Bills - Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017, Commercial Broadcasting (Tax) Bill 2017 - Second Reading


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (18:04): The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017 is an important bill relating to broadcasting and communication reform. As other speakers have mentioned, the key elements of this package are the abolition of broadcasting licence fees, introduction of a price for use of spectrum, protecting children by banning gambling advertising during sports broadcasts, amendments to anti-siphoning, and a broad-ranging, comprehensive review of Australian and children's content. But the element of the reform that I want to initially concentrate on, before getting back to the broader parts of the bill, is the part of the bill which provides a $30 million funding package for subscription television to support the broadcasting of women's and niche sports.

As Australians, we have a wide range of views on what sports we want to watch on television; however, many of the sports that occupy a central place in the Australian sporting landscape and enjoy high levels of participation across the community struggle to secure any consistent broadcast coverage. Coverage is increasingly important for sporting organisations, and the absence of broadcast and other media revenue constrains the ability of these organisations to develop and grow their sport. That is why the government, as part of this package, is providing some $30 million over four years to go to Fox Sports to broadcast sports that don't usually attract the free-to-air channels, or other interests at times, to help promote the sport and provide coverage for people particularly interested in those sports.

I am particularly interested in this part of the package to ensure that women's sports, in all of its glory and in all of its breadth, is able to get proper coverage on the television channels. I particularly mention the Townsville Fire, which is the only Woman's National Basketball League team outside of the southern capitals and the near-Melbourne area. I will repeat that. The Women's National Basketball League comprises seven or eight teams. Several of them are around Melbourne, others are in the major capital cities, and there is only one team in the competition in Queensland. That is a team based in Townsville, and it's called Townsville Fire. It's the only team in the whole of northern Australia that is part of the Women's National Basketball League. But it seems that television broadcast arrangements have been made between Basketball Australia and Fox Sports that do not reflect Fire's position in the competition. For those in this chamber who follow women's basketball, they'll know that Townsville Fire have been the most successful team in the Women's National Basketball League.

Apparently, the agreement between Basketball Australia and Fox Sports has each of the other seven teams in the competition having two home games televised live during the season. So there are eight teams and seven of them in the southern capitals have their two home games broadcast on television by arrangement between Basketball Australia and Fox Sports. But the most successful team—the one that is best supported and has the best audience participation in the whole competition—Townsville Fire, has no home games broadcast on Fox Sports. I will repeat that for those who might be listening: eight teams in the competition, seven in the southern capitals, and each of the seven in the southern capitals have two home games broadcast during a season, but the most successful team—the one that's won the competition more often than not; the one that has magnificent community support and great audience participation—gets not two home games broadcast but zero home games broadcast. How could that be fair? It is an indictment of Basketball Australia and Fox TV that this has happened today. I am told by the management of Townsville Fire that the reason given by Fox Sports is that the cost of broadcasting a professional event in Townsville would be something in the order of $50,000 more than doing it in the southern capitals. As a commercial operation, I guess Fox Sports are not prepared to spend that money. I understand $50,000 is not the total cost, but it would cost $50,000 more to broadcast it in Townsville, according to Fox Sports, than the production of such a broadcast in the southern capitals.

It seems to me that the money being provided for niche and women's and unrepresented sports in this package of measures is what this is all about—for example, the $50,000 extra that Fox Sports say is needed to produce coverage of the two home games in Townsville. They are not prepared to do it, but this $30 million seems to me ideal for that purpose, and that seems to me to be what this package is all about. I have written to the minister on behalf of Townsville Fire to make these arguments not all that long ago; I have to say I haven't heard back from the minister yet. But this would be a great way to spend that $30 million. It is what it is all about in principle, and it is very important for women's sports generally, and for the code, to have the best team, the most popular team, the best community-supported team receive this sort of coverage on national TV through Fox Sports.

Fox Sports do a great job, but they are a commercial organisation, they are there to make money, and if they don't see the production costs as helping their overall bottom-line budget, I can understand why they have not proceeded with these broadcasts up until now. But this new package of measures is one that I would certainly hope that Fox Sports can avail themselves of, and I hope that there will then be fair and appropriate coverage for the Women's National Basketball League.

Providing funding to Fox Sports to televise two Townsville Fire home games would meet the government's underlying commitment to promote women in sport, and it would also promote another part of the government's program—that is, its vision for northern Australia. To me as a person representing some of the more remote parts of Australia and particularly northern Australia, it seems that this is typical of what happens across the board. The southern capitals, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and I think Perth, have these basketball teams—not very good teams, by the standard of the Townsville Fire—and they get this coverage on Fox Sports. But the best team—the one that has won, I think, seven out of the last eight games—is not broadcast. That just doesn't seem to me to be sensible in promoting women's basketball.

