House debates

Wednesday, 18 October 2006

Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006

Consideration in Detail

Bill—by leave—taken as a whole.

11:28 am

Photo of Stephen SmithStephen Smith (Perth, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Industry, Infrastructure and Industrial Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

(1)    Schedule 1, page 3 (line 2) to page 47 (line 16), - Opposition to oppose

(2)    Schedule 2, item 6, page 53 (lines 6 and 7), omit the item.

Let me first give a technical description of these amendments. These amendments seek to remove from the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 provisions which delete the current cross-media ownership laws from the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and replace them with the government’s weaker regime, which will facilitate a massive consolidation of media ownership in this country.

The government’s new media diversity regime is inserted into the act by schedule 1. The new regime, with the so-called five-four voices test and the two out of three rule, fails to protect media diversity in this country and, as a consequence, threatens the health of our democracy. Amendment (1) deletes schedule 1 from the bill. Item 6 of schedule 2 deletes the cross-media rules, which are presently found in sections 60 and 61 of the Broadcasting Services Act. Amendment (2) will remove item 6 from the bill.

If these amendments are successful, the effect will be that the amended media ownership bill will remove the foreign ownership restrictions relating to commercial and subscription television. Provisions of the bill which insert local content requirements for regional television and radio will remain part of the amended bill. By passing these amendments, the House can support media reform that promotes diversity and enhances local content.

Having dealt with the bill’s technical effects, let me now deal with the substantive policy and political effects. This is the last chance the parliament has to prevent a massive concentration of Australian media ownership. This is the last chance the parliament has to secure, protect and preserve media diversity in Australia. This is the last chance for the National Party, this is the last chance for the Liberal Party, and this is the last chance for our parliament to prevent a massive concentration of media ownership in Australia and a massive undermining of diversity of media content in Australia. Such a concentration, such a diminution of diversity, will have serious adverse consequences, not just for media content but also for opinion, information, cultural services, cultural activity and democracy in our nation.

The frenzy we have seen overnight, the frenzy we have seen on the front page of every major newspaper, has occurred before the bill has even gone through the parliament. It has occurred before the bill has been formally enacted and proclaimed—and proclamation of the bill does not take place until sometime between 1 February 2007 and 1 January 2008. So we have seen this frenzy of activity before the bill has passed through the parliament and it is some time before the bill will be proclaimed, which could occur as late as 1 January 2008.

What does that tell you? That tells you that the market will always go where public policy lets it go. And that is the point here: the market will always go where public policy lets it go. I have seen comments like ‘we have this terrible, shocking, bad media company here,’ or ‘we’ve got this not so bad media company here,’ or ‘we’ve got this good media company here’. It is not about good media companies or bad media companies. It is not about good media proprietors or bad media proprietors. It is about bad public policy. The effect of this bad public policy will be a massive concentration of media ownership and a massive lessening of diversity of media opinion and media ownership in the marketplace. That will be the consequence of the government’s law, and that is the consequence of the marketplace seeing what the government proposes to enact as law in this country.

We have seen the PBL example and we have seen the Channel 7 and West Australian example. It may well be that the PBL example we have seen is consistent with current law. If that is structured in the same way in which Channel 10 and CanWest structured their arrangement—which caused the regulator, then the ABA and now ACMA, considerable consternation over a long period of time—that may well be lawful. It may well be lawful if the deal is predicated to take effect upon the changing of the law, and it would not be affected adversely by Labor’s amendment, which allows the removal of the foreign ownership restrictions. (Extension of time granted) And I was quite surprised to hear the parliamentary secretary opposite, the member for Flinders, saying that he did not believe that foreign capital investment in Australia was a good thing.

Photo of Greg HuntGreg Hunt (Flinders, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage) Share this | | Hansard source

I didn’t say that. That is a complete fabrication.

Photo of Stephen SmithStephen Smith (Perth, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Industry, Infrastructure and Industrial Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

You did. You exactly did. So the PBL example may well be available under the current law, and what Mr Stokes and Channel 7 are doing—apparently, purchasing 14.9 per cent of the West Australianis clearly available under current law. As the member for Perth, let me deal with the Channel 7/West Australian example. I said in my remarks in the second reading debate:

… in my home state of Western Australia, in its capital city of Perth, a person who owns Channel 7 and the West Australian would have a tremendous capacity to influence the political debate.

