Feb 23, 2010

Question without notice – Commercial TV: Australian content

Mr PRICE (3:26 PM) —My question without notice is to the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government representing the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. Minister, why is it important for the government to support Australian content in television? How has this support been received?

Mr ALBANESE (Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government) —I thank the Chief Government Whip for his question and note that he, at least, supports Australian content on Australian television. The government will protect Australian content on commercial television by offering licence fee rebates to commercial broadcasters in 2010 and 2011. Licence fee rebates will be 33 per cent in 2010 and 50 per cent in 2011. The government estimates that the cost of the rebate will be some $220 million over the three financial years, subject to the revenue of TV stations. As part of its digital television switch-over package, the government has made provision for a range of related measures, and this greatly reduces the impact on the underlying cash balance.

The government has provided this assistance for three important reasons. The first reason is to protect Australian content on TV. Figures from ACMA show that, in 2006-07, commercial television broadcasters spent some $790 million, or 65.8 per cent of their total programming expenditure, on Australian programs, including some $96 million on Australian drama. That drama includes Underbelly on Channel 9, which had 2.9 million viewers, and Packed to the Rafters on Channel 7, which had 2.6 million viewers in 2009. Other important Australian content includes MasterChef on Channel 10, with some 2.3 million viewers. There is a second reason, which is that commercial television broadcasters are switching to digital television and will need to invest in new technologies. Digital TV involves converting equipment, broadcasting in a different spectrum, adding additional channels and promoting the Freeview platform. The third reason is that the Australian industry already pays significantly higher fees to government than comparable nations.

This is also consistent, it must be said, with precedent. Back in 2000, the former government offered TV licence fee rebates of $260 million to assist the rollout of digital TV in regional areas. We can go back even further. Commercial radio licence fees were cut by 50 per cent in 1992 to compensate for the expansion of radio services that occurred with the introduction of the Broadcasting Services Act. We on this side of the House are clear about our position, but I must also talk about how this has been received. It is fair to say that it has been received in a number of ways. Firstly, upon the announcement, the relevant opposition spokesperson, Tony Smith, the shadow minister, was reported on 8 February as saying:

Preserving quality Australian content is important and there is little doubt the cost of delivering that content is higher at present …

That is a pretty clear position from the relevant shadow minister. Then, for some reason unknown to me, days later the Leader of the Opposition was out there revealing once again the old Abbott habit: talking before he thought. The Leader of the Opposition was out there accusing the government of bribing the commercial networks, and a bribe requires a two-way transaction that we knew what we were doing in bribing them and that they—the likes of Laurie Oakes, Mark Riley and Paul Bongiorno—were prepared to change the way that they broadcast the news on the basis of this bribe. I wonder why that occurred? Of course, you had one in favour and one against—and you will always have one in the middle over there. And the one in the middle, of course, was Tinkerbell.

The SPEAKER —Order! The minister will refer to members by their parliamentary titles.

Mr ALBANESE —The shadow Treasurer went on Meet the Press on Sunday and he had a bob each way; he was for it and he was against it. This is an important issue. It is subject to disallowance in the other place so they will have to take a decision, and we await that decision with interest.

Mr Rudd —Mr Speaker, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.