Wednesday, 16 August 2006
Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2005 
Debate resumed from 23 June 2005, on motion by Senator Patterson:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I welcome the opportunity to finally debate the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2005 . I do note the absence of the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts in the chamber. I guess that the world of fast-moving telecommunications and broadcasting is leaving her a little lagging—like our broadband speeds.
Copious notes. It has now been 14 months since this legislation was introduced into the parliament. This is not a record—I will be fair to Senator Coonan—but it has been 14 months since this bill was brought before the chamber. This brief piece of legislation is important for television viewers in remote areas of Australia, where there are only two commercial services on the market. The bill will assist commercial free-to-air broadcasters to deliver digital television to Australians living in these areas. If commercial broadcasters take up the options made available with this bill, viewers in places like Kalgoorlie, Port Hedland and Geraldton will be able to experience the superior picture and sound quality of digital television. They will also have the benefit of an additional commercial television service. Labor welcomes these improved services for people living in remote Australia and will support the passage of this legislation through the parliament.
This bill is also important for another reason. It allows the Senate to examine the progress that Australia has made in the transition to digital television and the government’s recently announced policy changes in its media package. These are issues that I will return to later in my remarks.
First I would like to deal with the specific measures contained in this bill. The Broadcasting Services Act sets out a framework for the provision of digital services by metropolitan and regional television licensees. Digital television transmissions began in metropolitan areas in 2001 and in most parts of regional Australia in 2004. The rollout of the infrastructure for digital broadcasting has progressed well. Free-to-air digital TV is available to 85 per cent of Australian households. The state capitals and 31 regional centres have access to all of their existing free-to-air television channels in digital. However, the Broadcasting Services Act does not contain any provisions which set a date for the commencement of digital broadcasting in remote licence areas. This reflects the fact that population density is low in remote licence areas and, typically, many retransmission sites are required to reach the audience.
These factors make the transition to digital broadcasting very expensive for licensees in remote areas. This legislation aims to reduce those costs and to increase the incentive for incumbent broadcasters to invest in digital transmission facilities. In remote areas where there are only two commercial television licensees servicing the market, broadcasters will be permitted—either individually or through the establishment of a joint venture company—to broadcast a new digital-only service.
The new service will also broadcast the digital version of the existing analog services on the same channel. In other words, commercial broadcasters in remote licence areas will be able to multichannel. Currently this is not an option open to commercial broadcasters in non-remote areas. In order to reduce the costs of establishing a new digital service, the bill offers broadcasters in remote areas relief from the high-definition quota. In metropolitan and regional markets, licensees are required to broadcast 1,040 hours per year in high-definition digital format. This bill allows remote licensees to elect to broadcast only in standard definition format. The ability to opt out of high-definition broadcasting will significantly reduce the costs of providing digital services in remote areas.
Labor understands that, on the basis of the provisions of this bill, Prime and WIN have indicated that they will form a joint venture company to introduce a new digital-only service in remote Western Australia in 2007. The new service will consist primarily of content from the Ten Network. Over time, these changes could lead to the commencement of digital services in other remote licence areas in the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales. Labor welcomes these measures to give broadcasters and viewers an incentive to invest in digital television and will support their passage through the Senate.
It is not only remote Australia, however, where policy changes are required in order to drive the take-up of digital TV. It is now more than five years since free-to-air digital television broadcasts began in this country. So far, take-up has been disappointingly slow. According to industry data, only around 20 per cent of households have purchased the necessary equipment to receive terrestrial digital free-to-air broadcasts. If you add in the households which receive digital television through pay TV, take-up rises to around 30 per cent, but not all of these households can receive the digital free-to-air channels.
Back in 2000, the government set a target to switch off analog broadcasting by the end of 2008. Of course, it has been clear for some time that there is no way this target can be met. The minister has been forced to accept this reality. Last month, as part of the government’s media policy framework, the minister announced that she has postponed digital switch-over until some time between 2010 and 2012. That is only a target; it is not a firm date. The minister has stated that she does not want to overstate the chances that Australia will achieve switch-over by 2012. The fact is that Australia can ill afford another slippage in the timetable for digital transition.
Earlier this month Senator Coonan stated that the new switch-over target aligns Australia with most comparable countries. While the targets may be aligned, digital take-up in Australia lags far behind comparable countries like the United States, Britain, Germany, Ireland, Canada, Norway and Sweden—just to name a few. If we are to achieve switch-over in a similar time frame, the government needs to aggressively drive digital. A complacent ‘she’ll be right’ approach will not get us there. So far the signs that the government will introduce the policy settings required to make switch-over by 2012 a credible objective are not good.
Last month the minister announced that the government will develop a digital action plan to drive take-up. That is right—the government has committed to a plan. After 10 years of the Howard government, five years of digital broadcasting, two years of this minister and 12 months of intensive consultations with the industry, we have a plan to have a plan. There is no detail on how switch-over will be coordinated. There is still no requirement that analog equipment be properly labelled so that consumers will know that it needs to be replaced or converted when switch-over occurs. It also remains unclear whether Australia will follow the US and phase in a requirement that new televisions include a digital tuner. There is still no plan to get community television on to a digital platform. Australia must be the only country in the world where a consumer invests in digital television and they get access to fewer television services. What a stunning achievement!
Another significant policy gap is the fact that no details have been provided on what assistance will be available to ensure that the disadvantaged are not left staring at a blank screen when switch-over occurs. In the US, congress has allocated nearly $US1 billion to subsidise the purchase of set-top boxes. In Britain, up to £400,000 will be set aside from BBC licence fees to assist the disadvantaged to switch. The task of achieving digital switch-over is a huge policy challenge. In the UK, where 72.5 per cent of households have access to digital TV, it is estimated that only 40 per cent of televisions have been converted.
Most families have more than one television. Getting one set-top box into each household will not be enough to allow switch-over to proceed. So far the efforts of the government and the industry to garner community support for digital transition have been spectacularly unsuccessful. Late last year ACMA released research on the views of people who had not yet made the switch to digital. It found that 17 per cent of respondents had never heard of digital television, 45 per cent did not know if digital services were even available in their area, 42 per cent said that they were just not interested in switching to digital and 38 per cent were not aware that digital television will replace the current analog service. ACMA’s research demonstrates that a concerted campaign is required to inform consumers about the benefits of switching to digital and to explain the process of transition. Australia’s slow progress on digital means that consumers are missing out on services that are being taken for granted in other developed countries.