That is because, on a good day, Channel 7 rates 40—if you want to get a message to the Western Australian community, get yourself on Channel 7—and, on a bad day, the front page of the West Australian will drive electronic media interest in Western Australia. So, if you own the West Australian newspaper, the monopoly newspaper in a capital city, and you own Channel 7, that gives you significant influence—too much influence for one organisation, in my view. I am not being critical of Mr Stokes; I have a high regard for Mr Stokes. I have known Mr Stokes for a long time. But again it comes down to this: it is not about good individuals or bad individuals and it is not about good companies or bad companies; it is about bad public policy. The West Australian/Channel 7 illustration, which is not prevented by the four-five voices rule of the government or by the two out of three rule, will have an adverse effect on diversity in Western Australia and Perth—and that can be replicated throughout the nation, throughout the Commonwealth.

Senator Conroy, the shadow minister for communications, said that he expected there would be a frenzy. No-one quite expected, not even the market, that we would see the beginning of the frenzy before the bill had even passed the parliament, before the bill had been proclaimed. But it is quite clear we will see a massive concentration of media ownership. That is not good for diversity. It is not good for our democracy. But it is quite clear that the market believes that what is occurring is available to it.

Labor have for a long period of time been absolutely committed to ensuring diversity in Australia’s media—to ensuring the necessary safeguards for the public interest and for the national interest to ensure diversity of opinion. Labor will continue to harass the government on the issue of media diversity. In the run-up to the next election, we will outline a range of measures which will have the effect of seeking to secure diversity of opinion in Australia’s media. So we remain committed to pursuing policies that protect and promote a diverse range of information and opinion in Australia’s media. There are a range of options available to achieve this objective and Labor will consult widely in the development of our media policy.

The new media ownership regime will not come into effect before 1 February 2007 at the earliest and possibly not until 1 January 2008 at the latest. It is likely the media landscape will be radically different in two years time. The capacity of the ACCC to block mergers which reduce media diversity will be much clearer, and we will obviously take that experience into account in formulating a comprehensive policy statement, along with all the relevant legal issues, including consideration of what various policy options would give rise to a requirement for the Commonwealth to pay compensation if divestiture was required—although I make the point, as Senator Conroy has, that we are a long way from that.

This is the parliament’s last chance to prevent a massive concentration of media ownership in Australia, to prevent a massive concentration of media information, opinion and view. It is the last chance to prevent a substantial and dangerous weakening of the diversity of opinion in Australian society. This is the last chance for the National Party, the last chance for the Liberal Party and the last chance for this parliament, and this House should avail itself of that opportunity.

11:38 am

Photo of Greg HuntGreg Hunt (Flinders, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage) Share this | | Hansard source

The government rejects the opposition’s amendments for a very simple principle: they would trap Australia’s media and communications network in the last century rather than allowing them move forward into the coming century. I repeat: the reason we reject these amendments is that they would trap and freeze Australia’s media and communications sector in the last century rather than allowing it to move forward and operate in preparation for the coming century. I make those points precisely because over the last 20 years we have seen a revolution in communications which has meant that the old rules applying to the old economy do not allow for the flexibility that will assist Australian firms and the Australian media prepare for the coming century. In essence, we have moved from three to six platforms, as I mentioned earlier. The traditional platforms of newspapers, radio and television have been supplemented by the now mature platforms of the internet and pay television and the sixth emerging platform of mobile communications in the form of 3G and mobile television.

These bills allow for a real transition and infusion of capital into that area. They allow for those transitions by creating diversity in terms of 15 new channels potentially by 2009, 25 new channels of high-definition TV, or digital television, by the point of switch-over from analog to digital, all free to air. But they recognise—and this is the point—that the fundamental mechanism for doing that is to allow reform. To compete in the global media environment where global communication is coming through the new three platforms you must allow the old platforms to evolve and work in an environment of reform.

That means there must be capital. I do not object to foreign capital at all. If people want to invest in Australia and to contribute their funds to the development of Australia, that is a profoundly good thing. But I do object—and here I respond directly to what the opposition shadow has said—to the proposition that we should do that without modifying our existing environment to give Australian content providers, Australian communicators and Australian communications companies the flexibility to compete. If you do one and not the other, it fails the package. The package around foreign ownership and cross-media communications does a very simple thing: it sets out the provisions which ensure that there can be capital, synergies and flexibility, but contrary to the view put forward by the opposition, there are real protections.

So their amendments provide all of the restrictions but none of the flexibilities. It is last century’s approach to this century’s great revolution. There are adequate and deep protections. There is provision for a minimum of six media groups in Melbourne and Sydney, five in the major cities, four in the regional areas and a requirement that no group can hold more than two out of three platforms and a maximum of two radio stations in any particular media market and, significantly, quite powerful local content provisions which, I would argue, actually expand the capacity and the requirements for the provision of local content around Australia.

