House debates

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Matters of Public Importance

Communications Legislation Amendment (Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund) Bill 2017; Second Reading

7:02 pm

Photo of Michelle RowlandMichelle Rowland (Greenway, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Communications) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Communications Legislation Amendment (Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund) Bill. I start by pointing out that the media plays a critical role in our economy, our society and, more fundamentally, our democracy. The fourth estate performs many roles. It holds the government to account, and the bill now before us ostensibly supports the public interest function of the media. But the reality is this: this bill has come at great cost to media diversity in Australia, and it remains to be seen what it will actually achieve in return.

It is a fact that the former senator who is the architect of the deal for the fund that underpins the bill before the House has now left the federal parliament, and it would appear that his efforts in striking this deal did little to assist his campaign to enter politics in South Australia earlier this year. Nick Xenophon's track record as the leader of a minor party was indeed to make deals, but there is a wide gulf between making deals and achieving outcomes. Not long after deals were sealed to abolish the two out of three cross-media control last year, there was an ABC Rural news report on the low uptake of another one of the schemes devised by then senator Nick Xenophon and traded for his votes and those of his team in the parliament: the Seasonal Work Incentives Trial. The October 2017 piece by Brett Worthington stated:

Just 14 people have so far signed up to a new Federal Government program that allows unemployed people to earn an income and still receive their full welfare payment.

The federal Nick Xenophon Team … was the architect of the trial, which the Government adopted in return for the crossbenchers supporting last year's backpacker tax changes.

Mercifully, the figures appear to have improved. However, I do note quotes from the National Farmers Federation to the effect of that, while the program is improving, it is still a far cry from what was needed to fix agriculture's labour shortages. I do hope that the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund will enjoy more success. However, what we have learnt about this fund so far, unfortunately, does not augur well in many respects.

At the public hearing for the inquiry into this bill, departmental officials made it very clear that the department had next to nothing to do with informing or developing the terms of the fund—providing only some general advice in relation to overseas developments—as the government negotiated the terms with the crossbench. Labor's Senator Urquhart asked who the chief architects of the fund were and whether any other parties, including any media organisations, had a role in designing or drafting its terms. The department responded that they really couldn't say because the development and decision points were with the government. On the question of how many media organisations are eligible to access the fund—even just an estimate—the department answered that they really don't know, because much of the eligibility criteria for the fund was prefaced on data that the government simply didn't have. Similarly, on the question of what modelling the department had done to determine whether the amount in the fund is actually sufficient, the answer was none.

Finally, a question was put on how the government will judge whether the fund has been a success and what KPIs or outcomes the government hoped the fund would meet. A department official advanced, as helpfully as they could, that it would be 'assessed against the outcomes and objectives of the program', which at a high level is 'to encourage small and regional news publishers to develop and trial sustainable business models for the provision of public interest journalism', and that overall the success of any projects would need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Of course, Labor has been sceptical about this so-called innovation fund since the night it was announced in the Senate at the eleventh hour during debate on the amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act last year. As noted in the digest to this bill prepared by the Parliamentary Library, Labor senators criticised Senator Xenophon for making a deal that would sell out Australian media diversity in return for what Labor argued was minimal funding for regional media. Labor Senator Don Farrell claimed that, if the fund were split evenly across the states and territories, it would amount to approximately $2 million a year, which he said, 'Frankly, is not very much money.'

Aside from the fact that Labor believes that decent broadband ought to be one of the biggest drivers of innovation in regional Australia—something that this government has failed to deliver on—Labor was not and is not convinced that this deal goes far enough to address the crisis facing public interest journalism in Australia or, indeed, the void left by the repeal of the two-out-of-three cross-media control rule. Overall, Labor regards the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund to be a short-term bandaid solution that may not achieve anything of substance and may even see a number of cadets left without jobs once the funding runs out. We do hope—and I put this on the record—as I said, that this fund actually achieves its intended outcomes. On that basis, Labor will not oppose this bill. That's because public interest journalism in Australia needs all the help it can get, particularly given the neglect and active undermining of public interest objectives by this government.

