Senate debates

Thursday, 14 September 2017


Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017, Commercial Broadcasting (Tax) Bill 2017; In Committee

4:39 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

In respect of the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017, I move opposition amendment (1) on sheet 8174:

  (1) Clause 2, page 2 (table item 2, column headed "Provisions"), omit "Schedules 1 and 2", substitute "Schedule 1".

We also oppose schedule 2 in the following terms:

  (2) Schedule 2, page 5 (line 1) to page 6 (line 14), to be opposed.

I would like to speak on Labor's amendments to the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017. I have made some remarks earlier, but in the context of our amendments I want to put on the record that we believe the Turnbull government's response here is deeply flawed and wholly inadequate as an attempt at media reform. Labor's clear and consistent position has been that Labor supports this bill as long as schedule 2, which is the repeal of the two-out-of-three cross media rule, is omitted. If that had happened, we would have passed this legislation, this reform, months and months ago. But the government has been bloody-minded about this and pushed through with the deals that we saw under construction last night.

Labor absolutely acknowledges the commercial pressures the broadcasting sector is under and we understand that the regulatory framework for media and communications is outdated and in need of reform. That is why we supported most of the package, except for the two-out-of-three rule. But all the Liberal-National government has managed to come up in the name of media reform, after four years in office, are some piecemeal deregulatory measures, one of which is the highly controversial and dangerous repeal of the two-out-of-three rule. The bill barely begins to address the true media reform agenda and does precious little to secure public interest considerations in the contemporary media environment.

Labor is committed to supporting the Australian media industry, as well as the jobs and content it produces, as the sector continues to adapt to the new media environment. Labor acknowledges the competitive pressures the broadcasting industry is under, which is why Labor supports the measures the industry needs most—license fee relief, the repeal of the 75 per cent reach rule, and a relaxation of the antisiphoning scheme and list. Lots of it we've agreed with, except for the two-out-of-three rule. At the same time, Labor is committed to safeguarding the public interest in our democracy, and doesn't regard the internet or the existence of Google or Facebook as a justification for the junking of fundamental public interest safeguards.

Labor also acknowledges the facts around media ownership diversity in this country. To get it on the record at this stage of the debate, a couple of those facts are very important to us. Australia's level of media ownership concentration is already one of the highest in the world. This is an undeniable fact, regardless of what might have been said in the course of this debate. The traditional media—newspapers, commercial television and commercial radio—continue to be the main source of news and current affairs for Australians, particularly in regional areas. The majority of the top 10 news websites accessed by Australians are either directly or jointly owned by traditional media platforms. It's just the same voices on different platforms. The digital divide means that access to new media still remains out of reach for many Australians, given substandard levels of broadband connectivity. It is particularly the case for many Australians in rural and regional areas. We've had many debates about the accessibility of Australians right across this nation to what has been described as the multimedia platforms that can be delivered by the internet. The problem is a lot of people out there in the country can't afford to buy into the dodgy internet that's being provided for them by this government.

Our other serious concern is about issues of diversity of ownership and control. They matter to the Australian public. We get a better democracy if we have a range of voices reflecting on what's going on in this country. Fewer voices is not a sign of a strong and healthy democracy. We have such a concentrated media market as it is. An Essential poll last year showed that the majority of Australian voters, 61 per cent, across every single demographic disapproved of changing the media ownership laws to allow a single company to control a newspaper, TV network and radio network in the same area. It would have been good if the government listened to the people instead of listening to the conversations that they've had in the darkness here in the parliament—out of the light and the scrutiny of the Senate.

Unlike the coalition government, Labor understands that it's the proper role of government to promote media diversity in the public interest. Labor understands that the government does not have the balance between promotion of public interest and support for the industry right in this bill. For these reasons, Labor supports all of the measures in the bill except for the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule, which is ill-conceived, not justified on the evidence, and which risks undermining Australia's democracy.

As I said, the Turnbull government has been trying to get the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule through parliament for up to 18 months now, and they haven't been able to do so on merit. I made comments earlier in the day about the nature of the deals that have gone on here. Senator Dastyari, in the break just before question time, spelt them out in great and dirty detail. The dealings with the Nick Xenophon Team for public interest journalism have been conducted behind closed doors.

Australia already has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world, but we've got a government hell-bent on making it worse by repealing the two-out-of-three media control rule. The recent move by CBS to acquire Network Ten is very important in the context of this bill and the deals that have been agreed. The two-out-of-three rule is indeed a key safeguard that continues to do the heavy lifting in maintaining media diversity in Australia. The Turnbull government's argument, that the rule is out of date, is simply out of touch with the practical reality that's emerging with the CBS purchase of Channel 10.

