House debates

Tuesday, 16 June 2020


Broadcasting Services Amendment (Regional Commercial Radio and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading

7:02 pm

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

Given the very unconventional circumstances that bring me to my feet today, I hope you'll excuse me and give me a moment to gather myself, following the shock of that bill being rammed through without a single speaker in opposition just now. I'm sure that there was a great urgency and contingency that drove that from the government side.

But we now come to the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Regional Commercial Radio and Other Measures) Bill 2020. This bill is the government's latest attempt to deal with the very significant structural changes occurring in regional media in Australia. The can has been kicked down the road by this government for many years now. Indeed, the Australian content obligations being discussed and dealt with in this bill have been kicked down the road by this government for four years, and now before the House we have a bill that we are told needs to get through the parliament this week. That's not the way, by any stretch of the imagination, that I'd go about managing, coordinating or doing a proper policy process, but here we are.

The bill before the House is one that the Labor Party supports. We support it not because we believe that it will solve all problems, and not because we believe that it will be a decisive intervention in addressing the issues confronting regional broadcasters—regional commercial radio broadcasters and regional television broadcasters—but because we believe that it will provide some degree of regulatory relief, and there is no reason for us to stand in the way of that. We do have a second reading amendment, which I will move shortly, when the text is before me. But we are happy to support the passage of this bill in order to accommodate its passage for the government. As I said, this bill has been brought on here today in fairly extraordinary circumstances—with, I understand, the discussions that have been going on to support it. The postal bill, which many people were very enthusiastic to speak about, has been put off.

As I said, really the structural changes in media go back to the convergence review under the Rudd-Gillard government. The fact that we are now seven years into this new conservative government and have not seen the substantive structural issues dealt with is extraordinary. Indeed, in 2017 we saw a reform bill come through the parliament that was going to turn this upside down, was going to address the big-picture issues. Yet three years on we see another set of amendments coming into this chamber. Of course, these commercial broadcasters aren't the only part of this regional media picture. A very significant part of this also is the role of the ABC, and we know what the government has been doing with respect to the ABC in recent times—constant cuts to the ABC's budget, after we were promised, before the 2013 election, that there would be no cuts to the budget of the ABC. The people who bear the cost of this—the regions of Australia that bear the cost of this—most acutely are those in rural and regional Australia.

And this is all part of the same ecology. I don't like to talk about it now, as a Melbournian, but I grew up in country Queensland, as the Speaker may be familiar with, and I know how important the ABC is to rural and regional areas. It's treasured in those areas. It's literally a lifesaver in times of crisis. People turn to the ABC as that trusted source of information when their lives are on the line, when their livelihoods are on the line, when their property is on the line. They turn to it for the local coverage that is necessary. And we've seen this government treat the ABC with contempt, after promising there'd be no cuts to the budget of the ABC, and we've seen a series of cuts, and now we're starting to see the consequences of those cuts. We're seeing cuts to staffing in regional areas. The chickens are coming home to roost.

So, we see the structural problems in the industry. We're familiar with them. In the commercial sector they're becoming very acute. I should say that the problems being experienced by both commercial radio and commercial television broadcasters are part of big structural changes in traditional media, but they're being made more acute by the growing uncertainty caused by this government kicking the can down the road. It's really difficult to invest, it's difficult to plan, it's difficult to tackle these challenges head-on when you don't have confidence in the regulatory arrangement, when you know there are multiple review processes underway that haven't been dealt with.

The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Regional Commercial Radio and Other Measures) Bill 2020 amends the Broadcasting Services Act and the ACMA Act 2005 with a range of deregulatory measures to ease the regulatory and compliance burden on regional commercial radio and regional commercial television broadcasters. The bill makes relatively minor amendments relating to local content obligations and the Australian content transmission quota. Once again, the government serves up regulatory housekeeping when major reform is needed. Once again, this government is rushing a bill through the parliament when they've been sitting on these issues for literally years. Once again, this government dithers and delays on genuine reform when the industry is crying out for uncertainty to end.

