Thursday, 22 June 2017
Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017, Commercial Broadcasting (Tax) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I rise to speak to the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017 and the Commercial Broadcasting (Tax) Bill 2017, which are the Turnbull government's second attempt at media reform in the now almost four years that the coalition government has been in office. But firstly, Mr Acting Deputy President Back, this may be your last turn in that seat!
I feel very lucky to be here on this very auspicious occasion and, once again—and I am sure on behalf of everybody—I wish you great joy and comfort in your own retirement. I am sure you will be spending a lot more time with family. It might be a bit friendlier than around here!
I will make it clear, up-front, that Labor supports these bills as long as schedule 2 of the broadcasting reform bill to repeal the two-out-of-three cross-media rule is omitted. Labor acknowledges the commercial pressures that the broadcasting sector is under. 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 risks undermining Australia's democracy.
Labor supports most of the measures that the government announced to support the broadcasting industry last month because it was Labor that proposed them in the first place. Labor led the way on broadcast licensing fee relief, gambling advertising restrictions and on funding to support the broadcasting of women's sport. While Labor stands up for those issues on their merits, we understand that the government's reasons for drawing those elements into its overall set of measures on broadcasting announced on 6 May 2017 was as part of a deal-making process designed to cobble together support for its flawed media ownership changes.
Labor understands that these bills barely begin to address the genuine media reform agenda and do little to secure the public interest considerations in the contemporary media environment. In the context of debate on these bills, the government continually makes reference to the fact that the laws governing broadcasting in Australia are antiquated, yet these bills do little to adapt our public interest safeguards to 21st century conditions. Labor is deeply disappointed at the lack of coherent vision from the Turnbull government for the Australian media industry or the policy and regulatory framework that governs it. However, we recognise that the pragmatic course of action at this time is to support the majority of the measures in these bills. Even though Labor regards this government's second attempt at media reform as inadequate and piecemeal, we will take what little sensible progress we can get out of this lazy, inept government.
Labor's position on the proposed changes to media ownership safeguards has been crystal clear for some time now. 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. At the same time, Labor is committed to safeguarding the public interest and our democracy and does not regard the internet as a reason or justification for the junking of fundamental public interest safeguards. The government does not have the balance between these interests right with these bills.
Labor acknowledges that Australia needs a thriving media industry to promote a diversity of voices, jobs, and quality news, information and entertainment. It is imperative that the sector remain viable and competitive in the modern media environment. This is why Labor supports the measures industry needs most: licence fee relief, repeal of the 75 per cent reach rule, and relaxation of the antisiphoning scheme and list.
Labor also acknowledges the facts around media ownership diversity in this country and, unlike the coalition government, understands the proper role of government in promoting diversity through competition. This is why Labor opposes the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule. To state a few facts, Australia's level of media ownership concentration is already one of the highest in the world. 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 is 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, and this is particularly the case in regional and rural areas.
While Labor acknowledges the increasing influence of new media in Australia, we do not mistake the entry of new voices online or the abundance of online content for diversity of ownership of Australian media. It is a mistake to confuse the proliferation of content with diversity of ownership or opinion. To quote a speech Paul Keating delivered in the year 2000:
Public policy should be directed towards promoting diversity and preventing any further concentration of media power.
The result might be some arguable economic inefficiencies around the edges, but the Australian polity will be healthier. The principal objective has to be diversity. And the only way to get it is competition. That alone.
… … …
The cross-media rules have never been an end in themselves, however. They were intended not to preserve a static media environment but to promote diversification; to facilitate dynamic change.
The government's first attempt at media reform was its flawed Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Media Reform) Bill 2016, which stalled in the Senate last November because this government does not know the difference between regulatory housekeeping and genuine, holistic reform.
When the Turnbull government announced the media reform bill over a year ago, in March 2016, they boasted then that it was:
… the most significant reforms to our media laws in a generation …
This was a gross overstatement for a few reasons.
Firstly, the bill contained only three key measures, two of which were in the nature of regulatory tinkering and one which was completely ill conceived. Secondly, the repeal of the 75 per cent reach rule was just a pedestrian bit of regulatory housekeeping that could have been dealt with in any omnibus deregulation bill, given that the usefulness of the rule had expired and that it was largely redundant.
Labor has indicated its support for the appeal of the 75 per cent reach rule for some time. Repeatedly, Labor has indicated its support for the removal of the 75 per cent reach rule, and Labor wishes to express its disappointment that this government has continued to dither and delay this important measure that Labor wanted to repeal last year.
Thirdly, the amendments to local program requirements obligations for regional commercial television broadcasting licencees following a trigger event were just an extension of an existing scheme. Labor indicated its support for these measures last year. So far, we have not heard anything startlingly new here.
Finally, the proposed repeal of the two-out-of-three cross-media rule was completely ill conceived, given the very clear evidence that the rule should be retained and given that simply removing safeguards does nothing to adapt our media regulation or our public interest safeguards to be fit for the 21st century. Now, and on their second attempt, the broadcasting reform bill rehashes the provisions of the flawed media reform bill and throws in a few additional bits and pieces designed to scrape together support for the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule.
The government argues that parliament should support these bills because they have the support of the Australian media industry. These bills are overwhelmingly pro industry. It is not surprising, therefore, that the measures have the support of industry! Indeed, at a specially convened media summit at Parliament House last month, chief executives from Australia's major commercial and subscription TV, newspaper and radio companies travelled to Parliament House to demonstrate support for the measures that the government has announced.
In addition to a number of deregulatory measures around ownership, control rules and antisiphoning, the bills save commercial broadcast licencees around $90 million per annum from the abolition of licence fees and the introduction of a new spectrum tax. The fact that the government's measures are unanimously supported by industry is notable, but it is not a reason for the parliament to support the bills without question.
Media businesses answer to shareholders, but they do not answer to the Australian public. It is the role of parliament to stand up for public interest. This government argues that the parliament should support these bills because we have to kill diversity in Australia in order to save diversity. It simply does not make sense! What getting rid of the two-out-of-three rule means is that there will be a greater consolidation of Australian media companies. With that, it is almost inevitable that media companies will consolidate and will cut costs by merging. There will be fewer journalists, fewer views, less information and more power for media proprietors.
Abandoning the cross-media rules carries the dangers of intensifying vertical integration and concentration, without doing anything for horizontal diversification. And then what? The government's pro industry package is just a bandaid for industry. It offers almost nothing for consumers and citizens, and at the same time undermines diversity. It does not address the real policy problems with the current framework, or offer up options for a new framework. Ultimately, both industry and citizen consumers will suffer for this government's ineptitude.
The government argue that regulatory form is out of date and in need of reform. Repeatedly, Labor called on the government to undertake holistic, evidence based reform, but they seem particularly opposed to undertaking evidence based reform. The government's response instead was that, six months after the report of the Senate inquiry into the media reform was published last November, the Minister for Communications announced a series of reactive, short-sighted and surface-level deals to cobble together a package of political trade-offs that do very little to secure public interest outcomes in the contemporary media environment. In their four years in office, the government could have had a holistic review of the evidence—perhaps even four times over. Instead, the government's latest media reform package is surface level, shallow and piecemeal when considered in the context of the true degree of media reform that is actually needed.
I said at the outset that Labor supports most of the government's overall set of measures, which were announced on 6 May, because Labor was the party that actually proposed a number of them in the first place. One of the measures the minister announced was on additional gambling advertising. Labor led the way in addressing community concerns around gambling advertising as far back as 2013, by demanding that Australia's broadcasters amend their codes to ensure a reduction in the promotion and advertising of gambling during live sport. Concerned that the rules were not working optimally, in March this year Labor moved a motion in the parliament calling on the government to work with the broadcasting industry, and national sporting organisations, on a transition plan to address the issue of gambling ads before and during live sport broadcasts. This hypocritical government voted against the motion, only to announce gambling advertising restrictions in live sporting events just a few weeks later. Clearly there is a lot of confusion on the other side of the chamber.
Ultimately, Labor's leadership on this issue has compelled the government to act, and we welcome the measures as a step in the right direction. That said, Labor does not feel they go far enough to address community concerns. Labor anticipates that our communities will continue to complain about the intrusion of gambling advertising in live sports given the amount of gambling advertising the government's flawed proposal continues to allow, and given the fact that gambling advertisers may simply shift their advertising to avoid the five-minute shoulder. It remains to be seen whether viewers will be bombarded with gambling advertisements at the 8.30 pm mark or whether the timing of live sports fixtures will be altered to minimise the impact of the new restrictions. Labor shares the concerns of people across Australia who are worried about the impact of gambling advertising on our community. Adults and children should be able to enjoy watching live sport without the intrusion of betting odds and gambling ads. It is in everyone's interest to ensure that children do not consider betting and gambling a normal part of enjoying sport.
On the matter of sport, the government's announcement of $30 million in funding to support the broadcasting of women's and niche sports is yet another area where the government is picking up on Labor proposals. Labor announced funding to support broadcasting of women's sport on the ABC, a national free-to-air service, as part of its 2016 election platform. The government's main point of difference is that it will provide the funding to subscription television rather than to the ABC. It remains to be seen what the legacy of the government's approach will be given that subscription television is available to around 30 per cent of Australian households, a rate far different from that of the ABC.
