Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 March 2015


Broadcasting and Other Legislation Amendment (Deregulation) Bill 2015; In Committee

1:10 pm

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is it the wish of the committee that the bill be taken as a whole? There being no objection, it is so ordered. The question is that the bill stand as printed.

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I have some amendments that have, as I understand it, been circulated in respect of this bill.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Yes, Senator Xenophon, they have been circulated.

by leave—I move amendments (1) and (2), together, on sheet 7666, standing in my name.

(1) Clause 2, page 2 (table item 4), omit "Schedules 3 to 9", substitute "Schedules 3 to 10".

(2) Page 42 (after line 23), at the end of the Bill, add:

Schedule 10—Material of local significance

Broadcasting Services Act 1992

1 After paragraph 43A(2)(f)


  (fa) Regional South Australia.

I spoke largely to this during my second reading contribution. Essentially, these amendments would require local content in South Australia, because South Australia was never included in the context of broadcasting legislation to have local content and local news bulletins in particular. The legislation did not include Western Australia or the Northern Territory because of a number of regional factors. South Australia lost regional television services in the south-east of South Australia and in the Riverland, but I am completely open as to whether there ought to be additional safeguards in Western Australia. There is quite a different media market there in terms of the size of that state and the population distribution. But this is basically saying that if regional communities had local television content—I know the importance of local coverage in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania—they are all covered by the broadcasting act, but South Australia has been omitted. This is about rectifying that. I have had discussions, as recently as yesterday, with Harold Mitchell from Free TV to express my concerns about the need for commercial broadcasters to provide local coverage. I have had discussions with Bruce Gordon, the owner of WIN Television, about this issue as well. Losing their local content has been a real body blow for the communities in the south-east of South Australia, in Mount Gambier and surrounding communities, in the Riverland, Renmark, Loxton, Berri, Barmera and other surrounding communities. Losing their half hour news service has been a real body blow to that community infrastructure and that dissemination of information. This is what these amendments seek to deal with, that is why I am here and that is why I am moving them.

1:13 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to ask the mover of the amendments why he thinks this is necessary. This is a question that has come up over a long period of time in this chamber. It is a question of whether the parliament should regulate to indicate how broadcasting stations and media outlets should operate their businesses. I have always been of the view that if people want that sort of service they will watch the TV or listen to the radio that provides that service and the increased number of viewers or listeners will then make that a very attractive proposition for advertisers. So advertisers will flock to the stations that do that, and, because of the interest shown by locals, the service will happen. But, if there is not viewer or listener support for a locally produced news outlet, then no advertisers are going to support it and life will move on.

So really my question to the mover is: why should this be regulated? Why wouldn't the market forces demand that this happen if it were wanted? Is this what viewers in this part of South Australia that Senator Xenophon speaks about want? If it is what they want, you would think that the advertisers would come in and support such an issue. I do not know the particular area that Senator Xenophon talks about, although the amendment does seem sort of specific to an area. I am not sure whether we can pass laws here for a specific part of our country, but no doubt Senator Xenophon has considered that.

I do remember that, when the issue arose in Queensland some years ago and there was an attempt made to regulate or legislate to provide for these services, the broadcasting outlets involved indicated that none of their listeners particularly wanted to do this and therefore they were not interested in doing it. But more importantly—they were commercial radio stations—none of the advertisers were interested, because it became a turn-off for the local area. I am curious, having only just come into this debate, about Senator Xenophon's reasons for raising this. I would be very interested to hear them. I am sure he has thought about these things, so I will listen intently to the answers he gives.

1:17 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

When crossbenchers move amendments, there is often not enough questioning about them, so I genuinely am grateful to Senator Macdonald. In terms of the history of this, section 43A of the Broadcasting Services Act places an obligation on holders of regional aggregated commercial television broadcasting licences to produce a minimum level of material of local significance to each area. That has been the history of the legislation for some 23 years. The policy rationale for that, as I understand it, was that, by virtue of getting a commercial television licence—the gift of a licence, if you like—there ought to be certain community service obligations, in a sense. That was the case in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria—not Tasmania, but Tasmania was subsequently included, as I understand. South Australia—and, I think, WA and the Northern Territory—were subject to a review. That review of ACMA, or consideration of the markets in South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, was intended to take place following this, because the areas listed under subsection 43A(2) excluded Tasmania, which was added in 2008. They were originally set out in the act in the late 1980s. I apologise for that. It was in the late 1980s, so this has been going for quite a few years. The review never actually occurred. That is referred to in the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal's Broadcasting in Australia 1989 report, Sydney July 1990, at page 3. I do not have that in front of me, but that is the reference for it. So it did not occur.