Can you imagine what would happen, Madam Acting Deputy President, if television stations around Australia didn't publish the grand final of the National Rugby League because the winning team happened to come from Townsville, as it may well do again this year? Of course, there would be outrage. But, because women's basketball doesn't have quite the same pull or influence as the National Rugby League, it seems that the best team—the team that wins more often than not—is not getting appropriate support from the television stations. As I say, that is what this package of reforms is all about. I think it's important for women's sport generally, and for women's basketball in particular, that all of the teams in the competition be treated equally. That is one of the reasons I'm particularly pleased to support this overall package of media reforms.

Moving onto the wider issues involved, the Turnbull government has proposed this landmark reform to protect children from gambling advertising, to modernise and assist the broadcasting sector and to recognise changing consumer viewing patterns for high-quality Australian content. These reforms, put forward by the Turnbull government and the communications minister Senator Fifield, demonstrate that the government is listening to community concerns on things like gambling advertising and that the government is determined to act to protect children, whilst at the same time fostering a vibrant, competitive and sustainable media industry. The reforms that the government is proposing enjoy fairly unanimous support from the Australian media industry itself.

We all know that free-to-air broadcasters play an important role in providing access to high-quality Australian content such as sporting events, current affairs, drama and children's programs, and they provide them to all Australians. However, they are operating in an increasingly competitive and challenging environment due to the entry of online service providers. Audiences now have viewing opportunities across more platforms than ever before. Audiences are increasingly fragmented, and advertising revenue for commercial broadcasting is falling as competition in the sector increases. That's a good thing. Competition is good. It's what our government is built upon; it's in our DNA. But it's important that, where there is competition, it's competition on an even playing field. Our broadcast and content reform package will modernise regulation and help position the sector to deal with these existing and future challenges more effectively.

This particular program of media reforms is just another part of the very significant work that the Turnbull government is doing. As I often say, I've been around this parliament for a long time now. I've seen a lot of governments come and go. Can I say that the Turnbull government—and this package is an example of it—is doing a wonderful job. It is a very good government. I say that perhaps in a partisan way, but I say it also in a very non-partisan way. This is a government that is actually doing things. Unfortunately, the Australian public doesn't get to hear about that. All the Australian public hears about at the moment is same-sex marriage, climate change, migrants who illegally enter the country, claiming they're being badly done by, or all of the many left-wing commentators simply criticising the Turnbull government. But, if you were to look beyond the commentators and what some of the popular press are dealing with, you would find that this is a government that is doing many good things right across the board.

One of the areas in this media package reform where I don't think the government has gone far enough is in doing something about the ABC, or, as I now call it, the Ultimo Broadcasting Corporation. It used to be called the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, but clearly it's no longer a corporation that deals with facts. It deals mainly with the opinions of those who are running the show in Ultimo. I have to make a qualification here. I find regional radio and regional ABC very balanced. They don't always agree with me—they rarely do—but they are balanced. Similarly, in this building, the ABC in the parliamentary press gallery is reasonably balanced. But if you go down to Ultimo in Sydney, where all the power and money congregate, where all of the decisions are made and where all of the current affairs programs happen, you find that it's not the ABC anymore; it's the UBC. You can read that either as the Ultimo Broadcasting Corporation or the Union Broadcasting Corporation.

On rare occasions I listen to the 'UBC'. I do that in the mornings when I ride my bike, because my earphones are locked onto the ABC and I don't know how to change them. So I do hear the ABC every now and again. I heard the ABC the other morning when I was riding about. In a half-hour program we had three items favourable to the ABC, with ABC spokesmen on it, and then we had an eight-minute address by Mr Bill Shorten telling everyone about his new tax proposal on trusts. In that half hour and the half hour that followed there was not one balancing comment to any of that. Just as recently as this morning, when I was again riding my bike around, in the half hour I was on my bike we had a story from migrants saying they weren't getting enough money out of the Australian government. These were people who had illegally entered Australia. We had the normal same-sex marriage argument, which was not even balanced; it's always just one side. We had the usual climate change report by the ABC, and then we had a so-called independent commentator making some commentary on the political situation. The independent commentators are always either an ABC commentator or one from the Fairfax group; there is never any serious political commentator. So, by any standards, the UBC—that is, the Ultimo Broadcasting Corporation—is unbalanced.

When the ABC was set up it was an organisation that was there to report facts. It was there not to report the opinions of individual journalists but to report facts. That way, the facts having been reported, the people of Australia could then make up their minds on what life was about, what the issues were, how things should happen. But you will find these days that the ABC is continually about the promotion of individual views of single people. I just get very envious. I'm elected by a couple of million Queenslanders. I would love to have the opportunity of giving my views on every subject, as some of these ABC reporters do out of Ultimo every day of the week. They are elected by no-one. But they do try and succeed—credit where it's due; they have been very successful on a number of major issues—in the way that they can mould Australian opinion, because, very often, in many parts of the country, they are the only ones that have sway in the national footprint. So, while this is a great package of measures, I do think it needs to go further in relation to our national broadcaster. The ABC needs to be brought back to its charter. That's not going to happen with this bill, but I do commend the bill and congratulate the minister on the great work he's doing on media reform.

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