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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2002 Week 2 Hansard (20 February) . . Page.. 386 ..

MS GALLAGHER (continuing):

The ABA has substantial power, and whether or not it chooses to use that power to require a greater level of local coverage and production will depend largely on this inquiry, and the level of community concern demonstrated. For this reason, it is appropriate that the ACT government send a detailed submission. As part of this submission, I want the Assembly to call on the ABA to specifically require each licence holder to provide a local news service or an equivalent level of coverage of local events of importance.

There are a number of key reasons for this. The broadcasters are in a unique and a privileged position, as they are guaranteed no new entrants or competition until 2007. We are faced with the fact that the broadcasters will take the cheap option of becoming little more than re-broadcast stations, and maybe commercial production houses, while other broadcasters, such as WIN Television, continue to provide the only local news in much of Australia.

Under the current arrangements, there would be nothing stopping WIN from making a similar commercial decision to Southern Cross Broadcasting and Prime, and also cutting its news. While this may be hard to imagine, it could be a real possibility. The ABA should ensure that there is a relatively level playing field, so that all operators are providing a level of local news service, or local production in the communities within their licence areas.

As taxpayers, we are providing a substantial subsidy to these commercial broadcasters in their move to digital transmission. The previous government reached a deal providing a figure of over $1 million to Prime Television, yet this did not require of Prime any real commitment to the community beyond establishing its broadcast centre in Canberra, now without a news service.

The federal government is contributing over eight years $13.6 million per broadcaster for southern New South Wales, $13.6 million per broadcaster in northern New South Wales, and $13.6 million per broadcaster in regional Queensland, and more in other areas. Added to the subsidies in other markets for the same companies, it effectively means that the federal government is handing out roughly $56.9 million to Prime and $61 million to Southern Cross Broadcasting over eight years.

In addition to taxpayer subsidies for running their businesses, and the guarantee of no new competition until 2007, the companies are also currently receiving free access to the digital spectrum. When Prime Television closed their news service in June, they stated that "we are planning other local information segments and we intend to expand our weather service," adding, "New local information programs will be introduced in the months ahead." I am not aware that this has actually happened in the months that have passed since the closure of Prime local news. Clearly a stronger hand from the regulator is required.

While it would be easy for a company to take the cheap option and solely pump out other networks' programs, and other cities' news, a community is more than just about making money for the shareholders. A community is also more than just The Simpsons, Seinfeld or Big Brother: it is a mixture of people, events, news, tragedy, change, sport, cultures, places and life. News or locally produced programming can reflect and help develop, stimulate and encourage our community.

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