Labor is committed to ensuring Australians enjoy coverage of premium sporting events on free-to-air television. Labor regards the proposed changes to the antisiphoning scheme itself as being in the nature of regulatory housekeeping, something the government seems determined to dress up as reform. The changes to the list of events in the antisiphoning notice proposed in this bill are changes that are permitted under the current scheme. I note that these are justified on practical grounds, where the history of rights acquisitioned by broadcasters and audience viewing patterns no longer warrant their inclusion, for example. As with so many issues in the communications portfolio, Labor is disappointed that the government has not conducted a holistic, evidence based public consultation process on the scheme and the impact of over-the-top providers in the lead-up to the proposing of this bill.
That brings me to content reform. Labor believes that it is imperative that Australians reap a return on the use by broadcasters of the radio frequency spectrum, a very valuable public asset. It is disappointing that the government has moved to erase pressure at one end of the value chain, with commercial broadcasters, and has neglected other links. The government's piecemeal, ad hoc approach to reform sees them granting licence fee relief to broadcasters but no relief for the production sector, which is also feeling increased competitive pressure in the contemporary media landscape. The broadcasting sector is not the only industry that has been disrupted by digitisation, and yet the government, which is coming up to its fourth year in office now, only recently announced a content review to assess issues in the Australian production sector.
Despite the fact that since 2014 the Department of Communications and the Arts has identified content issues as in need of reform, as part of its deregulatory road map this government has only recently just commenced work on a content review. Meanwhile, ABS data released last week shows that the government's commitment to Australian content in the context of media reform or broadcaster reform is all talk and no action. The production sector is suffering as a consequence of this government's inaction and ineptitude when it comes to joined-up reform. Piecemeal, ad hoc regulatory tinkering has not addressed the key structural issues the industry is facing.
The communications minister has proved to be incapable of getting his ducks in a row to usher in abolition of broadcast licensing fees and the introduction of the spectrum tax at the same time as identifying his content policy. Perhaps he does not understand the nexus between the two.
As the Productivity Commission stated in the report of its inquiry into broadcasting in 2000, licence fees:
… seek to recover some of the value inherent in commercial broadcasting licences from commercial broadcasters and provide a return to the public for their use of scarce radiofrequency spectrum.
The sector-specific licence fees levied on commercial broadcasters formed part of the social compact that has been a central theme in how broadcasting policy in legislation has been approached in Australia—at least until this minister came along, anyway.
Broadcasters have a unique role in preserving our national culture. Labor supports the changes to licence fees proposed in these bills and recognises the competitive pressure facing the sector. We note the policy objects of the Broadcasting Services Act are not amended in these bills, and expect the proposed measures to flow through in terms of provision of support for the Australian production sector.
Despite Labor's disappointment— (Time expired)
That is a shame—I was just getting into that! On behalf of the Australian Greens I rise to make a couple of comments tonight on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017 and the related bill.
The Greens cannot support the bill in its current form. We believe that there are really two pathways forward. One is for some sensible amendments, to cut away schedule 2 and schedule 5. We have circulated amendments for those two schedules, which would give that effect. That is for many of the same reasons cited by Senator O'Neill: to preserve the two-out-of-three rule, and I will go into some of the reasoning why we want that preserved. The other is to remove the provisions that hand back—depending on who you believe—upwards of $60 million to the broadcasters, and I will also speak as to why we have an amendment to that effect.
We also recognise, though, that this is a very serious issue and that Senator Fifield has a bit of a job on his hands. It has moved rapidly, even since this bill was conceived and introduced to the parliament a couple of months ago. Since the bill was introduced, going back quite a way—and it has changed shape a couple of times, most notably late last week—we have seen the Ten Network go into receivership and we have seen Fairfax looking really pretty shaky, with enormous redundancies at those mastheads and serious questions being raised about the future of print media at all in this country.
Against these, admittedly, extremely serious challenges—and I do not think that there is anybody in this chamber tonight who would claim to have all the answers—the government has introduced what Senator Fifield has referred to any number of times as a comprehensive package of reforms. This is our first point of disagreement with the minister. This is not comprehensive: this is actually a fairly narrow set of proposals and the only thing that we can guarantee would be the case, were the parliament to pass the bill in its present form, is that there would be less diversity in the Australian media landscape than there is now.
In order to justify this proposition, the government is once again waving its hands and vaguely citing the internet as both the cause of current Australian media difficulties and the excuse to do nothing about the core issue of media diversity. At the same time, the proposed changes that we are dealing with tonight do not address the issue of increasing digital media consumption and the difficulties that traditional platforms are having in bringing in ad or subscription revenue to actually keep the doors open. Nor do they equip the sector with a framework to embrace the further changes to come. I suspect that is one point of agreement amongst all of us, no matter what our political points of view are in here tonight, that these changes are going to keep coming.
People will continue to access news media in different ways as convenient access, not just to local but to global forms of news media, become more and more ubiquitous. There is almost nothing that can happen to stop that. Those news organisations that are adapting and trying to keep ahead of the curve are the ones that are in the best position to thrive.
Unfortunately, rather than embracing that agenda, the government is continuing to push the same agenda that it has for the last 20 years, which is just basically an agenda of deregulation, enabling further consolidation in what is already the most concentrated media market in any democracy. Once again, the winners are some of the most powerful media oligarchs on earth. So, on the surface, this bill seeks to repeal regulations that are several decades old, introduced at a time when the media could really only be delivered by radio, TV or newspapers. The government maintains that some of these regulations are obsolete. I have some understanding, and I do agree—up to a point—that this is true for some elements. That is why we are not opposing the bill outright. I think that there are some pretty sensible and, certainly, timely reforms contained in here.
The government argues that search engines like Google and social media platforms like Facebook are increasingly the go-to sources for media consumption—huge US companies. In turn, they are both beneficiaries now of the vast majority of advertising revenue. That has been a huge transfer from traditional media platforms to digital. This is true; we absolutely accept that argument. But the government is not proposing any direct solutions to the challenges presented by this upheaval, and nor does it really acknowledge the fact that these are increasingly platform monopolies. I could only find figures from around 2015, but in excess of 90 per cent of search engine traffic in Australia goes through Google. This is not a Coles and Woolworths situation; this is as if Coles and Woolworths were to have merged.
It is similar with Facebook: in excess of 12 million Australians use Facebook, and the next-largest social media platform in this country is simply miles behind. So the increasing tendency for platform monopolies online is something that we think is a legitimate public policy question that could have been addressed in a bill like this, if the minister is going to continue to use words such as 'comprehensive'.
We believe that the strength of our public debate is undermined when people are hearing the news from the same one or two voices. That is the legitimate public policy issue here that I reckon we probably all agree on. But we are going to have some substantial disagreement tonight and in August, when this debate resumes, about what to do about it. Yes, the media landscape is changing—there is no dispute about that. And, yes, we need to ensure local content is being produced, that Australian stories are being told and that a more diverse and high-quality media is maintained.
But, again, this legislation does not address any of these things. It really does not. It moves to ensure that the government's media allies are in a position to lead their long-sought-after monopoly of Australian media; it provides for further collapse in media diversity. This is maybe not as far as some had feared; I recognise that Senator Fifield will address this, no doubt, when he closes the debate—that there are other rules in place that would prevent this collapse into a black hole where Rupert Murdoch basically owns everything. We are not arguing that that is the case; we are arguing that this is a partial fix that only guarantees there be less diversity by the time we are done than there is now.
Coalition governments have a bit of form in this matter. They have been striving to repeal these laws aimed at preventing media concentration since at least 1996. But it took them more than a decade to progress their planned increased media concentration. I think successive governments are very aware, because of the very tight and sometimes deeply unhealthy feedback loop between media organisations and the political class down here in this building, that the media proprietors have a powerful voice. I do not know how many people were here back in around 2012, when the then communications minister, Senator Conroy, was the last one who really tried to engage in meaningful reform through both the Convergence Review and the Finkelstein review, and it was as though the sky fell in. Before you knew it, Senator Conroy was being depicted as a dictator on the front page of The Daily Telegraph. You would have thought that Senator Conroy had proposed to nationalise the print media, and nothing could have been further from the truth. But these are very finely balanced political debates, and our usual method of getting our word out, through the newspapers, the TV stations and the radio broadcasters, is somewhat kinked when the very channels through which you are attempting to get your message out have a very large commercial interest in the outcome.
In 2006, the Howard government removed the main cross-media ownership restrictions, and that allowed TV, newspaper and radio mergers, and he introduced the two-out-of-three rule and the five/four voices test, which I acknowledge Senator Fifield is not attempting to play with tonight. They have since been striving to repeal the rest of the regulations, and until recently this push was kept at bay largely by lack of industry consensus: you could not do what Mr Murdoch wanted without enraging Mr Stokes, and so on and so forth. That was what kind of jammed up any attempts to change the status quo.
But here we are in 2017, and we find the situation has changed. Fairfax is being slowly suffocated by its own corporate masters and some of the decisions that they have made as they exploit public trust in those mastheads while starving the newsrooms and the mastheads of revenue from the more profitable properties. That is a commercial choice; it really has nothing intrinsically to do with the internet. In this environment, the government has presented a suite of enticements that appeal both to the commercial TV networks, in the form of removal of licensing fees, and obviously to Foxtel—the changes to antisiphoning. I understand that Seven West are not wild about the changes to the antisiphoning rules, but it was enough to keep everybody in the tent. So, if anything, this really is a package of assembled political fixes designed to keep anybody from throwing rocks from the outside. It is not our job in here as the Australian Greens—and, I would argue, as members of all political organisations in here—to speak for one or another commercial interest. We are here for the public interest. That is who put us here, and that is who we should represent at all times.
