Wednesday, 30 November 2016
Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Media Reform) Bill 2016; Consideration in Detail
by leave—I move opposition amendments (1) and (2) together:
(1) Clause 2, page 2 (table item 2, column 1), omit “Schedules 1 and 2”, substitute “Schedule 1”.
(2) Schedule 2, page 4 (line 1) to page 5 (line 14), omit the Schedule.
It is possible for this parliament to rise and be able to say that we have put through something that is a positive result for regional broadcasters—I am talking about the repeal of the 75 per cent reach rule. This amendment encapsulates Labor's well-articulated position on this issue. We certainly support repeal of these provisions; we recommended this when in government. Not a single speaker who has spoken on this bill—very few from the other side have contributed to the second reading debate—has disputed the fact that the 75 per cent reach rule should go. The fact that we have the word 'reform' in this bill and we are still dealing with the repeal of the 75 per cent reach rule simply indicates what a farce this entire bill is. In fact, you could have put through this provision in one of those many statute stocktakes or red-tape repeal days, and it would have gone through with, probably, very little debate. I note that the few members opposite—including the minister who did the summing up—who actually bothered to contribute to the second reading debate probably needed some updated speaking notes, because they seemed quite unaware that on Monday the Minister for Communications and the Arts did one of many backflips to adopt Labor's position on this bill. An article in The Australiansays that the Turnbull government is now trying 'to win industry support and deliver genuine reform of decades-old ownership and control laws'—I stress 'genuine reform'. Ipso facto, there is nothing genuine about any reform in this bill. The article goes on:
Free-to-air network television licence fees are also expected to be addressed in conjunction with the media reform bill as Communications Minister Mitch Fifield adopts a rejigged approach amid resistance to the current proposal.
What has Labor been advocating since the election on this bill? We have been advocating that a holistic approach be taken on this issue. I am happy to help. Imitation certainly is one of the better forms of flattery, so I am happy to assist the minister here. He has thrown in the towel. This is a minister who has thrown in the towel, and what do you expect, when you get commentary in The AustralianThe Australian!awarding you the title of most ineffective politician in Australia and likening you to Homer Simpson. What do you expect from this kind of minister? The minister has thrown in the towel on this matter. Minister Fifield 'conceded the government is unlikely to mobilise the necessary support this year.' The article continues:
Labor and Seven West Media oppose the reforms while Nine Entertainment wants to see the bill deferred until licence fee cuts are tackled.
That really does not correlate with what we heard the minister at the table, the Minister for Urban Infrastructure, saying a short time earlier, when he was trying to indicate that somehow there was broad support for this. I note the headline in The West Australian from last week—again, maybe some updated speaking notes would have been appropriate for those opposite—'Media law reforms put on the backburner'. The article says:
A proposed overhaul of media ownership laws has been shelved until next year as the Federal Government battles to woo crossbench support.
Here is a minister who refuses to be pragmatic for the benefit of regional communities. We have the now Prime Minister, formerly the communications minister, indicating on some occasions that he was open to making sure that at least the 75 per cent reach rule was repealed, but this current minister is being obstinate and clearly he does not understand his brief. The article goes on:
Senator Fifield maintained that he would not split the package into two Bills so the Government could chalk up a win on the abolition of the reach rule.
What kind of a minister would not want to go into the new year with a bipartisan position on something that everyone recognises needs to go. The minister at the table, as we just saw in his summing up, is totally unaware of the latest evidence that has come in today, of all days, from the regulator—the ACMA communications report was tabled today. These people who take the 'because of the internet' argument are simply putting this blanket argument that we do not need cross-media rules any more, everything is hunky-dory. They should have a look at the latest statistics. I quote from the ACMA communications report— (Time expired)
I am pleased to speak on the amendments moved by the shadow minister, the member for Greenway, and to indicate that the government will be opposing them. The effect of the amendments would be to remove the second schedule of the bill, which is the schedule which gives effect to the government's policy intention to remove the two-out-of-three rule. Of course that forms one of the key limbs of the integrated package of policy measures in this bill, with the other key limb being the removal of the 75 per cent reach rule.