The media sector is in crisis, and it was in crisis well before the impact of the latest COVID-19 pandemic. So, as I said earlier, Labor will not oppose this bill. We'll be constructive. We'll play our role. We won't stand in the way of relatively minor regulatory amendments to alleviate the regulatory burden on regional broadcasters, particularly in the face of concerns about the market failure of regional commercial television. But we are concerned that regional Australians are missing out as a result of this government's ongoing failure to support regional media. Indeed, the measures in the bill don't so much make things better for regional Australians as simply stop them getting worse. They press 'pause'.

We are also concerned that the government continues to delay genuine reform, which exacerbates the uncertainty faced by the media sector as a result of digital disruption. Media reform isn't a straightforward exercise and the issues are complex, but this government has had almost seven years to address the systemic challenges facing the media sector. During this time, review after review into the media sector have piled up and gathered dust on the shelves. They used to be Malcolm Turnbull's shelves, as the communication minister. Then they were Mitch Fifield's shelves. Now they are the member for Bradfield's shelves, as the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts. The shelves might have changed, but the issues remain the same. The names on the front pages of the reports have changed, but the lack of action remains the same. In many ways, the bill is a small admission of failure by the Liberal-National government when it comes to regional broadcasting. There in the fine print is an admission that the government has failed to ensure that the regulatory framework keeps pace with market realities, but the government sat on early warning signs that regional commercial television broadcasters are facing market failure—something that has occurred on this government's watch—and that regional Australians will have less Australian content available to them than they should have, as a result of this government's failings.

The measures contained in schedule 1 of this bill permit greater flexibility for regional commercial radio broadcasting licensees in satisfying their local content obligations with amendments to the local content requirements and associated reporting requirements. Currently, regional commercial radio licensees are required to provide a minimum amount of material of local significance per business day in order to support the ongoing availability of local content in regional Australia. The regional commercial radio industry considers a number of the requirements associated with the local content and minimum service standards obligations to be inflexible, impractical and overly burdensome. The bill will provide the regional commercial radio industry with more flexibility in acquitting its local content and minimum service standards obligations. These changes facilitate flexibility in staff rostering over Christmas, in January and on public holidays, simplified reporting, and a move towards a complaints based approach, rather than ACMA monitoring. They also remove a requirement for a three-yearly statutory review of certain local content provisions. Importantly, the bill will not lower the amount of local content that is currently available to regional audiences on commercial radio.

Schedule 2 of the bill permits regional commercial television broadcasting licensees to be deemed to have complied with the multichannel transmission quota obligations even if they have not broadcast the required 1,460 hours of Australian content if the amount of content on the multichannels that they do carry under affiliation agreements is not less than the amount of Australian content on the equivalent metropolitan multichannels. Currently all commercial television broadcasting licensees, whether metropolitan or regional, are required to broadcast an annual minimum transmission quota of 55 per cent Australian programming between 6 am and midnight on their primary channel and broadcast minimum levels of Australian content—at least 1,460 hours of Australian programming—across their multichannels or non-primary channels between 6 am and midnight.

Metropolitan television networks provide regional and remote commercial television broadcasting licensees with content under affiliation agreements. However, there is currently no obligation on regional broadcasters to take every multichannel, like 7mate, 9Go! or 10 Bold, produced by their metropolitan affiliate. This means that some regional television networks may fall short of the multichannel transmission quota requirement to broadcast 1,460 hours annually of Australian content, depending on how metro networks schedule Australian content across their multichannels. The measures in the bill will assist certain regional and remote licensees that are failing to satisfy the obligation as a result of programming decisions beyond their control by the metro affiliates. It will not directly reduce the amount of Australian content available to regional viewers, but it does permit a reduction in the overall hours of Australian content broadcast by regional broadcasters.