With this sort of cobbled-together set of concessions to various competing commercial interests—and, obviously, a showcase event in Parliament House—the industry reached a consensus to repeal all the regulations preventing at least a media duopoly in Australia. It is clear that the government's process for developing a comprehensive media package has involved nothing more, really, than finding enough to feed the dwindling number of mouths at the commercial trough—no offence intended to parliament's own trough.
Several media commentators have obviously raised the questionable timing of Channel Ten's voluntary administration. I am not actually prone to conspiracy theory, which is something that might surprise some in this chamber, but let's take a look at how the industry viewed the timing and some of the circumstances surrounding what just happened at Channel Ten. Dave Donovan of Independent Australia noted:
This happened after shareholders Lachlan Murdoch (7.7%) and Bruce Gordon (15%) refused to guarantee a new finance package—one that does not become due until December. There is no problem with liquidity at Ten—it has good cashflow and is paying all of its bills as they become due. In short, it is not insolvent.
Nevertheless, this voluntary administration, made during the second last sitting week of Parliament before the long winter recess, did allow Communications Minister Mitch Fifield to yesterday stand in front of the cameras and solemnly urge the Parliament to pass his new media "reform" laws.
This is the most unusual administration that I've ever seen, where a company that is doing a whole bunch of things to fix itself and doesn't have to pay its debts back for another six months, and has only borrowed one third of the total amount that it can borrow from its banks, has pulled the plug and handed over the business to administrators. So it's very puzzling.
Repealing the remaining regulations will not reverse Google and Facebook's impact on the market. In referring to the coalition's recent media dealings, Associate Professor Tim Dwyer of the University of Sydney, in The Conversation, said:
The takeaway from this sideshow is a profound sense that Australia is a media policy backwater. The time-honoured political and media-owner manoeuvrings are a substitute for smart, citizen-focused policymaking.
That is what we get sent to this building to do. That is our job, surely. Associate Professor Dwyer calls for a comprehensive review of how media is consumed across old and new platforms.
Fortunately, that is exactly what is happening, just not in this chamber tonight. I wish that debate was being joined tonight. It is not, but it is happening in the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism and the Australian and Children's Screen Content Review. That is something that I want to address a little bit tonight. That select committee, which I kicked off with senators Dastyari, Xenophon and Lambie a couple of weeks ago, is the main vehicle for assembling these views about what a genuinely comprehensive package of reforms would look like. That is due to report a bit later this year.
If you look a bit further around the world, the UK's Ofcom and the European Commission have both made significant progress in monitoring, researching and updating voice pluralism policies. That is what we could have been debating tonight, but we are not. This is one template we could consider for Australia. Ofcom has reviewed the UK's ownership rules at least every three years since 2003, and their regulatory framework sounds pretty familiar to us. The current restrictions include a rule limiting cross-media ownership of newspapers and TV at a national level, requirements for the appointment of a regional TV news provider, and a rule for administering a public-interest test for mergers. The UK government, via Ofcom, have actively engaged with the rise of online news and rapidly changing audience behaviours, like large groups accessing news only via Facebook. Ofcom have developed a 'share of references' to compare news consumption across different platforms. That data is available to lawmakers, publishers and providers to help ensure that the public are being well served by the laws governing the media landscape in the UK.
The US too has had a process of structured media ownership reviews since 1996: the quadrennial media ownership reviews. The last two reviews in the US—2010 and 2014—have left key ownership restrictions, including on cross-media ownership, firmly in place. These markets are both obviously much larger than Australia, but there are some similarities, and one key difference, which I would argue is as a result of the rules that have been left in place: they are way less concentrated than the Australian media market already is. Yet it is in Australia, tonight in this parliament, that the government proposes to remove some of those remaining cross-media ownership restrictions.
The bill also proposes to substitute licence fees worth around $100 million in annual revenue with a tax scheme worth around $40 million. What are the taxpayers getting for their $60 million? Are we getting $60 million worth of new Australian content? Are we getting $60-million-a-year's worth of employment for new investigative journalists, expanded newsrooms or support for new media start-ups, subscription models or innovators? We are not getting anything of the sort. These elements, we know, were added to appeal to industry. They should have been debated separately, and I would have argued that they should have come with some concessions or some benefit to the public.
There have already been a number of reductions in licence fees for commercial TV broadcasters since 2010, under the former minister, Senator Conroy. The Greens have argued in the past that licensing fee reductions serve only the interests of commercial broadcasters, not the public. In 2013 we argued that broadcasting spectrum is not a free gift; it is a public good, it is a form of real estate that the public owns, and it comes with an obligation—or it should—to deliver Australian content. A decrease in fees should carry with it increased Australian content obligations. That should not be too hard to understand. The government is only vaguely promising to increase local content requirements sometime in the future with their content review. We will participate in the review, and it is good that it is happening, but there is nothing here in law. The pattern has been to reduce local content requirements in the past, basically arguing the same commercial imperatives that the broadcasters argued to get the licence fees eliminated.
Absent from this debate on this comprehensive media reform package is any mention of public or community broadcasters. A Department of Communications and the Arts discussion paper as far back as 2014 noted that any examination of media diversity in Australia needs to, obviously, consider the roles of SBS and the ABC. The paper stated that the national broadcasters:
… make a significant contribution to media diversity through their provision of television, radio and online services. This is particularly so for the ABC, the reach and depth of whose media outlets compare favourably to its commercial counterparts in most areas of Australia.
What are we seeing, though? We are seeing ABC and SBS being squeezed. They are having to cut services and funding. We were in an inquiry the other day about cutting short-wave funding. That is the tip of the iceberg.
Community radio broadcasters, which I would say are an essential part of a media ecosystem, also face a very uncertain future, with no assurance that funding will be provided beyond 2019. Their ongoing costs are less than a tenth of the discount that is being given to commercial broadcasters in this bill tonight. Senators Hinch, Xenophon, Lambie and I introduced a Senate motion today to increase funding for community radio to $4½ million for the 2018-19 financial year and to commit to this funding on an ongoing basis. That is what media diversity is. It is there; we just need to provide proper support for it.
The challenge of managing Australia's media landscape in the 21st century really needs a more substantial response than a couple handouts to the biggest players and, effectively, just ticking off their wish list. The government says 'the internet' when asked about diversity, but, when nine of the top 10 news media sites are owned by existing major media brands, it is far too simplistic. Let that sink in. The incumbents have basically shifted their incumbency online. Sure, there is diversity out there, but we are still in this transition where it is at the margins. The other thing, obviously, is that we have to ask when NBN penetration will be at a level sufficient to allow most Australians even to access these alternatives—certainly in the broadcast space.
What is the role of the ABC and SBS in Australia's media future? The package is cutting $60 million a year from the budget bottom line, and we are getting nothing in return, as are public broadcasters, community broadcasters or any of the numerous initiatives that are already being brought to bear in the future of public interest journalism inquiry. There are better uses for this money.
I told Senator Fifield last week and I will say it again to make sure it is firmly on the record: we recognise that things like the reach law are obsolete. We would not have opposed that being taken out. It has basically been completely overrun by radio broadcast over IP networks. We also recognise that, if we give this another five or 10 years, probably the two-out-of-three law will be obsolete as well. We would be prepared to talk and negotiate with the government, the opposition and the crossbenches with the two-out-of-three rule on the table but only when we have some legitimate options and incentives on the table for actually promoting and sustaining media diversity. What we have at the moment is one half of the package and not the other half. That is why I have been quibbling with the minister about whether this is comprehensive.
Something comprehensive, if you are willing to come back to this debate in the fourth quarter of this year, is what the future of public interest journalism inquiry is going to try to serve up. That has so far been a very collegial body of work and very collegial committee to be a part of. Everybody is taking part in that—government, opposition, crossbench—and we think that is going to serve up to this minister and to the Australian people a menu of options for genuinely sustaining media diversity in this country. When we have that in front of us, let's talk about the two-out-of-three rule. Not tonight.
Mr Acting Deputy President Back, I add my congratulations and warm wishes to you on the last occasion in which you will sit in the chair in this chamber and again place on the record my thanks for your service and friendship in my short time here in the Senate.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to rise tonight, even at this late hour, to contribute to the debate on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017. One of the first inquiries that I sat on when I first joined the Senate a little bit over a year ago was the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee inquiry into a previous iteration of this bill. I participated with Senator Urquhart and enjoyed listening to her questions. I noted some of the themes of her questions about that package back then being reiterated in the contribution by Senator O'Neill tonight, which I will come to in a moment. I am also now a member with Senator Ludlam on the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism, which I think should be described, in the fairest way possible, as the most elaborate fig-leaf exercise for the Labor Party to cover up their lack of support for media reform. Nonetheless, hopefully, it will despite that still produce some positive and useful outcomes.
Firstly I want to acknowledge Senator Ludlam's contribution to this debate because it was a thoughtful and nuanced contribution. Unlike Senator O'Neill's contribution, the words 'Fairfax' and 'Ten' did pass Senator Ludlam's lips. It was as if Senator O'Neill were commenting about the Australian media landscape as it was five years ago, as if she is unaware of all the developments that have happened in the media industry in recent years, how dire things are for media companies and how vital and urgent action now is. I want to particularly single out and recognise a comment that Senator Ludlam made towards the end of his contribution, where he admitted not only that the 75 per cent reach rule is clearly outdated in a modern media landscape and that we should move on from it but also that he could envisage a time—I think he said it might only be five to 10 years away—where the two-out-of-three rule will also become redundant. I agree with him; although I think that time is now. I worry that had Senator Ludlam been here in this parliament when the transition from the horse and buggy to the motor car was taking place he would have said, 'We can't remove the regulations protecting horses and buggies yet. They might still be around for another five or 10 years, so we had better wait until they are really off the scene before we change the regulations.' But I will come to more substantive comments about that in moment.