It does seem that Labor is rather conflicted as to what their approach is in relation to legislation in this area. On the one hand we have the shadow minister in her contribution to the debate earlier today criticising this as piecemeal reform. The Labor Party is proposing with the amendments the House is presently considering the removal of one very substantial component of this integrated package of reforms. On the one hand she says it is piecemeal; on the other hand her plan is to make it even more piecemeal. This is not a logical approach; it is not an approach that the government is prepared to agree to. What we have in the bill before the House is an integrated package of reforms in the regulation of media in this country.
Let me remind the House that much of the legislative framework governing broadcast media in this country was developed at a time when there were only three principal media platforms—newspapers, TV and radio. It was well before smartphones, well before social media, well before streaming services. One key element of a legislative framework which was developed in a different time was the two-out-of-three rule, and that rule, which continues to have effect on the statute books today, prevents a person from controlling more than two out of three regulated media platforms—commercial television, commercial radio and associated newspapers in any commercial radio licence area. That is a rule that needs to be analysed and assessed in terms of its impact today on Australian media companies, employing Australians, with Australian investors—important Australian businesses. You have one set of businesses which are subject to this restrictive and prescriptive set of rules but at the same time you have other unregulated platforms owned by businesses all around the world, freely available to Australian consumers. Of course the increase in media diversity is a good thing, the increase in choice is a good thing, the increase in the options available to all Australian media consumers, thanks to the extraordinary development of the internet, is a good thing. But the parliament of Australia needs to be cognisant of the economic impact of fundamental technological transformation, and in turn fundamental economic translation, on Australian businesses. The reality is that from a consumer perspective online media is no longer viewed as something distinct from more traditional media platforms. Audiences in Australia and overseas now use multiple sources.
I do want to remind the House that changes to this rule would have a material impact only in capital city markets, and here I exclude Darwin and Hobart, and in a limited number of larger regional licence areas where for the most part sources of news and information are multiple and widespread and the maintenance of diversity is not generally an issue. In most regional and remote markets the removal of the two-out-of-three rule would have minimal impact. I also remind the House that media transitions would still be subject to general competition laws as administered by the ACCC.
This amendment moved by the shadow minister is not one that the government will support. It is ill thought through and it would undermine what is a comprehensive package of reforms.
If I understand the member for Kennedy's question, he is asking me if the measures in this bill were to pass would that allow one entity to own all media outlets in Australia. The answer is no, for a host of reasons. First of all, the existing competition law provisions would prevail, and there will continue to be other safeguards. I believe I am right in saying that the four-out-of-five rule would continue to apply.
We were told this when the parliament deregulated the milk industry—that there are protections and there is the ACCC. The milk price to farmers was slashed from 60c to 40c because there was a monopoly. We were told this in the sugar industry, where the price that we get for by-products has been reduced to nothing and we cannot live with the price we are getting. We were told this in the tobacco industry, where you had two or three players. We have no tobacco industry in Australia now. We were given assurances that the ACCC would protect us all. I am very familiar with Mr Sims at the ACCC. They have very limited resources, and I do not think that they could take on the might of Rupert Murdoch, nor do I think they could take on the might of a Gina Rinehart.
We live in a country now where it is available to the rich and powerful to take over all the media outlets in this country. When I was young, that was one of the hallmarks of a communist regime—all the media outlets were owned by a single entity. In that case, it was the government. We could say, 'Well, it wasn't a very democratic government.' Well, there is going to be no democracy here at all. It will be 'He who has got the biggest chequebook can decide what you think in this country.' Obviously, the minister missed out a bit on his education because, if he had read Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World, he would be looking into the gun barrel of the sort of society which he is creating.
When this was proposed, it was when I first came into this place, there were six members of parliament that were going to cross the floor on it. One of them was Joe Hockey and one of them was Christopher Pyne. That was in the media. These men had principle and they were not prepared to allow a monopoly in the media in Australia. Obviously, they have modified their opinions in the years since. Whether or not there is a corrupting influence in this place, I do not know. All I know is that they have changed their positions. It was said that three National Party members would have crossed the floor. I do not know if that was ever the case, but, most certainly, I would have crossed the floor on it.