This bill amends the Broadcasting Services Act to establish the legislative authority for the ACMA to make a grant of financial assistance to a publisher of a newspaper, magazine or other periodical or a content service provider with grants limited to the financial year commencing 1 July this year and the following two financial years. The Broadcasting Services Act continues to be subject to the September 2000 ministerial direction, which decrees that internet services are not broadcasting services, yet a number of its schedules do regulate the internet to a limited degree. Now, with this bill, the Broadcasting Services Act is about to empower the ACMA to administer grants for the publishing industry.

It is somewhat ironic that the grants are not available to regional or Indigenous broadcasters, given that, with the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule, this government has decided that the boundaries between print and broadcast platforms don't matter so much anymore, that such distinctions predate the internet era. Indeed, there are some stakeholders, including, and I specifically note, the Indigenous Remote Communication Association and Commercial Radio Australia, who are disappointed that the terms of grant exclude them on the basis of technological platform, not to mention the disappointment of a number of actual publishers such as Guardian Australia, who have been excluded on ideological grounds. That said, there are a number of stakeholders in the public interest journalism sector who have welcomed the fund and who are hopeful of doing something useful with the financial assistance. We on this side of the House wish them well.

I want to talk about why policy for public interest can't be neglected or undermined. We on this side of the House firmly believe that the public interest must be prioritised and trust in our institutions restored. It goes without saying that we need a vibrant media sector to foster public interest objectives, but the public interest should neither be an afterthought to, or a casualty of, reform to proper commercial interests. At a time of great upheaval, government needs to promote the public interest just as it supports industry. Unfortunately, this government's record on media in this respect is all one way. We have the non-contestable grant of $30 million to Fox Sports, the deliberate and ideological exclusion of certain outlets from the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund and the questionable motivations of some behind the competitive neutrality inquiry into our national broadcasters. That has done little to engender trust in the parliament or the media. Indeed, it is most likely to have undermined it.

Where, I ask, is the public interest when a fund for public interest journalism deliberately excludes innovative new sources that we know this government doesn't agree with? And where is the public interest when it is broadly understood that funding cuts and inquiries into the ABC are payback and commentators warn the ABC to 'not bite the hand that feeds it'. While private media groups, equity interests, digital platforms and advertising companies answer to shareholders, the role of government is to act in the public interest at large. Labor supported a number of sensible changes to media law to support the commercial media sector last year, particularly given its key role in the Australian content ecosystem. But we remain deeply concerned that, in the last five years, this government has been effective in undermining public interest objectives in the media, both proactively and by neglect. Whether it be booting community TV off air prematurely, relegating Indigenous media as a function of Prime Minister and Cabinet rather than Communications, abolishing the two-out-of-three cross-media control rule, undermining our national broadcasters, threatening to lock up journalists simply for doing their jobs and standing idly by in the face of the loss of over 3,000 journalism jobs, there are many reasons to be concerned about the health of media diversity in our democracy.

Let's be clear: this regional and small publishers innovation fund exists only because of a deal between this government and the Nick Xenophon political party. This is the result of a heavily compromised trade-off at that the time. This fund did not come about because the Turnbull government is genuinely committed to promoting public interest journalism—far from it. It came about as a result of one of many backroom deals done to pave the way for this government's repeal of the two-out-of-three cross-media control rule. That's a rule that, until September last year, acted as a public interest safeguard by stopping any one voice in the media landscape from becoming too dominant and by promoting diversity and competition between different voices. The two-out-of-three rule ensured that no individual or company controlled more than two out of the three regulated media platforms—commercial television, commercial radio and associated newspapers—in the same licence area.

In a democracy like Australia, which has one of the highest levels of media concentration in the world, you would think that removing such a safeguard would be understood as being seriously misguided—but not for this government. You would think that senators from South Australia, the state which is only one point above the minimum floor for the number of media voices, would comprehend the importance of maintaining a rule that serves media diversity—but not then Senator Nick Xenophon. Last year, this government junked a safeguard that prevented Australia's already high levels of media concentration from getting worse. What a sad irony that a law which acted as a democratic safeguard in promoting media diversity was done away with via deal making conducted behind closed doors. Indeed, it was totally away from democratic scrutiny.

