Communications Legislation Amendment Bill 2015

It is great to continue my remarks on the Communications Legislation Amendment (SBS Advertising Flexibility and Other Measures) Bill 2015. In the very short period I had before question time I was trying to explain that sometimes I just do not know whether the Labor Party has a full understanding or conception of the English language.

I was listening to Senator Singh's contribution to the bill before question time and she was trying to characterise the bill and the changes envisaged in the bill as cuts. But, in fact, what the bill does is permit the SBS to have a little more flexibility with its advertising revenue and allow it to raise additional money for its budget and for its spending. It actually has nothing whatsoever to do with cuts.

It reminded me of previous Labor Party redefinitions of words in the English language. I remember in the budgets that they passed—they had about six budgets in the Rudd-Gillard government—they would often propose or present that they had delivered billions of dollars worth of savings. For example, in the 2012-13 budget they proposed that they had $33.6 billion in savings in 2012-13. Then they went on to say, when you read the fine print, that less than half of the savings in the budget were from changes in tax receipts. So they were actually saying that just under half of their savings were from tax increases, not from actual savings—they were tax increases. And that is their approach in this bill. They are trying to characterise as a cut what is actually trying to give SBS more revenue and more resources. It is consistent with their approach elsewhere to obfuscate.

One of the reasons the SBS has to try to find other revenue sources is that we do not have the benefit and the flexibility of a stable and secure budget position like we had when the coalition last left office. Over six years, in those budgets I referred to, the Labor Party accumulated $240 billion in debt. It was a time of profligacy not seem outside of wars in Australia's history. We did not have a recession. We continued to maintain moderate levels of economic growth through that period, but we still racked up $240 billion in debt. When you have the accumulation of $240 billion in debt—we have more than $300 billion of debt now—on the books, we are going to have to look for other ways of funding essential services and services that we want to provide to the Australian people. That is what any sensible government would do. We have to try to find how we can continue to fund things that we want to continue to support, and I certainly want to continue to support the good work the SBS does.

Any household would do exactly the same. If they had a bit of an increase in their debt—an unforecasted and unexpected increase, which it certainly was, because the Labor Party never did forecast these deficits, despite the fact that they arose—they would look to find other ways of bringing income into that household to at least partially offset the deficit. That is all this bill does. I will go to the detail of it later, but is a very reasonable and sensible change to help fill that gap.

As I said, I do want to support the work of the SBS. I have an Anglo-Saxon or Irish name, unlike Senator Xenophon, who is fortunate enough to have a name from a southern European country. My mother had a name from a southern European country—not Greek, but Italian. I remember as young child when nonno used to come and visit he would turn on the Italian news on in the morning. He was a little bit hard of hearing, so not only could he hear it but it would wake us all up throughout the house, and we could hear what was going on in Italy—not that I could understand a word of it. But SBS does provide an essential service to, particularly, newly arrived migrants to our country. It helps them become integrated within Australia and feel that they are a part of Australia. I think it is a fantastic thing that Australia has a service like SBS. From my understanding, we are one of the few countries in the world that has a dedicated public broadcaster providing multilingual services to migrant communities. It is fitting that we are one of those countries, because we are proud multicultural country that has drawn people from all parts of the world to make up a strong and stable nation. SBS is a very important glue holding together that stable nation. So I do want to support it. I want to make sure it continues to provide those services.

We must, of course, realise that, in an environment where most other countries actually do not have the money or the resources to fund a dedicated public broadcaster for these purposes, it will be a challenge to continue to find the resources to do this going forward in strained budget circumstances. I think we can continue to do that, and I hope we do. An essential element of ensuring that we continue to do that is to allow the SBS to raise revenue from advertising and not draw on the taxpayer.

Over our history, both sides of politics have supported SBS raising money in this way. That is not a controversial element of SBS's current governance structure or current budget. Indeed, going right back to the inception of the SBS in the late 1970s, under a coalition government, it was given the ability to receive money for program sponsorship—not advertising per se, but some form of commercial and outside funding. In the late 1980s decisions were made under a Labor government to expand that to include the sale of advertising time, particularly during the 1990 FIFA World Cup—which was actually hosted in Italy—and that was a success. That was expanded over time and in the late 1990s greater flexibility was given to SBS to take advertising dollars. That has proven to be a great success and has helped underwrite the many good shows and the content that the SBS creates.

Right now, as has been the case for many years, SBS is permitted to show 120 minutes per day of paid advertising content. The changes that this bill proposes are apparently controversial, leading some in this chamber to oppose the changes because they are radical and potentially will create a whole new monster in SBS or create a fourth commercial television network!

Senator Xenophon:  "It will! It will!"

The sky will fall in! Australia will no longer be the country it once was! But wait for it: exactly what we are doing in this bill—these radical, groundbreaking, world-changing effects!—is allowing SBS 10 minutes more per hour of paid advertising. Shock, horror! I believe that is the change.

Senator XENOPHON:  "Five more."

From five to 10 minutes per hour, sorry. I am just trying to read my notes. But we are not going to change the total amount of time per day that SBS can show advertising; it will remain 120 minutes a day. I have just checked, Mr President; I apologise. Currently, it is five minutes per hour, and we are going to allow SBS to increase that to 10 minutes per hour. Currently, they have to spread that 120 minutes over the day at five minutes per hour. We are—radically!—proposing that we give them more flexibility by allowing them to take advertising up to 10 minutes per hour while still keeping the cap of 120 minutes per day. That is the radical change that apparently is going to make the sky fall in! It is still under the cap of 14 to 16 minutes per hour of advertising that that commercial broadcasters can show, and they are permitted to show 350 minutes per day. Advertising on SBS, as I have said, will remain at 120 minutes per day.

Because this is a small, extremely sensible and reasonable change to SBS's approach to paid advertising, it is not going to raise an enormous amount of money. SBS say that it will raise around $28.5 million. I recognise that other estimates, particularly from the free-to-air TV industry, say it will be much higher, and I will go to into those in more detail. But, when you take SBS's figures, the proportion of their funding that will come from paid advertising under this proposal is expected to rise from 26 per cent to 28 per cent—again, apparently a radical change that is going to somehow completely change our broadcasting landscape, if you listen to those on the other side of the chamber.

Really, the only substantive argument that has been put by those people against this change is that, somehow, because the commercial TV industry are upset by this change, we need to listen to those concerns and not make the change. That is about the only substantive argument that has been put forward against the specific changes being proposed—that the commercial TV industry are not happy. It is true that some of them are not happy, and therefore I would like to deal briefly with some of the issues they have raised and dismiss the veracity of these claims.

SBS at the moment is not a mainstream broadcaster. It is a niche broadcaster, by definition. It is never going to earn large shares of our national audience; it is not intended to. The reason we have it is to provide services to Australians who may not—not yet, at least—be part of what would be broadly characterised as mainstream society, and it is a right and proper thing that we do that. SBS should be focused on providing services to those viewers, which is always going to mean that it will not carry or attract a great share or a great proportion of the viewing audience. At the moment, it attracts around five per cent of the national audience. That is not a figure that is growing in any great way, and I do not expect it to. That is not part of SBS's charter or approach. Its approach is to provide services to a niche section of our community, not to try and grow its audience like commercial broadcasters try, obviously. Because SBS only gets five per cent of the national audience and is restricted as to how much paid advertising it can show, it currently only gets around 1.4 to just under two per cent of the commercial TV advertising budget. The total commercial TV advertising market in 2012-13 was worth $3.8 billion and, in 2013-14, it was—

Debate interrupted. 

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