This is a historic moment because control of the media—control of what people think in this country—can now reside in the hands of one person. The Liberals think they are very clever because the two contenders are very positive towards the Liberal Party. But my experience is that it has a funny way of turning around and biting you when you think you are going to do something for your own benefit. I profoundly believe that it is for your benefit. Is it for the benefit of the country that every media outlet in this country is owned by a single entity? I hate to say this, but the minister's name will go down in infamy in the history of this country. Billy Hughes decided that we would have conscription, and an extra 100,000 Australians died. In this case, the minister is putting the muzzle on free speech in this country because there is no way that you can get a licence to operate a television venue in Australia. That is not the real world. The ACCC will not give me a television licence; they are not authorised to. Are we going to open up a newspaper and compete against Rupert Murdoch? Is that what the minister is saying? I wish him well if he opens up the Betoota Advocate on the outskirts of Sydney, because that might be our best hope. I am going to go and talk to my mates there. It might be the best hope that we have of getting our point of view across.
These people think they are very clever with their industrial legislation. They took to the Australian people the proposition that we abolish the Arbitration Commission. Even though the newspapers and the media in Australia were almost unanimous in support of this proposition, they got annihilated. They have never said, 'We want to sell the assets.' It was only the LNP that was stupid enough to say that and get themselves annihilated, but the other mob over here— (Time expired)
First of all, can I expand on the answer I gave previously and correct a small misstatement I made. The rule that I was referring to is known as the minimum voices rule or the 5/4 rule. That is a rule, which is in the legislation now and will continue, that there must be at least five independent media voices in metropolitan commercial radio licences areas and at least four in regional commercial radio licence areas. Just to explain, there is a rule today, and that rule will be maintained regardless of the passage of the bill before the House this afternoon. That rule requires that there must be at least five independent media voices in metropolitan commercial radio licence areas and at least four in regional commercial radio licence areas. That is defined in media 'voices', but the reference area that is used is the metropolitan commercial radio licence area, or the regional commercial radio licence area. That determines the geographic area in which the rule applies. There must be at least five independent voices in a metropolitan commercial radio licence area and four in a regional area. Of course, a 'voice' can be radio or television.
The next rule that applies today, and will continue to apply—
Let me expand upon the explanation of how the minimum-voices rule works. Step 1: you go to a commercial radio licence area, either in a metropolitan area or a regional area. Step 2: you ask yourself: in that area, are there are at least five independent voices? An independent voice can be a television station, a radio station or a newspaper. There must be at least five in a metropolitan area. There must be at least four in a regional area. That is the rule that applies today. That rule will continue to apply should this bill pass into law. That is the first law which will continue and will continue to be an important determinant and safeguard of media diversity.
Mr Katter interjecting—
The criterion is 'independent'. That is to say, if two of them are owned by the same owner, that does not count as independent.
The next rule that will continue to apply is the one-to-a-market rule, which is that a person, either in his or her own right or as a director of a company, must not exercise control over more than one commercial television broadcasting licence in a licence area. The third rule which applies today and will continue to apply is the two-to-a-market rule. That is the rule that a person, either in his or her own right or as a director of a company, must not control more than two commercial radio broadcasting licences in the same licence area. I go back to the explanation of the five-four rule.
The member for Kennedy does not have the call. This is not a debate between the two members. I ask that you resume your seat. There will be an opportunity to get up. This is not a debate. It is not question time.
The short answer is no. I am happy to repeat that, for clarity. The answer is no.