It begs this question: why all the deals? The fact is that, after trying for over a year to get the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule through parliament, the Turnbull government was not able to do so on merit. Why? It was because the repeal of this rule was contrary to the public interest. Instead of accepting this reality, this government started on a series of backdoor deals, including, as I mentioned, the uncontested grant of $30 million of taxpayer funds to Fox Sports. But that wasn't enough to get them over the line and more deals had to be done.

Next, the government sidled up to Senator Pauline Hanson, going so far as to use the ABC as a bargaining chip to secure support for its flawed media ownership changes. We know this from the announcement of the deal. Senator Hanson made it clear that she would be speaking to the Treasurer and going after the ABC's budget in 2018. Lo and behold, in this government's budget, which was handed down just recently, we saw a further $83.7 million in cuts to the ABC over three years. Many times over, this government has now broken its election promise, which it made in 2013 on the eve of that election, not to cut the ABC.

We know that both the Liberal Party and the National Party complain the ABC isn't doing it enough for rural and regional Australia. They even have a bill before parliament to amend the ABC Act on that front, yet they continue to cut its funding. As a result of the deal with One Nation, there are now three bills before the parliament to meddle with the ABC. There is a faux competitive neutrality inquiry and a further efficiency review to undermine our public broadcaster. But the attack on the ABC wasn't enough. The government still needed the senators in the then Nick Xenophon Party to get them over the line.

Then Senator Xenophon and his senators knew that if they did the deal with the government to scrap the two-out-of-three rule, they would be responsible for handing unprecedented media power into the hands of a privileged few. That was despite the fact that, as I said, Australia already has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world—yet the then Nick Xenophon Party did the deal. What is more, then Senator Xenophon knew that if they did the deal then they would be responsible for the unleashing of an unprecedented attack on our national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, and yet they did the deal. What is more, then Senator Xenophon knew that if they did the deal to scrap the two-out-of-three rule they wouldn't even get the kind of journalism fund they wanted. This is the ultimate irony, I believe, among many. They did the deal and did not even get the fund they wanted.

Nick Xenophon knew that the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund was compromised, that it excluded publishers like Guardian Australia and, by his own admission, was ideologically motivated and therefore fundamentally flawed as a public interest intervention. Then, just weeks after supporting these changes in exchange for this deal, Nick Xenophon announced he was leaving the Australian Senate and federal politics altogether. Well, his departure ensures he won't be accountable for the consequences of the deal he signed up to. The government's repeal of the two-out-of-three rule permits media mergers, as I said, and it begs the question: why expend taxpayers' money on a fund for journalism cadetships and scholarships when there aren't enough jobs for existing journalists to go around, and where will all the new journalism cadets work when the media mergers, consolidations and job losses that follow the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule occur? And what have we seen since the repeal of that rule?

In the media sector we have seen yet more closures and job cuts. Close to home for me, the Blacktown Sun and its sister publications, including the Rouse Hill Couriertrusted sources of local news and information in my local area—closed in December of last year. Sadly, right on the heels of these local papers closing, the only dedicated national newspaper for young Australians, Crinkling News, also announced that it would cease. This innovative outfit ticked so many boxes—informing the child audience, developing literacy skills and promoting critical media thinking—yet it could not survive. Similarly, earlier this year, Fairfax Media announced it was halting distribution of key mastheads in Far North Queensland as it 'seeks further efficiencies amid declining print revenues'.

Over six months has passed since this government abolished the two-out-of-three cross-media control rule, and indeed it's nearly exactly a year since Australia's media executives descended on Canberra for a media summit to spruik the repeal out two-out-of-three rule, and how many cross-media mergers have there been as a result since then? In a round figure, zero. This milestone makes a mockery of the communications minister's alarmist urgings: 'The parliament must act on media reforms to protect Australian jobs' to 'give industry a fighting chance' and his dire predictions of the 'failure of Australian media organisations.' At one point the minister even said that Labor's opposition to the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule was 'crippling the industry' and 'limited the options for organisations like Ten'. Well, how wrong he was. The CBS acquisition of Ten occurred thanks to the two-out-of-three rule, was voted for overwhelmingly by Ten staff and has seen Ten go on what's been described as a 'frenetic new hiring spree' as well as commission what's been described as 'the largest number of new domestic shows it has ever done in one year'. Contrary to the minister's doom and gloom, CBS Studio's international president said, 'We're looking to grow Ten, we're looking to evolve Ten, we're looking to see Ten be successful in every way possible.'