The trigger for these amendments and for the previous bill I introduced was back in February 2013 when WIN TV decided to remove their local news bulletins in the south-east of South Australia, centred around Mount Gambier, and in the Riverland of South Australia, centred around their Loxton studio. At that stage, there had already been an aggregation of news services, so about half was from the south-east and half was from the Riverland, because of cost-cutting. I have had discussions about Bruce Gordon, the legendary Australian, the owner of WIN. I am not referring to Bruce Gordon in respect of this, but my understanding from speaking to those in television is that, because there was a requirement to have local content on the eastern seaboard but not one to have it in South Australia, it was much easier for there to be a rationalisation to get rid of the bulletins in South Australia's Riverland and in the south-east. I hope that explains to Senator Macdonald the history of that.

The issue of what consumers want is this. Advertisers are concerned about how many viewers are listed as watching a particular program. We have requirements in terms of local content more broadly. Advertisers are interested in how many viewers there are—the bang for their buck, in terms of advertising. I understand that. I am not being critical of them. Market failure is perhaps not the right way to put it, but it is a case where there was a community demand for those programs in terms of local sports coverage and local government coverage. Local politicians, state and federal, got good coverage about local issues. Particularly during the drought in South Australia, the Riverland WIN TV had a key role. WIN TV's local bulletin in the south-east of South Australia covered forestry issues exceptionally well, whereas the metropolitan media did not.

What I was trying to do through these amendments was to remedy what I saw as an anomaly under section 43A of the act: that other states were included, but South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory missed out—although there are regional differences between WA and the Northern Territory. That is the basis of the amendments: that there is a case of, if not market failure, market distortion by not including South Australia in 43A, the amendment that gave protection to local coverage. Senator Macdonald, it is always a pleasure to get a question from you. I hope I have answered it in part at least.

1:21 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Xenophon, with respect to you and others of my colleagues, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said politicians, state and federal, want to be able to get their message across. I say with the greatest respect to former colleagues of mine that I have the feeling that their great interest in this was not so much in community demand but in their wish to be able to have a dedicated medium to distribute their message.

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

There's nothing wrong with that.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There is nothing wrong with that, I agree, but perhaps the viewing public are not quite so keen. Of course, the private owners that have to pay for these things but cannot get advertisers because no viewers really want it might not quite have the same view.

You talk about section 43A. I confess to not knowing if that is still in force and applying to Queensland. I can only say from my own experience in the regional market of Townsville—and I could say Cairns as well, and indeed Rockhampton and Mackay—that both WIN and the Seven Network compete for the local news. And why? Their research shows that, if they can capture the viewing audience for the Channel Seven news in Townsville, people will stick on Channel Seven and go through, because it is such a popular show. It is not popular because Ewen Jones, Warren Entsch and I regularly appear on these—

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

You undersell yourselves.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, you may be surprised, Minister and Senator Colbeck, but it is not the fact that we are on those, and I must say that both Mr Entsch and Mr Jones appear much more regularly than I. That is not what gives it the attraction to the TV stations and then to the advertisers. It is because people do like to know what is happening in their area in Townsville and Cairns.

I am surprised that you are telling me that in a part of Western Australia that I am not terribly familiar with—it is a lovely part of South Australia; I am sorry. There are lovely people there and lots going for it, but I would have thought that commercial forces would have applied in Mount Gambier as they do in Townsville, Cairns, Mackay and Rockhampton. That is the bit that I hesitate on when you—

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Why do you hate people in Mount Gambier so much?

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I beg your pardon?

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: There is plenty of opportunity to go back and forth. We are in committee.

Another silly comment from Senator Hanson-Young.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Macdonald, I will ask you—

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Why don't you shush me?