I want to return to Senator O'Neill's contribution to the debate tonight, because I think it was extraordinary in a number of ways. One of the ways in which she characterised this media reform package was as a 'pro-industry package'. I agree: this is a pro-industry package. What Australia needs is a pro-industry package. If we follow her contribution to its logical conclusion, the Labor Party, in proposing to vote against this package, is anti media industry. They do not want a pro-industry package to pass through this parliament. It echoed the spectacular contribution made by the shadow communications minister, Michelle Rowland, in an interview with Kieran Gilbert on Sky News earlier this week. When it was put to her that all the media organisations in Australia were in favour of this bill and was that not a reason why Labor should consider supporting it, she said, 'They are only supporting it because there is something in it for all of them.' Well, yes, indeed, there is something in it for all of them. It will improve their ability to compete with their new and international competitors. It will improve their viability, and it may stave off or even prevent the collapse of a number of media companies. Indeed it is a pro-industry package and it is indeed true to say, as Michelle Rowland did, that all the media companies will get something out of it.
Senator O'Neill also said that the Labor Party was willing to support this bill on the condition that the two-out-of-three rule abolition was removed from the bill. It is an interesting position to take for a party that is complaining that the media reform package is not sufficiently comprehensive and is piecemeal. The Labor Party's only suggestion to improve a package that they think is not sufficiently comprehensive and is piecemeal is to make it less comprehensive and more piecemeal by removing a fairly fundamental part of the package. It said what it wants is true media reform, and, over and over again, comprehensive media reform, and yet it proposed absolutely nothing that would fit that definition—nothing that would resemble that in any way. The truth is that the only media reform package that is on the table in this debate and in this parliament is the one that the government has proposed. There are no alternatives. None have been provided. We were promised that there might be some alternatives in the future, but the time to act is now. The time to act is not going to be in a few months time or a few years time when one of the Australian media companies that we have all come to love and cherish falls over.
Senator O'Neill and other Labor speakers in this debate are concerned about the impact of the two-out-of-three rule on democracy and diversity and how it may lead to consolidation. They are right. It is true. If the two-out-of-three rule is removed, there may be consolidation in the Australian media industry. In fact, it is quite likely that there will be some consolidation in the media industry. But if I had to choose between consolidation in the media industry that took place because all the outdated regulations were removed and companies that had common interests chose to merge or take each other over and restructure their affairs, thereby making them more efficient and allowing them to continue operating, or the alternative, which would be consolidation by collapse or consolidation by media companies in Australia falling over, I know which choice I would make. It is a fairly easy choice to make.
I would perhaps understand the concern about diversity if we had had this debate in the late 1990s. But the truth is that we are living in a golden age of media diversity. The diverse sources of news in the media and comment and information that I can access now are better than any human has had at any point in history. I can get every opinion under the sun at the click of a button. The perspectives and takes on Australian politics, international affairs and business are more varied than they have ever been. To hold up the two-out-of-three rule as the great protector of media diversity in a golden age of media diversity is, I think, incredibly naive and out of touch with reality. It is so perverse that if you were a media company today, or if you were advising a media company today—let's take Fairfax as an example—and the two-out-of-three rule was an obstacle to you structuring your company in a more efficient way that would allow the ongoing viability of your company, the best advice you could give them would be to stop printing newspapers. If I were advising The Ageif it were my commercial duty to advise them—I would tell them: 'Stop printing newspapers. Deliver The Age on an iPad or deliver The Age online, and you will be able to arrange your affairs in any way you see fit. You will be able to merge with a television company or any other company in the media industry. But if you continue to print the daily newspaper—which is of great value to some people still in this day and age, and which employs many people—all you are doing is tying your own hands behind your back and preventing yourself from structuring your affairs in the most efficient way.' The truth is, of course, that it is not The Age or any other media business that is tying their hands behind their back; it is the parliament and the laws of this nation that are tying their hands behind their back. We have the capacity to address that in this bill.
It is often said that the internet—particularly the arrival of Google and Facebook—is destroying the viability of traditional media. That may be true to some extent. It certainly has taken away what once were the so-called rivers of gold in terms of classified advertising that propped up the media model for many years. But we in this place are aiding and abetting that, wittingly or unwittingly, by allowing companies like Google and Facebook—who, by the way, I think make wonderful companies and excellent services; I am not a constant critic like some in this debate—to have an extraordinary commercial advantage granted to them by the regulatory holiday we effectively give them at the expense of Australian media companies. We tie up Australian television networks, Australian print media companies and, of course, radio businesses with regulation that we could never and would never apply to these companies. The only thing we can really do, if we wish to give them the best fighting chance and the most even playing field, is to remove this outdated regulation.
There are those who come to this place and say, perhaps posturing to the press gallery or their friends in the gallery: 'Gee, isn't it terrible what Google and Facebook are doing to you? I'm on your side. I'm here for you.' Doubt their sincerity and doubt it greatly because if they do that at the same time as opposing this package, what they are doing is voting to make, in relative terms, the Googles and Facebooks of the world much stronger in contrast to Australian media companies.
Also doubt the sincerity of people who come into this place and say that they really, sincerely want stronger controls on gambling advertising and to make sure children are not exposed to gambling advertising during live sport. It is only through this package that that issue will be addressed. Important features of this package have been subject to some criticism in earlier contributions to this debate—particularly the licence fee reductions which allow that to happen. Given that we know the strains and stresses television companies in particular are under, if we remove from them gambling advertising, which is a significant source of revenue, and do not compensate them in any way by also removing or reducing licence fees we would put them under even greater strain and risk their collapse even sooner than perhaps might otherwise be the case. If they are sincere about ensuring gambling advertising does not take place or that children are not exposed to it, it only logically flows that they must make it possible for that to happen by supporting licence fee reductions, which are a key feature of this bill.
Also doubt the sincerity of people who come into this place and say they are friends of regional media. I remember very well participating in the environment and communications committee's inquiry into a bill like this a bit over a year ago. The regional media companies in particular were crying out for legislation to fix the situation they were in. They were desperately asking us to act to help them stave off their financial difficulties. We still have not done so, and the pressure continues to mount on those businesses. For people who say that they want viable local regional media to continue to exist there is really only one option for them today, and that is to support this bill. In the absence of doing so they will perhaps ensure that they do not merge with a larger metropolitan ally or competitor, but they will also ensure that they close on their own terms in just a matter of months.
I have two final points in this vein. Certainly doubt the sincerity of someone who says they are a friend and a fan of the Australian media landscape and uniquely Australian voices in the media landscape. We know that one of the potential buyers for Fairfax Media is a foreign company—a foreign investor. Who knows what they would do with Fairfax Media if they were successful in taking them over? I should say again that I am not a critic of foreign investment in any sphere of the Australian economy; I think it is an overwhelmingly positive thing. I can envisage foreign investment in Australian media which would be very positive. However, there are other people in this chamber who would swear black-and-blue that foreign investment in Australian media is a very dangerous thing. But by blocking this legislation all they are doing is ensuring that the only viable potential bidders for a company like Fairfax are those foreign bidders who are not encumbered by the fact that they already have an Australian presence in other media industries here. If you want to ensure that a company like Fairfax ultimately is taken over or merged with another Australian player, rather than a foreign investor, then the best thing to do is to support this bill.
Finally, I doubt the sincerity of people who come into this place and say that they are fans of private media and that they want to see a healthy commercial media landscape in Australia, because the effect of this bill not passing will be the continued consolidation and shrinking of that private media, and the only thing that will exist in its place, or the only thing that will become much more relatively large in that space, is of course the state funded, government funded media. So when people come in here and use their maiden speeches to rail against the ABC or SBS and use estimates to be critical of those organisations but at the same time fail to support this kind of legislation, all they are doing is aiding the continual decline of private media and effectively increasing the influence of state media.
I would now like to turn to some of the key provisions of this bill. The key elements of the package are, as I have mentioned: the abolition of broadcast license fees for television and radio, which allows them to better compete with other media platforms; the introduction of a price for the use of spectrum by broadcasters that better reflects its use; protecting Australian children by banning gambling advertising during sports broadcasts in children's viewing hours; amendments to the antisiphoning scheme and list; a broadranging and comprehensive review of Australian and children's content; and a $30 million funding package for subscription television to support the broadcasting of women's sports. These reforms will ensure the ongoing production of high-quality Australian content and also strengthen the competitiveness of Australia's broadcasting sector.
The bill also acknowledges the increasing competition the broadcasting sector is facing and that important new measures such as new gambling advertising restrictions will place pressure on broadcasters and must therefore be compensated for. The government's decision to abolish broadcast licensing fees, as I mentioned earlier, and to also make sure that the new restrictions on gambling advertising apply to all platforms—free-to-air, subscription and online—are a recognition of the pressure that broadcasters are under. These changes in fees are significant reforms for the broadcasting industry, and they build on the media reforms that we have already announced and are currently before the parliament that look to abolish the two-out-of-three rule and 75 per cent reach rule.