A delayed transition to digital also has the potential to damage our economy. Digital broadcasting is far more efficient in its use of spectrum. There are large gains to be made from freeing up the spectrum currently used for analog broadcasting for alternative services like wireless broadband or new television channels. This digital dividend—the benefit of redeploying the spectrum currently used for analog broadcasting—could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Australia. In Britain, the government has estimated that the digital dividend is worth up to £2.2 billion for the UK economy. It is an indication of the Howard government’s indolence on digital policy that it has not even bothered to estimate the benefits of full digital transition. Of course, it is no mystery why it has not done that sort of work; it would only highlight the real cost to Australia of the flawed policies that the government has pursued over the last few years which have held back digital television.
Rapid transition to digital is important for the local television production industry. As consumers around the world move to embrace digital applications, like interactive television, Australian producers must keep up or risk losing export markets. A lengthy transition to digital television also imposes a direct cost on the Commonwealth budget. According to the minister’s own figures, every year around $75 million is required to meet the analog broadcasting costs of the ABC and SBS and to assist regional broadcasters—$75 million every year because we cannot get our act together.
There is a clear economic imperative to get to digital switch-over as soon as practicable. Evidence from Australia and around the world has shown that the best way to drive digital take-up is to allow media companies to provide consumers with access to attractive new content. However, in last month’s media policy statement, the government made only modest steps in this direction. There will be new digital services but they will be carefully circumscribed ‘niche’ services to ensure that they do not threaten incumbent broadcasters. The minister has suggested that there may be a boating channel or a classified advertising channel. That is right: hundreds of millions of dollars worth of spectrum will be used for a boating channel. It is highly unlikely—with no disrespect to people who own boats—that many consumers will rush out to buy a digital set-top box to access a boating channel.
Labor is concerned that the conditions on the minister’s promised new and innovative services will be so restrictive that they will not be attractive to media companies or prospective viewers. We have already been down the path where the government tried to create a new category of digital broadcasting by legislation. It was called datacasting and it was a policy disaster. The Interactive Television Research Institute, based at Perth’s Murdoch University, has described datacasting as ‘the single worst digital policy implemented in any national digital transition strategy globally’. That is right: we are the worst in the world. This policy blunder must not be repeated.
The other suggested use of the unallocated spectrum is for mobile television. No doubt mobile television will appeal to many consumers. It will do nothing, however, to bring digital switch-over any closer. By definition, these services will not be available on the household TV. They may allow us to sit somewhere other than the footy ground, watching Hawthorn or Collingwood. Madam Acting Deputy President Troeth, you will be able to pull out your mobile TV and keep track of how Hawthorn are losing to Collingwood again. But these services will not be available on the household TV.
Labor does welcome the government’s decision to allow free-to-air broadcasters to run a second digital-only channel, or a multichannel, as it is known. Again, however, the government has sought to limit the potential of the new technology. Until 2009, broadcasters will only be able to multichannel in high-definition format. That means that you will not be able to sit there and watch all of the Hawthorn matches over and over again from each season in the last few years. I know that that may excite you, Madam Acting Deputy President, and that you are going to rush out and buy one of these set-top boxes to watch those Hawthorn replays over and over again, but I suspect that that is not going to be a great turn-on for the rest of us. High-definition equipment is at least three times more expensive than standard definition equipment. Only around seven per cent of Australian households have HD equipment. It must be doubtful whether any commercial broadcaster will target a market that small.
There is only one measure in the media framework that promises to deliver attractive extra content to consumers in the short term. The government has agreed to relax the absurd genre restrictions which currently limit what the ABC and SBS can show on their digital channels. Labor welcomes this decision. Lifting the genre restrictions is a policy that the opposition has advocated since before the last election. Under the current rules, the ABC and SBS are permitted to multichannel. The ABC has used these provisions to establish ABC2 and SBS has launched a world news channel. The national broadcasters are to be commended for their determination to drive digital take-up, despite their limited resources. But the efforts of the national broadcasters to stimulate consumer interest in digital TV have been hamstrung by the genre rules. The ABC cannot show a national news bulletin, national current affairs programs or drama on ABC2. Similarly, while SBS can broadcast foreign language bulletins on its world news channel, it is not able to broadcast English language bulletins from countries like Germany, Israel or New Zealand. The genre restrictions make distinctions which are arbitrary and illogical. For example, ABC2 is permitted to broadcast ‘public policy programs’ such as Insiders but not current affairs programs like The 7.30 Report.
In the UK, extra channels and interactive services offered by the BBC have made an important contribution to generating consumer demand for digital. Under its new charter, the BBC will be given a leading role in building a digital Britain. Labor believes that our national broadcasters need to be given the regulatory freedom and financial resources to undertake a similar task in Australia. As I said, the minister has announced her intention to relax the genre restrictions as part of her media package. There is, however, no need to wait before taking action to improve the incentive for consumers to invest in digital television. The Senate should act today. Taxpayers have invested over $1 billion so that the national broadcasters could make the transition to digital broadcasting.
When this bill enters the committee stage, I will move amendments to immediately lift the genre restrictions. I hope that all senators interested in driving the take-up of digital television will support those amendments so that the digital chains can be lifted from our national broadcasters, and so that Senator Troeth can get her Hawthorn channel and Senator Kemp can get his Carlton channel—although, given that they are going for back-to-back wooden spoons, I am not sure that you are really going to want to sign up to that, Senator Kemp. As you know, Collingwood supporters are always behind Carlton winning another wooden spoon. (Time expired)
Following the second reading speech of the minister and the speech of the shadow minister, as the portfolio holder for the Democrats I want to indicate that the Australian Democrats also support the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2005  because it makes sense. It makes sense for commercial television licences to multichannel and be exempt from mandatory high-definition television quotas. This is good policy, it is sensible policy and I regret that the bill was not brought forward earlier.
