SPEECH - ABC TRANSCRIPTION CUTS - 9 NOVEMBER 2016

Tonight I want to talk about the importance of accessibility in communications. It is self-evident that communications services are essential to our way of life. 

Consider for a moment what it would mean to live in the 21st century without access to basic communications services—broadcasting, broadband or telephony. Such a situation is incompatible with our values as a society and the importance we attach to ensuring that all Australians have equality of access to participate in society.

This underscores why Australian citizens as consumers are at the centre of Labor's communications policy focus. As the shadow minister for communications, one of my primary imperatives is to ensure that every Australian has access to quality communications services. Access means different things to different people and in different contexts. One aspect of the broader accessibility obligation is a commitment to advocate for those with a disability.

That is something that I know is shared amongst colleagues in this House.

Earlier this year ABC decided to reduce the scope of its transcription services for news and current affairs programs. Subsequently, on 18 October this year, under questioning by my colleague Kim Carr in Senate estimates, the ABC revealed that this reduction achieved the modest saving of $210,000.

I was deeply concerned to hear about this, as were many others. Australia's Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Alastair McEwin, noted that the decision would affect thousands of people with a disability and would prevent these ABC programs from being accessible to all Australians.

Senator Carol Brown and I have written to the ABC seeking more information about the changes and urging the ABC to consult with stakeholders in advance of such decisions moving forward and to reverse the decision if consultation establishes that there is an adverse impact on accessibility.

Unfortunately the reduction in services comes as no surprise. The challenges facing the ABC are well known. Our national broadcaster has been forced to find savings in response to the savage funding cuts of $250 million or so imposed by the Abbott and Turnbull governments. This was despite the explicit promise before the 2013 election that there would be no cuts to the ABC.

It should not be lost on anyone that adequate funding and support for better and more accessible services in communications go hand in hand.

Technological change is creating new opportunities to make services more accessible. For example, the availability of services on iview with closed captioning opens up a wealth of new content for those who are deaf or hearing impaired.

I also note the positive contributions the ABC has made to promoting accessibility on its new platforms. In 2013 the ABC agreed to make its main mobile app accessible after complaints made to the former Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes.

Mr Innes, who is blind, found that the app was not compatible with the iPhone's screen reader VoiceOver, which converts text to audio feedback. Mr Innes found that many buttons were unlabelled while the news articles were completely inaccessible. To their credit, and in the context of harsh budget cuts, the ABC did improve their app.

Nevertheless, this is a reminder that as technology enables expansion in the range of services we must also aim to ensure that the platforms supporting these new services are accessible by design.

The ABC indicated that the reduction in transcription services was based on the assessment that the increased use of catch-up platforms has reduced audience need for transcription services. This is not an unreasonable proposition. Viewing habits are changing as the internet and small devices combine to make viewing content easier and more convenient for consumers.

But the issue arises that when we segment the users of transcription services we can see the unique value this service would afford to Australians who are deaf or hearing impaired. What is the value they place on this service? It is useful to step back and frame the discussion in more general terms. I have a firm belief that we must turn to principles when faced with such change.

Firstly, we should agree that efficiency driven decisions should not have automatic precedence over the principle at stake when it comes to ensuring that people with a disability have access to services. Secondly, when we identify that a change in how services are delivered would have or would potentially have an adverse impact on accessibility, we should consult with relevant stakeholders to enhance our understanding of that impact and revisit it as necessary.

Ultimately, in the absence of regulation, how organisations proceed with such decisions depends on exercising a judgement about the right thing to do. I firmly believe that a principles based approach will help ensure that decisions with potential impacts are considered in a careful and sensitive way to the benefit of all Australians.