done. They're not there for the follow-up; they're not there for the implementation. We have seen time and time again that this government are simply not interested in getting the detail right. This bill before us in the House has been more than five years in the making. It's gone to the bottom of the to-do pile of multiple communication ministers in the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government—a really crowded place to be. And, when they finally did get around to doing it, the bill was hurriedly introduced. This is a government that talks the talk on spectrum reform but doesn't walk the walk. We find, when we get into the detail, that the government hasn't dotted their i's and crossed their t's. They haven't listened to the expert on what this reform could be, and should be, with a bit of extra gumption.

I want to particularly highlight the missed opportunity in the area of 5G that the member for Greenway has highlighted in the second reading amendment before the House. As the member for Greenway has noted, Labor appreciates the need to get spectrum reform right. We understand the costs and complexity of failing to strike the right balance between flexibility and certainty when it comes to spectrum management. The missed opportunity to get 5G right in this bill has been particularly concerning. My colleague, the member for Greenway, noted that this was addressed by Professor Jock Given and Mr Giles Tanner—who are quite august figures in this policy space—in their submission to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts' inquiry into the deployment, adoption and application of 5G in Australia. These guys are the experts. They highlighted the shortcomings in the bill that is before the House and the effects that this missed opportunity might have on the rollout of 5G. The rollout of 5G matters—particularly given the way the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government has bungled the NBN. Given and Tanner made this recommendation:

The ACMA's power to re-issue spectrum licences in the public interest and the Minister's power to make class of services determinations should be reviewed …

So the fact that this bill doesn't address that recommendation is particularly concerning.

Labor understands the importance of getting spectrum reform right. Its value to the Australian economy is estimated at $177 billion over 15 years. It underpins many of the areas of ICT policy that are so crucial to so much of our internet-connected economy today. We know it's a complex area of policy, and failing to strike the right balance between flexibility and certainty on spectrum management is costly. It's an unseen cost, it's an inefficiency in the background of our day-to-day economy, but it's there and we all pay the price. The lack of follow-through from the government on the broadcasting services bill has left regional media in crisis and has deepened the underlying trends that that bill had purported to address. That's why it's disappointing that the government has failed to be across the detail. The work has been done everywhere but in the bill. The industry deserves better—a more expeditious, more streamlined and more efficient communications policymaking process—and all Australians deserve better. A future Albanese government will deliver that for the benefit of all Australians.

7:20 pm

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to support the Radiocommunications Legislation Amendment (Reform and Modernisation) Bill 2020. Australia's radiofrequency spectrum is a critical national resource and it needs a robust and flexible regulatory framework to respond to our evolving communication industries. Our spectrum is estimated to be worth $177 billion over the next 15 years, with ACMA managing more than 170,000 radio communication licences. This legislation is the result of an extensive and exhaustive review—a process that began back in 2014. From this developed a targeted set of amendments which will add flexibility and provide greater certainty.

I'd like to touch on a few of the issues that were raised in the Senate committee inquiry—firstly, the concern that the ABC and the SBS, with their special status as national broadcasters, are not explicitly recognised as vital non-commercial users of the spectrum in the objects of the act. I think this is a flaw. This omission leads to their concerns about how their role as public broadcasters is prioritised by ACMA in the public interest test for the assessment of licence applications and renewals. In light of the budget cuts to our national broadcasters and the intense government scrutiny of the ABC in recent times, I believe it is reasonable for our public broadcasters to seek reassurance that they won't be made to jump any additional hurdles under the new public interest test for long-term licence applications. The ABC and the SBS hold a unique position in Australian society and in our democracy. They should be identified as priority users of our spectrum.

Centre Alliance also maintains that the ABC and the SBS should be adequately funded. The ABC has experienced a 30 per cent fall in funding in real terms since the mid-1980s. Imagine what resources the ABC would have now if they'd received that 8c per day per head of population. In addition to dealing with having less income, the management of the ABC also have to face inquiries into the ABC's charter, its competitive neutrality, its rural services and its scrutiny of government. There is absolutely no question in my mind that, for years, we have seen a war on the ABC by this government. This war has to stop.