The big question is one that Senator Conroy also posed: why does this provision apply only to remote areas of Australia? Why can’t it be enforced nationally and in the major metropolitan areas? Possibly it is because the commercial television interests in large metropolitan areas have lobbied the government so long and so hard that it dare not move a muscle or make an amendment that would in any way get its media allies offside. In case government members think that is harsh, I should say that there seems to be a universal, quite well-informed opinion that the government is extremely sensitive to the media allies—often described as media families or even media moguls—so it only implements policy that makes sense in remote areas, where the advertising revenue streams are limited and where the big media players have little interest in fighting for limited revenue streams. I hope that is not the reason, but that is a widespread belief.
In the remote licence areas, the government is willing to implement a policy that the ACCC identified in August 2004 as being ‘in the best interests of a competitive marketplace and in the interests of the consumer’. Note that that opinion is from August 2004, exactly two years ago. The minister and her government were lobbied very hard by big media interests in the late 1990s to ensure that the digital spectrum would be used only for high-definition television rather than multichannelling and datacasting. Everyone knows that high-definition television takes up substantial spectrum space and leaves too little room for multichannelling or datacasting or, to put it bluntly, more competition.
As the ACCC said in its 2004 report, the burden to prove that the benefits of a restrictive regulatory policy outweigh the costs should be on those who do not want change. The policy arguments put forward by the free-to-air television channels, except Channel 7, all supported high-definition television as the appropriate use of spectrum space and argued against multichannelling. The government’s current and proposed media policy do not allow open competition in the marketplace and do not provide conditions where a diversity of voices can be heard. Multichannelling would allow for diversity, it would allow for a relatively low entry cost into the media market—as would datacasting—and it would open the media market to niche competition.
So why until now has the government not supported multichannelling? Again, it is because the free-to-air media owners, looking at the American and British experience, knew that the coming of pay TV and satellite TV, along with broadband, would impact on their revenue streams. So the big media owners bought into pay TV and demanded that the government create a regulatory system that would allow them to get on their feet. That is not an uncommon position for people to advocate, and it has a long precedent. They demanded that the government implement policy which was at odds with the immediate opening of a free and competitive market. They did not want multichannelling in the metro areas because that would have been a threat to their immediate advertising revenue. That fear is apparently not borne out by independent studies into other media markets—the Australian market is a distinctive one—but that has not stopped the big players from arguing the point. So the free-to-air outfits fight over football rights and the antisiphoning list, but the bigger picture is missing. I know the government has been looking at it, but I know the government is also very alert to the sensitivities that surround this whole area.
So who benefits from high-definition television broadcasts? Just about nobody probably, except free-to-air television stations. They clog up the spectrum and keep competition at bay. I am really not too sure what benefits consumers get out of them. In 2004 the Seven Network commissioned a study of digital terrestrial television, known as DTT, by Spectrum Strategy Consultants, who are independent international consultants in media. The study pointed out that most mature television markets have multichannelling. More importantly, the consultants believed:
… if commercial free to air (FTA) broadcasters resisted the market evolution in Australia it would be contrary to the interests of consumers and detrimental to the Australian broadcasting market.
That is on page 1. When the government put forward the digital framework in 1998, they excluded multichannelling from consideration. This was not because they believed that multichannelling was bad for consumers, bad for the local production industry or bad for advertisers; it was simply because they wanted to protect the fledgling subscription television industry. If that was the motive then and it is okay to lift it now, why just lift it in one sector of the market? Surely it is time to lift it throughout the market.
The participants in that fledgling industry were of course PBL and News Ltd, along with the now semi-government-owned Telstra, sometimes described—by government members and by others—as an albatross around the neck of government. This government has shown itself to be the friend of big media owners, and so have past governments. The government likes to help out, where it can, to make conditions surrounding any new media ventures conducive to success for these media companies run by the media families, especially if they turn out to be quite helpful in getting a government elected. Again, it might be unkind to impute such a motive, but if anyone studying media does not think that in the minds of politicians the attitudes and predilections of the media families are not vital then they are not aware of how the democratic process works, not only in this country but in most democracies. We all realise that that is not the working of a competitive marketplace. That gives some of the players an advantage while others are paralysed by regulation or legislation which has insufficient or no good public policy reasons behind it.
In 1998 the subscription TV industry might have been considered a fledgling one. In 2006, in the first week of January, I note that Foxtel posted an operating profit after interest and tax for the first time. I should confess that I am a Foxtel subscriber, and I think they provide a very good service. So the government’s cotton-wool approach to Foxtel has paid off; the company is in the black. With the proposed new media framework in the wings, the government is now, with this bill, moving tentatively towards multichannelling and, hopefully, it will do so in the metropolitan area at large.
There are arguments that multichannelling impacts on advertising revenues for free-to-air stations—probably it does. But why should free-to-air stations receive treatment different from others in other industries and other sectors in the marketplace? Competition is widely promoted as a desirable fact of life in Australia, and the competing access to media means that free-to-air stations will simply need to work smarter and harder or diversify their product to retain consumer support and to therefore attract the revenue that is necessary to survive. No industry should expect long-term favourable treatment from the government, certainly not in return for what might be anticipated to be favourable television coverage of government politicians and issues.
The recent House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications, Information, Technology and the Arts report Digital television: who’s buying it? recommends that the program restrictions on multichannelling be removed no later than 2007—and that is only a couple of months away now. That is a fine idea and one which the Democrats support. However, everyone knows that multichannelling is a hard thing to achieve if there is not enough spectrum space. With the current requirements to provide the analog signal and high-definition television, there is too little spectrum space available to enable much multichannelling to happen.
As the ACCC pointed out in its submission to the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts in 2004, any changes to regulation regarding the spectrum had to be dealt with as a whole and could not be addressed in an ad hoc manner. That is essentially a situation that has been widely understood within the committee that deals with this and indeed in the remarks of the shadow minister, and certainly the minister and her staff are not blind to that issue either.
