Wednesday, 11 October 2006
Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006; Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006; Communications Legislation Amendment (Enforcement Powers) Bill 2006; Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2006
Bill—by leave—taken as a whole.
I table nine supplementary explanatory memoranda relating to the government amendments to be moved to the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006, the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006 and the Communications Legislation Amendment (Enforcement Powers) Bill 2006. The memoranda were circulated in the chamber on 10 and 11 October 2006.
I thought I should start by at least commenting on what a complete disgrace this process has been. As we have all just witnessed, there are nine new explanatory memoranda being tabled at the beginning—
That is right, Senator Ray: nine—at the beginning of the committee stage; no chance to read them. Amendments have been raining down like confetti for the last 24 hours, with no chance to examine them.
I want to take up the point that Senator Coonan made in her closing contribution to the second reading debate, that there has been genuine interest from many senators in this chamber who actually have genuine concerns about where this bill has gone. Senator Boswell is on the record as saying he does not even want the bill. Senator Joyce and Senator Nash made genuine attempts to improve this bill, genuine attempts to try and deal with some of the complex issues in this bill, as did Senator Ian Macdonald. Even Senator Ronaldson, for all his bluff and bluster, has made a genuine attempt. And Senator Brandis has made some important contributions in the committee stage. But what we are seeing now is an absolute farce: a guillotine—
I apologise! I was really just talking about the government senators. I know there are many senators on this side who have made substantive contributions, Senator Murray, and I am sure you will make a substantive contribution.
The point is that we have gone through a committee stage where the minister announced, before the committee members had even met, the closing date of the committee hearings. We then went into a two-day farce in which 30 witnesses were crammed into the hearings. Witnesses were instructed before they commenced their contributions that they could only speak for five minutes. Opposition senators were only allowed 10 minutes and Democrats and minor party senators were allowed five minutes. We now come to the actual debate in the committee stage and the guillotine is scheduled to be moved tomorrow morning, which will only allow a further four hours to deal with the hundreds of amendments that the government are moving.
The government are even moving amendments to their own amendments. How on earth is the chamber meant to deal with this? Or are we going to see a repeat of the disgrace of the Telstra debate, where the minister was so incapable of answering any questions about her own legislation that she had her own senators filibuster a guillotine in the debate. Are we going to be witness to Senator Ronaldson, Senator Macdonald and others—Senator Brandis, an expert when it comes to the filibuster—standing up and taking up the only four hours this chamber is going to get to deal with these hundreds of amendments? Is that the plan again, Senator Ronaldson? Minister, perhaps you could answer that question. Are you so afraid of questions on this bill that you need your own side to waste the time? I would actually like a genuine answer to that. Everyone knows the farce that the Telstra debate was, where your own senators actual stood up.
Government senators interjecting—
I will take those interjections saying, ‘Let’s move onto the substantive issues,’ because there are too many for us to spend too much time on this. Maybe some of the National Party senators could explain to me how they fell for this. I am intrigued by a statement that says:
We are going to have these local content rules, but they are not going to come into place until after we have had a review.
How can we have a review of the local content rules before they have come into place? Does this suggest we are not going to have them? Did you win a concession that said you get a review? You haven’t even got a commitment to get them introduced. Where are they?
We would love to! We would genuinely like for you to give us some information about that. This is an easy one—you might actually know the answer to this one. We would like you to explain to us how this process is going to work because, other than the one line in your press release and the amendments that have been tabled now and in the last 24 hours, that is all we know about it. So, quite genuinely, we would like you to explain this process to us.
I am delighted to take up Senator Conroy’s invitation to make a few comments about some of these matters. The first thing is that I think it is a very good idea that we get down to the substance of this debate instead of making pejorative comments when, quite clearly, you do not appear to have read the amendments.
Do you want to hear or don’t you? I think when we get to moving the amendments, Senator Conroy, you will be able to comprehend that a lot of the local content requirements are on the trigger events, so you will be able to find out what that is all about. In respect of the local content requirements, you will also find that there is a certain amount imposed, but there will be an inquiry to make sure that the actual amount to be imposed properly reflects what is a reasonable amount for programming for regional radio. You will find that. You will also find that it applies to news and to broader local content. That is how it works, and I think that even you, Senator Conroy, would not think it is appropriate to simply drop specified amounts of local content out of the sky on regional operators without at least being certain as to what would be an appropriate amount for those regional radio operators to provide. That is the mechanism and, when we come to the amendment, you can have a much better look at it and I will answer some further questions about it if it is not clear.