Australians are also deeply unhappy about the level of advertising on the SBS. The SBS needs advertising income to support its programming. The ABC and the SBS need at least equal-share access to the spectrum, if not priority access, so they can continue to reach their key audiences in new and innovative ways as technology and viewer tastes evolve. Many people have been emailing me saying they don't want to see so many ads on the SBS. They don't want to see gambling ads on the SBS. But it continues to happen because the SBS needs to receive that revenue in order to operate. I would urge the government to reconsider this matter with respect to the SBS. Viewers don't want to see advertising. In particular, they don't want to see gambling advertising. I would urge the government to better support the SBS so that it doesn't need to have so much advertising.

Another issue raised in submissions to the committee inquiry was that community television should be allowed to continue free to air for the public. There has been a push by this government for the policy, since 2014, that community television would transition to the internet. And yet, there's no real reason for that. There's no real need for that. It doesn't cost the government money. It provides such joy to so many people in my community. They get to watch free-to-air local church services and they get to watch local exercise programs. Community television is just that: it is all about community. I have a fantastic community television station in South Australia. It's Channel 44. It's very well loved. During the COVID pandemic, it actually increased in viewers by 27 per cent—that is, up to 57,000 viewers. As I said, local church services, for people who couldn't attend church, were on for people to watch, still feel part of the community and participate in that church service.

Despite COVID, Channel 44 is creating new television shows. Just recently, Tracey Tito has worked with Channel 44 to create her own fishing show called Just a girl. It's about all women on a fishing boat. They're going out catching in South Australian waters. It's a fantastic show that I really love. I've been out on Tracey's boat, and I'm looking forward to potentially being in one of the episodes in future months, when the weather is good. I love my fishing, as I think everyone in this place knows. This is just another example of the great work that Channel 44 does, so I would say to the minister: 'Be a hero in this place. Be a hero for our community, and actually provide the certainty so they're not begging, cap in hand, year after year, for the continuation of the community television broadcast licence.' The licence is not intended to be used for any other purpose for the next five years, so, why not provide that level of certainty to community television and to our broader community. I think it's incredibly valuable, very well needed, and that's what we're all about in this place: supporting our community.

7:27 pm

Photo of Luke HowarthLuke Howarth (Petrie, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Radio frequency spectrum is a vital resource which underpins many aspects of Australia's digital economy, such as the operation of fixed and mobile wireless communication networks. It is essential that spectrum is effectively managed so that it can be made available for innovations, such as supporting the rollout of 5G in Australia.

With markets and technology having changed markedly since the current legislative framework took effect, there's clear need to update that framework. Spectrum not being allocated quickly and easily imposes unnecessary costs on both industry and government. It slows the pace of innovation being driven by emerging technology and the enthusiasm of the sector to make better and more creative use of the spectrum. The amendments covered by the bills focus on priority reforms identified through the recommendations of the government's spectrum review and the outcomes of further consultation processes undertaken in 2017 and in recent months. The proposed changes provide a framework that allow the regulator and market to innovate and adapt in line with changing circumstances. Key recommendations include clarifying the object of the act, and the roles of the minister and the ACMA; streamlining the spectrum allocation and reallocation processes; improving flexibility and reducing regulatory barriers between licence types, better reflecting modern spectrum needs and supply chains; and introducing a modernisation compliance and enforcement regime. These bills are designed to add flexibility to the legislative framework, remove unnecessary prescription on legislative barriers and streamline processes. In the passage of this bill, we can ensure the spectrum management framework is suitable for our rapidly changing environment. I express my thanks to all honourable members for their contribution to this debate on these bills. The passage of these bills will modernise the management of spectrum and radio communications in Australia.

In addition, I extend my thanks to all stakeholders who contributed to the development of the bills during public consultation. The feedback received from stakeholder submissions assisted in refining the reforms so that they can deliver the intended benefits to the many diverse users of spectrum in Australia. Finally, I wish to thank the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee for their inquiry into the reforms, which recommended that the bills be passed.

I table an addendum to the explanatory memorandum in response to the comments raised by the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills. In summary, these bills provide a clear reform pathway to modernise our spectrum management framework. The bills will modernise the management of spectrum in Australia and allow industry to better adapt to future innovations, including the rollout of future generation wireless technology. I commend the bills to the House.