This legislation gives an exemption to licensees in remote areas from providing high-definition television and it enables them to multichannel. It is unclear to the Democrats why the government cannot implement a similar policy in metropolitan areas to achieve the same ends or, at the very least, outline a timetable by which this can happen. However, I will conclude on a very positive note—that is, that we welcome this bill and, of course, because of its particular effects on Western Australia, as a Western Australian senator I particularly welcome the bill. I look forward to the committee stage.
The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2005  is great news for the future of digital television in remote areas of my home state of Western Australia, and I am very pleased to see this bill introduced. It will provide a framework to implement the model agreed with WIN Television and Prime Television for the conversion of their commercial television broadcasting services in remote and regional Western Australia from analog to digital.
Section 38B of the Broadcasting Services Act will be amended to allow remote area licensees, who have elected to provide jointly a third digital service, to multichannel the three digital services on a single radio frequency channel. Importantly, this will also include an exemption from any high-definition digital television quotas that might otherwise be applied. This will mean they will have the benefit of standard digital television multichannelling throughout Western Australia.
This will allow for the joint provision by WIN and Prime of a third, digital-only, commercial television service for people living outside Perth. This service will operate alongside the two current services received in rural, remote and regional Western Australia. It will simplify the digital conversion process. All areas outside Perth have in fact been classified as remote. This is great news for regional Western Australians, who will, for the first time ever, be able to access the same level of television services available to those in the metropolitan area of Perth.
It is also great news for WIN and Prime because it represents a significant cost saving for them. Instead of having to establish and maintain two or three sets of digital transmission infrastructure with capacity for high-definition digital television, they will be able to establish only one shared set of infrastructure without the additional cost of investing in high-definition digital television equipment and significant and costly additional satellite capacity. The point of that, of course, is that the Australian digital regime does mandate that television companies in metropolitan areas at least should broadcast a certain amount of programming in high definition.
This decision represents a balance between the public interest in having access to a greater range of television programs and the special circumstances of remote area commercial television broadcasters, who face significant cost pressures due to the wide geographic area they serve and the sparseness of the populations in those areas. The low population creates very special problems for broadcasters in remote areas. For example, in Western Australia the broadcasters in remote areas are only able to reach a market one-third or one-half the size of the large eastern aggregated regional markets, but the geographical areas they service are often 10 to 25 times larger and, therefore, of course require a larger number of terrestrial transmitters. In fact, the remote-regional WA licence area has a population of only half a million in an area covering 2.5 million square kilometres, whereas the northern New South Wales licence area has a population of 1.9 million in a region covering only 132,000 square kilometres. So it is a very different commercial equation.
In 2004, the Australian Broadcasting Authority reported that the profits for remote area broadcasters were significantly lower than for those in major regional markets. The annual average profit per station in 2002-03 for aggregated regional stations was $9.1 million, and for remote area broadcasters it was only $900,000. In the same period, the average profit per head of population was $21 in aggregated regional markets but only $8 in remote area markets.
The bill will also provide significant savings to taxpayers because funding assistance to the broadcasters under the Regional Equalisation Plan is reduced. As a result, the total level of assistance to the WA broadcasters is approximately $10 million less over eight years than the original estimate, which was based on the broadcasters providing high-definition television services from their terrestrial transmitters.
This bill was introduced into the Senate on 23 June last year but, because Labor and the Greens have not been prepared to grant it non-controversial status, and, due to the weight of the government’s legislative program, debate on it has not been possible until today, more than a year later. As a result of the extensive delay, item 3 of schedule 1 to the bill will be deleted—meaning that ACMA will be able to use its existing discretion to set a revised date for the allocation of a third commercial digital service. ACMA has indicated that it will set a date within six months of the bill receiving royal assent, and is already in consultation with WIN and Prime to set that date. WIN and Prime have been developing plans for the introduction of their digital television services in remote Western Australia. I am advised that that planning is now well advanced. Provided that this legislation is passed, the broadcasters are planning to commence the digital transmission of their current services in 2007, with the new third service starting shortly thereafter. As I said at the beginning of my speech, this bill is further proof of the Howard government’s determination to ensure that those people living in rural, regional and remote areas of Australia have access to high-quality services and do not miss out on the advent of digital television.
I will quickly refer to Senator Conroy’s remarks about the government’s slow progress toward a date for digital conversion. Senator Conroy is misrepresenting the situation completely.
Indeed, Senator Kemp. Progress towards digital conversion has not been slow at all. It is a process under which agreements have to be reached with existing free-to-air television companies. And, of course, there has to be public demand, which is growing slowly. I am sure that once the public become aware of the benefits of digital television—better picture, the opportunity for multichannelling—then the demand for digital television will be very rapid indeed.
I spent some time in Sydney last Friday. I went to Foxtel in the morning. Foxtel offer a very large multichannelling digital service. They tell me that they now have one-third of the homes in Sydney on their service, which shows that digital television’s penetration is increasing. In the afternoon, I went to an exhibition that Sony had at the Hordern Pavilion, in Moore Park, where they were demonstrating their high-definition digital television product, which, I might say, was absolutely brilliant. The cost of the television sets is now dramatically reduced. As people realise the benefits and the quality of high-definition digital television, the demand for access to those services will grow very quickly indeed. Senator Conroy need not worry further about the conversion date, because, when we get there, the Australian public will be very happy to have digital television.
I am very pleased to contribute to this debate on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2005 . I note that, until Senator Eggleston rose to speak, there had been something of a lack of discussion about the contents of the bill itself.
This bill is a rather narrowly defined piece of legislation. It is, I should say, a very important one for the people of rural and remote Western Australia, but it is not a piece of legislation that covers the gamut of issues that have been raised by other speakers in the course of the debate. Nonetheless, acknowledging that these debates are an opportunity for some broadening of the base of discussion, I am pleased to acknowledge the importance of these particular proposals for the people of Western Australia. Senator Eggleston has very amply explained how this will make rational use of the available spectrum in Western Australia and how it will ensure that viewers in remote parts of that state, where vast distances are a significant issue, will be in a position to receive a quality service which is more commensurate with that available to viewers in metropolitan areas of Australia.
