Prime Minister Julia Gillard has staunchly defended the Federal Government’s $308.8 million funding allocated in this week’s budget to install and support digital TV set-top boxes for pensioners, claiming that for some, the pending switch-off of analogue television had the potential to remove “perhaps the only companion in their lives”.
The funding was announced last Sunday and continues the Digital Switchover program which has already seen some 38,000 Australians receive set-top boxes to support the ongoing switch to digital television. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said this week that 79 percent of Australian households were already ready for digital TV — compared to less than half just two years ago.
However, since the funding was announced, a number of organisations and individuals have publicly criticised the program.
Industry group Master Electricians Australia has warned that the program could put the lives of “young, unqualified workers” at risk in a similar way to the previous home insulation scheme, while the Coalition has flagged the initiative as a wasteful project in the budget.
In addition, electronics retailers like Harvey Norman and Kogan Technologies have called for the Government to more closely examine pricing on the scheme, with set-top boxes selling for as little as $50 — compared to the amount the Government has allocated, which is believed to be approximately $350 per installation.
“If the Government is serious about this program, we honestly believe we could deliver a Set Top Box to each and every one of the proposed recipients for under 1/6th of what the Government has provisioned,” wrote Kogan chief Ruslan Kogan on his company blog. “The Government can spend as little as $50 million instead of the proposed $308 million on helping pensioners get access to digital TV.”
However, speaking on Sky News today (the full interview is available online — click the ‘interviews’ button), Gillard rejected all criticisms of the project. For starters, the Prime Minister pointed out, 38,000 of the set-top boxes had already been installed, with the Government working with industry on the scheme, including the credentials of those who were installing the hardware.
Secondly, on the price, Gillard said the Government was talking about “the cheapest one you can go and get from an electrical store”, it was talking about “a quality set-top box” with the right design features which could be used by older people and those with disabilities. In addition, the cost also included installation costs and a 12 month support package.
Lastly, Gillard told those complaining about the overall cost to consider who the program benefited. “It’s for the poorest Australians, older Australians,” she said, “who may, the day after the digital switchover, will no longer have perhaps the only companion in their lives, which is the TV set.”