Wednesday, 2 June 2021
Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (2021 Measures No. 1) Bill 2021; Second Reading
The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (2021 Measures No. 1) Bill 2021 contains a range of measures which touch on broadcasting, amongst other things. The first of the measures would reduce the expenditure required by subscription television broadcasting licensees on new eligible drama expenditure from 10 per cent to five per cent. It will provide for subscription television captioning rules to be made by a legislative instrument. It will remove the requirement that all frequency channels allotted or reserved in a digital radio channel be within the same frequency band. It provides that a regional commercial radio broadcasting licensee does not breach a licensed condition if it is only as a result of the ACMA, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, making a new licence area population determination—an administrative change there. And it is going to extend the time frame for the ACMA to make grants under the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund beyond 30 June 2021.
I will constrain most of my comments to those measures—that is, the measures concerning the state of affairs in regional broadcasting, and the support that this place is able to provide to a struggling broadcasting industry. Before I do that, I just want to make some comments about the bill as a whole and the government's lack of vision for where we are going with broadcasting and publishing in this country—their absence of vision. Labor is not going to stand in the way of some minor regulatory changes, that would be ridiculous, but we are not going to support one of the measures in this bill. We won't be supporting a measure that is an attempt to dismantle, bit by bit, the Australian screen content rules without putting anything new in place.
We're not going to stand in the way of changes to captioning rules, digital radio channel plans or regional commercial radio licensees or the time frames I mentioned regarding ACMA making grants. That all makes sense. But we are not going to support halving Foxtel's Australian screen content obligations. I've got to say that I am gobsmacked that there are members of the coalition party who are going to do that—absolutely gobsmacked. We see the Prime Minister walk into this place with an Australian flag festooned on his lapel. It takes more than sticking a badge on your jacket to back Australia. Australians want to see Australian content on our screens, in our newspapers and on our radio. We don't want to be an outpost of the cultural imperialism of other countries. We want to be able to have Australians telling Australian stories and have those broadcast through our free-to-air broadcasters. And we want to see that on the subscription channels at well. It is as simple as that. If you are broadcasting in this country, we believe you have an obligation to be telling Australian stories and providing jobs and opportunities for Australian storytellers, Australian journalists and Australian film producers. So we are not going to be a part of an operation which seeks to dismantle those obligations. The only reason we have Screen Australia in this country is because of those obligations.
The government were supposed to have been bringing a detailed reform proposal to this parliament for over five years now. But, as with so much that the Morrison government is responsible for, it's all about an announcement, it is all about a review, it is all about sheeting responsibility to some other tier of government or some other sector; it's never about the follow-through, never about doing what they say they are going to do. For example, in May 2017, the then minister, Minister Fifield, who has now left the Senate and left this place, announced a broad-ranging and comprehensive review of Australian and children's content. He said:
The review will identify sustainable policies to ensure the ongoing availability of Australian and children's content to domestic and international audiences, regardless of platform.
It was a big announcement and something we could all get behind, but there was no follow-through whatsoever.
We can actually see the consequence of Australia vacating this territory, because it is not like we vacate the territory and nothing happens. We have seen, for example, where a decision of this government and this government's funding cuts to the ABC, which resulted in the removal of content and the removal of the ABC's international broadcasting capacity to our near neighbours, did not remain unanswered. There are other players in our region who saw this as a perfect opportunity for them to be promoting their cultures, their values, their government and their country into our near region. This is just one example of how the government is all about the cost but never about the value and has absolutely no vision for what we should be doing in respect of cultural services and broadcasting services to project an image of Australia, to project Australian values and to project what Australia stands for not only in our region but also in our own country.
Time and time again we see members of the government pile into the ABC. The ABC is actually one of the biggest producers of Australian content and the only producer that has a cross-platform capacity to broadcast throughout the country and, for many of their constituencies, one of the only sources of reliable information. So it is producing Australian content. But they see it almost as being in their duty statement on becoming a coalition MP when they come into this place that they have to pile into the ABC. It is a cultural war at its very, very best and it damages our national capacity to produce cultural content and to project that not only throughout the country but also throughout the world.
I want to say something about the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund. This bill will extend the time line for making small grants out of that small fund. Something which many members of this place might find extraordinary is that it remains the case today that the coalition have provided more money in allegedly corrupt payments to the owners of small parcels of land underneath the new Sydney Airport—I'm talking about the Leppington Triangle, which is an area that you know very well, Mr Deputy Speaker, because it is adjacent to your electorate—than they have provided to regional and small publishers in this country. That speaks to the priorities of this government. They put an Australian badge on their jackets but, when it comes to doing what counts, they say one thing and they do the other. So, if they want to put their money where their mouth is, they need to back their rhetoric with some financial support and priorities.