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Order, Senator Hanson-Young! I will not make any comment on the comment, but I will ask you not to respond to it nonetheless.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr Temporary Chairman. I must say, though, that Senator Hanson-Young has form. I chaired a committee meeting recently where, as chairman, I had to put up with a continual series of interjections from Senator Hanson-Young, and Senator Wong, I might say—continuously interjecting, contrary to standing orders, to the extent that I asked Senator Hanson-Young to leave the room.

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Temporary Chairman, on a point of order, I just ask you to call Senator Macdonald to the question that is before the chair so we can get on with this debate.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Thank you. I think the senator has a point, Senator Macdonald. We will come back to the amendments that are before the committee.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr Temporary Chairman. The interjection was—

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

He's ignoring you, Mr Chairman.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

He's ignoring the chair. He said, 'Get back to the point.'

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, the interjection was: why do I hate Mount Gambier? It was such a stupid, irrelevant interjection and accusation against me that I want to respond to it. If you want to ask Senator Hanson-Young to withdraw the interjection then I will not need to answer it.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Macdonald, as I said, responding to interjections is disorderly. I have asked Senator Hanson-Young not to interject, and she would help the situation if she were to no longer interject. Senator Macdonald, in dealing with the amendments, if you want to deal with the broad subject matter, you can, but I would ask you not to respond to interjections and I would ask you to focus on the amendments which are before the committee.

Thank you, Mr Chairman. When you have stupid, irrelevant interjections like that, they have to be answered. I am sorry. They are on the record and they need to be answered, because I can assure you, Mr Temporary Chairman, that Senator Hanson-Young will have a media release out within half an hour saying, 'Liberal senator attacks Mount Gambier'. If she had listened, which she rarely does, she would have heard me say to Senator Xenophon just a fraction before that it was a lovely part of the world. I indicated that I was not terribly familiar with that area, but from what I have seen of it over the years it is a lovely part of the world. There are lovely people there. It is a very important part of the Australian regional economy.

But I am drawing the likeness to Senator Xenophon's attention. In Townsville, Cairns, Mackay and Rockhampton, which I am familiar with—and, I am sure, in many other parts of regional Australia—you do not need to regulate for this. If there are regulations—I am not sure that there are, but if there are—they are certainly not needed in those places, because again I repeat that the Channel Seven and Channel Nine affiliates, WIN and Prime or Channel Seven, actually compete for the local news, because it is good for viewer participation. Viewers do watch the local news. That attracts advertisers, and that, of course, attracts the businesses that run these organisations. I repeat that I am not familiar with the Mount Gambier area, but if there were a demand in the Mount Gambier area then one would think that the first people to know about that would be WIN Television, and the second lot of people to know about it would be the advertisers. If the viewer demand is not there then one would wonder why the federal parliament should be regulating to provide a service that clearly nobody wants.

1:29 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I will just respond to Senator Macdonald's comments and, I think, additional questions inherent in that. There are a few things. Firstly, producing local television is always expensive. That is why you get the ABC and commercial networks buying stuff from overseas. For instance, for Channel Ten, I do not know how much The Bold and the Beautiful actually costs to bring into the country, but presumably it is not very much compared to, say, producing their flagship current affairs shows or news program, The Project.

One of the issues has been that this is a case where the market has been modified by virtue of the operation of section 43A in the context of those requirements for local content. We know that the Seven Network's Today Tonight program is no longer running on the eastern seaboard but has been kept alive and is still doing very well in Western Australia and South Australia. This is not because of any legislative requirements but because television stations will try and save money. I am not having a go at them for that, but the consequence is that local television production costs more than a program beamed in from Sydney or Melbourne. There is an anomaly in the legislation, in my view, given the way section 43A was operating. And there was an intention for it to be further reviewed but that review was never completed. I have made reference to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal's 1989 report Broadcasting in Australia. All I am trying to do with this amendment is to bring at least South Australia in line to deal with that particular issue.