I would like to particularly single out in this area a point that has been really well made in current and previous inquiries by the TV broadcasters—that is, the license fees they pay in Australia, by world standards, are incredibly high. It is certainly true that prior to what will hopefully be the passage of this bill they have not paid anywhere near a market rate for the spectrum that they use, but they have paid very significant licence fees, far in excess of most similar countries. In fact, many countries in the world have no licence fees at all. It is important that we recognise that these licence fees are in fact a relic of an analog media era and can no longer be justified in an increasingly competitive media environment. The idea that a television station should pay a licence fee for the privilege of reaching Australians when a company like Facebook can and does stream live content to Australians and pay no licence fee is obviously incredibly anachronistic and out of date.
Broadcasters are effectively caught in this pincer movement. Their revenues are flat or declining in real terms, as many advertisers are migrating online, and the on-demand services, which again I think are a really positive development that most Australian consumers are very pleased about, also draw audiences away from traditional broadcast content. Simultaneously costs are rising, and the capacity of broadcasters to contain that further cost growth will be severely limited given their need to invest in programming and technology across multiple media platforms. That is why the government is moving to abolish broadcast licensing fees, which amount to about $130 million per year, starting with the payment that would have been payable in December 2017. But importantly they are a key element of this comprehensive package of reforms, and in the absence of support for the full package of these reforms those licence fee reductions may not be able to happen.
Spectrum pricing is, I think, a really important improvement in the way in which television stations pay for the actual public resource that they us, which is, of course, spectrum. The new spectrum price for television and radio will be set at a total of around $40 million, and the first payment is due to be made in 2017-18. Unlike broadcast licensing fees, the spectrum fee is not based on revenue. Rather the price takes into account the type of transmitter used, the amount and type of spectrum used, and its location. This is a similar approach to that which applies to other spectrum users and appropriately recognises what that public resource they are using is. Overall the vast majority of broadcasters will pay considerably less in spectrum fees than they currently pay in licence fees. This fee relief will enable broadcasters to better compete with other online competitors, invest in their businesses and produce Australian content. However, a small number of broadcasters will face a net increase in overall charges, and the government will support these broadcasters by providing a five-year transition support package to ensure they are no worse off.
Another part of this package that I really welcome is the changes to the antisiphoning scheme and list. My own view is that having a quarantine list of sporting events and other events that can only be broadcast and viewed initially by free-to-air TV networks is going to look seriously out of date in a few years time when many international sporting events start to be bought up, as has already happened, such as with the FA Cup final and the US Masters golf. So I think it is very appropriate that the government starts to recognise this and appropriately opens up more sports to competitive bidding and allows them to be broadcast on a range of platforms, including subscription television. I think this is particularly important when, as technology evolves, the difference between subscription television station and other television stations becomes, increasingly, a very fine difference. When Foxtel, for example, is offering an increasing amount of its content through apps like Foxtel Go and an increasing number of their users are accessing it, how different is it really to businesses like Netflix or Stan?
To conclude, I would just like to return to the fact that these reforms are supported by an extraordinary consensus across the media industry. Greg Hyland appeared before the Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism, and I asked him if, in his experience of more than 40 years in the media industry, he had ever seen a consensus like this, and, of course, he said no. There has never been a consensus in the media industry like this before, and to miss this opportunity would be a very sad thing. So I hope that all parties in this place consider their positions carefully and ultimately support the government's position.
First up, may I say in response to the previous speaker, Senator Paterson, that Labor is definitely not anti media. Labor certainly does care about jobs—jobs for all Australians. In fact it is not Labor that is removing penalty rates as of this weekend.
Turning to the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017, as a former journalist of 20 years, I do have a very real interest in issues around media reforms—certainly from my own experiences—especially reforms that impact on diversity in our media. It is certainly true that we need to keep abreast of, and introduce reforms in response to, a volatile and continually changing media sector. New platforms are opening up the ways we receive information, and we are often flooded with information. But does this information add to our knowledge? Does it reflect us and our community? Does it bring a diversity of voices and views to our media landscape? I do understand that some degree of government regulation is necessary to protect us from abuses of media power. A completely unregulated media market would result in a handful of powerful outlets dominating traditional, and perhaps even digital, forms of media. That is why I have concerns about the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule. We need to make sure there is a diversity of voices and cultures reflected in our Australian media.
I grew up in Borroloola in the Gulf of Carpentaria. In the early days we did not have television. The only communication we would have had, and did have, was ABC Radio. The first images and stories that I saw about first nations people or about the Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Marra and Gurdanji peoples of my region were pretty much negative. We talk about fake news. Let me tell you, fake news has been around a long time as far as Aboriginal people are concerned. We only have to look at, for example, the land claim for the Yanyuwa in the 1990s for the Sir Edward Pellew group of islands. A local media newspaper reported that it was local fisherman who would be removed or kicked out of their homes because Aboriginal people wanted the land. Have a think about that reporting. Have a think about that. Who was removing whom, and how long has that been going on for? Sadly, negative media stereotypes are still overwhelmingly the case.
Diversity in media is about reflecting the positive stories, and the voices that often do not get heard and the faces that are not seen. It is what we see all the time in mainstream media reporting on Indigenous affairs, when one of two spokespeople are expected to represent all Indigenous people and nations like we are some homogenous mass. Inevitably, the stories focus on failure, on gaps, on statistics or on not quite measuring up. This is where Indigenous media, the Special Broadcasting Service—SBS—and in some respects the ABC are important, although I must say that the ABC is dropping the ball when it comes to its listeners in remote areas, and that is all listeners, but I will be talking about that more a bit later.
We need to remember the importance of the diversity in Indigenous voices and opinions. The mainstream media often struggles to reflect the differing views and opinions in Indigenous communities, preferring sometimes to ignore differing views or to even display them as conflicts rather than the normal discourse and trading of views and ideas. As we move down the path of issues like constitutional reform and truth telling, as we talk about treaties and what they may look like, the question is: will mainstream media accurately and fairly reflect the differing views and opinions—and there are so many differing views and opinions—that are out there? Will they be able to do that in a way that does not escalate fear and anger? Will these be discussed, and sometimes argued, as we progress these issues? But in a mature way, in a way that all Australians can have a look at these issues and make their own minds up. So if we have concerns now about the coverage of these particular issues and reports, what will it mean if we have further concentration in media control and ownership? And I am only talking about one or two small examples.
I said earlier that 'fake news' seems to be the buzzword, but fake news really has been around for way too long for Indigenous Australians, like how we are all supposed to get 'special treatment'—yes, that is fake news. I would like to be standing in this chamber today talking about how we are supporting and celebrating the achievements of Indigenous media workers. There are many, and there should be more. I would like to be talking about how the government is supporting the work of the Indigenous Remote Communications Association, which has done an enormous amount of work around the importance of the remote media sector and how governments can support the sector. The industry has identified the need for serious policy development work to be done in the Indigenous media sector. Policy in this area is really lagging behind, with no real update since the 1990s. In fact, the most major reform in this country that I can recall in this space was the BRACS—Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme—program. But, again, while so many communities did receive the ability to have media communications and to have radio stations, my community Borroloola did not receive it. We missed out. As a result of missing out, I was able to work with the ABC at the time to ensure that in this region in the gulf country—1,000 kilometres south-east of Darwin, our nearest capital—we could actually have a radio service. We spent a couple of years trying to set up a satellite service and applying for a communication licence—the broadcasting licence we needed. The community got behind us and supported me in that process. It certainly took a lot of diligence and a lot of reporting in the application process so that the community and the township of Borroloola could receive its very first local radio station.
In 1996 we were able to open that radio station and, again, it was really as a result of looking at what was happening in other remote regions across Australia under the BRACS program and realising that we had missed out. Taking those steps to establish the radio station, which we called B102.9 FM, 'The voice of the Gulf', in the local town, meant that local languages could be spoken and heard and they could be informing the community in language about cyclones, flooding, damage, if the local mail plane was coming in, if there was an incident on the roads or if any visitors were coming to the region. All of the local news could be spoken in language or English, and it was available to provide information to the cattle stations. The radius was not all that far—we started off with 50 kilometres—but it was such a huge advantage for the people in the region to be able to communicate and listen to their own local station. 'The voice of the Gulf' had a short radius of about 50 kilometres, but it was a good start.
Now in my electorate of the Northern Territory we are fortunate to have some strong Indigenous media organisations who tell the stories of our communities, who keep people in touch and connected and who help keep language and culture thriving. But it is also about sharing with non-Indigenous Australia the richness of this culture, which is very much a part of the lives of all Australians. The ability to reach out to all Australians and say: 'Hey, don't be afraid of us. We are here as first nations people and these are the languages spoken through the airwaves, on the TV screens and now in Indigenous newspapers across the country.' They are informing and educating but are also available for all Australians to make their own minds up: are they going to read the information in this paper, listen to that radio station or watch a news story from that Indigenous channel? They can make their own minds up in a very informed way about the issues that impact first nations people, not perpetuate the fake news has been going on for so long over so many decades.
Today we have organisations such as PAW Media; TEABBA, the Top End Aboriginal Bush Broadcasting Association; Radio Larrakia; and CAAMA, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association—the very first Aboriginal organisation to be granted a broadcast licence. We used to have strong Indigenous programming on Imparja Television in Alice Springs which, sadly, is now nothing more than a commercial relay station with no local news and no local content, let alone Aboriginal content. It is sad that all these years later we are seeing bush people's access to news and information cut and restricted. This is not just for Aboriginal people who live in the bush; this is for all our cattle families on the stations, the pastoralists, the truckies, the nurses and the police who live in the regions in these areas that rely on this.