I would like to open our side of the debate with some general remarks. I want to begin with a congratulatory note to the minister, because I think that this has been a brilliant example of very clever issues management. If I wanted to suppress dissent and ensure something very complex and rather awkward and ugly got through the Senate as quickly as possible, this is how I would manage it: you have a very short, intense and difficult to interact with process of Senate inquiry—which, I might say, is no discredit to the participants in that inquiry, from both the government side and the non-government side, as they all worked their little butts off collectively—and you do not introduce all of the bills that have to be dealt with until very late in the piece; you produce nine sets of supplementary explanatory memoranda and all the amendments late in the piece, all of which require some consideration and understanding; you bring on the debate as early as possible; and, of course, you conclude it with a guillotine. I think professionally speaking, through the chair, that is a brilliant example of chamber and political issues management to get the outcome you want!
Yes, I am sure that Hansard will put in nice little parentheses that this was said ironically. It was a brilliant piece of management. And if, as I do, you recognise that some—not all—of the corporates are partners in not wanting to agitate the populace on this issue and are running this at a relatively low level of exposure, debate and interaction, of course it becomes even more apparent that it is a very capable and clever issues management exercise. So, professionally speaking, as one professional to another, I think that is well done.
The side of it which would worry me if I were in the coalition is that it requires the bank of backbenchers—those who are not intertwined with the politics and the nature of this legislation—to adopt a ‘trust me’ approach. If there has ever been a set of bills on which you should not adopt a ‘trust me’ approach, it is this, because it goes to the heart of our democratic institutions and the protections that surround them.
I also want to say that senators in this place know that, by and large, I try and adopt a fairly equable demeanour, can take the punches when they come and try not to overreact. However, I must confess that this is one of the few debates and processes where I have genuinely felt agitated. I have genuinely felt agitated, out of sorts and irritable about this debate. I have been irritable in a general sense with how the journalists have conducted their examination of these issues. I can understand why many of them have not got across it, because they have been taken with the pace of it as much as we have. But I have played a little game this week with every journalist who has contacted or talked to me. I have said, ‘Have you read the Liberal report, the Labor report, the Democrats report and The Nationals report?’ and, to their credit, most of the journalists have answered, honestly, ‘No.’ So most of those journalists that I have spoken to have not got across all the issues.
Secondly, I have observed that the journalists are dealing with this in the normal fashion of: ‘Here we have a balance of power situation. What will we get out of a deal?’, whereas I almost feel like I can see the flames outside the building and the people on the dance floor are still dancing. I cannot understand why they do not react as I do because of the threat I see not just to democratic institutions but to their livelihoods. I cannot understand why not quite the same sense of the importance of this legislation is apparent with them. Perhaps it is because of my own background. Sometimes your background, your character and your nature put blinkers across your eyes.
I remind the chamber that I do come from southern Africa. I have had a deal of experience with tyrannical regimes, both white and black. I am very conscious of the way in which the media can influence very difficult situations in those countries and how much I admired the fourth estate who went to jail and stood out on behalf of the downtrodden in South Africa and how much I despised the toe lickers and forelock tuggers who did the opposite. I attach meanings to the fourth estate which perhaps are not the same as others, and I do not seek to impose those views on you. I have been agitated about, if I may describe it as such, the broad journalistic response.
A third area has agitated me and I have made a small practice of asking members of the coalition I respect and like a simple question. I suppose it is me engaging the right side of my brain, which I should not do too much. I keep saying to them: ‘What about this is in your political interest or the economic interest of Australia? As a Liberal person or as a National person what about this is in your interest? I just do not get it.’ Mostly, with one or two exceptions who seem to think, ‘She’ll be right,’ they look at me blankly and say, ‘I don’t know.’ In other words, they are back to a ‘trust me’ basis: they trust the minister and the cabinet and the loyal soldier comes in.
By the way, I am not casting a general view on all the Liberal and National senators or on the Liberal and National members of parliament, because it is certainly not true of all of them. But nowhere was this more evident when, before all these changes, the Liberal folk were right behind the minister, ‘We’ve got the best package, let’s go for it.’ Then when all the changes came in they said, ‘That’s great, we’ll go for that too.’ It completely altered the thing and I thought, ‘They’re behaving like loyal troops not like thinking parliamentarians whose future may be affected by this.’ I go back to that central question: why is it in the interests of any political party or political person for there to be less big media competition because that is what is going to result here? I cannot see any other consequences. I cannot see why that is in the interests of anybody. Perhaps the minister can explain, and that is the question I am putting.
As everyone knows, I indulge myself in the economic area, and I look at the economic side and I say, ‘Why is this in the economic interests of Australia?’ I have a really simple view: I think more competition is good for the economy, not less. I think concentration, whilst sometimes a consequence of the modern economy in the way in which you develop the economy, is an inevitable concept but here we are actually encouraging it. We do not have the regulatory tools, I might say, to restrain it sufficiently. So this bill will result in more economic concentration for big media and I cannot understand why that is in the interests of Australia.