As the recent joint venture for playout operations between Seven West Media and Nine Entertainment Co. indicates, with efficiencies inevitably come job cuts. Labor acknowledges other media merger plans may already be in train and may yet materialise, but, with recent history as our witness, Labor again condemns this government's repeal of the two-out-of-three rule, which paves the way for further job losses and consolidation in Australia's already highly concentrated media market. With the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund, Nick Xenophon revealed the price that he put on Australia's media diversity in exchange for his vote.

Labor won't oppose this bill, but we make clear that we regard the fund to be a short-term bandaid solution that does not fill the void left by the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule and is too little, too late for many media organisations. Labor senators noted the fund exposes the double standards of this government when it comes to using taxpayers' funds in support of the media. As I said, this government handed $30 million, uncontested, to Fox Sports, which happens to have a foreign based parent company, but has excluded Guardian Australia and others from this fund for precisely the same reason. I make it clear that, as I said, Labor will not oppose this bill. We will not oppose a mechanism to distribute a modest, short-term fund in the name of public interest journalism.

But I do want to point out, in leading up to this point, that this government's handling of this bill has been far from textbook. We saw, in April, that Mumbrella reported:

… the fund is likely to miss its July 1 launch as the necessary legislation hasn’t been passed in the house, leaving a key part of last year’s media reform deals undone.

I note that this government appears to have suggested to Mumbrella that it is Labor that was apparently holding up passage of the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund. This ridiculous accusation was responded to by me and, as I said at the time, this bill isn't stuck anywhere but in the minister's triangle. The Turnbull government controls the Senate program. If they want to get the fund up and running, they should hurry up and bring the bill on for debate. Even Nick Xenophon admitted that the criteria for the fund was ideologically motivated, and it is proper that parliament scrutinise that aspect of the bill, particularly given the significant sum of taxpayers' money. I also note that, despite the minister's erroneous claims about Labor supposedly holding up this bill, the fact is that the press gallery journalists were briefed earlier this year, at a post-caucus media briefing, that Labor would be supporting this bill.

Labor will hold this government to account for undermining what precious little media diversity Australia enjoys. Taken together, this government's media ownership changes and plans to undermine our public broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, do represent a direct assault on media diversity in Australia, and this has implications for our democracy and our culture. This government still seems hell-bent on destroying diversity in the Australian broadcasting sector. To this end, I note that Labor strongly condemns this government's disastrous record on media diversity and public interest journalism, which includes: removal of a key media diversity safeguard which prevented even greater consolidation in Australia's already highly concentrated media sector with the repeal of the two-out-of-three cross-media control rule; budget cuts of around $500 million from the ABC and SBS, which are trusted sources of investigative journalism in Australia; pushing community television off the broadcast platform to an online delivery model without an adequate transition period; threatening journalists with criminal sanctions under the espionage and foreign interference bill of 2017 simply for doing their jobs; and policy inaction in the face of the loss of more than 3,000 journalism jobs in Australia over the past five years. We call on this government to stop actively undermining media diversity and public interest journalism in Australia and we call on this government to drop its destructive attack on the ABC and SBS.

In closing, at a time when too many Australians feel disengaged from their democracy and distrustful of their representatives, Labor wants to restore trust and faith in our institutions. We will fight for the ABC against this government's latest $84 million of cuts to ensure the ABC can continue to deliver on its charter for all Australians. We are committed to the independence of our public broadcasters and to maintaining them as comprehensive national broadcasters, catering for a diversity of interests in the Australian community. These are just some of the fundamental differences between the government, those on the other side of the House, and us on the issue of trust in our institutions. Labor's approach will be coherent, principled and evidence based. We will look to guide a transition in the sector where all players in the ecosystem do their bit: departments, regulators, industry, academia and not-for-profits included.

Debate interrupted.


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