BILLS - Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Restoring Shortwave Radio) Bill 2017 - Second Reading

I rise to speak as well on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Restoring Shortwave Radio) Bill 2017. I thank both Senator Xenophon's team for raising this issue and Senator McKenzie for her passion for those that live in the regional and remote regions. Labor has been deeply concerned about the impact of the cessation of short-wave radio in remote Australia and the Pacific. The ABC decided to cease, from 31 January 2017, the transmission of a short-wave radio service to the Northern Territory and certain Pacific nations. Labor has been campaigning on the ABC decision to cease the short-wave transmission since it was announced in mid-December. I have been particularly impressed by the advocacy shown by my colleague Senator McCarthy and my colleagues in the other place Mr Snowden and Mr Gosling. They've been as passionate on this issue over the same period because they really understand the impact of turning off short wave in remote parts of the Northern Territory.

There have been very real concerns expressed to the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee about these decisions. We understand that the ABC decision was based on the fact that it measured relatively low audience levels for the service. Michael Mason, ABC's director of radio said:

While shortwave technology has served audiences well for many decades, it is now nearly a century old and serves a very limited audience. The ABC is seeking efficiencies and will instead service this audience through modern technology.

However, even though Labor expressed concern at the time, there was very little consultation prior to the announcement. I understand that only limited consultation took place with affected stakeholders, something that disappoints me and other members on this side of the chamber. When the ABC made the announcement in December 2016, several groups of Territorians, as we've heard, and stakeholder groups across the Top End expressed their disappointment. These included the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association and many others.

I was born in the remote north-west regional centre of Broome and have lived in the Top End most of my life. I can recall my dear dad, when the only installation in the house was a radio, turning to the short wave to listen to his favourite programs at the time. I recall Paul Robeson singing. I worked for many years with people on cattle stations who depended on information coming through the short-wave service. They relied on short wave for their news, for their market information on cattle prices and particularly for their access to up-to-date information when cyclones were brewing in the region. Even their children were schooled through short-wave services. Many remote Aboriginal communities were similarly placed.

Where we live there is a strong concern that there is currently a lack of alternative radio services in remote areas, particularly when we are dealing with emergency situations such as fire, flood or particularly cyclones. Some of the alternatives in place elsewhere such as digital technology are in short supply in rural and regional areas due to insufficient internet and mobile phone coverage—we've heard that already. I was visited in my office yesterday by a lady who came from a station near Riversleigh in north-west Queensland, just above Camooweal, and she pointed out that satellite technology in her district was unreliable during rainy times and when there's heavy smoke from bushfires in the air. The services available through the NBN and Sky Muster were not reliable, as was also pointed out to us by the National Farmers' Federation.

In areas where digital services are unreliable and spasmodic, short wave is something people have relied upon at least as a back-up when all else fails. That applies to fishermen in deep-sea areas, well off the coast, where other satellite coverage is spasmodic. It also applies to workers in Indigenous ranger programs caring for country in places away from the satellite dish. This was explained by Mark Crocombe from the Thamarrurr rangers at Wadeye on the ABC rural program in December 2016. He said:

Sure, it is expensive to keep the shortwave radio service going, but during cyclones, for the bush camps and people on boats, that is their only way of getting the weather reports.

It could be life threatening, if you are out and you don't know a cyclone is coming.

The VAST satellite dish is fixed to your house, we are working in the field, and when we are on the boats we are not in mobile phone range, so applications and VAST do not work in the bush.

Labor has been concerned that coalition budget cuts are putting pressure on the ABC to find efficiencies in ways that may undermine important service provisions. In their Senate report the Labor senators, particularly Senator Urquhart and Senator Chisholm, affirmed and advocated for the independence of the ABC. We understand the importance of safeguarding our national broadcaster from political interference. Labor notes that, in 2014, in breach of an explicit election promise, the Liberal National coalition imposed funding cuts on the ABC amounting to $355 million over a five-year period.

In their report the Labor senators noted that, in this context, the government commissioned the ABC and the SBS efficiency study to identify potential savings. The study identified the discontinuance of short-wave radio services as an area of potential savings amongst others. What we have been concerned about is that coalition budget cuts are putting pressure on the ABC to find efficiencies in ways that may undermine important service provision. We are of the view that the ABC decision to cease short-wave radio transmissions in the Northern Territory and Pacific is an example of the national broadcaster having to make trade-offs. It is being stretched to deliver on its mandate, and Northern Australia and our other remote communities have suffered as a result.

While Labor supports the concerns behind the bill, there are real concerns and questions as to whether this is the appropriate way to address those concerns. This bill does nothing to address the real issues of the ABC budget pressures. Those pressures have been brought about by the Liberal-National coalition funding cuts so that the ABC has been spread too thin. It has been asked to do too much with too little and been forced to make so-called efficiencies that undermine its abilities to serve both the spirit and the letter of the ABC Charter. When this impacts on our people in the bush—Aboriginal communities, pastoralists, tourist operators, fishermen—we are concerned. When these changes are made without consultation, we are concerned. When these changes are made without attention to the need to ensure later digital technologies are up to speed for the circumstances in isolated regions, we are very concerned, particularly if there are no maintenance capacities to look after those transmission areas.

The ABC said at the time:

The move is in line with the national broadcaster's commitment to dispense with outdated technology and to expand its digital content offerings including DAB+ digital radio, online and mobile services, together with FM services for international audiences.

The ABC also said:

… the ABC will assist with the transition to new technologies, providing information on how to access emergency services, as well as the use of modern and reliable devices such as emergency GPS beacons (EPIRBs) and affordable satellite telephones. Further information and specialist advice will be provided on how to access these services, including how to download catch-up radio programs and ABC podcasts to listen to whilst on the move.

In the Kimberley, you must recall the famous Cable Beach in Broome was where Australia connected to the overseas communication system. We now have the court in the old cable building that was part of that process. In the Kimberley, this transition had been made earlier than in the Northern Territory, but the promised transition to new technologies is slow to catch up. People have adjusted, but the process has been appalling.

It is absolutely fundamental that communications services in remote northern Australia should be maintained. The quality of life is at risk. Lives indeed could be at risk. That said, this bill in its present form cannot be supported. We will not apply pressure to the ABC. But the issue is: the ABC has turned off a lifeline without ensuring that the new technologies are available and fit for purpose, and they have not consulted anyone—or certainly have not consulted adequately. They have been forced into this predicament because of funding dictates by the coalition government, who have not cared for the bush or the people of the bush. This is the core of the issue and where Labor will continue and remain.

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