The point that I make is that there are a series of rules which apply to deliver an outcome of media diversity, and those rules will continue: the five-four rule, otherwise known as the minimum-voices rule; the one-to-a-market rule; and the two-to-a-market rule. I have just run through each of those. Under this bill, two provisions, two existing rules as part of the regulatory regime, will be removed—the 75 per cent rule and the two-out-of-three rule. (Time expired)
There is absolutely nothing integrated about this bill. If you wanted any evidence of that, you get it from the minister himself. The minister himself has realised that there is nothing integrated about this. It is not just me saying it. Do not even take my word for it. Take the word of an important stakeholder like Channel 7 for example. They said:
… what we would like to see is a comprehensive package of changes so that we can understand the full implications of regulatory change for our business, for our industry and for consumers more generally.
They went on:
This bill on its own does not address that. It may be of use to one or two players for one or two deals, but it does not do anything for our entire industry.
If the minister at the table, the Minister for Urban Infrastructure, were so concerned about ensuring business structures are capable going forward from tomorrow, he would be supporting the repeal of the 75 per cent reach rule, which is essentially a piece of housekeeping.
I urge the regional MPs on that side—two of them came onto the speaking list at the very last minute, but that is about it from their side—to think very carefully about what their regional affiliates are going to think if they vote against this. Their regional affiliates are expecting to have at least something by the end of the year. I have no truck with this rubbish about Labor standing in the way. These people have had more than three years. We know that Prime Minister Turnbull, when he was communications minister, got rolled, because then-Prime Minister Abbott said, 'We're not going to have any changes unless the entire industry agrees with one another.' So all he came up with were these two changes, one of which Labor has consistently said we would be happy to support and would have done in government. Labor has been entirely consistent on this position. Those regional members who might be listening to this should think very, very carefully about whether they are going to go back to their regional affiliates when parliament rises and what they are going to say to those regional affiliates, who are expecting this change to go through.
Before I was interrupted, I was going through some of the figures that the ACMA itself has released today. The minister at the table likes to run the 'because internet' argument. Here are some facts. Despite the prevalence of internet and the ability to get news, current affairs and any other information from a variety of sources, the regulator's own report, tabled in this place today, says:
… broadcast television remains the main source of news for adult Australians …
It goes on:
Despite this decline in print subscriptions and the availability of other online news sources, broadcast television remains the main source of news … Television also had the highest weekly news reach with 65 per cent, ahead of radio with 40 per cent and print with 38 per cent.
This is reflected in the monthly digital ratings for news, where the online platforms of print newspapers or television broadcasters record the largest audiences in the current and global news sub-category.
It also confirms, in a table, what we have been saying all along—that, although we have the rise of the internet and the rise of these online provisions, seven out of the 10 top news sites are still old media, on different platforms: same voices, different platforms. The ACMA report affirms that today. Today this evidence has come out. Those opposite might like to think this is no big deal to the Australian public. Well, I have seen one public poll taken on this, by Essential Media. Sixty-one per cent of Australians surveyed do not support repeal of the two-out-of-three rule. Again, regional members might like to think about this: 61 per cent of Australians do not support repeal of the two-out-of-three rule. It is a shame the member for Kennedy has gone, because he was very astute in highlighting the deficiencies you get when you start to relegate this sector to general competition law.
The New Zealand Commerce Commission has recently considered some of these issues, and they recognised the deficiencies of it—as pointed out in the dissenting report to the Senate review:
Competition law is of questionable efficacy as a tool for achieving social policy objectives as contained in the Broadcasting Services Act …
Those opposite should know that the objects of the Broadcasting Services Act clearly demonstrate that the BSA is not a piece of industry policy legislation. It is in fact one that has as its objects what would be better described as pieces of social objectives. And a pertinent point to note is: whilst we have these media guidelines and whilst they are being reviewed and we have another set of draft media guidelines, it is a fact that this does little to assist parliament in understanding what mergers would be blocked under competition law and whether general competition law would require adequate safeguards for diversity in the event of the removal of the two-out-of-three rule. (Time expired)
It hardly needs to be said, but regional members on this side of the House would know full well that the quality of advice from the member for Greenway about what serves the interests of regional Australians is poor indeed, because the reality that underpins the reforms in the legislation before the House this afternoon is that the three regional television broadcasters, PRIME Media Group, Southern Cross Austereo and the WIN network, strongly support this bill, and they do this because of concerns about their continuing economic viability under the present arrangements and, with that, the capacity to provide continued employment in regional Australia. I can tell this House that there is one side of this House which has a strong track record on protecting the economic interests of regional and remote Australia, and it is not the Labor side of the House.