On that basis we reject the arguments put forward. I note in particular that the shadow spokesperson of the opposition has a misunderstanding. I am advised that the speculation in today’s media about changes in media ownership is about movement under the current rules. So with great respect, there is a misunderstanding and for those reasons, because this is the way forward, we reject the position put forward and the amendments. I again commend the bill in its original form to the House.

11:37 am

Photo of John MurphyJohn Murphy (Lowe, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I certainly know who is misguided in this debate. The National Party stand condemned today. Senator Fielding stands condemned. Senator Fielding from the ‘Packer Family First Party’ knows not what he has done. The Howard government does. Senator Fielding is the new Meg Lees of this parliament. We all remember what happened to Meg Lees when, like Senator Fielding, she surrendered her vote to the Howard government for the GST. Look where the Democrats are today. Like the Democrats, the Packer Family First Party’s Senator Steve Fielding and his party will disappear without trace. Senator Fielding is clearly the Judas of the 41st Parliament. Senator Fielding was elected to represent the most disadvantaged, the most impoverished and the poor and he has put the Packer family first. The poor and the impoverished and the disadvantaged are crying out today, ‘Senator Fielding, why have you abandoned us?’

I am pleased to be able to say that on the election of Kim Beazley as Prime Minister of this country at the end of next year Kim Beazley will save our democracy. I spoke to him again when I spoke yesterday in my party room and he has assured me that the Labor Party will have a strong media policy to ensure real diversity in media ownership in this country. Moreover, he has signalled for the benefit of the public broadcaster and all those Friends of the ABC that there will be a big boost in funding to the public broadcaster to provide some real competition to the big media companies.

Let me also assure this House and the manic media executives at PBL going gangbusters at the moment that they would be well advised to pull their heads in and put the corks back in the Bollinger. There is no constitutional impediment for a government to require a media company to sell some of its assets, and that will be something that the Labor Party will take into account upon election to government if they get an absolute stranglehold on our democracy.

This is a black day for the public interest. This is a black day for our democracy because what we are witnessing, particularly with PBL, is that PBL are shoring up their media interests to protect their monopoly gambling interests. How can Senator Fielding have on his conscience that he is protecting the interests of PBL in relation to their gaming and gambling activities to make billions of dollars, doubling the family fortune out of gambling? Senator Fielding sold out and gave his preference and his priority to one of the wealthiest people not only in this country but in the world to look after his interests. What a disgrace!

What a venal act Senator Fielding has engaged in so that he can get preferences for the Family First Party at the next federal election. He is not going to get them, because the Labor Party will have a duty to educate the people of Victoria about Senator Fielding’s complicity in mortgaging our democracy and looking after the interests of the privileged in Australia to the detriment of the future of our country. How can he stand in this parliament with any credibility—completely in tatters, like the reputation of the National Party?

At least Barnaby Joyce has some integrity, but I cannot say the same about Senator Coonan. She went behind his back because she does not trust one of her own. If you cannot trust one of your own, how can you trust the government to do a deal with Senator Fielding so that we have a stranglehold on media ownership in Australia and we give the Packer family everything that they have ever wanted? Kerry Packer is not even stiff and already the market is announcing that Jamie Packer has increased the family fortune by 50 per cent and potentially could double the family fortune. What a disgrace! Who is really running the country? Who is running Australia? It appears that the Packer family is certainly running this government and Kim Beazley, when he is elected to government, will restore our democracy. You can be sure of that. (Time expired)

11:48 am

Photo of Steven CioboSteven Ciobo (Moncrieff, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have been very pleased and interested to hear the contributions made by the opposition in this debate. All the shrill shrieks have come from the opposition as they are concerned about the great threat to Australian democracy. We have heard comments by the member for Perth and the member for Lowe that in some way this government’s legislation will lead to a massive reduction in diversity, as the member for Perth said. The reality is that the bills before the House—the first, which has been passed, and the one we are currently debating—will do much to bring an outdated, outmoded regulatory approach that was implemented 20 years ago by the Australian Labor Party into the 21st century.

The core issue in this debate and what the member for Perth is proposing in the amendments that he has put forward to the House today is not to take Australia forward when it comes to media policy. It is not to set a new agenda or to develop a policy framework that takes into account the advent of the internet; the advent of a whole variety of subscription services that are delivered via, for example, online services; the advent of new digital serves such as snack TV on digital TV channels; and the advent of additional TV channels. We know that there will be approximately 15 channels by 2009 with the switch-off of analog. All of that is ignored by the member for Perth and the Australian Labor Party as they turn their backs on the 21st century and look straight back to 1987 by moving amendments that seek to ensure that the regulatory regime the Australian Labor Party has had for the last 20 years is good enough as far as the Labor Party is concerned to meet the needs of Australia for the next 20 or 30 years.

