May 8, 2007

Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2007

Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2007

Radio Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2007

Second Reading

8 May 2007

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (5.18 p.m.)—I rise to speak to the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2007 and related amendments in the Radio Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2007 to the Trade Practices Act 1974. Today we have an opportunity to see the passage of legislation in this House that will enable digital radio services in Australia and enhance the radio experience of millions of Australians. We have this unique opportunity, but we also have an obligation to get it right. Let us be clear: federal Labor cleanly supports the introduction of a sound policy framework that will allow innovative digital radio services to be accessible to all Australians. A sound policy framework includes provisions for efficient and appropriate technology, settings, licensing arrangements and regulation to ensure equitable access and maximum uptake amongst broadcasters and listeners.

These are complex matters, and to ensure that we have the best possible outcome it is essential that the legislation be given due consideration by the parliament and that meaningful consultation be undertaken with key stakeholders. Unfortunately, as has been the case with so much legislation that has passed through both houses of the Australian parliament, the opportunity for careful scrutiny has been lost by the Howard government’s greater imperative to ensure the unhindered passage of its legislation and to undermine yet again the democratic process.

Members on the other side may argue that a Senate inquiry was held to explore issues of concern relating to this broadcasting legislation—and it was indeed. However, the way in which the inquiry was conducted highlights the government’s disinterest in proper scrutiny of its legislation. It highlights the Howard government’s desire for the Senate to be nothing more than a rubber stamp for its proposed legislation.

The Senate referred the digital radio bill to the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts for an inquiry on 29 March 2007, with a reporting deadline of 30 April 2007. The committee advertised its call for submissions on 4 April and requested that submissions be received by 12 April. Interested parties had fewer than 10 days to consider some 137 pages of amendments and to submit a meaningful response. Also, the Senate inquiry committee members received submissions and information for deliberation just one day prior to the scheduled meeting of the committee. There is no reason why this legislation or, indeed, any other legislation that stands to impact on millions of Australians should be accelerated through the parliament without proper consideration.

Labor support the introduction of digital radio. Labor’s involvement in parliamentary deliberation is not to stifle the passage of the bill; rather, it is to iron out any creases, thereby improving the legislation in the interests of the many Australians who will be affected by it. This is Labor’s interest and it is our responsibility. It is imperative that the best possible legislative framework is agreed upon as we go forward into the digital realm. Unfortunately, we again see signs of a government that has been in power for too long and has lost touch with the importance of the democratic process, a government that is ready and willing to place the national interest last on its priority list because it is always the short-term political interest that dominates the objectives of this government. We see blatant disregard for process, time and time again.

As noted, Labor appreciates the importance of introducing digital radio in Australia and will for this reason not deny giving the bill a second reading. However, the bill has significant shortcomings, which Labor has attempted to address through the Senate inquiry process. Labor’s concerns have been disregarded in that forum. Therefore, we will again attempt in this forum to make important improvements to the policy framework by moving a second reading amendment. I move:

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

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

(1) notes

(a) that the Senate Committee inquiry into the bill did not allow interested parties sufficient time to consider and draft submissions to the committee, this constraint not allowing meaningful consultation on the bill;

(b) the lack of information as to how the omission of the Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) platform from the legislation will affect the roll-out of digital radio to rural and regional Australia and notes that this legislation only specifies the use of Digital Radio Broadcasting (DAB); and

(c) that trials on DRM and compression standards are still being carried out;

(2) calls for debate on the bill to be deferred until meaningful consultation has occurred; and

(3) demands that the Government make every endeavour to ensure that standards are in place to enable the rollout of digital radio to remote, rural and regional Australia”.

I moved that amendment because it is only reasonable that there be proper scrutiny and that we get this right. We know that the pace of technological change has been quite extraordinary in recent times, particularly when it comes to communications, and we need to make sure that all Australians, regardless of where they live, get access to the improvements in that technology.

Labor’s amendment primarily goes to the point of equitable access of digital capacity and services to rural, remote and regional areas of Australia. It is imperative that every effort is made to ensure that standards are put in place to enable rollout of digital radio to rural, remote and regional areas. One way this can be achieved is by making provision for the future implementation of the Digital Radio Mondiale, DRM, platform, should this prove to be the mechanism that enables digital radio rollout to rural and remote areas. As members would be aware, there are a number of different technologies available for digital radio broadcasting.

The proposed legislative framework requires that commercial broadcasters will be using the digital audio broadcasting platform. In its submission to the Senate inquiry the ABC indicated that DAB will not adequately service regional and remote areas. They maintain that the DRM system would allow better coverage. I think the government needs to respond to that submission by the ABC. This concern was acknowledged by the Senate inquiry committee. In their final report coalition senators stated:

The committee hopes that the government will take an approach that minimises the barriers to the adoption of digital radio in regional and remote areas.

