Wednesday, 13 March 2013
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy. I refer the minister to the words of the Finkelstein report in which Mr Finkelstein wrote:
…whatever mechanism is chosen to ensure accountability speech will be restricted. In a sense, that is the purpose of the mechanism.
Does the minister agree with Mr Finkelstein's words? Does he accept that the mechanism that he has proposed—the Public Interest Media Advocate—will be, as Mr Finkelstein explains, a new restriction on free speech?
Mr Finkelstein made a whole range of recommendations to the government, as did the convergence review, and in different places they conflicted. The government has considered all of them, and the ones we agree with we are moving forward with. Let me be very clear: this government passionately believes in freedom of the press as a cornerstone of our democracy. At the same time, however, the government believes that in a democracy a diversity of voices within the media is essential. The public interest test, which is continually being conflated with the Press Council issues, is completely separate. The public interest test is about dealing with mergers between entities that have certain weight and influence and, as we describe it, voice, and that has got nothing to do with Press Council standards. The government is not proposing to fund, as Mr Finkelstein suggested, a press council. It is not interested in the slightest and it is not proposing to set any standards for the Press Council.
All of these claims that you keep hearing repeatedly are completely false. The public interest test is an assessment of whether or not a voice will be lost when the merger proposal is considered. That is the point of the public interest test, because those opposite weakened our cross-media laws in a way that can see fewer voices in a democracy. That is why we opposed it at the time—even Senator Joyce, as he noted yesterday, opposed it— (Time expired)
Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Does the minister accept that the effect of his changes will be that there are some things, which Australians are now free to say, which will now be restricted?
We reject that utterly. The government's reforms will result in no further reduction in media diversity and no change to existing media standards. The government also recognises that there is community concern about media quality and how press complaints are handled. In fact those opposite who 12 months ago were claiming that the Press Council was a robust organisation must be embarrassed to have seen that, over the last six or eight months, the chair, Mr Disney, of the Press Council has succeeded in significantly reforming it. It was a poodle. It did not deliver protections for ordinary citizens. It did not redress people's complaints. It did not give focus when the Press Council found against— (Time expired)
Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Does the minister accept that the effect of his changes will be that the freedom of the media to criticise politicians, political parties and governments will now be restricted? If the minister does not accept that, does he understand why recently in the last hour the CEO of News Limited, Mr Kim Williams, has described his changes as Stalinist?
I reject utterly the premise of Senator Brandis's questions. This package will secure diversity—diversity that was weakened by those opposite when you chose, Senator Joyce aside, to weaken the existing cross-media laws. You may have been happy with that; Senator Joyce was not and he crossed the floor to vote with us. We said on that day five or six years ago that we would seek to restore protections for diversity. Senator Joyce came and sat on our side of the chamber and voted against your changes. We have now come to the point where we are going to go forward with this package and we intend to deliver diversity and fairness for ordinary Australians in this country. We intend to ensure that the Press Council— (Time expired)