Certainly, the cutting of the ABC shortwave service has impacted enormously on people who live, work and travel in remote regions, and it is certainly an indictment on this government that it has not stepped in to fund the ABC to enable them to continue using the transmission infrastructure. The government, ironically, hides behind the notion of the ABC's editorial independence, but the shortwave issue is not about interfering in any way with the ABCs absolute right to determine their content. This is about infrastructure. ABC management has made it perfectly clear that they cut the shortwave because they determined they did not want to spend their budget that this government has slashed to the bone on transmission services to a remote area audience that the ABC determined they could ignore.
I would certainly like to let you know what this remote area audience thinks about that, and I quote from submissions that the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association has made to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee inquiry, that it was an 'unjust and dishonest policy of exclusion and discrimination against remote and regional Australians' and that:
Many people in rural and remote Australia are socially isolated, with less face-to-face contact with family, friends and other support networks. This can lead to loneliness and depression, and can contribute to suicidal behaviour. Stimulation provided by shortwave radio to those doing important jobs in isolated areas is critical.
There is a growing divide between remote and urban organisations due to access to technology and digital services. We are waiting to see what the real effects of the recently-announced ABC restructure will have in regional and remote areas. ABC management have said they want to increase the ABC's digital and video output from rural and regional Australia, but, when we have the NBN failures in the bush, just how realistic is this? We need to look at legislation that ensures that we not only have media that reflect the diversity of Australia, but media that reach into all of its remote areas, and that we have the accessible technology to support this.
I thank Senator McCarthy for that contribution because, as I was listening to it, I thought to myself, 'What very, very powerful arguments they are for the government's media reform package.' I will get to this in more detail as I progress in the time that is available to me tonight, but I think there is a misunderstanding about how you preserve diversity in the Australian media landscape, but more particularly and more urgently: what is the current risk and threat that exists to diversity in the Australian media landscape? I will come to that in a moment, because there are some very informed views around the issue of diversity that come from media operators themselves and, as well informed as we might be in this place, no-one understands the media business better than media operators themselves. And, importantly, the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission has made some important comments in regard to media ownership and its effect on diversity in the media landscape.
Let's be clear about this: what the Labor Party is doing in the Australian Senate this evening by delaying and, I suspect, ultimately voting down the government's media reform package, is to delay the government's attempts to better protect Australian children from gambling advertising.
Let's also be clear that, when the Labor Party talks about opposition to these media reforms, not only are they talking about delaying protecting children from gambling advertising, they are also talking about unnecessarily delaying the necessary modernisation of the Australian broadcasting sector. Labor's decision to delay and vote down the government's media reforms, if that is where we get to, is because they are consciously choosing—in addition to delaying the protection of children, and delaying the modernisation of the Australian broadcasting sector—to ignore that very, very rapid change that is happening in regard to consumer behaviour.
Senator Dastyari interjecting—
I have often said, Senator Dastyari, that you would make a better Sam Dastyari MP than a Senator Dastyari, but do not distract me.
Importantly, what the Labor Party seeks to do this evening—and if it is delayed until August when we come back after the recess—is to continue to shackle the free-to-air broadcasters that are operating in a very constrained financial environment and that would like to be unshackled to better deliver Australian drama, Australian content and Australian sport.
It is interesting that opposition senators and others talk about their support for reform, but say, 'There are some elements of the reform that we do not like so, therefore, we are going to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.' When they do that they are doing not just the media industry a disservice; they are doing the parents of children who might find themselves in the face of gambling advertising a disservice and, most importantly, they are doing a disservice to the free-to-air broadcasters in our country that want to be unshackled and want to provide better services to consumers.
It is clear that the Labor Party do not understand what they say, because, if they understood what they say, they would be supporting media reform on the basis that continued rapid decline in the financial viability of Australian media proprietors is a real risk. It exists today. It is happening at a very fast rate. Any continued delay in this very sensible and well-balanced media reform package serves to undermine the interests that Labor senators have come into this place this evening and said they actually support. They are undermining their own arguments by opposing this important reform package.
I have been associated with the government attempts at media reform for some time. In my role as the chairman of the government's communications backbench committee I have worked closely with Senator Fifield and other government members—National Party members and Liberal Party members—to best steer a path around media reform. It is worth noting how far the government has come on the important issue of media reform. Under the leadership of the former Prime Minister, media reform was, to use his words, 'off the table'. It was not going to happen. Then, after careful stewardship by Senator Fifield, the coalition came to a consensus view about the suitability of preserving the 75 per cent reach rural and came to a consensus view about the suitability of retaining the two-out-of-three media ownership rule. That consensus was that these two regulatory rules were no longer fit for purpose for the Australian media industry.
What informed those opinions significantly was not the attitude of big media proprietors but the attitude of media proprietors who were operating in the regional marketplace in this country—the very people Senator McCarthy applauded tonight because of the services and the diversity that they deliver to regional people and, in her specific case, to regional people and Indigenous people living in our remote communities. If I can digress for a moment, I want to applaud the great work of Sandy Dann at the Goolarri radio station in the Kimberley. Senator Siewert would know Sandy Dann as well. It is 99.7 FM for those who want to tune in. In all seriousness, Goolarri is exactly one of those radio stations delivering the sorts of services that Senator McCarthy talked about.
Senator Ludlam is familiar with them as well. Those are exactly the sorts of services that Senator McCarthy was talking about this evening.
I argue—and I will get to this shortly—the Senate committee report argued and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission argued that the best way to preserve diversity in the Australian media marketplace is to lift the rules, lift the regulations, not to continue to impose them. Let us be clear. When Labor Party members of the House of Representatives yesterday voted down the government's media reform bills they voted down licence fee relief for commercial television and radio broadcasters; they voted down fairer and more sensible tax arrangements for spectrum to ensure the public receives a fair return on this public asset; they opposed, they voted down, media ownership changes that will support Australian companies and Australian jobs against foreign tech competitors; they voted down, they voted against, new local television content protections for rural and regional communities; and they voted down, they rejected, antisiphoning reform for subscription television in this country.
It is easy to dismiss the tremendous amount of success that has been achieved over the last two years and, importantly, all too easy to dismiss the important consensus that was reached first inside the coalition and, second, amongst media proprietors themselves. It was, ambitiously, the government thought, a consensus that might have been able to have been reached within the House of Representatives, but, no. Let us hope that that consensus might be able to be achieved in the Australian Senate.
If you could indulge me for one moment, Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, I will read from an opinion piece that I wrote and had published in The Australian Financial Review on 4 January 2016, because it demonstrates how far the government has come, how far the community has come and how far media proprietors and media operators have come but, unfortunately, how little distance the Australian Labor Party has been able to travel on the important issue of media reform. That opinion piece is important because it reflects on the comment that I made little earlier about just how high were the hurdles that we had to overcome inside the coalition party room in order to get to this very, very significant achievement that we are hoping that Labor Party senators might embrace tonight. The opinion piece starts:
In the middle of 2015, it was widely predicted by many insiders that media reform was "off the table". Yet as the new year opens, the government is entering the final phase of deliberations that may bring an end to the redundant "reach rule" and possibly the death of another out-of-date media ownership rule, colloquially known as "two out of three".
With virtually all players conceding the reach rule - which restricts competition and choice in regional media markets - is past its use by date, the debate is now focused on how best to safeguard local content Resolution on this point is closer than many realise, with the views of the key parties broadly aligned.
Importantly, this includes regionally focused Liberal and Nationals MPs, who are setting their minds to a plan that will both preserve media coverage and choice in regional communities, while at the same time enable regional broadcasters to reverse their challenging financial experiences of recent years.
This is a very important piece of media reform. By any measure, if successful in the Senate, this will be a significant piece of legislative reform in its own right that will stand up against other significant pieces of legislation that the government has brought in, not just under Mr Turnbull's prime ministership but, indeed, under Mr Abbott's prime ministership as well. If there is any balance, if there is any sensible view, if there is any real understanding inside the minds of Labor Party senators, they will understand that the best way to arrest the financial decline, to arrest the increasing lack of viability in the Australian media industry, is to support these reforms.
What I would like to do is give a voice to some of those media operators, who know their industry the best, who know the industry much better than anyone here in this place, and encourage others senators to listen to the contributions that they have made in arguing for reform of their own industry. When other people argue for reform of their industry, whether it be public or private industry, we often hear Labor Party senators come into this place and give a voice to the virtues of those people who seek reform in other areas. But somehow, for some reason, when media operators themselves argue for reform they are treated with suspicion, they are treated with disdain. It is true that the Australian media market is tremendously competitive. The fact that operators themselves have been able to reach an agreement suggests that the issues are not just live for them but also very, very urgent and critical.
I would like to start with two of the more publicly challenged media operators in our country. Channel 10 and Senator Ludlam made some commentary in regard to some of the challenges that Channel 10 face, but Fairfax Media have done also. The Ten Network, in its submission to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee inquiry on the media reform bills made this comment. It said:
Removing these outdated media laws—
and I think it is important to remember that at this point I am focusing on the reach rule and the two-out-of-three rule, which are at the heart, if you like, of the consensus that we thought had been reached with regard to media reform—
is an important step in dismantling a set of regulations that are making Australian media companies less competitive in a global, converged media market at a time when the foreign technology companies continue to grow and dominate advertising revenue growth at astonishing rates.
By arbitrarily restricting Australian media companies’ access to scale, capital and cross-platform growth, the current rules threaten the ongoing viability of Australian diversity and a local voice.