However, in drafting the legislative framework, the DRM platform is omitted and there is a lack of information as to how this omission will affect the rollout of digital radio across Australia. While it is conceivable that DRM trials are still underway, it makes sense that the best digital radio standard be determined before the provisions of the bill come into effect—or, at the very least, that there is scope within the legislation to move to an alternative platform if this proves to be a better option. Explicitly providing such a possibility also provides manufacturers of radio receivers with an incentive to produce multiformat devices that can be adapted to receive both DAB and DRM. Once again, the absence of critical DRM information goes to my initial argument about the need to provide adequate time for deliberation on this bill. There is simply no need to rush the passage of this legislation. Getting it right from the beginning ensures the best possible outcome for service providers and consumers and provides industry with long-term certainty in relation to technology development.

I want to also address access entitlements and the operation of multiplex licences as they will be impacted by this legislation. In Australia, much of the spectrum suitable for digital radio broadcasting is already being used for analog and digital television and for Defence communications. As a result unoccupied spectrum appropriate for digital radio services is limited. To maximise access the spectrum is split into ‘multiplexes’, allowing a number of different streams of content to be broadcast within the one spectrum. The DAB technology allows nine channels per multiplex. The bill does not provide guaranteed capacity for community radio broadcasting services on all available multiplexes. For example, the bill provides for commercial and community broadcasters to share category 1 licences and makes access by community broadcasters dependent on the decisions of commercial broadcasters. This provision in the legislation denies community broadcasters equitable access to the digital spectrum because they must first rely on a commercial broadcaster to seek digital capacity. Further inaccessibility issues arise in relation to category 2 licences, where community radio will only have access to licences if there is spare capacity after category 1 licences are filled.

National broadcasters are also disadvantaged. They have raised concerns that the requirement to form a company in order to be eligible to access category 3 licences places additional tax obligations and administrative costs on the broadcasters. That the Australian Communications and Media Authority can only issue multiplex licences to ‘digital representative companies’ is also onerous for community broadcasters.

It is clear that these are all complex issues worthy of adequate discussion and consideration so as to provide a digital radio service that best serves the nation. ‘Use it or lose it’ provisions in the proposed legislation allow ACMA to convert a licensee’s licence back to analog where it is not providing at least one digital commercial radio broadcasting service in its licence area. The legislation lacks any guidelines that ACMA should follow in exercising its discretion to convert licences back to analog. For example, it is unclear what would constitute an exceptional circumstance or reasonable excuse for a broadcaster not providing a commercial radio service in any given area. Also, it is unclear where this leaves community broadcasters in the event that a commercial radio broadcasting licensee, on whom the community broadcaster depends, ceases to hold a digital licence.

Content provisions also allow commercial, community or national broadcasters to take advantage of the new digital technologies which will allow them to deliver content other than traditional audio programming. This includes, and is limited to, content in the form of text or still visual images, or in a form specified in a legislative instrument made by the minister. The explanatory memorandum highlights animation as an example of further content which could be approved by the minister though a legislative instrument. Animation and video clips are already available on mobile phones. There is no evidence to suggest that inclusion of such content on digital radio would threaten the digital TV industry. In fact inclusion of such content is likely to encourage the take-up of digital radio. That the minister should have to approve further content is a retrograde provision that should be removed.

In conclusion, the introduction of digital radio is unquestionably an exciting development in the evolution of radio. It can offer a more robust transmission system and a range of images and text information which will facilitate access to warnings—particularly relating to weather—news, traffic updates, sports updates and stock exchange information, as well as additional functionality such as record and rewind. However, the move to digital is technically complex. We must ensure that rural, remote and regional areas in Australia are adequately serviced. We know that these communities are missing out, now, on much of the communications and information technology revolution that people in the inner West of Sydney, which I represent, can take for granted.

We need to make sure that equity of access is permitted and ensured from the very beginning. That is why my amendment goes to the need for further proper consultation in ensuring that we get this legislation right. We must ensure access and entitlement issues are well managed. And we must ensure there are no unnecessary restrictions on content. Time invested in this transition today will result in better uptake of the technology and efficiencies tomorrow.

The government’s expeditious behaviour jeopardises the development of the best possible policy framework to take Australia forward. Good policy is made better through appropriate consideration and deliberation. Good policy is made worse through hasty decision making, which, once again, puts at risk the national interest. I urge the House to favourably consider the amendment that I have moved, which is directed towards making sure that this bill is the best possible bill that this House can carry and does justice to the important issues of digital radio as we move forward.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. AM Somlyay)—Is the amendment seconded?

Ms Livermore—I second the amendment.