A critical reason for this legislation being before the House this afternoon is precisely to protect and advance the economic interests of regional Australia, including the regional broadcasters who are a strong employment presence and a strong community presence in regional Australia, and it is important that that strong presence be maintained. Let me refer the House to the report of the Senate committee which has looked at this legislation, which observes at paragraph 2.36:
The regional television broadcasters (Prime Media Group, Southern Cross Austereo and the WIN Network) … strongly support repealing the two control and ownership rules.
And the shadow minister engaged in a world-class piece of selective quotation and selective referencing of third-party groups, because she had one media organisation that she referred to, and she did not give a balanced picture.
Let us have a look at what the Senate report had to say at paragraph 2.38 on the ripper suggestion we have got from Labor this afternoon, that these two provisions should be split. What did the Senate committee conclude about this, Mr Deputy Speaker? You may be interested to know. Here is what the Senate committee concluded:
Prime Media Group, Southern Cross Austereo, the WIN Network, Ten Network and Fairfax argued that the repeal of the 2 out of 3 rule should occur at the same time as the repeal of the 75 per cent reach rule.
So it turns out that, despite the highly misleading statements by the shadow minister, there is extensive industry support for the integrated package of reforms that the coalition is putting forward to the House this afternoon.
For example, what was said to the Senate committee by a witness, Ms Annabelle Herd, from Ten Network Holdings? She had this to say:
The point about not splitting these two issues is: why would you split them? I certainly have not heard an argument from anybody about what the two-out-of-three rule is actually doing right now to protect diversity.
So there is an integrated package of measures that is before the House in this bill this afternoon. It is a package of measures, as the Senate committee report demonstrates comprehensively, which is widely supported by an extensive range of industry players. It is motivated—our urgency here is motivated—by a desire to preserve the viability of businesses which are vital to serving regional Australia.
On the Labor side of the House, what we have seen is indolence and obstructionism, when it comes to this package of measures, because of their evident indifference to the economic impact of this on regional Australia. This side of the House is committed to regional Australia. That is why we have put the bill forward in the form that we have. That is why we say very clearly to the House this afternoon: do not be confused; do not be misled by this ill-conceived stunt, in these amendments that are being put forward by the Labor Party this afternoon. The only game that is being played here is obstructionism. The only game that is being played here is delay. The Labor Party is prepared to frankly make hostages of vital regional businesses rather than engaging with what is a critical economic reform that is strongly supported by the three regional broadcasters and a wide range of other stakeholders in the sector.
I can say: every single Labor Party member loves to get a lecture from the foreman from Frenchs Forest on what is in the interests of people in regional Australia! He would not know what regional Australia was if he went there in his Mercedes-Benz.
Frankly, the government has had an opportunity today to prove beyond doubt that they are neither lazy nor indolent. The shadow minister has put a reasonable proposition before them. Let me go through the proposition that we have put before the House today, because there are four propositions which the government puts forward as their proposals for media reform in this country. The first is that we repeal the 75 per cent reach rule, the second is that we repeal the two-out-of-three rule, the third is that we insert within the legislation beefed-up local content provisions and the fourth is that we amend the licence fees arrangement. We are willing to give the government three out of four of these proposals. We are willing to give the government time. They can go and convene a meeting with George Christensen if they really need to work out what their policy proposition is on this! We are willing to give the government time, but they have it within their gift to make the changes necessary to get some real reform through. And we could do it before the end of the week.
