Environment and Communications Legislation Committee report (Broadcasting Services Amendment (Material of Local Significance) Bill 2013)

Senator RUSTON (South Australia) (16:50): I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.
Leave granted.

Senator RUSTON: I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I particularly wanted to speak on this Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee report given that the reason that Senator Xenophon decided to move the bill that this report refers to, the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Material of Local Significance) Bill 2013, was that regional news services were being withdrawn from the area in which I live. WIN TV, the television broadcaster in the Riverland and the Mount Gambier area in South Australia, made a decision, very tragically, a few months ago that they were no longer in a position to be able to provide a news service. Only a matter of a few months prior to that, they had made a decision that they could afford only one news service—which actually combined both areas—and, subsequent to that, was their decision that they could no longer afford to do any news service at all.

Senator Xenophon's response, obviously, was out of concern for the people of that area and the lack of news service. But the main concern the coalition had with the bill related to the fact that, when WIN TV negotiated the deal to enable it to be the broadcaster in this area, no such requirements were placed on them. There was never any intention that a commercial operator should cross-subsidise and operate at a loss to enable the people of this area to receive their news services. We were concerned that a bill was being introduced which would suggest that in a retrospective way the WIN Television network were going to be required to provide a news service that was of significant cost to them when obviously they had made the decision that they were not commercially able to do so.

I draw this to the Senate's attention in the context of what is happening in this region. Because of a whole heap of reasons, the economic environment in this area of South Australia—I am sure this is the case across a lot of rural and regional Australia—cannot provide the money to support these kinds of activities. WIN TV had to make a decision on the basis of a huge reduction in the amount of commercial revenue that they were receiving for advertising, and they were in a position where they would have been losing money if they continued to plough into their new service the kind of money they had been spending. That is obviously very disappointing for the people of the Mt Gambier area and the people of the Riverland but, once again, it is not the place of a commercial broadcaster to be cross-subsidising its operations and providing an uneconomic service.

The retrospective nature of this measure was disappointing, hence the report from the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee indicating that we are not in support of this bill. It does not seem fair, when you have made a decision in possession of all the facts, that the facts can be changed after the event. We have seen that happen way too often, where businesses enter into an agreement in good faith, on the basis of a government policy, and then the situation changes. The decision about the Abel Tasman, which is tied up at Port Lincoln, is a classic example. I am pleased that the recommendation is not to support the requirement for WIN TV to provide a new service.

I also put this in the context of the changing media landscape that we find ourselves in at the moment. The way that we find information from new services is changing very significantly and at an extraordinarily rapid rate. You only have to look at the emergence of online activity. These days most of us have read the newspaper before we get out of bed in the morning. The obligation and responsibility to ensure that people in the country have the same sorts of facilities as their colleagues in the cities is highlighted by the likes of the requirement for Australia Post to collect and deliver letters anywhere in Australia at a standard rate. We are expecting the same thing with our telecommunication providers—that people in the country are able to access the same sorts of services as their colleagues who live in the city. However, we have noted that there are still an awful lot of people who are living in rural and regional areas, particularly remote areas, who still do not have the same sort of telecommunication access as their colleagues in the city.

The ABC is the national broadcaster. The ABC is the media outlet that is charged with the responsibility of ensuring there is some level of equity with the delivery of news services and regional content to people who live in places that are not necessarily highly populated or where it is not easily commercially viable to provide such services. I congratulate the ABC for the response it took to this issue in our area. The ABC immediately responded to the withdrawal of these news services by acting to employ video journalists through its radio stations in the area. My understanding from speaking to the local ABC radio business in the Riverland only last week is that a video journalist has been appointed and will start working out of the Renmark office very shortly, and the same thing will occur in Mt Gambier.

Whilst it is the responsibility of the ABC to undertake the delivery of uneconomic news services to those of us who live in areas where it is not commercially viable to have those services, it was with great delight that we saw that it responded so quickly to the problem. I would like to thank the ABC for that and I also note that I was delighted that the recommendation of the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee was to oppose the bill on the grounds of the retrospective nature of a requirement to provide a news service where it was not commercially viable to do so and that requirement had not existed at the time of negotiating the contract.

tags:  speech