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Second reading, Broadcasting Services Amendment (Community Television) Bill 2024

I rise to speak on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Community Television) Bill 2024, a bill which underlines the significant role that community television plays in our communities, particularly in Melbourne, Geelong and Adelaide, where Channels 31 and 44 provide very valuable local coverage of local issues and events and, of course, give very important opportunities for emerging industry professionals. As a Geelong based Liberal senator, I hold this issue very close to my heart. When I worked for National Indigenous Television, I worked very closely with Channel 31 in Melbourne, and, in fact, we contracted the highly regarded Marngrook Footy Show, which was compulsory viewing for anyone who had any interest at all in AFL footy. So I’ve seen on the ground, from the grass roots of community television, what a very significant role channels like Channel 31 play.

Community TV has for decades been integral to our media landscape, not just because it offers a genuine platform for community engagement on issues which matter, particularly at a local level, but also because it offers aspiring industry professionals a very important foot in the door. For example, on the Marngrook Footy Show, there was everyone from hosts to cameramen, producers, scriptwriters and sound recordists. That was a program, which, just on its own, engaged so many people right across the television sector. There are so many programs on community television doing just that. The transition of these channels onto digital platforms has long been a topic of discussion. In 2014, the coalition government announced plans to move these stations online, citing the need to utilise broadcast spectrum for wider public benefit. Spectrum refers to the use of the airwaves, be it for television or indeed for mobile services, so this amendment goes very much to the heart of how the government manages that spectrum.

To be frank, this government’s record is not a good one. We have previously seen the Minister for Communications mismanage spectrum very badly in relation to round 6 of the Mobile Black Spot Program. This is the notorious funding round where the minister personally provided direction as to which project should get funding. In Victoria and New South Wales, 100 per cent of these black spot locations were in Labor electorates. It was a shocking misuse of taxpayer funding and a real betrayal of so many communities which did not get a look-in when they raised deep concerns about black spots in their area. We certainly look forward to the results of the investigation by the Auditor-General in relation to round 6 of the mobile black spots fund over the next couple of months. We also await the outcome of an investigation by the Information Commissioner into the minister’s refusal to provide key documents on this very grubby affair under an FOI application.

More broadly, this government has a deeply questionable record when it comes to the Communications portfolio. Labor’s ill-considered misinformation bill has been widely criticised by everyone from lawyers all across this country to human rights and civil liberties groups. The communications minister has claimed that the government wants to be very open and transparent about the misinformation bill. This however is gross hypocrisy from a minister who failed to reveal she planned to give herself the power to direct her own misinformation investigations.

The Albanese government should also be condemned for failing to support the recommendation of the eSafety Commissioner for a trial of age-assurance technology aimed at protecting children online from harmful content. Now we’re hearing the eSafety Commissioner say that there are in fact a range of technologies being used for age verification for gambling and alcohol. It is time for the minister to admit that she got it wrong. It is time for the minister to protect children from dangerous content online. And it is time for the minister and the Albanese Labor government to support the coalition’s policy to implement the eSafety Commissioner’s recommendation.

It’s no wonder that this government has failed to deliver the answers that community broadcasters are crying out for. It has been completely preoccupied by so many other matters—all the wrong priorities—including the Voice referendum. The neglect of the support of community television can be added to a number of issues for which this government has failed to deliver answers. The future of community stations hinges on proper consultation and negotiation, yet the government’s lack of engagement with stakeholders is very disappointing. Why hasn’t there been meaningful collaboration with community television stations and the telecommunications industry? Why do community TV stations continue to operate in a state of uncertainty? The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Community Television) Bill 2024, while aiming to extend the deadline for community television stations, ultimately fails to provide the certainty these stations need. The can is kicked down the road, in other words.

So now the decision in relation to the future for community television is postponed until after the next election, further prolonging the uncertainty for this very important sector of our media landscape. The government’s inaction on this is unacceptable. Community television stations deserve clarity and support, not postponements and indecision. I put to this chamber: it’s time for the government to prioritise the future of community television and engage in meaningful dialogue with stakeholders to chart a clear path forward. I urge those on the other side of the chamber to consider the ramifications of this bill very carefully. We cannot afford to let indecision and inaction dictate the fate of community television in Australia. It must continue to thrive and serve as a vital platform for local voices.

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