I particularly note that this is part of a very important program of the federal government to ensure that we carefully and prudently manage what is a finite resource—that is, the allocation of spectrum for digital broadcasting and for broadcasting generally—and ensure that we have a capacity to provide a high-quality and competitive service, one that meets the needs and expectations of Australian consumers and pays regard to the changing technological environment in which the rollout occurs so that, by the time the switch-over occurs, sometime after 2010, it will be possible for Australians to say that they have state of the art access to digital television, to high-definition television and to a suitable range of options with free-to-air broadcasting that reflect best practice from around the world.
I believe that the plan the government has put in place—and the Digital Action Plan will give flesh to that plan, as outlined by the minister in her statement earlier this year—is an effective way of achieving that goal. I hope that those who complain about this plan and have some criticism of its direction will at least do the Senate and the Australian public the courtesy of spelling out very clearly where it is that they would take Australia, if not in the direction which the government has announced.
I heard in Senator Conroy’s speech that the Labor Party endorses some of the policies that the government has announced—for example, the lifting of the genre restrictions on ABC and SBS television. I also note that the Labor Party opposes much else that is in the government’s package, or at least criticises the timing of that package and the timing of the decisions made under that package. But I still have a very significant lack of clarity or understanding about what the Australian Labor Party’s alternative vision is for digital rollout in Australia for access to multichannelling and related issues. I hope—perhaps a little forlornly—that that will be made clearer by other speakers in the course of this debate. I further note the point that has been made already that this bill has been criticised for having taken too long to reach the floor of the Senate. But I observe that if it had not been for the Labor Party refusing to give the bill non-controversial status, it might have been able to be debated in this place long before now.
So we have a very important piece of legislation on the table for the viewers of Western Australia. This reflects an emerging and changing environment in that state, for people to be able to access services in a rational and sensible way. The model includes the joint provision by WIN and Prime of a third, digital-only commercial television service under section 38B of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, and it is applicable to the remote central and eastern licence areas as well as the north of the state.
There has been some adjustment of the timetable for rolling out the services to the people of Western Australia. I think it is important to observe at this point that that reflects the fact that the technology involved in these services and the cost-effectiveness of rolling out those technologies are matters of some sensitivity that need to be the subject of negotiation. It is pointless for government to mandate that certain services be provided when it is not economical to provide them. It is equally inappropriate for government to attempt to deregulate an environment in which there is substantial expectation on the part of existing operators that they will have certainty of a return on their own investment in services in this area. Adjustments of this kind have been necessary in this legislation and will be necessary into the future to ensure that what we have here is a sustainable provision of services to people across Australia.
Since the introduction of the bill, both WIN and Prime in Western Australia have continued to develop plans for the introduction of their digital television services in the remote parts of Western Australia. Both broadcasters have indicated that this planning is now well advanced and subject to passage of the legislation this year. I understand that they are planning to commence the digital transmission of their current television services in remote parts of the state in 2007. A third service by a third provider will commence sometime shortly thereafter. That is good news for the people of the state.
I made reference a moment ago to the Digital Action Plan. That is an extremely important framework for digital conversion in this country and particularly for bringing into focus the time when Australians will be told that analog broadcasting will end and digital broadcasting will be the exclusive way in which people receive free-to-air broadcasting. Despite criticism from those opposite, we need to acknowledge that this is a very delicate and sensitive matter which needs to be the subject of very careful discussion and consultation by the government. The Digital Action Plan has been under development for some time. It has been consulted about with stakeholders over that period and I understand it is due to be released later on this year.
The plan will certainly attempt to clarify the switch-over commencement date and the expectation of course that it will be between 2010 and 2012. It will commence a process for determining the switch-over mechanism so that everybody concerned is able to say with certainty what their obligations and time frame will be, both broadcasters and providers of television sets. The plan seeks to publish a task list identifying major tasks which should be undertaken, the time frames in which they should be undertaken and the stakeholders responsible for carrying out those tasks. It will include appropriate incentives for industry and consumers to foster digital television take-up. It will address issues involved in the conversion of self-help retransmission services, community television and television narrowcast services, and it will set out consultative and coordination arrangements for progressing the switch-over date.
This is an important timetable, not just for providers of services but also for consumers. Consumers need to have some idea of what life they might expect from televisions they purchase which have a limited capacity to receive digital broadcasts. They need to know at what point in time their televisions which are based on obsolete technology will become unusable. So settling and clarifying that switch-over date is very important for them as well. No doubt, some people will think ahead to those issues and will want to know that, if they buy an analog television at this point in time, they will get three, four, five or six years life out of it before it needs to be replaced. I have a television at home which is quite a lot older than that. I expect that it will have to be replaced at some point. For me, knowing when that switch-over date is going to occur would be a very useful piece of information and I am sure it would be for many Australians.
It is important to implement a plan of this kind to move digital conversion forward and to reduce the costs of simulcasts to both government and broadcasters. Of course, most importantly, it is designed to free up spectrum so that these other uses that have been discussed in this debate, such as multichannelling and datacasting, can be implemented.
The Digital Action Plan will be an iterative process that will need to be developed cooperatively and in close consultation with stakeholders. It will need to be able to be updated, as we move closer to switch-over, as circumstances require. Other issues that it will need to address, either at the beginning or as time goes by, include measures to drive uptake and overcome barriers to conversion such as promotional and education campaigns; financial assistance, possibly, to some members of the community; a digital tuner mandate of some kind; equipment labelling requirements; obligations on broadcasters to assist in expediting conversion; and measures to address technical and standards issues. As I have indicated, those are complex matters which do need to have extensive consultation around them. It is also possible, of course, that further regulation in the form of amendments to broadcasting legislation or in some other form will need to be made to effect those changes. I welcome the process whereby that plan is being produced, but I remind members of the Senate that this process is not quickly and easily accomplished. Those who urge the government to move faster underestimate, I suspect, the importance of bringing all of the stakeholders along at the same time.