What's more, the Turnbull government continues to peddle the furphy that existing competition law is actually adequate for the task performed by the very important two-out-of-three rule—that is despite their claims being debunked in previous reviews. The recent ACCC decision on the proposed Birketu-Illyria joint bid to acquire Network Ten confirms that our competition laws have no safeguard for diversity in this very important part of our democratic tradition. ACCC chair Rod Sims was at pains to clarify that, while the transaction would not substantially lessen competition—which is the test that the ACCC is required to use to assess acquisitions against—it would reduce diversity across the Australian media landscape. If this legislation passes this afternoon to repeal the two-out-of-three rule, the ACCC has shown that what will replace it is inadequate.

Unlike its counterpart across the ditch, the ACCC is not required to apply a public benefit test. It's not the job of the ACCC in Australia, an economic regulator, to consider pluralism or to consider democracy in assessing mergers. The New Zealand Commerce Commission recently did use that test in deciding against the proposed NZME-Fairfax merger. That's something that is not available to us as a safeguard against the removal of the two-out-of-three rule.

The reason the Turnbull government has so studiously avoided the convergence review recommendation to introduce a public interest test for media mergers is that they want to allow media mergers that aren't in the public interest. Instead, according to reports, they meddle in the fourth estate, behind closed doors, with the assistance of both the NXT political party and Pauline Hanson's One Nation party. The broadcasting reform bill, and the many backdoor deals associated with it, represents a direct assault on media diversity in Australia. Aside from handing unprecedented media power to a privileged few commercial operators, this cynical bundle of trade-offs is also set to undermine our national broadcaster.

Australians are outraged by the grant of $30 million to Fox Sports and the lack of documentation and accountability in relation to the deal. Under Labor questioning at estimates earlier this year, it was apparent that the government had no clear idea about what outcomes it sought to achieve with this proposal. Further, an FOI application by the ABC established there was no documentation around this empty bribe from the government to industry. You have to wonder what sort of a deal was done and where that might have been undertaken between Foxtel and the government. A freedom of information request filed by ABC Radio Melbourne's Mornings program, seeking correspondence between Foxtel and the Department of Communications and the Arts, was declined on the basis that no such documentation exists. In declining access, the legal director for the department stated the access was refused because: 'I am satisfied that documents falling within the scope of your request do not exist.'

So, while the Turnbull government falls over itself to support commercial subscription broadcasters, it looks to inflict cuts on the national broadcaster, rather than craft its media reforms properly and deal with the one sticky bit of the legislation that we needed to sort out, the two-out-of-three rule. I continue to remind those who might be listening to this or reviewing the Hansard, and those who are in the chamber, there was agreement on everything that we are discussing in this bill except for one part. That part was that no media outlet where you live should control the TV, the radio and the papers, because you deserve a wider range of views than that. That's simply it. That's a rule that's been in for decades, and it has provided that safety net to us as citizens of this country.

Rather than deal with that and acknowledge that, the government have been captive to interests that have led them down a path into doing a deal with Pauline Hanson's One Nation party. Australians right across this country are rightly concerned about this attack on the ABC and the SBS. They are right to be concerned that it has been driven by Pauline Hanson's One Nation party, whose deal, when it was delivered in writing here, ironically by Senator Bernardi yesterday evening, was something that they didn't even come in to support here in the chamber. As Senator Bernardi said, there were bits that we could see and there were bits that we couldn't see about the deal that was done.

Last week, Labor was presented with a petition from the Australia Institute and the ABC Friends signed by over 15,000 Australians that asked the coalition and the Senate crossbench to please reject all moves to trade away the ABC and SBS funding, not to tamper with their charters and independence or hobble their ability to engage in the new media environment. Recently, the Turnbull government welcomed what it called constructive engagement with One Nation, only too happy to support a package of measures that are directed at doing the exact opposite of what those people who enjoy the ABC and the SBS have asked for. The deal between the Turnbull government and Pauline Hanson's One Nation party includes something really insidious that probably won't get much media but is going to have a big impact—that is, the competitive neutrality inquiry. This sort of inquiry absolutely threatens to dramatically curb the activities of the ABC and SBS, as well as to re-write the ABC Act and charter to give One Nation some new hooks with which to meddle with ABC independence. These include a requirement that the ABC be fair and balanced, which Senator Burston confirmed was designed to give an equal platform to anti-vaxxers. The question you have to ask is: if we've got an equal platform for anti-vaxxers, what's next? White supremacists? Holocaust deniers? Climate change sceptics? There are some things that we should just not give a platform to. Furthermore, Senator Hanson herself stated recently in no uncertain terms that she would be talking to the Treasurer to 'whack off' quite a bit of money from the ABC's budget next year.

Labor condemns the Turnbull government for using the ABC and SBS as a political football, a trading tool and a bargaining chip in its backdoor deal with the One Nation party. The deal with Senator Xenophon was exercised in some detail earlier in our questions when his amendments came up. By supporting the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule, Senator Xenophon's NXT party for South Australia— (Time expired)


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