The other issue is that producing local television content is quite different now than 20 or 30 years ago. A Betacam costs about $100,000. You can have broadcast quality equipment for $6,000 or $7,000, which journalists in the Southern Cross Network use out of Port Lincoln, Whyalla, Port Augusta and Port Pirie, and they seem to be able to put together a very comprehensive news bulletin. So I think the media has changed and it is just convenient to drop South Australia from that by virtue of a lack of a requirement in section 43A. I hope that answers Senator MacDonald's questions, but I think he has raised some very important issues. In terms of local advertisers, as long as they have got the viewers there they do not care whether they are watching The Bold and the Beautiful or the local news bulletin; what they are interested in is the number of eyes on the television set.

1:32 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank Senator Xenophon for those answers. I acknowledge his passion for his electorate and the place where he gets votes. His passion for South Australia almost matches that of my colleagues on this side from South Australia—and one of them has just walked into the room. With respect, you almost get tired of the way they continually advocate for, promote and support South Australia. They are fabulous supporters of and advocates for South Australia—and Senator Xenophon is another one in that same category. Having said that, Senator Xenophon, I have heard what you have said. Thank you for your answers, but I am afraid you have not convinced me, so I will be voting against the amendment.

1:33 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Australian Greens will be supporting Senator Xenophon's amendment. I did listen to Senator Macdonald's contribution because I guess the committee stage is precisely so that these sorts of questions can be asked of the movers of amendments. For Senator Macdonald's benefit, a similar situation prevails in regional Western Australia. These networks have to be heavily regulated or they would barely exist at all—whether it be broadcast radio or broadcast television. Quite a strong framework of legislation remains in place around things like local content and the media regulations that were in part installed by a former iteration of your government, Senator Macdonald. My understanding of the amendments that Senator Xenophon has brought forward is that the very regulatory framework that prevails in regional Queensland, which does provide for a measure of local content—news, current affairs and so on—is lacking in the parts of regional Australia that Senator Xenophon has highlighted. This amendment will go some way towards enforcing a similar measure of regulation.

In a country as heavily urbanised as Australia it means that the representation that comes into this place will be predominantly representing urban or peri-urban electorates. I think it is important we keep in mind that, in regional areas, locally produced regional media can be a tremendously important voice. And that is partly why we stand up so strongly for regional ABC broadcasters—because, in some instances, commercial players simply cannot maintain that service. So we will be supporting this amendment when it is committed to a vote.

1:34 pm

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I have enjoyed the contributions of my colleagues in the committee stage and I think it demonstrates one of the many virtues of the way this place operates. I think Senator Xenophon's proposition for an amendment to add regional South Australia to the list of commercial television licence areas that are subject to local content licence conditions has been well canvassed. While the government clearly does support the provision of local news and content to the people of South Australia, we believe the amendment proposed by Senator Xenophon is not necessary.

In 2013 the ACMA conducted an inquiry into the provision of local content in South Australia. It found that in Mount Gambier and the Riverland, the two licence areas where commercial television licensees do not produce local content, 86 per cent of residents were generally satisfied with the level of local content available. This included local content sourced from state based television news produced in Adelaide, services produced by the ABC and via commercial radio, print and online news sources. The ACMA concluded that the local content obligations were operating effectively and that there was no clear case for an extension of local content obligations to additional regional areas given the high level of satisfaction reported by residents in regard to their access to local content, the high cost of providing local content and the adverse financial impact this would have on the relevant licensees.

Senator Xenophon was not expecting government support on his amendment, and I confirm that.

1:36 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I am not intending to have a division. I am grateful that the opposition, the Greens and the government have indicated their positions. In relation to that ACMA report, there were criticisms about the methodology and the questions asked. I can tell you that, in the local communities of Mount Gambier, in the south-east and in the Riverland, there was a real sense of loss felt when those local bulletins went. It was not just political coverage—far from it—but sports and local coverage of issues of interest to the local communities. There was a powerful sense of loss of community. I do not think the ACMA survey was the be all and end all in its methodology and some of the questions asked.

Having said that, I am grateful for my colleagues indicating where they stand on this. I know the amendments will be defeated, but at least we have had that debate at this stage. But it will not go away. I still hope that Bruce Gordon one day will change his mind and bring back local content to the south-east and the Riverland.

Question negatived.

Bill agreed to.

Bill reported without amendments; report adopted.