It is a great pleasure to speak in support of this bill. It is a very timely bill which is introduced to allow TV channels to broadcast digital or HD, high-definition, content on their primary channel.
It is very timely because this weekend the football finals begin—at least in the real football code in this country, the National Rugby League. As a Queensland senator it is very exciting that the two pre-eminent Queensland teams this year, the Brisbane Broncos and the North Queensland Cowboys, will be playing against each other this Saturday night. I am advised that, unfortunately, it is unlikely that that game will be broadcast in high definition on the primary channel, but I am hopeful that this will not be the last the Brisbane Broncos and the North Queensland Cowboys face each other in this finals' series, and hopefully they will end up playing against each other on the big day, the first Sunday of October.
It may very well be the case that, if this bill goes through the parliament, Queenslanders not only will be able to view the very first NRL final between two Queensland teams—the very first time in history—but will also be able to see it for the first time in history in high definition. That will be a great thing. I am pretty confident that the Broncos and the Cowboys have been the best teams this season. They did not finish at the top, but over the course of the 26 rounds the Brisbane Broncos and the North Queensland Cowboys were the best, and I do think they may end up in the finals.
Senator Kim Carr interjecting—
Through you, Mr Acting Deputy President, Senator Carr probably does not follow the game that is the most watched game in Australia.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: "Order! Please resume your seat, Senator Canavan. A point of order, Senator McEwen."
Senator McEwen: "Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order on relevance. I too could stand up and talk fulsomely about Port Adelaide's performance this year in the Australian Football League. I have chosen not to do so. However—"
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: "Resume your seat, Senator McEwen. The bill is about high-definition sporting broadcasts, and I think that Senator Canavan is relevant to the bill, however obtusely."
Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I will get to the details of this bill, but I think it is very important to connect with the Australian people about why we do things in this place. The actual provisions of this bill are very technical and complex, but it is very important to understand why we do these things in this parliament. Senator Carr may have a different view, and Senator McEwen may have a different view, but I actually think that for the vast majority of Australians the football finals this weekend will be a very engaging event. It is something that I certainly look forward to every year. Unfortunately, there is a National Party convention this weekend. It happens that I probably will not be able to watch the Brisbane Broncos and the Cowboys live, but I will be able to watch them on a replay on Foxtel in high definition, whereas you cannot do that at the moment on the primary TV channel.
That is why we need the changes in this bill. At the moment the free-to-air broadcasters are restricted in what they can show and broadcast compared to some of their competitors, including Foxtel and the pay TV channels, which broadcast their content in high definition, at least to some who choose to buy a Foxtel high-definition set-top box. The free-to-air channels cannot do that at the moment. On their primary channel they are restricted to only showing standard definition content. We believe as a government—and I believe it has been shown in the review, and I certainly believe—that it is time to remove that restriction and allow free-to-air broadcasters to compete on a level playing field.
This bill is called the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Primary Television Broadcasting Service) Bill 2015, but perhaps it could be and hopefully should be called the 'Broadcasting the First Queensland NRL Grand Final in High Definition Bill 2015'. I certainly hope that happens. And what does this bill do? In detail, it removes the restriction that a free-to-air broadcaster has to broadcast standard definition content on its primary broadcasting channel. That primary broadcasting channel is the traditional Nine, Seven or Ten channel, not their multichannels, like GEM, ONE and 7mate, which they can broadcast high-definition content on. This will allow them to broadcast that high-definition content on their primary channel for the first time. It does not require them to broadcast high-definition content on that channel; they have the option to do that. Presumably, and likely, they will only take that option up where there is content such as a major football final or sporting event where lots of Australians are viewing it and, of course, high-definition content adds something to the experience. Hopefully we will not get high-definition broadcasts of parliament, because I do not know about you, Senator Carr, but I am not always the best—
Senator McEwen: "Oh, no! We don't want to look at you in high definition!"
Yes, exactly, Senator McEwen. I do not particularly want to do that, so hopefully that will not be a consequence of this particular legislation.
Also, on their primary channels, free-to-air networks provide captioning services for the hearing impaired. They will also be protected in this legislation. They will continue to be provided, including in high-definition content, if required.
These amendments are needed, as I hinted in my opening remarks, because other competitors can provide content in high definition, but free-to-air networks cannot. This will allow them to do that, and it reduces regulation for that.
The changes proposed in this bill were recommended by an inquiry early last year. It has gone through consultation. There was a Newspoll survey done early last year showing that most Australians now have access to high-definition content. At the time, early last year, around 96 per cent of Australian households could access high-definition content. That figure has probably risen since then because the uptake of high-definition set-top boxes has been increasing over time.