In recent weeks, the minister has spoken at some length about the importance of keeping Australia at the forefront of digital and other technological change. It is really not just about giving people clearer pictures on their television sets. It is much more complex than that. It is about providing for an information-friendly society—a society which is able to understand the benefits of technology and take up opportunities to use technology in order to be better informed, better in touch and better able to play a role in the world. I emphasise that this is important for Australia in a commercial sense—in the sense of Australians trading with the rest of the world and developing these technologies in conjunction with the rest of the world—and in order that, at the end of the day, we can say that we have best practice in this country so that Australians can benefit from that dedication to making sure that we have the best in this country.
In the media recently, the minister made comments about the way in which conversion to digital is the most fundamental change in broadcasting since the introduction of television itself 50 years ago and about the need for us to move out of an analog mindset when we look at the way in which services are provided. We need to ensure that the opportunities for new digital free-to-air services on the broadcasting services band are not overestimated. We acknowledge that it is a finite resource and that we must carefully decide how best to use this finite resource to the benefit of all Australians. Simply offering new television stations or allowing television stations to offer their existing product perhaps at different times or in different formats is obviously an underestimation of the potential that the technology has to offer. We cannot fall into that trap. We must make sure that what we offer to Australians is absolutely the best thing for the take-up and sustainability of these technologies.
I was glad to hear Senator Eggleston say that he had visited Foxtel in Sydney recently. Colleagues and I made a similar trip to those studios in the northern part of Sydney—in Ryde—and we were very impressed with the enormous investment which is being made by Foxtel in subscription television broadcasting in Australia. It is an extremely important part of providing choice and diversity to Australians. I hope that that investment is handsomely returned, because it provides those opportunities of which I spoke before.
The government’s overall package, obviously, is about creating opportunities and ensuring that there is some opportunity for rationalisation of the way in which players roll out their services, not just in the broadcasting area but also with respect to other media opportunities and other media outlets. This is about giving the industry the capacity to diversify their services but have some certainty of the environment in which they do that. Again I say to those who think that the plan is wrong in some way and that the government’s package should be rejigged that they owe it to the Australian community to spell out exactly what they mean by that, where they would go, what changes they would make and, particularly, how they would effect the best in current and over-the-horizon technology to the benefit of all Australians.
I commend this bill. I think that the bill, as part of a broader package, is an appropriate way for Australia to grasp the future. I look forward to this plan benefiting the people of Western Australia in particular in this case but, overall, providing for Australia to be at the crest of a wave which will only grow larger and stronger into the immediate future.
The Greens also support this legislation, although we feel that Australian consumers have a long way to go in order to catch up with the use of broadband overseas. I concur with the arguments by previous speakers in favour of the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2005 . Senator Eggleston said that the debate had been delayed for a year due to Labor and the Greens not allowing it non-controversial status. Just to clear up that matter, its non-controversial status would mean that no amendment were possible. The Greens have an important amendment to this piece of legislation because there is no provision for such an amendment elsewhere. However, that does not delay legislation.
The government has total control of the agenda. It has had control for the last year and could have brought this piece of legislation on at any time. The problem is that the Senate is sitting less than at any time for many years, and government control of the Senate means that we are not being as diligent about legislation as was the case in the past. It is entirely the government’s fault that this legislation was not dealt with a year ago, that sitting times have not been made available or that the government’s priorities have been otherwise. For example, the legislation was consequent to a long debate on Monday in this place which led to a vote about the government effectively taking over the committee system in the parliament. The government thought that was more important than the broadcasting legislation amendment, as has been the case with many other debates that we have had in this place. It has only itself to blame for the delay.
I flag a consequent amendment to the Children’s Television Standards 2005 which would put a prohibition on the advertising of food or beverages unless the minister for health has authorised—by determination in writing, with such a determination to be tabled in both houses of parliament, together with a statement of reasons—that such an advertisement is beneficial to the health of children. In Australia, as in all wealthy countries around the world, we are faced with the enormous and distressing problem of obesity. The figures available—although a survey has not been done for 10 years in this country—show that 25 per cent of our children are overweight or obese and that the number will increase to 50 per cent by 2020.
There are consequent problems for people involved in health. We know about those problems and I will not expand on them at the moment. This calls for very deliberative action, and we have not had that from the government. In fact, what we have had is the assertion from both the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health and Ageing that parents should look after their children in a way that would prohibit obesity from occurring. All the studies show that that is just not adequate. For example, 70 per cent of mothers who have overweight children do not see that as a problem for their children—they do not see their children as being overweight. The approach in dealing with the increasing epidemic of overweight and obese children has to be one that governments as well as individuals use to tackle the problem. It has to be a multifaceted approach and it absolutely has to involve government intervention to prevent junk food from being pushed at kids. That includes television advertising.
It is abundantly evident, from studies here and overseas, that it is the increased intake of calories—eating more—by kids and indeed adults that is a major problem. In fact, one study in New South Wales—by the University of Sydney, I believe—showed that there has been an increase in physical activity by children in New South Wales over the last 10 years, while obesity has almost doubled. The problem is the increased intake of calories—that is, food, and in particular junk food. When you look at advertising, 80 per cent is for food and, of the advertising in children’s television hours, 99 per cent is for junk food. That is a terrible situation in light of the statistics in front of us. We should be following the course of Quebec and Sweden, for example, which prohibit junk food advertising specifically aimed at children.
Some of the best psychologists in the business are appointed by junk food advertisers to look at the minds of kids and work out how to best subvert their minds to get them to buy the products that are being shoved at them during children’s television hours. Mind you, this goes to all hours on television. The Greens amendment simply goes to children’s television viewing hours, but we should be looking more widely than that—at all television advertising which pushes junk food at the community in light of the awesomely bad predictions coming down the line about the epidemic of obesity. The problem is already with us, but it is getting much worse as the current crop of youngsters become the next generation of adults in our community.
The Greens amendments would simply prohibit junk food ads in children’s television viewing time. It allows for the minister for health—of course, expert advice would be attendant on this—to permit food advertising to children if it is healthy food. It would be a disallowable instrument to give such permission, but surely this is a commonsense approach, as far as TV advertising in kids’ special viewing time is concerned, that we only allow healthy foods to be promoted at that time. The minister says, ‘We should leave this to self-regulation,’ but, as with cigarette advertising, you simply cannot do that when there is such a broadscale impact on the health of our nation and, in this case, the health of our nation’s children.
