The federal government has no immediate plans for use of spectrum used by Community Television once Channels 31 Melbourne and 44 Adelaide are switched off.
In June both broadcasters were given a last-minute reprieve when Communications Minister Paul Fletcher made a surprise announcement during a Q&A episode.
This week at Senate Estimates the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications revealed the stations only learned the news when the Minister announced it live on air the evening before their broadcasting licences were set to expire.
Senator Smith: So, they learned the news on Q&A, and then had that confirmed by the Department the following day?
Ms Pauline Sullivan, First Assistant of the Content Division: That is my recollection, yes.
Neither the Department nor the representing Minister would reveal why the decision to extend broadcasting licenses for the two community TV stations was left until the eleventh hour:
Senator Smith: …the question I’m asking is why was the change of mind made one day before the deadline? What happened?
Senator Jane Hume, Representing Minister: I don’t think there’s anybody here that can possibly answer to the Minster’s thinking at the time. I know that the Minister was encouraging community television to move to an online platform. But I think we can take that question on notice, as to his state of mind at the time of the decision.
They also admitted there is no planned alternative use of the spectrum:
Senator Smith: …is there (a) plan for its immediate use once the spectrum is vacated?
Mr Richard Windeyer – Deputy Secretary Communications and Media: Senator, there is no immediate plan for the use of the spectrum.
The Department also confirmed that there is no significant cost to Government to extend the licences that enable community TV stations to serve their audiences on-air:
Senator Smith: …The cost to Government of continuing the extension for another 12 months would be zero? Is that correct?
Mr Windeyer: Very close to, Senator. Yes.
Labor Senator for South Australia Marielle Smith said the Government has been playing politics with the future of community television for years.
“They should know exactly how valuable this service is to our local community – which has been even more evident during the pandemic,” she said.
“Instead of negotiating in good faith with these stations, and allowing them to continue to provide this vital service whilst there are zero plans for any alternative use of the spectrum, and zero fiscal impacts to the Government of allowing them to stay on air, they taunted them with their survival up until the last minute, and didn’t even have the courtesy to communicate this decision directly.
“Rather than a television stunt on Q&A, Minister Fletcher should have picked up the phone to secure these essential community television services in.
“Until the Government can identity an actual alternative use of the spectrum, there is absolutely no reason why these stations shouldn’t be able to continue providing important community broadcasting services in Adelaide and Melbourne,” Senator Smith said.
Shadow Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland added,“Yet another display of inconsistency and incompetence from Minister Fletcher, a Minister for the Arts who banished arts from the title of his department and Minister for Communications who, for no good reason, wants to abolish an entire service: community television broadcasting. His disregard for the staff, volunteers and audiences of C31 and C44 as well as for the efficient use of the spectrum speaks volumes about the waste occurring under this Government.”
Channel 31 and Channel 44 have been given a 12 month broadcasting extension to June 30 2021.