It is also the case that set-top boxes are relatively cheap at the moment, and have been for some time, and that has driven uptake of these receivers. At Dick Smith at the moment, if anyone is interested, you can get a high-definition set-top box with a USB and personal video recording capability for $49.98. It is quite cheap, and that accords with the advice that we have provided in this bill. Around the $50 mark will provide you with access to high-definition content. It is something that most Australians will be able to access and be able to afford, and that is the case already at the moment. Consumers themselves can go and buy a set-top box for around $40 or $50, and that has driven uptake.
Senator Jacinta Collins: "I wouldn't pay that. You can get them for $20."
Twenty dollars? I do not think high-definition, though, Senator Collins. I did do a bit of a search and I could not find a high-definition set-top box for $20. But perhaps Senator Collins could provide some advice on that to Senator Conroy, or whoever is the communications spokesman now. You might recall when Labor were last in government they went out and bought some set-top boxes for Australians. They tendered for set-top boxes. In an article in The Australian from February 2012, Senator Conroy, who was the communications minister at the time, revealed that the average price of set-top boxes under the Household Assistance Scheme was $698—and these were not necessarily high-definition set-top boxes. Six hundred and ninety-eight dollars for a set-top box! You can go down to Dick Smith and buy them for 50 bucks, and they charged the Australian taxpayers $700 for the set-top boxes! That was the average price.
Senator Bilyk: "Put it into context."
Yes, let us put it into context. The article does go into a bit more detail. Senator Conroy tried to explain this seemingly massive blow-out. Originally the costs were $350 per set-top box in the budget in 2011. They blew out to $700, a doubling of the budget for this program, which was not unusual in the former Labor government.
Senator Fifield: "I had forgotten the set-top boxes."
Yes, the set-top boxes. I had to brush up on it, Senator Fifield. It was $700—I think you might have missed that—on average for a set-top box under this program. Senator Conroy tried to explain this by saying that that was just an average price and the costs ranged from $158 to $1,528. Taxpayers were being charged $1,528 for a set-top box—not a TV! It did not have any high-definition content. It was not a smart TV or an internet-connected TV or a wi-fi TV or an android TV or an Apple TV. It was a set-top box and it cost $1,500 under the former Labor government.
I thought: that is interesting. What could you buy for $1,500 at the moment down at Dick Smith? At the moment you can buy a 55-inch Samsung TV. I am thinking about buying a new TV at the moment. A 55-inch, high-definition, smart Samsung TV for $1,500—that is what you can get. That is what the Australian consumer can get in the shops if they are smart and savvy about what they are doing, which usually they are. But the former Labor government could only get a set-top box for $1,500! Harvey Norman, JB Hi-Fi and Dick Smith must have been laughing all the way to the bank. They saw the Labor Party coming and they charged them that amount of money for a program which was simply set-top boxes.
People could have gone out and bought a TV with full HD digital TV capabilities for that price. But that was not how the Labor Party rolled in government. How they rolled was: whatever the cost, whatever the price; that did not matter. All that mattered was getting through the next day for them. That is how we ended up with the debacles like the set-top box scheme, which was a complete waste of money—hundreds of millions of dollars. About $308 million was budgeted in 2011 for that program. It turned out to be another example of waste from the Labor Party and another example of inefficiency from a Labor government. That is not the approach that we have taken. We provide assistance to people to allow them to buy their own set-top boxes and to make their own consumer decisions.
Not only did it cost an enormous amount of money; the actual service that was provided was at times incredibly deficient. At the time, Ms Diane Pasco from Warrnambool requested assistance under this scheme. She had four visits to her home by departmental contractors—four visits by the contractors without connecting the set-top box properly. Four visits! I reckon I could go and install my grandma's set-top box in less than four visits. Four visits from contractors, all charged to the taxpayer, and then, after those four visits—and none of them were satisfactory—Ms Pascoe had to go out and pay for a digital set-top box and install it herself! She did it all on her own for $100! The Labor Party were charging people more than 600 bucks on average to do this service and often not even getting it right. If you cannot install set-top boxes in people's homes, you cannot run a government, surely. If you cannot install a set-top box, you cannot be trusted to run the Australian government. That is what their approach was.
Thankfully, most Australians did not have to rely on the Labor government to provide their TVs or the digital content. They did it themselves. As I said, around 96 per cent—perhaps more now—of households do have access to high-definition content. They have access to a lot more since that time. Services such as Netflix, Stan, Presto, TENplay and other forms of digital content that are delivered through iPads have ballooned in popularity.