I cannot help but go back to Senator McCarthy's contribution. What Senator McCarthy's contribution focused on was the importance of having local voices in our media, the importance of having local voices telling local stories in their local communities, in their regional and remote local communities, and they want to stand in the way of that one thing that media operators say will give voices and improve local content for those regional and remote communities.
Let me turn briefly to what Fairfax Media had to say in its contribution to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee inquiry on the government's media reform bills. This is important. I think it is fair to say that no-one has to deal more on a day-to-day basis with the challenges of a changing media landscape than Fairfax Media. Mr Greg Hywood's submission was in October 2016. That again demonstrates the length of time this debate has been happening but also the important progress it has made. On the issues, Mr Hywood said:
One of the most persistent has been the pervasive and increasing influence of the giant global search engines and social media platforms on the Australian media industry. From Fairfax Media's point of view, the extent to which these organisations, based offshore, are diverting advertising revenue away from and undermining Australian media companies that invest in local content and journalists and which pay taxes is one of the prime justifications for abolishing the current two-out-of-three restriction. This artificial and outdated restriction—
That is worth repeating:
This artificial and outdated restriction is a disincentive to investment in the Australian media and a severe brake on our ability to compete against global competition.
Let me put that a different way: the Labor Party's opposition to reform of the two-out-of-three rule is allowing an artificial and outdated restriction to continue to exist and is allowing a disincentive to investment in Australian media to continue exist and, by their actions, they are continuing to put a severe brake on the media industry's ability to compete against global competition. It is ironic because the things that Labor senators think they are protecting by opposing the two-out-of-three rule are in fact driving a further deterioration of the Australian media landscape in communities that are important to Senator McKenzie, who is in the Senate tonight, communities that are important to Senator Back and that he has represented this evening and, indeed, communities that are important to me.
I turn to the comments that Ian Audsley, Grant Blackley and Andrew Lancaster made in their contribution to the Senate committee inquiry. I draw this out particularly because I am not ashamed to say that, behind the scenes, the coalition worked assiduously to find consensus amongst Liberal and National Party regional MPs on this important issue and, to the great credit of many National Party MPs and many Liberal MPs representing regional communities, we found that consensus, and then the media industry itself found that consensus, and then we come to the Australian Senate and unfortunately Labor senators cannot find it in themselves to embrace sensible reform.
Let me just share with you what Ian Audsley, Grant Blackley and Andrew Lancaster said:
Surely, the evidence is clear. The case has been made. We doubt there is a politician in Canberra who wants to say they presided over an outdated regulatory regime that held back regional media.
We doubt there is a politician in Canberra who wants to say they presided over an outdated regulatory regime that held back regional media.
Perhaps it falls on me, Senator Back, perhaps it falls on me, Senator McKenzie, to name those politicians in Canberra in the Australian Senate at half past 11 on this Thursday night who want to 'preside over an outdated regulatory regime' that will hold back regional media interests. Let me name them: Senator Dastyari, Senator Pratt, Senator Bilyk, Senator Farrell—
Opposition senators interjecting—
I think I have made the point. But in all seriousness—and I have not reflected on Senator Ludlam's contribution, because if there is one person in this place who perhaps does know a lot about the Australian media industry and the changing nature of the media industry after Senator Fifield, it is probably Senator Ludlam.
This is a significant piece of reform. It deserves to be looked at dispassionately. People should put their historical and partisan prejudices behind them, because this is a historic media reform landscape package that will change the landscape, that will liberate local content in our country—
Senator Dastyari interjecting—
and that will well serve media operators as well as consumers. It deserves your support, Senator Dastyari.
Before I call Senator Back, with the indulgence of the Senate: Senator Back, I recognise that you are hoping this will be your final contribution to the Senate—and you have had more farewells than Dame Nellie Melba, might I say!—but on behalf of the Senate, and I think I speak for everyone in the chamber, I want to thank you very much for your contribution to this place. You have carried yourself with great dignity, and I wish you and your family very well for the rest of your married life and career.
Thank you, Acting Deputy President Bernardi. The chamber will be delighted to learn that I am not attempting to emulate Dame Nellie in terms of her beautiful soprano voice! But I want to associate myself with the comments that have been made by everyone in this debate this evening on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017, particularly as it relates to community radio. I want to share with you an experience I had in the days when there was an inadequacy of community radio, especially for those of us who needed it in the field of agricultural extension. I know that Senator Siewert was very active in this space. I was invited down to the great southern town of Kojonup, where I was asked to give a speech this particular night to a group of interested farmers on artificial insemination in sheep. Kojonup is the middle of the sheep-production area of Western Australia. They assured me that they would utilise the local community radio to publicise the event.
I drove down on a winter's night, about this time of year, down from Muresk college at Northam to Kojonup. I got down there, and I thought I had the right night—through you, Acting Deputy President, to Senator Smith—but the CWA hall was in darkness. There was one other car there, so I went over to this person and said, 'Isn't tonight the night?' He said, 'Yes it is. I'm here for it.' We found our way into the hall and turned the lights on. We waited for some period of time, and I said to him, 'Look, do you mind if I get underway with my speech?' He said, 'No, that's okay.' I had 80 slides, and I presented my slides—eloquently, I thought—on the question of artificial insemination in sheep. I asked him if there were any questions, and he said, 'No, I don't have any questions.' I said, 'That's okay. If you have no questions, do you mind if I pack up and get underway, because it's a three-hour drive back to Northam and there are kangaroos, it's dark, it's cold, it's wet and it's miserable, so do you mind if I get underway?' And he said, 'Hang on, what about me? I've sat here and listened through your speech; what about me?' I said, 'What about you?' He said, 'I'm the other speaker'!
It goes to show the importance of community radio, particularly in agricultural communities. Obviously I join with the comments of Senator McCarthy, followed up by those of Senator Smith in this space. And in all seriousness, that story I just told was actually not a true story. I have to tell you: it wasn't Kojonup; it was Katanning. But anyhow I got that a bit wrong; it was further away from Northam.
Only the other day in fact did I approach Minister Fifield, because I had had an approach from people here in the eastern states who run a Saturday morning community radio station—some of them ex-military, others of them simply community-minded, all voluntary. As part of the engagement, they said to me, ‘Look, is there any way in which we can secure additional funding, because our community radio program is so popular?' I am sure each of us in our various positions have been approached by constituents, particularly ethnic and other communities, who rely so heavily on their access to community radio.
For once, having approached the minister and having received the information that I did from him, I was able to go straight back to them and say, ‘You wouldn't believe it: funds were actually included in the recent budget, extending funding for community radio.’ When I communicated back to them, of course, as you could imagine, I immediately took credit for this and said that it had been my intense lobbying through to the minister that had attracted this funding.
I applaud, as part of this process, the extension of funding and the importance of community radio, and there has not been anyone who has spoken this evening who has been at variance with that particular view. I would just like to pick up on a comment that was made by Senator Paterson in what I regarded as an excellent contribution in this debate. He was talking of the fact that media has moved on. He used the horse-and-cart analogy and made the point that, by the time they got to some legislation associated with the use of horses and carts, they were long out of the scene and the horseless carriage had in fact made its approach into the major cities of the Western world.
Only days after the British election, early morning–I must have been preparing for my valedictory speech because I heard an interview hosted by Geraldine Doogue, a fine Western Australian. She was interviewing two senior journalists from the UK—one from the Conservative side of the British media, the other from the Labour side. The two of them were making this point: that the election of 2017 in the UK was the first time in which the importance of the print media was subordinate to the electronic and social media. One of them, who was a correspondent for The Times, made the observation—he said, 'I have two children,19 and 21, and neither of them, even though their father has been part of this world all of their lives, would pick up any print media ever.' Of course they obtain their news, their inputs, their communication et cetera through electronic media sources, be it Facebook, Google or many of the others.
Further to that comment, the point they made was this: in general terms, the print media had supported the Prime Minister, Mrs May, and the electronic and social media had supported the Labour leader, Mr Jeremy Corbyn. What was the impact of that? Of course, as we know from the Brexit vote, most young people in the UK did not turn out to vote, although they were keen to stay within the European economic community. We know that voting is not compulsory in the UK. They were supportive of staying in Europe but they did not vote but, as a result of the electronic media, if you like, campaigns that were conducted in favour of Mr Corbyn, they turned out en masse with the result that Prime Minister May did not get a majority in the House of Commons.
We see evidence in support of Minister Fifield's legislation here and we see this as a straight indicator of the radical movement now in how people get their news. The older generations—even Senator Bushby is probably in that category; I bet he gets the Hobart Mercury on a daily basis; I noticed Senator Abetz gets it in a print form. One generation uses print media; another generation would not know what print media was.
What this speaks to is the irrelevance now of the two-in-three rule. I, like Senator Smith, believe that Senator Ludlam is one of the most knowledgeable people in this space.
I was told that I could stop at five o'clock tonight and I would be out of here, Senator Dastyari, and here it is, a quarter to midnight, and I am still going. So no, I do not need his vote, but he is a fine Western Australian, and he is very, very knowledgeable in this space.
Well, thank you very much, Senator McKim! But it is the case that the two-in-three rule is redundant; it is out, finished. It is like the man who fell out of the balloon and just is not in it anymore. Therefore, we have to move with the times. We have to accept that at any time, at any moment, any one of us now—in fact, people who have no interest in what I am saying may well be doing it—can pick up any media outlet anywhere in the world instantly, electronically, on their mobile telephone. Therefore, what is the point of trying to slavishly adhere to legislation that was relevant 30 years ago—it was probably appropriate 30 years ago—but today is of absolutely no relevance at all?