Again, I turn to my coalition colleagues and say, ‘What good work, Senator Joyce, Senator Nash and Paul Neville and the backers in the National Party did, and what good work Senator Brandis, Senator Macdonald, Senator Ronaldson and others did; I must compliment them on their efforts.’ There are others who have been out there battling away regardless and there is the good, late response from the Treasurer who said, ‘Let’s make sure that we are one country here—that we have the same benefits in the metro as in the bush area,’ which I agree with. But regardless of all that good work, we still end up with a situation where we are going to have a greater concentration of media power. I cannot understand why that is in our economic interest or in our political interest.
Frankly, it does not affect me much. I am out of here, folks; June 2008 is it for me. It does not affect me personally. I am not arguing from self-interest here; I am arguing from Australia’s interest. I cannot see why it is in our interest to do this. I just cannot. Minister, I can understand the digital TV stuff. Yes, I do understand the communications bill, no problem; the fees bill, no problem. By and large, give or take a tweak or two, those three bills we can live with. I am even happy with the foreign investment side of it, subject to a few concerns which I want to explore in the debate. So all we are concerned with, out of four bills and all this whack of paper, is one schedule in that bill which deals with cross-media ownership and hurts Australia.
Please someone, stand up and explain to me why this is in our political interest and why it is in our economic interest. Just answer me that question. You can see from my demeanour that this is not usual for me. This floors me. My equability has gone. I am agitated and I am upset. I cannot comprehend it. I feel like I am talking to Mongolians. Mongolians are lovely people but I do not understand them, and I do not understand the Liberal and National parties’ decision in this respect. Yes, you have achieved a better package than we first had—I am grateful for it and well done—but you have not achieved a package which is in Australia’s interest.
Thank you for that contribution, Senator Murray. I want to follow up. I did ask a specific question at the end of my speech and I was wondering if you would tell me, Minister, where in the bill is the mandating of a minimum 12.5 minutes of local news on at least five days a week?
In response to Senator Murray’s contribution, media is a very complex issue. It is largely comprised of people who have views such as those expressed by Senator Murray and by those whom I might otherwise characterise as seeing the bigger picture, the interrelationship between the restrictions and regulations of certain media and the interaction with unregulated media and the way in which that has developed over the past several years, and is accelerating and developing even more quickly.
The first point I want to make is, in terms of the considerable number of amendments, you really are damned if you do or damned if you don’t, to use that old parlance. If you take an intractable view towards legislation of this scope and complexity and you put in place a Senate committee, I think it is the height of arrogance to have absolutely no regard whatsoever for the recommendations of your colleagues. I have done that, I have looked critically at what I regard as some sensible recommendations. I have listened to my colleagues and have thought that they have some sensible things that could add to this package of bills. That is why I wanted to have a Senate committee and why I asked for one. It probably would have happened in any event, but it certainly happened on my motion. I am very pleased that it did happen and I am very grateful for all the contributions. I make no disparaging comments about anyone’s contribution to that committee. I think it is an important part of the process.
I know I am not going to convince those who have their minds made up and have a certain view about the significance of restricting some media but not others. All I can say is that one has to approach this on the basis that, in effect, this industry has not been changed—there have been some changes in digital but there has been no substantial change to the industry structure and restrictions—for over 20 years. That was before there was, largely, any other unregulated media. It was when pay TV was in its absolute infancy and the internet was certainly only appreciated by academics, and there certainly was not the extraordinary growth and plethora of opportunities to be informed through these other platforms.
To assume that you continue to need to quarantine what is referred to as ‘old media’ and do absolutely nothing to assist their regulation and the way in which they need to invest in all of the new digital technology is fanciful, quite frankly. If you speak to these people, if you go out to studios and look at what kind of commitment is required from free-to-air broadcasters, for example, in order to take advantage of these new digital services and to provide them for consumers—ultimately, this is all about giving consumers what they now expect and want.
Senator Murray has said that he is all for competition. That is terrific! But how do you compete with losing most of your eyeballs to some other sort of platform, particularly young people whose first choice certainly for entertainment, and frequently for finding out any information and interacting with their peers, is all online? It is not by sitting and watching linear television. On top of that, the free-to-air stations are required to provide, and they are the principal providers, 55 per cent of Australian content. What they are providing is all about our culture. To require them to do that but have absolutely no comprehension about how they need to access appropriately these new digital platforms, invest in this new technology, is not appreciating the way in which media is now both distributed and consumed.
