Labor Senators acknowledge the high value of spectrum in Australia (economic value estimated at $177 billion over 15 years) and that rapid evolution of technology and markets is placing increasing demands on spectrum management.
Labor Senators understand the importance of getting spectrum reform right and the cost and complexity of failing to strike the right balance between flexibility and certainty in relation to spectrum management.
Labor Senators broadly support the bills and acknowledge the significant efforts that have gone into spectrum review and reform, by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (the department), the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and industry, in particular. We note the Government resources applied over a number of years, as advised by the department and the ACMA in answers to questions on notice.
Labor Senators acknowledge the bills are the output of a complex and protracted spectrum review and reform process to modernise the almost 30 year old policy and regulatory framework for spectrum management, which commenced in May 2014.
Labor Senators note that:
In May 2014, then Communications Minister, the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull MP, asked the then Department of Communications and the ACMA to undertake a review of spectrum management. The terms of reference went beyond point-in-time streamlining and deregulation in an attempt to craft a more flexible framework suited to the challenges of a complex and rapidly changing communications environment.
In May 2015, the Government released the report of the review and in August 2015 the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications, the Hon. Paul Fletcher MP, announced the Government's agreement to implement the recommendations of the review, with an indicative timetable of mid-2017 for the commencement of the new framework.
In May 2017 an exposure draft for a 2017 bill was released by then Communications Minister, Senator the Hon. Mitch Fifield, for consultation. At the time, Labor welcomed progress on the significant and complex reforms but warned the lack of overarching policy guidance from the Minister on key matters such as the creation of a single licensing system created a chicken-and-egg scenario and cautioned that the lack of policy clarity and lack of focus on outcomes prompted more questions than answers. The reform process ultimately stalled.
In June 2019, the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, the Hon. Paul Fletcher MP, indicated that he would not restart the stalled spectrum reform process until he was satisfied that the proposed new regime would provide superior benefits to the system it replaced. Four years after helping start the reform process, the Hon. Paul Fletcher MP was back at square one asking basic questions such as what benefits the proposed reforms would deliver and whether wholesale or incremental reform was necessary.
In late June 2020, the exposure draft of the 2020 bill was released for a short, three week consultation period and in August 2020 the introduction of the bills in to Parliament was met with industry press CommsDay reporting that a Departmental insider had described the spectrum review and reform process as: 'the Canberra version of Hollywood development hell'.
Labor Senators note that the bills now before Parliament were introduced over three years after the original mid–2017 indicative timetable for passage of the new legislation. The delay means the ACMA has conducted spectrum auctions without the benefit of the streamlined approach that was identified as a key area in need of reform.
Labor Senators note that despite years of delay, the bills do not address all of the recommendations of the Spectrum Review, and that spectrum reform is yet another example of the Liberal National Government failing to do what it said it would. We note the bills do not integrate the management of broadcasting spectrum or create a single licensing system, for example, and that the Government could provide no advice or forward plan as to when these things may be addressed in future, beyond a general 'business as usual' commitment to continuous reform.
Labor Senators notes the following on the substance of the proposed reforms:
The simplified object does not alter the complexity of spectrum management but does gives rise to uncertainty for public services such as the ABC and SBS;
The requirement that the ACMA publish an annual work program covering a minimum five-year period reflects what the ACMA has been doing for over a decade already, with the publication of its Five Year Spectrum Outlook (FYSO) since 2009; and
The updated equipment rules also reflect much of what the ACMA has been doing, which the Department and industry acknowledge.
Labor Senators note the benefits from the proposed reduced regulatory barriers, more efficient spectrum management processes and more proportionate compliance and enforcement options. However Labor Senators are concerned the Government has missed an opportunity to ensure sufficient flexibility for the ACMA or the Government to de-fragment spectrum licensed holdings where existing configurations represent a very wasteful use of spectrum, an issue that is growing even bigger in future as technical standards evolve, according to submission 181 by Professor Jock Given and Mr Giles Tanner to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts inquiry into the deployment, adoption and application of 5G in Australia.
Labor Senators are concerned that, for all its rhetoric about efficient use of the spectrum, and the benefits of reform, this Government is unable to walk the talk. For example, this Government wants community television broadcasters to move off air, to an online-only model of delivery, despite there being no planned alternative use for the spectrum they now occupy.
Labor Senators are concerned that the Minister's mishandling of the relatively straightforward matter of the extension of community television broadcasting licences, which the Minister left until the eleventh hour in June 2020 and plans to end in June 2021, demonstrates an inability to govern with predictability in the public interest. We consider that this Minister's disregard of the valuable use of spectrum by community television broadcasters underscores the need for clear legislation and clear roles as between the Minister and the ACMA.
Labor Senators acknowledge the work of the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills on this proposed legislation.
Labor Senators thank all organisations and individuals that made submissions to this inquiry and provided evidence at the hearing, as well as the Secretariat for their administrative support.
Senator Nita GreenSenator Catryna Bilyk
Senator for QueenslandSenator for Tasmania