We don't oppose the concept of a fund to support regional and small publishers. We think it was misconceived. We all know the history to it. It was set up as a political fix in the other place to get a contentious piece of legislation through. That's what it was all about. Like so much that this government does, it is all about the political fix to get something over the line that lacks merit otherwise and there is no long-term thinking and no long-term plan. That's what we see time and again. They've given more money through alleged corrupt payments than they have to regional and small publishers in this country. That speaks to their priority and it speaks to the inability of the National Party, I've got to say, to be a true voice for regional Australia. If only it was something that pooped in the paddock, they would be out there supporting it but it's not; it's regional and small broadcasters and publishers.
I want to talk about my own region. We are well served and have been well served. Proudly independent throughout the Illawarra and the Southern Highlands, we have been well served through regional broadcasters and publishers in our region. We have the Illawarra Mercury, which has a longstanding history of independent journalism and publishing, telling local stories to locals throughout the Illawarra. It does a great job. It once used to occupy two floors of a building. It now has, regrettably—and I pass no judgement on the owners of that publication—a handful of journalists covering the stories of the region.
WIN Television, based out of the Illawarra, broadcasting to Australia, is one of the finest regional broadcasters throughout the country. It started as a small operation by an innovative entrepreneur in the shape of Bruce Gordon. WIN—Wollongong and Illawarra Network—established several decades ago is still operating as a force throughout regional Australia, but business model on which these operations were established is now fundamentally challenged and it is not going back. I could add to that.
The big sleeper this in all of this is radio. I remember, going back several decades, people saying, 'Radio is dead. Radio has no future.' As the rest of the media network has gone through significant challenge and meltdown, radio has always persisted. Always on in the background, it has been the one media form that has been able to sustain itself throughout these challenges. In the Illawarra, the WIN network owns i98FM and it does a fantastic job of telling local stories and entertaining the local community up in the Southern Highlands. Grant Broadcasters has 2ST, which also broadcasts down the coast. I see the member for Eden-Monaro here with us and the member for Gilmore and they would well know that even out in your electorate over in Macarthur, Deputy Speaker Freelander, Grant Broadcasters, through 2ST, are telling local stories in those regions and they do a good job on a shoestring. Down on the coast, they operate Wave FM, another excellent service, and of course, the ABC telling Australian stories, telling local stories to locals. Whilst the government was piling into the ABC, locals were tuning in to the ABC and our local broadcasters during the recent bushfires and crises because they knew that that was a reliable source of local information. It is only when the chips are down that you realise how much you rely on these local services.
My great fear, and what I will say in the last couple of minutes I have available to me, is that the old model upon which publishing was based and the old model around which broadcasting, particularly TV broadcasting, was based are fundamentally challenged. The idea that three or four licensees could have a monopoly on a square box that sits in the corner of your living room and broadcasts out to you and your family for as long as you've switched it on, is fundamentally challenged. Over-the-top streaming services and internet based services are now competing with the traditional broadcasters for their place on your remote control and on that square box. We are not going to unscramble that egg. We are not going back to the old days where three or four broadcasters had a monopoly on that square box; it's not going to happen. So, too, with publishing. Only a decreasing proportion of the population reads a newspaper and a decreasing proportion of the population reads a newspaper as a newspaper. More and more, it is read on an iPad or mobile device in a web based format, not in the traditional published format. It has fundamentally changed. It would be crazy for us to think that that model is going to be re-established somehow; it's not.
So what we need to be doing is working with the incumbents, and with emerging operators, to ensure that we have a diversity of voices in free, independent journalism and that the profession of journalism, which we all owe so much to, is preserved. There needs to be a way for the commercial operators to make money out of journalism and Australian stories—that's absolutely critical. I'm concerned that, unless we get this right, we'll have an Australian media landscape which is occupied by the ABC and by other smaller operators which are based purely on a philanthropic model. I don't think that would be healthy and I don't think it would be in the national interest. We need a much more diverse and robust media landscape, and that's what's missing—if I've got a criticism, it's that that's what's missing. It's a huge problem, yet there's no vision and no action in this place to bring forward propositions that are going to deal with it.
So I support the second reading amendment moved by the member for Greenway and look forward to further contributions in this debate.