The food corporations are interested in the bottom line. They put enormous amounts of money into targeting advertising, as I said, using highly trained psychologists to work out how to get kids to buy the products on television during their viewing hours. For example, they have put enormous amounts of money into the pester factor: how to get kids to pester their parents so that when they are at the supermarket, or even when they are not there—at any time—they will say, ‘Hey, Mum or Dad, I want that,’ because it has been seen on television to be a good thing for them. The advertisers are far too clever to simply say, ‘You should buy such and such.’ They subvert that simple message, which might be more easily dealt with, by saying: ‘You’ll be much better than; you’ll catch up with your peer group if; your fellow children will think you are great if; or somebody that you look up to will think you are good if you buy this particular product.’ As legislators we have got to intervene in this.
I am speaking not just for the Greens, because a great number of community experts in the field in Australia have been calling for a prohibition of such things as highly sugared soft drinks, burgers, chips, snacks and chocolate bars which are thrust at kids. We know, from the statistics, that those kids who watch the most television buy more of the products. Kids who are exposed to these ads longer think chocolate bars are better. It is as simple as that. It works, and advertisers would not be spending $420 million plus a year advertising during this particular time for kids if they were not getting a much bigger return from doing so.
Amongst organisations in this country which the parliament—the government and the minister—should be listening to, calling for a ban on junk food advertisements during children’s prime viewing hours, are the Australasian Society for the Study of Obesity; the Australian Confederation of Paediatric and Child Health Nurses; the Australian Consumers Association; the Australian Dental Association; the Australian Medical Association; Nutrition Australia; the Public Health Association of Australia; the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, paediatric branch; the Cancer Council Australia; the University of Adelaide, Discipline of Public Health; the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Adelaide; and Young Media Australia. These calls have been mirrored overseas by similar organisations—in fact, right around the world—including the British Medical Association, who have called for an outright ban on junk food advertising and expressed concern that imposing a voluntary period is not a strong enough action. It is not. It simply cannot work that way.
I put it to the Senate that we should get support for these amendments today. I put it to the Senate that it is incredibly important that we catch up, that far greater and more direct action be taken and that we as legislators have a responsibility—of course, we cannot be sitting at the dinner table in every house in Australia, nor would we want to. Parents have a responsibility, and so do schools and community organisations. Many kids watch four hours of television a day in this country and see five hours of advertising a week. But when it comes to making sure that somebody intervenes to stop hundreds of millions of dollars of ads contributing to those children becoming fatter, we are the ones responsible. Nobody else is going to do it. Madam Acting Deputy President, it is you, me and every other senator and member of the House of Representatives. We are where the buck stops.
I appeal to other senators to take these amendments very seriously because, if we do not pass these amendments, the Senate becomes responsible for passing up the option and the responsibility to stop this abhorrent practice of large corporations pushing junk food at kids in an era where obesity is rampant. It is going to get worse with all the consequent health problems—problems of self-image, self-esteem and confidence—for the kids who are involved. You cannot shake that off and say, ‘It’s not our responsibility.’ It is.
So whilst we are here legislating to improve and to make more modern the access to broadband services, which I agree with, the Greens have taken this opportunity to say, ‘Let’s look at our responsibility on advertising.’ The government brought in children’s standards two years ago but did not legislate in this area. The Greens feel very strongly about the amendments we will bring forward. I will talk about them again in committee. I hope that, as we will have time to consider them before the committee stage is over, members will take very seriously indeed these important amendments. After all, they affect the wellbeing of the youngsters of this country.
As the third West Australian senator to rise today to speak on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2005 , I would like to say this is very good news for Western Australia. I see that there are two other West Australian senators in the chamber who are probably going to speak on the bill as well. It is with great pleasure that I rise to speak on this bill as it will have a profoundly positive effect on people in my home state of Western Australia, and in fact my hometown of Kojonup, which is located in the Great Southern region of the state. It is in rural areas like Kojonup where residents will, for the first time, be able to enjoy a level of television services similar to those currently enjoyed by viewers in Perth.
Perth residents have access to three commercial networks and two national networks. There has been considerable discussion amongst regional Western Australian communities regarding a potential third commercial television network for regional Western Australia—I have noticed several articles in our regional papers, especially the Kalgoorlie Miner. The bill allows for the implementation of the agreed model for the introduction of commercial digital television services in remote Western Australia. This includes all areas outside the Perth metropolitan area. This model includes a joint provision by WIN and Golden West Network of a third digital-only commercial television service under section 38B of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992.
Item 3 of schedule 1 to the bill currently sets 1 January 2006 as the cut-off date from which the Australian Communications and Media Authority, known as ACMA, can start the process to allocate the licence for the section 38B service. This deadline was intended to speed up the process and get these services delivered to remote WA. As the date for commencement has passed, the bill requires amendment. Since the introduction of the bill on 23 June 2005, both WIN and Golden West Network have worked quickly to develop plans for the introduction of their digital services. I understand that WIN and Golden West Network are ready to enact the service subject to the passage of this legislation. The digital transmission of their current television services in remote Australia will commence in 2007 with the new third service starting shortly after.
The amendment to the bill, deleting item 3 of schedule 1, will allow ACMA to set a revised date to commence the allocation process for the third commercial digital service. Within six months of this bill receiving passage and royal assent, ACMA in consultation with WIN and Golden West Network will set a launch date. We will make a small amendment so a date for the implementation can be revised and then remote communities in Western Australia will be able to enjoy a substantially increased range of information and entertainment. Unfortunately there is the small matter of the totally unrelated amendments that Labor and the Greens are trying to move, effectively delaying the implementation of services to thousands of small communities across Western Australia, but I will get to that in a minute.
Firstly, I want to outline the positive effects for Western Australians contained in the bill. To simplify the digital conversion arrangements in Western Australia, all areas outside Perth have been technically classified as remote. This allows for the formation of one conversion scheme for all of regional and remote Western Australia. Areas such as Mandurah, Bunbury and Geraldton are probably unhappy to have the ‘remote’ tag, as they strive to promote themselves as major regional centres—and indeed they are—but for the purpose of this arrangement they will have to let it be.