If we look at the objections to accepting the amendment put forward by the shadow minister, they fall into two or three categories. The first is that this is all interlinked. It is like some delicate house of cards—if you remove one of the proposals from the package everything else is going to fall to bits. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The government might fall to bits. The fragile consensus, which is the prime ministership of Malcolm Turnbull, might fall to bits. But the reforms will still go through. We say that it is simply not true that the 75 per cent is contingent upon every other reform. I ask you to consider this: we accept, and we have accepted for years, that it does not make sense any more that, when a major television broadcaster can stream their content to 100 per cent of the Australian population—and, in fact, 100 per cent of the world population that has access to an internet signal—we persist with a 75 per cent reach rule. We are willing to give that to the government, to the Australian people, today. That can pass through the parliament today.
We have already voted up the reforms in relation to the licence fees. And when it comes to beefing up the local content provisions, we are willing to support those, as well. But, frankly, the government has not made out the case. They rely on the evidence from the Senate committee—the Senate committee which they opposed; the one that they argued against—which at best is perverse on the question of the two-out-of-three rule. It is simply not true that they are all interlinked.
Then we have the minister stand before us today and say, 'If you pass the two-out-of-three rule, you have nothing to worry about because nothing is going to change. Nothing is going to change if you pass through the two-out-of-three rule.' Well, I ask you, Mr Deputy Speaker, if nothing is going to change why the haste? Grab the three out of the four propositions that we are offering the government to get some real reform through and you will have the support of every member of the Labor opposition.
It is very unfortunate thing that we are seeing a pattern here. We offered the government a compromise when it comes to the backpacker tax. Would they even pick up the phone? No, they would not.
I asked the shadow minister if she had received a phone call from the minister in relation to some compromise on this bill, and the answer was: no. The minister is too lazy to even pick up the phone.
So we have a pattern emerging here: lazy, indolent, unwilling to compromise. We can have reform today if they only grasp the nettle.
I will tell you what I want media reform of: I do not want to have to see this weekend's Good Weekend with George Christensen on the front! You delivered that. That is media reform we can all believe in! There he is in his singlet and that tattoo. I tell you—
And the whip. It is just so, so terrible.
So here we are in a situation where Labor, as you have heard from a number of speakers, has extended a number of opportunities to be able to work with the government on genuine media reform. We have extended the olive branch in that way. What have we got in response? In response, we have a deal which has been stitched up not through broad consultation or genuinely involving stakeholders, and a wide range of them. It is just a deal. It is a cheap, quick fix. It does not do as both the member for Greenway and the member for Whitlam have outlined—that is, we want to see independence, better media standards, improvement in terms of local content, the provision of regional service and the support for that content, and support for jobs. We are saying that we are prepared to work on all of these fronts.
The other thing is, too, when you consider the number of regional members that sit on this side of the House I find it quite surprising to be told by that side of the House that they have a monopoly on being able to speak up for regional communities. We had a broad number of our members talk about this legislation and talk about its importance to their regions. All we have had is obstinacy from that side. We have had nothing but stonewalling. There has been no preparedness whatsoever to genuinely engage. It has been a hallmark of the discussions around media reform in this place. There has been none of that. All there has been is a desire to force this through. This is another example of quantity above quality—they chalk up a win and they claim that they can go out and say, 'We've got this legislation through.' But they have not actually come up with anything that will generate a longer term benefit. There is no genuine media reform into the longer term.
The other thing that has surprised me through the course of the debate is how many people on that side have been saying, 'How can we provide for diversity in this market given how small the marker is?' Diversity has been a hallmark of this market for years. With a population base that was way lower, it managed to survive. Obviously, there is a very heavy reliance by those opposite on the fact that the internet has transformed things. Yes, it has. But it has also opened up opportunities, too. And those players have been seizing on that, both the traditional and the new and emerging ones.
So the fact of the matter is: we are not interested in just having an exercise of chalking up wins. We want to see a legislative outcome that delivers a real and genuine outcome—and one that will actually, as the member for Greenway and shadow minister rightly points out—that will be sustainable into the future so we are not having to come back here in the autumn sitting to try and correct, change, fix up, amend, or whatever, this rushed-through package. Certainly, I think the government has an opportunity to actually take this into account, make the changes now and get this right the first time.