That brings me to the next point, and I will be very brief. If there had not been an opportunity for people to get information from other sources—and I know that it can largely be from traditional sources that are also providing their content online. That is changing exponentially. There are surveys to prove it and I can produce a reference to that later in this debate—if there were not those additional sources, plus up to about five stations that the ABC has in metropolitan areas and in a great number of regional areas, plus ABC TV, SBS TV and a pay TV industry that has been developing apace and out-of-area newspapers such as the Australian and the Financial Review, which are not even included in any of this, one starts to understand, Senator Murray, that it is a much more complex picture than simply confining all your attention in a very narrow focus to the old, regulated platforms of print, newspapers and free-to-air television. That simply does not reflect the way in which media is now consumed and accessed. It will ultimately consign Australia’s free-to-air media, and certainly the media on the old platforms, to a very challenged environment and possibly even a slow death if they cannot grow and invest and deploy their assets appropriately.
The biggest issue in this debate, apart from moving to digital—and that, to me, is the centrepiece of this debate—is to ensure that the safeguards against excessive concentration are robust, that at least those changes be achieved and that they be done in a context of providing new services. I think I said that on about the first day I was in this portfolio, and I have said it continually since. The government’s media discussion paper in this matter very clearly articulated that it would only be appropriate to be looking at changes to cross-media and foreign ownership, in my view—and ultimately that has been the view of the government and my colleagues—in the context of ensuring more diversity and new services. That has been the objective of the whole exercise.
I share a lot of the concerns that Senator Murray has laid out, although I understand that there are a lot of sections of this bill that are correct—obviously the digital sections and the foreign sections; I have no real concerns with them. But I think the issue that people have a concern with is cross-media ownership. On the issue that eyeballs have moved: I agree that maybe eyeballs are moving, but they are moving to an unregulated format where the majors that are protected by legislation can move as well. They can move there as well, and they can be as active on the internet as anybody else who wants to be active on the internet. So, when they are deploying their assets and want to redeploy their assets, they are going to redeploy their assets to areas that are controlled by legislation.
No-one has a problem if the majors want to be big in the internet; they can become as big in the internet as they want. But the issue that everybody has a concern about is how big they become in the controlled mechanisms—which are obviously television and radio, because they are controlled by licences, controlled by the government—and in print, where they can exercise their powers. There is not free entry into and free exit from the print media. When there is an entry by a new operator into the print media, the majors have the ability to—and they do—predatory-price the person out of the market. There is always an extremely aggressive fight for advertising revenue on the entry of a new paper.
Those are the concerns I think quite a number of people have. They have them quietly or not quietly, but those are the concerns they have. There is so much in this bill that is good and there are so many amendments that have been attained that—as all pieces of legislation are—it is both good and bad. I know what the numbers are. Even if I wanted an amendment, I would not get it, because I know that Family First will be supporting all amendments, so the legislation is going to go through.
But the concern is that the responsibility of this place is to protect the freedom of this nation. That is first and foremost the responsibility of this place. There is a building, up the other end of the street from this building, called the War Memorial, where there are records of a lot of other people who protected the freedom of this nation. Their names are engraved on it. One of the essences of the freedoms they were protecting is the freedom of the media. If an overarching control by a couple of organisations were to develop—maybe it is not foreseen now; they say it is not going to happen, but if that were to develop—what is the power that we have to reverse it? What is the power that we are going to exercise to try and control that? It is incumbent upon this place to make sure that we do that. That responsibility rides above all other responsibilities in this place, because otherwise you are taking the sacrifices of other people for granted, and you cannot do that. So it is an issue of the protection mechanisms if we happen to be wrong—the protection mechanisms if, on passage of this legislation, in a couple of years time that brings about a virtual oligopoly or a duopoly in the market. What protection mechanism do we have? Where is it now? Remember, we will have to try and bring in that protection mechanism in the future, knowing that the person who monitors everything that is said out there in the public is the person you are going to try to take on. That person is going to be in an extraordinarily powerful position as the gatekeeper of information between here and the public.
Unfortunately, when we talk about the internet, the internet is not that powerful. There is not a whole range of people who tune in every day to watch what is happening in this chamber. We think there is, but there is not. They pick up the paper and they get an idea from that. They get an idea from the news that they watch at night. They listen to the radio when they are going to work or when they are stuck in the traffic. That is their primary source of information. If they want more, they may go to the internet. That is the secondary source. It is not only us who say that; it is also the view of the ACCC—
Sorry, the APC. The APC said that the internet has not turned into a viable mechanism, an alternate force of media. So they are the concerns that I—I will not say ‘we’—have on this legislation. The legislation comes with some good amendments. The two out of three rule is a good amendment. What is the purpose of the other amendments on local content? Is it just to keep journalists in the local area? If you have a journalist in the area then you have some chance of getting a view out there. They are good amendments. But the overarching issue—
I was just going to give Senator Conroy the reference that he asked for. It is on PZ249, schedule 2, item 7, where, amongst other things, it defines ‘eligible local news bulletins’ and there, in (b), says ‘the bulletins broadcast on each of those days have a total duration of at least 12.5 minutes’.