This brings me to my next point. The bill says it all about this government's failures on regional media in Australia. It's late, it's inadequate and it sells regional Australia short. The bill is late, because it addresses an issue the government has known about since at least 2017. An issue arose in 2017 which the department considered to be an early warning sign of market failure in regional television broadcasting, yet the government is only just getting around to addressing it now. To quote the explanatory memorandum:

The Department is of the view that broadcasters' difficulties in meeting content requirements can be taken to be an early warning sign of market failure. In order to fulfil the intention of its policy, the Government will need to take action before market failure occurs, as this would limit regional audience's access to Australian content rather than promoting it.

After sitting on this issue for years, the government is now rushing the bill through the parliament having introduced it only a few days ago—indeed, having brought it forward significantly on the Notice Paper today.

The timing of this bill is off for another reason, though. The bill amends the Australian content transmission quota for commercial television broadcasters, which is a provision the government currently has under formal public review. Only two month ago, the government released an options paper for consultation as part of its review of the Australian content framework. As the explanatory memorandum states:

This process will include consideration of the Australian content transmission quotas, including the multi-channel quota.

Go to the department's website today and you'll find that the consultation on the options paper is still open and doesn't close for a couple of weeks yet. The government is still inviting submissions but now seeks to amend the quota for regional and remote commercial television broadcasting licensees with little to no public notice.

The bill is inadequate because it merely tinkers with a few provisions in the Broadcasting Services Act when a coherent, holistic and strategic package, including wholesale reform of the policy and regulatory framework, is necessary—a fact this government has known since it took office in 2013. Even the explanatory memorandum refers to:

… concerns that the legislative framework had failed to keep pace with the market realities of providing commercial television broadcast content in regional and remote geographic areas of Australia.

Instead of doing the hard yards to reform the legislative framework, all this government knows how to do is dismantle it, piece by piece. The bill contains relatively minor amendments when major structural reform is required to address digital disruption, COVID-19 and the risk of market failure in regional television. While the bill will ease the compliance burden for regional broadcasters, the measures are relatively minor and, alone, are insufficient to address the risk of market failure.

After seven years of inaction on wholesale reform, and after letting the issues the bill addresses fester for years, the government is now rushing this bill through the parliament. Whereas the former Minister for Communications, Senator Mitch Fifield, was renowned in the industry for doing very little—with all manner of work disappearing into what became widely known in the industry as the 'Fifield triangle'—the current minister for communications is so desperate to appear to be doing things, he's doubling up. So desperate is the minister to appear to be doing things that not only did he falsely claim to have suspended the Australian content quotas in April this year, he now has a bill before the parliament to amend a provision that he currently has under review. Witness the 'Fletcher paradox', where the minister says one thing but does another and where he says he's consulting on the transmission quota even as he puts legislation before the parliament to amend it.

The bill sells regional Australia short, because it assumes that, where broadcasters face challenges in meeting Australian content requirements, the answer is to relax the content requirements rather than assist broadcasters in bridging the gap somehow or undertaking genuine reform to address structural challenges. When faced with the problem that some regional broadcasters are finding it difficult to satisfy their transmission quota, what does the government do? It looks to relax the consumer safeguard, not support reaching the consumer safeguard. While the bill will not lower the amount of local content that is currently available to regional audiences on commercial radio, it does permit a reduction in the number of hours of Australian content on regional commercial television that is currently available to regional audiences. At best, this will be only an indirect and modest reduction in the number of hours of repeat Australian content or simulcast content already available to regional audiences—content that is currently used as filler to make up hours to satisfy the quota. At worst, it may have unintended consequences and result in a significant reduction in the number of hours of Australian content available on regional commercial television. The explanatory memorandum notes:

The Department worked closely with ACMA throughout the development of this measure to ensure that the preferred deeming provision option has enacted the Government's policy without any unintended consequences.