In essence, that is the best policy that the Australian Labor Party can come up with—a policy that served our country for 20 years that ignores the advent of the internet, that ignores digital TV and that ignores subscription services and the great myriad of new technology and new media platforms that are made available to Australians, whether you live at the back of Bourke or in downtown Sydney. The Labor Party policy turns its back on all of that and says, ‘No, we’ll sit with the policy framework that has existed since 1987,’ when in essence all there was were newspapers, TV stations and a handful of radio stations.

Amongst the outrageous claims that I have heard from the opposition are that we need more than the two or three test and the four or five voices test. We need more than that. We need greater safeguards. This ignores the fact that, under this policy proposal put forward by the Howard government under what has been years of consultation by the Howard government not only with the public but also with various media proprietors both in and outside of Australia, we have in place a framework that will protect media diversity rules. But you do not hear any remarks from the Labor Party about that. If an unacceptable media diversity situation arose, ACMA has at its disposal a number of powerful sanctions including, for example, fines of $2.2 million per day and up to $11 million per day for companies, and the ability to force divestiture by those with licences. The ALP will say that there are not adequate safeguards but ignore the fact that there are fines of up to $11 million, for example, and powers of divestiture that are afforded to the industry regulator.

The simple fact is that it is high time the Australian Labor Party came up to speed with modern media, and it is high time that the Australian Labor Party recognised that under the proposal the government has put forward there is not some great threat to voices in Australia; rather, there is an increased level of flexibility that will ensure that, going forward, media players in our country have the opportunity to move into new markets and, importantly, be subject to greater levels of competition which, by definition, means greater levels of diversity in this country. That is the direct consequence of this bill. Foreign owners of media companies coming into Australia and entering marketplaces is something that should be welcomed. We have in place a floor, a safeguard, which prevents media markets from becoming too shallow, and that is also an appropriate safeguard for the Australian people. Turning your back on those safeguards and attempting to have in place a 20-year rule is simply farcical. (Time expired)

11:53 am

Photo of Tony WindsorTony Windsor (New England, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I listened with interest to the member for Moncrieff on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006. He talked about new media; it is the old players that are controlling the media. The diversity is going to be controlled by a limited number of players, and it is a matter of great concern to the community—particularly country people—that this legislation is going to get through the parliament. In just the last two days we have seen the way in which the old players have reacted in the marketplace to this legislation. There is absolutely no doubt about who has been writing the script. Some of the diversions in which the National Party were involved in the Senate have been purely that—diversions from the main task.

I commend the member for Lowe for his work over many years on this particular subject and I also commend and recognise the member for Hinkler. I think he really did try and recognise many of the problems but, unfortunately, he has given up at the last hurdle. The member for Lowe made some comments about Senator Fielding. I think it is a great shame that the credibility that Senator Fielding had when he came into this place has been absolutely sold out on this issue. To represent gambling interests and to sell out to big money in the way he has in the Senate completely eradicates any credibility that he had in supposedly representing families.

I was one of many speakers unable to speak in the second reading debate because the government saw fit to truncate debate on a very important piece of legislation. We are going to see a reflection of that through the few people who will control our media and the diversity of the media that comes through to the people—regional people and city people—as well. There are many very good local television and radio stations that are trying to do their best to relay media to country people. I will put in a slight ad, if I could, for the ABC. This parliament needs to back the ABC more than it ever has to get opinions, views and local information out. We are in the middle of a drought at the moment and it is imperative that local people—through their local commercial and ABC media—are able to access that information.

This legislation is a sell-out to a few private interests for political or financial gain and I will be supporting the amendments moved by the member for Perth. I make the plea that, because of the limited number of voices that are out there in country Australia, in particular the ABC, all members of parliament support an extension of funding to the ABC so that views can be expressed at a local level and local information for local people is able to get out there. I think we are fortunate—particularly in my part of the world—to have commercial stations that are still working very hard on local interests. Some of this legislation will make that more difficult for them. I do not agree with the National Party where they have said that they have made some great achievements in the amendments to this legislation. I do not think that is correct at all. I think what they have done is lose sight of the major objective—diversity of view and diversity of media in regional areas—and settled for some minor leavings and some small trinkets regarding local content but sold out on the major content of the legislation.

Photo of Kim WilkieKim Wilkie (Swan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! In accordance with the resolution agreed to earlier today, the time allocated for the consideration in detail stage of this bill has concluded. The question is that the amendment be agreed to.