The broadcasting law states that, if we introduce a new service in a market like regional Western Australia, a new service can only be provided in a digital format. This means that, to access the new service, people will need to buy a digital set-top box, which costs around $100 and can be connected to their old television, or they can buy a new digital television with an in-built digital tuner, with prices starting from around $1,000.
While Golden West Network and WIN have not finalised the type of programming that will appear on the third channel, other similar services provided in Tasmania and regional Victoria have provided Network Ten affiliated shows. With the current analog transmission, Golden West Network takes programming from the Seven Network while WIN mixes programs from the Nine and Ten networks. Interstate WIN is aligned to the Nine Network and it is expected that WIN can switch across to Nine programs when the third channel comes online, allowing the new digital channel to program through Network Ten.
In addition to the new service, the change to the law will also permit the current Golden West Network and WIN services to be transmitted on a digital channel with the new service. To assist with this digital conversion, the government will provide significant assistance—almost $20 million—to Golden West Network and WIN to further assist with digital conversion in regional Western Australia.
The digital conversion model in regional and remote Western Australia represents a significant saving for the broadcasters concerned. Instead of having to establish and maintain two or three sets of digital transmission infrastructure with capacity for high-definition TV, they will be able to establish only one shared set of infrastructure without the additional cost of investing in high-definition TV equipment and significant additional and costly satellite capacity. The digital television conversion model for regional and remote Western Australia represents a balance between public interest considerations and the special circumstances of remote area commercial television broadcasters. These broadcasters face significant cost pressures due to the wide geographic area that they serve and the sparse population. Delivery of high-definition TV to all viewers in this market would be a very significant cost to broadcasters. Viewers will also benefit from the new third digital service, delivering a substantially increased range of information and entertainment.
The amendments will also provide significant savings to taxpayers, because funding assistance to the broadcasters under the government’s regional equalisation plan is reduced, corresponding with the reduced digital conversion cost to the broadcasters. The total level of assistance to the Western Australian broadcasters is approximately $10 million less over eight years than the original estimate, which was based on the broadcasters providing high-definition television services from their terrestrial transmitters. The new arrangements take into account the high cost per head of population of delivering television services in remote areas.
Remote area broadcasters have markets that are smaller in population—one-third to one-half of the large eastern Australian aggregated regional markets—but much larger in geographic area. They are 10 to 25 times greater than regional licence areas, and hence require a large number of terrestrial transmitters. Remote broadcasters also incur significant satellite costs for signal distribution and services for households with direct-to-home satellite reception equipment. The remote and regional Western Australian licence area has a population of half a million and covers an area of 2.5 million square kilometres. In contrast, the northern New South Wales licence area has a population of 1.9 million and covers an area of 132,000 square kilometres. At this stage a digital conversion model has been developed only for the remote and regional Western Australian area. However, the bill is also applicable for the remote central and eastern licence area.
The new third commercial service provided in remote Western Australia will be jointly owned and operated by WIN and Golden West Network, the incumbent commercial broadcasters for that area. A condition of all commercial television licences is that the licensee will broadcast within the specified licence area—hence, the new service is only authorised for reception in remote Western Australia.
I will now move onto the unrelated amendments by Labor and the Greens. I would like to remind the Labor Party and the Greens that this bill only concerns the introduction of commercial digital television services in Western Australia’s remote licence areas. There is nothing controversial about this bill. The bill and the amendment are about providing greater services to the bush. Why would Labor and the Greens want to prevent or delay this? It seems that Labor and the Greens have nothing better to do than move amendments that have no bearing on the bill.
The opposition amendment is seeking to lift the current genre restrictions on ABC and SBS multichannelling. The opposition should be aware that the Minister for Communications, Technology and the Arts, Senator Coonan, announced on 13 July this year that the government would introduce legislation to lift the genre restrictions on ABC and SBS multichannelling, with the exception of sport on the antisiphoning list. I am aware that this legislation will be introduced some time in the future. Therefore, this amendment by Labor cannot be supported, as it is the subject of legislation currently under development.
The Greens amendment, which Senator Brown has just spoken of, is seeking a ban on food and beverage advertisements during children’s television viewing times. There has been much talk about television advertising contributing to the increased obesity levels in children. At this stage, however, there is no concrete evidence that this is the case. When my children were young, we were living on a farm. If I recall, they got off the school bus, changed their clothes and then went and did something on the farm. Their only TV viewing was just before it got dark. Rural and remote children are probably so busy with other activities—unlike their city counterparts—that they do not watch TV very much during the daytime.
It is my view that, while the federal government has a role to play in advertising regulation, obesity is a problem to be addressed by parents and individuals. The childhood obesity issue is a complex one. To suggest that a prohibition on advertising, as proposed by the Greens amendment, will be an effective remedy for this problem is overly simplistic. The Australian government also has a range of policies, programs and publications which aim to improve the dietary habits and physical activity levels of all Australians.
I note that broadcasters are already subject to a number of restrictions in relation to food advertising to children, including the content and placement of that advertising. The Children’s Television Standards, the instrument that this proposal seeks to amend, is administered by ACMA and already provide that a food advertisement must not contain any misleading or incorrect information about the nutritional value of the product. The Children’s Television Standards also provide that broadcasters must not broadcast advertisements that are designed to put undue pressure on children to ask their parents or other people to purchase an advertised product.
The standards also place a limitation on the amount of advertising to children, allowing no more than five minutes of advertising in each 30 minutes of children’s viewing periods. In addition to the Children’s Television Standards, the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice strengthens the obligations regarding advertising to children and includes requirements that advertising must not encourage or promote an inactive lifestyle or unhealthy eating or drinking habits.
As senators may be aware, ACMA is undertaking a full review of the Children’s Television Standards in 2006. This review will ensure that children’s television needs are still being met in the most appropriate way and will include well-grounded, evidence based research on the current debate over children’s obesity and the role of food advertising. I am aware that the review process will take 12 to 18 months to complete, with an issues paper for public comment to be released in the first half of 2007. There are also a number of industry and government initiatives underway to address the childhood obesity issue.