Bill to restore shortwave rejected by Senate Committee

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A Senate Committee inquiring into the possibility of restoring ABC Shortwave services has rejected proposed legislation to restore the international radio service.

Several members of the committee presented dissenting views.

The ABC ended its shortwave transmission service in the Northern Territory and to international audiences from 31 January 2017, in line with the national broadcaster’s commitment to dispense with outdated technology and to expand its digital content offerings.

On 16 February 2017, the Senate referred the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Restoring Shortwave Radio) Bill 2017 to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee for inquiry and report in May but an extension of time to report was granted, until yesterday, 9 August.

The purpose of this Bill was to require the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to restore its shortwave transmission services.

“The Bill will require the ABC to maintain its domestic shortwave transmission services so that people in rural and remote areas, including in the Northern Territory, South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland, have access to a reliable radio service.

“The Bill will also require the ABC to maintain an international shortwave transmission service for Papua New Guinea and parts of the Pacific so that people living in areas such as the Solomon Islands have access to reliable emergency broadcasting.”

Issues raised in evidence

Cessation of international shortwave services
2.3 The committee received a number of submissions which raised concerns about the impact of the cessation of the ABC’s international shortwave services. These concerns included the perceived neglect of remote communities in the Pacific; the loss of capacity for emergency warning broadcasts; and the potential loss of an avenue for diplomacy and the pursuit of Australia’s regional interests in the Pacific. Submitters also disputed the ABC’s argument that other technologies now available provide greater access to ABC international broadcasts.
Perceived neglect of remote communities in the Pacific

2.4 It was argued in evidence that the ABC’s decision to cease shortwave services did not reflect the continuing importance of shortwave for communities in remote and isolated areas in the Pacific.1 Submitters pointed to the limited opportunities for some communities to access radio broadcasts through the internet, mobile phones and via FM transmissions.

2.5 The Pacific Freedom Forum, for example, commented that ‘from the Western border of Papua New Guinea, across the PNG highlands and islands, in all but the main centres in Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, in Fiji and beyond, people rely on shortwave’. Mr Graeme Dobell, a journalist fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), highlighted that for the people of the South Pacific, shortwave radio is not outdated technology…

Submitters also questioned the ABC’s assertions that very few listeners accessed Radio Australia’s shortwave service.

2.10 The ABC responded to concerns about access to its broadcasts following cessation of shortwave transmissions. The ABC noted that audience behaviour has changed with many listeners using technologies other than shortwave, for example, internet streaming, FM transmissions and radio streamed via mobile phone.9 The ABC cited research which indicated that in Papua New Guinea, FM remains the dominant waveband. In addition, the ABC noted that mobile coverage across Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu has jumped from less than half of the population in 2005 to 93 per cent in 2014, the cost of mobile calls declined by one third between 2005 and 2014, and international internet bandwidth jumped over 1500 per cent between 2007 and 2014.

2.11 The ABC’s data on audience reach in the Pacific reflects these changes. Mr Michael Millet, Head of Government Relations at the ABC, commented:
…in 2016 ABC Online received more than 5½ million visits and nearly 12 million page views from audiences in the Pacific across mobile and web. Radio Australia and Australia Plus Pacific Facebook accounts have more than 64,000 followers. Radio Australia has 2.1 million podcasts downloaded from the region, including 191,000 for the Pacific Beat program.

2.12 In addition, the ABC noted a citizen access report in Papua New Guinea published in June 2014 which stated that there was a 50 per cent decline in shortwave listenership from 2012 to 2014.

Committee view

The committee came to the view that the measures proposed in this bill are not an appropriate way to address the concerns raised by some submitters about the cessation of the ABC’s shortwave services.

Labor Senators put forward counter views.

Labor Senators acknowledge the ABC’s ongoing commitment to providing services to remote and regional Australia as well as in the Pacific, but are concerned that the ABC has ceased shortwave radio without sufficient regard to how appropriate digital technologies are for many living in rural and remote areas, given that digital technology is limited in rural and regional areas due to insufficient internet and mobile phone coverage. Satellite technology is unreliable during rain and heavy smoke, and some technologies require a fixed base station and power supply. In some areas there is no mobile reception or radio reception, which is highly concerning in emergency situations… Despite Labor’s direct representations, and the valid concerns of the many people who rely on shortwave radio, the Government has failed to act.

And Senator Xenophon delivered a dissenting report.

A number of submissions and witnesses highlighted the foreign policy value of shortwave and provided examples of where it had positive impact. It was an effective tool in Australia’s own ‘soft power’ toolbox and it beyond comprehension that the system has been shut down.

Documents I sought under Freedom of Information laws from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) earlier this year relating to the discussion that took between the ABC and DFAT in the lead up to the decision to shut the service down, show the dialogue between the two entities was disturbingly limited…

The Committee report deals with the size of the ABC Shortwave audience prior to shut down. The ABC suggested the size was relatively small; others suggested the ABC had significantly underestimated the size. What is clear is that there was no serious effort made to actually measure audience size. I am of the view, considering all of the evidence, the audience size was much larger than the ABC calculated…

Finally, the decision to shut down ABC Shortwave is a significant foreign policy failure. The board cannot really be blamed for this oversight; foreign policy is a responsibility of the whole of government. In allowing the ABC Board to shut down ABC shortwave, the Government has failed.

Shortwave must be restored. I urge all of my Senate colleagues to support the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Restoring Shortwave Radio) Bill.

The full committee report can be found here.

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