14 August 2017

I rise to speak about audio description for blind and low-vision Australians and call on the Turnbull government to stop dragging its feet when it comes to increasing the availability of audio description services on free-to-air television.

Audio description is a verbal narrative track that can be switched on to describe key visual elements in a television program, such as facial expressions, scenery and action sequences during natural pauses in dialogue. It assists children, adults and elderly people with blindness or low vision to know what is going on during a program. However, despite the fact that many other English-speaking OECD countries provide audio description on television, Australia does not. It is completely unacceptable that Australia lags behind the rest of the world on this key human rights issue.

On 6 April this year, the government announced the formation of an audio description working group to 'examine options for increasing the availability of audio description services in Australia.' This announcement followed the ABC's successful trial on iview, which concluded in June 2016, over a year ago.

In April and May this year, along with Senator Carol Brown, the Shadow Minister for Disability and Carers, we noted our concerns that the Turnbull government is dragging its feed on AD, because the terms of reference for the working group are ambiguous and the working group isn't due to report until the last day of this year. We noted that the extent to which the Turnbull government is committed to actually achieving access remains unclear.

Since the initial meeting of the working group, I have received a number of concerns from consumer advocates who attended. These include that, indeed, the terms of reference are ambiguous. It is unclear if the purpose of the working group is to develop a road map to actually introduce audio description or to simply continue discussion about whether AD is possible on Australian television.

It would appear that legislative change is not within the scope of the working group, and this is deeply troubling. While non-regulatory options should indeed be explored, it is very concerning if regulatory options are off the table. Voluntary AD has not been provided, despite this having been on the government's agenda for a decade and despite the government's successive grant of licence fee relief to commercial television broadcasters. One could indeed say there is a market failure that needs to be addressed by government.

Further, in 2012, Labor legislated for captioning for deaf and hearing-impaired people, so why should there not be equivalent regulation mandating audio description for blind and low-vision people? Why should the provision of an essential human right of access to information be subject to the individual appetite of broadcasters? Another concern is that the technical and cost obstacles to providing AD are not being articulated clearly. Labor believes it is imperative for this government to reap a return on broadcasters' use of radio frequency spectrum, and this includes for blind and low-vision Australians who need audio description.