The explanatory memorandum further notes that the government assessed these risks as low to very low. What is clear is that regional media is facing challenges, partly as a result of this government's failure to keep the regulatory framework up to date and regional Australians are missing out as a result. It isn't regional media that has failed here, it is the government that has failed regional media. For years, Labor has been calling on this government to overhaul the policy and regulatory framework and implement a real plan to support Australian content, public interest journalism and regional media in a landscape transformed by digitisation and convergence. For years, Labor has been warning this government that their legislative changes, funds and backroom deals are inadequate to support regional media in the face of digital disruption.

When this third-term coalition government took office back in 2013, they knew Australia's media laws were broken. The regulator said so, and the industry had told them so. Years ago, this government itself decried the regulatory framework as 'analogue era', yet it has failed to provide a digital-era replacement in the many years since. Over six years, this government has left the hulking analogue framework in place and has not addressed the main game around new services, the shift in advertising revenue and the uneven playing field.

In September 2017, the former Liberal Prime Minister described the government's changes to media law as 'a new era for Australia's media' and boasted:

The government is strengthening Australia's media industry, enhancing media diversity and securing local journalism jobs, particularly in regional areas.

Less than three years later, the government stated that it is of the view that:

… broadcasters' difficulties in meeting content requirements is an early warning sign of market failure.

The AFR is reporting 'regional TV on the verge of market failure'. It's an indictment. The government's failure to address these systemic challenges has left the sector exposed to external shocks, and Australians are missing out on public interest journalism and content as a result. It's coming up to seven years of this third-term government, and they still don't know what to do. They've had years to fix the outdated regulatory framework and address the systemic challenges facing regional media but still don't know what to do.

The government have a pile of reviews and recommendations at their disposal, yet they continue to ignore them or cherry-pick them in a lopsided manner. The final report of the ACCC digital platforms inquiry, which was released in June 2019, devotes an entire appendix to recent reviews of media industry laws and regulation. It's a library. The government have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants to advise them on regional media, but they don't know what to do. As recently as this month, the department put out to tender for research to:

… provide an assessment of the existing, emerging and novel business models for the production and distribution of news and media content.

It will also:

… evaluate the regulatory and non-regulatory measures employed (or being considered) in comparable jurisdictions.

The research is to be delivered by 31 August 2020. The government have taken almost seven years to commission this research, but the consultant gets less than seven weeks to actually do it.

The government released its response to the ACCC's Digital platforms inquiryreport to much fanfare in December 2019. Unfortunately, the government did not support all the ACCC's recommendations for the media, and their so-called reform road map makes no clear reference to modernising measures around regional broadcasting, among other glaring emissions.

The ACCC's Digital platforms inquiry: final report makes a range of recommendations that this government has not supported, is pretending to support or has been slow to implement. For example, in recommendation 6, the ACCC recommends a process to implement a harmonised media framework. The government says that it supports it and will be:

    Yet this bill is a step away from harmonisation, as it treats metropolitan and regional commercial broadcasters differently when it comes to Australian content multichannel transmission quotas.

    In recommendation 7, the ACCC recommended a code of conduct to govern relationships between digital platforms and media businesses. The government supports it in principle. The ACCC is currently working to consult on a proposed mandatory code of conduct, but questions remain as to how much this will help regional media or independent media outlets. In recommendation 9, the ACCC recommends stable and adequate funding for the public broadcasters—the SBS and ABC. The government says that it supports the recommendation, even as it cuts a further $83.7 million from the ABC.