Senator Jacinta Collins: "ABC."
ABC. Thank you, Senator Collins. ABC iview. I am a regular user of that as well. All of these services are now provided on many different platforms as well as through your TV. There are many different platforms, not just a broadcasting service. That has put substantial competitive pressures on the free-to-air TV broadcasters.
They are probably only going to increase, as I believe we are only seeing the genesis of this change. As people get more and more and better internet through the National Broadband Network, a scheme that we have improved since coming to government, these kinds of services, delivered largely through the internet rather than through broadcasting spectrum, will become more popular and that will create a greater competitive threat to free-to-air broadcasters. That is one of the reasons why we need this change, to help remove red tape and regulation from the free-to-air TV sector so that they can compete with these new services on a more level playing field.
I also would like to make some comments about the broader regulatory landscape in this area, because there are restrictions on free-to-air TV broadcasters other than simply this one, and they are restrictions that at least some free-to-air TV broadcasters feel are limiting their scope to compete with other forms of TV and digital content. In particular we do have specific restrictions on mergers in the media and broadcasting landscape. The one that affects TV most directly is colloquially known as the reach rule, or the 75 per cent rule, which restricts any broadcast provider to only 75 per cent of Australia's broadcasting scope. That has been in existence for a long time—
Senator Bilyk: "What do you stand for, Matt?"
If people listen up, I might expand a little on that topic right now.
Senator Bilyk: "You've only got four minutes."
I think I can do it in 4½ minutes. The reach rule has been a longstanding restriction in broadcasting from the late 1980s—it might have been Paul Keating; it might have been the early 1990s. We have had this rule for at least 20 years, and it has been reviewed a number of times. It is quite a blunt rule. It is unusual to have a restriction on mergers in a particular landscape of 75 per cent, or any particular number for that matter, but we have that in our broadcasting space. We do have it for a reason, and the reason is that it guarantees a diversity of broadcasters in our landscape. It means by definition that in the 25 per cent left, apart from that 75 per cent, there have to be dedicated regional broadcasters. Channels 9, 10 and 7 cannot cover the field, if you like—by law they cannot cover 100 per cent of Australia, so there have to be some regional broadcasters and that is why we have WIN, Prime and Southern Cross as well—and NBN. It is blunt, I recognise that, and almost every review that has been done since that time has recognised difficulties or issues with the reach rule. As I say, it does serve a purpose. I believe Australians want a diverse media landscape. I do believe that Australians want to have local news and local content delivered in their local area. I therefore believe that we need to have some protections in our legal framework to permit broadcasters, or the media industry more generally, to deliver that diverse landscape.
At the moment, as it stands, if the 75 per cent rule or other rules such as the two-out-of-three rule, which goes to more than just TV, were removed, a proposed merger between two broadcasting entities would be assessed by the ACCC under section 50 of the Competition and Consumer Act. That act obviously deals with matters of competition and economic efficiency, and the ACCC has to be bound by the provisions of that act when looking at any particular potential merger. I have great scepticism that any such process could adequately deal with the issues of media diversity through section 50 alone. Section 50 itself is there to protect competition, not to promote any kind of diversity or any kind of specific promotion of a minimum number of players in a market. The Trade Practices Act, or now the Competition and Consumer Act, is focused on delivering outcomes that are in the best interests of consumers, not necessarily saying that there must be a minimum number of competitors in a market, whereas I believe in the media landscape at least there is a different set of issues that need to be considered. That means that there possibly would need to be specific media rules around mergers and acquisitions.
I do note that other reviews have been done in this area, such as the Productivity Commission's broadcasting review and the convergence review a few years ago. They both called into question the 75 per cent rule, and also the two-out-of-three rule, but they also made the point that a diverse media landscape is an important objective for public policy and perhaps needs protection through other ways and means. I note that at this stage at least those who are seeking to remove that 75 per cent rule have not really put forward a specific proposal to deal with issues of media diversity apart from just the competition issues. I am sure those issues will continue to be considered and debated both here in the parliament and in the wider public policy sphere.
I fully support this bill. As I said at the start, as I am more of a rugby league fan I very much hope that Channel 9 will be able to provide the grand final in high definition. I hope that at least one Queensland team and maybe two will be in the grand final but if they are not I will still be watching, and I hope that along with millions of other Australians we can finally enjoy the pre-eminent and premier sporting event on our nation's calendar in high definition on big screen TVs.