    In recommendation 10, the ACCC recommends grants for local journalism. The government says that it supports this in principle and has brought forward a new fund, the Public Interest News Gathering fund, to replace its embattled Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund, but there are a few hairs on this too. The government is too slow when it comes to getting direct support to media outlets who need it. The fund they announced in 2017 failed to get the money out the door, and the fund they announced in 2020 came almost a year after the ACCC had recommended it. Where the ACCC has recommended the fund be administered at arm's length, the minister has installed himself as the decision-maker. Where the ACCC recommends $50 million over three years, the government has announced $50 million for one year, and $30 million to $40 million of that is an underspend from the fund that they announced back in 2017. It's unclear how much funding is available for regional print, regional commercial radio and regional commercial television or for smaller publishers, and our questions to the minister on this remain unanswered. In recommendation 11 of the digital platforms inquiry, the ACCC recommended tax settings to encourage philanthropic support for journalism, and the government has said it does not support the recommendation.

    In the context of COVID-19, we urge the government to recalibrate their response to the ACCC digital platforms inquiry and reconsider many of the good recommendations that have been advanced by parliament, the ACCC, industry, academics, non-profits and others, such as the Public Interest Journalism Initiative. Regional media has been hit by the triple whammy of digital disruption, COVID-19 and an inept Liberal-National government. Australia's media was already in crisis before COVID-19. The government's many failures on regional media have left the sector exposed to external shocks. Regional areas are where the underlying trends impacting the media are being felt most acutely. Regional media in Australia has been pushed to the brink of market failure by this government's inaction.

    Data collected by the ACCC shows that between 2008 and 2018, 106 local and regional newspaper titles closed across Australia, representing a net 15 per cent decrease in the number of these publications. These closures have left 21 local government areas previously covered by these titles without coverage from a single local newspaper in either print or online formats, including 16 local government areas in regional Australia. According to the Public Interest Journalism Initiative, 200 titles have closed since January 2019, and the number of contractions in Australia's public interest news landscape has grown to over 200 since January 2019, according to data from the Public Interest Journalism Initiative Australian Newsroom Mapping Project. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance has noted:

    In recent months we have seen more than 150 regional and community newspapers cease printing. This is on top of the 106 local and regional papers that closed over the previous decade.

    Many of those papers are more than a century old. Many may never reopen.

    It shouldn't be this way. The stories of regional and rural Australia are important: our stories matter.

    In regional Australia the local paper is the heartbeat of the community and provides the local news that the big cities can't or won't provide. It's often also a focal point for community connection, cohesion and education.

    Media diversity in regional and remote areas is at or below the minimum number of voices in 68 per cent of licence areas, and multiple local television stations have closed their doors. On this government's watch we have news deserts emerging, widespread closures of newspapers, closure and consolidation of multiple television newsrooms, and mass sackings of journalists—a devastating loss for many local communities and for our stories, our culture and our democracy.

    Labor welcomes the relief announced by the government so far, but it is inadequate, and more is needed. That's why Labor's shadow minister for communications, Michelle Rowland, wrote to the Deputy Prime Minister in April advocating for the regional community media sector to be considered as part of the government's $1 billion regional community fund. There has not been a response to date, and that is why Labor is moving an amendment to this bill. I move:

    That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

    "whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

    (1) notes the alarming decline in regional media;

    (2) acknowledges that regional commercial television broadcasters' difficulties in meeting content requirements can be taken as an early warning sign of market failure;

    (3) notes the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has found that:

      (a) between 2008 and 2018, the closure of 106 local and regional newspaper titles across Australia has left 21 local government areas previously covered by these titles without coverage from a single local newspaper (in either print or online formats); and

      (b) the public broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, are not currently resourced to fully compensate for the decline in local reporting previously produced by traditional commercial publishers;

    (4) further notes the Public Interest Journalism Initiative's Australian Newsroom Mapping Project found that the number of contractions in Australia's public interest news landscape has grown to over 200 since January 2019; and

    (5) is of the view that this third-term Government has failed regional media by failing to reform the legislative framework and failing to deliver effective direct and indirect support to industry in a timely manner".

    Photo of John McVeighJohn McVeigh (Groom, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    Is there a seconder for the motion?

    Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

    I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

    Photo of John McVeighJohn McVeigh (Groom, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.