A comment has been made this evening about the ABC and SBS. You could ask, 'Well, how does this relate to broadcasting legislation amendment?' Well, it is the case that, like it or not, the ABC and to a lesser extent SBS are in fact competing with the commercial media outlets. I have argued with the previous managing directors of both the ABC and SBS as to why they could not be brought together as one publicly funded broadcasting organisation. Mr Scott agreed with me; obviously the gentleman who ran SBS did not agree with me.
At that time—and I made the point then—if you remember, Australia was hosting the Asian soccer championships, and we had the ludicrous position in which only two entities competed with each other for the broadcasting rights. One was SBS, which, instead of using taxpayers' funds was going to actually go out and get sponsorship. And its competitor, who swamped it in terms of the quotient of the bid, was the publicly funded ABC, using taxpayers' money. You would have to ask the question: what was the validity of the ABC using taxpayers' money to beat the other publicly funded broadcaster, the SBS? Not only is that an organisation that would have used sponsorship money to do the broadcasting but, as we all know, it is SBS that is the home of soccer in this nation. When the World Cup is on, and other major events overseas, that is SBS's real thing. It goes to the point of just why we have the two publicly funded broadcasting organisations.
Again, it is the case that the ABC has to make its mind up about what space it wants to be in. In fact, as it moves into the digital age, to what extent, being publicly funded, should it have an advantage over commercial organisations? Fairfax has been mentioned here this evening. Journalists are being put off in their droves by that particular organisation. In the case of Fairfax Rural, for example, its resources to enable it to report rural news are very much more limited than those of the ABC.
Now, it would be easy for me, in my final contribution in this place, to reflect on my attitude towards the integrity of some of the productions of the ABC. But I am not going to do that at any length, except to place on record, for the last time, my absolute dismay and disgust at the duplicitous and false reporting by the Four Corners program, Ms Sarah Ferguson, of that horrific case that led to the ban on the exporting of live cattle from Australia. It is the case that she lied to me six times under oath in the Senate inquiry we had in the instance in which she named a particular cattle station in the north of Western Australia in connection with animals that had come from that station and been processed in an abattoir in Indonesia.
She wrongly reported the behaviour of those animals as in some way being fear related, when all they had was a metabolic condition called transit tetany. Worse than that, that family had hate mail for a long period of time. Six times I gave her the opportunity to confirm what I was telling her, and that was that she named that cattle station. I do not intend naming it this evening. Six times she denied it. She also denied to me that she did not, in fact, have it in her possession at the time she interviewed Mr Ken Warriner from Newcastle Waters, the then head of the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association, and Mr Luke Bowen, the chief executive of the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association. Both of those gentlemen believe she had not seen the footage supplied to her by activists when, indeed, she kept saying she had seen that footage. I certainly have evidence to confirm that she did not. That, I think, was a reprehensible circumstance and, as I said to the senior management of the publicly funded ABC, 'Is it not the case that you have got a responsibility in terms of assisting or at least commenting upon our relations with Indonesia?'
The other event which was very regrettable recently were the matters that led to the reporting of matters pertaining that became the royal commission into the activities of institutions in Darwin, in Don Dale, and the way in which that was reported. Against that, of course, over time that particular program, Four Corners, has been a highly reputable program, so I only say, as part of that contribution, I urge the ABC to be aware of its corporate and social responsibility.
I strongly support the move that is being made to ensure that there is a limit on the capacity of broadcasting of live gambling associated with live sporting activities in the presence of children. The reforms demonstrate, as it says here: 'The government is listening to the community on gambling advertising and will protect children while at the same time fostering a vibrant, competitive and sustainable media industry.' Nobody has enjoyed sport more than me. Nobody has enjoyed sport associated with having a bet more than me. But I think the community generally was disgusted when it got to the stage that in prime time, during live broadcasts of sport, we saw a burgeoning of advertising encouraging people to gamble, and we all know very well that children had that opportunity to be involved.
A question has been asked about these reforms that Minister Fifield wants to bring into place. Senator Ludlam quite rightly raised this issue when he asked: where is the increased high-quality Australian content going to be as a result of the move in this bill to remove, I think, the $60 million of licence fees? That is a perfectly reasonable question, and I have no doubt at all that the minister will be able to respond to those.
Abolition of broadcasting licence fees for television and radio—again, I remind those who might be interested in this debate to think about this: at any time you can grab information out of New York, you can grab it out of Al Jazeera, you can grab BBC World, you can grab 'chicken noodle news'—I mean CNN. You can get any of those instantly. You can get them here in the chamber tonight so long as your device is on quiet—through you to Senator Dastyari, Mr Acting Deputy President. So while the concept of wanting to charge this ridiculously high licence fee is spurious, at the same time I concur with Senator Ludlam. If that licence fee, which is revenue for the Australian taxpayer ultimately, is to be forgiven then where do we see the benefit that flows through to it? I simply say the two-in-three rule today is irrelevant. Print media will probably be a thing of the past within that five-year timescale that Senator Ludlam mentioned. The future of print media, I believe, is obviously very questionable. It was Senator Paterson who, I think, put the point quite eloquently: if you were investing or advising in that print media space, what would you be doing? I simply say that I commend this bill to the Senate. I certainly would be looking forward to the debate, but I will be visiting it from afar—hopefully at a place where they do not charge too many licence fees, Minister Fifield—and it is with regret that I will not be able to ask if I can seek leave to continue my remarks.
May I take this opportunity, as the speaker that follows Senator Back, to again acknowledge his contribution to the Senate over the time he has been here and to wish him very well and to thank him for what, once again and as always in this place, was an exceedingly compelling and erudite speech and a very compelling argument. I am sure that he has gone a long way to convincing some of those in this place who might have other thoughts as to where their votes might be that they should actually place their votes where they should be. I think you have convinced Senator Smith, if nothing else.
I also rise to talk on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017 and the Commercial Broadcasting (Tax) Bill 2017. This bill has developed over some time, and there has been a number of iterations and a number of different reforms that have been included in it. I note that the key elements to the package, as it currently stands, include: the abolition of the broadcasting licence fees for television and radio, allowing broadcasters to better compete with other media platforms; the introduction of a price for the use of spectrum by broadcasters that better reflects its use; protecting Australian children by banning gambling advertising during sports broadcast in children's viewing hours; amendments to the antisiphoning scheme and list; a broad ranging and comprehensive review of Australian and children's content; and a $30 million funding package for subscription television to support the broadcasting of women's and niche sports. However, what I intend to focus on primarily on in this bill are those parts of it which address the 75 per cent audience reach rule and the two-out-of-three rule. The reason I particularly intend to focus on that is I had the privilege of chairing the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee inquiry into a predecessor to this bill, which was the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Media Reform) Bill 2016, which focussed primarily on those issues.
The environment in which the media operates in 2017 is vastly different to that which existed throughout most of the 20th century. Disruptive use of information technology, particularly internet-based opportunities for distribution of news, ranging from individual bloggers to a plethora of social media options, through to the large media operators running internet-based news services, has seen traditional media business models blown away and totally turned on their heads. It has totally changed how people collate, distribute and consume their news. The changes proposed by the bill are a measured, carefully developed and well thought out response to this changing environment, and I congratulate the minister, who, of course, is sitting in front of me.
The Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee conducted a comprehensive inquiry into this bill late last year. At the time, I was the chair of that committee and chaired that inquiry. It followed an inquiry into an earlier version of the bill, which was conducted during the course of the previous parliament. The earlier version of the bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in March 2016. The provisions of that bill were also examined in that parliament by the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee. That committee received 21 submissions and conducted two public hearings. After considering that evidence on 5 May 2016, the earlier committee presented a report recommending:
It is worth noting that the bill only covered situations where a metropolitan broadcaster came to be in a position to control a regional broadcaster. After due consideration of the above recommendation, the earlier committee also moved on to recommend that the bill be passed.
I am pleased to note that, in the iteration of the bill that we looked at late last year, the government accepted the first recommendation of the earlier report. Accordingly, the bill that was introduced on 1 September 2016 differed from the earlier version by amendments that ensured the additional local programming obligations will be triggered if a regional broadcaster came to be in a position to control a metropolitan broadcaster. That showed the willingness of the government at that time to listen to sound argument and to adopt that sound argument into its bill. I think that the bill that is before us in this place today, which incorporates a whole range of other issues that needed to be addressed, also demonstrates the government's willingness to listen to good, sound argument and to act upon that and incorporate that into legislation it seeks to have enacted.
The bill considered by the environment and communications committee late last year was otherwise identical to the bill that was examined by the earlier committee. The more recent inquiry agreed to refer to the evidence received during the earlier inquiry. In addition, the committee wrote to individuals and organisations involved in the earlier inquiry, inviting them to provide updated information. The later committee received 12 submissions and also conducted a public hearing in Sydney. The report of the committee drew on the evidence and the findings of the earlier inquiry plus consideration of the additional evidence received during this inquiry, which means that it had quite a comprehensive range of evidence, both written and oral, from which to draw its conclusions.
My contribution in terms of the details of the bill, as I have mentioned earlier, will focus largely on the two-out-of-three rule and the 75 per cent reach rule and, in doing so, will focus largely on the findings of the inquiry from late last year. I will draw heavily on my chair's report as adopted by a majority of that committee in discussing that.
Let me now turn to the issues that I wish to address: the two-out-of-three rule and the 75 per cent reach rule. The Broadcasting Services Act 1992 includes five rules that limit the control of commercial broadcasting services, television and radio, and newspapers associated with the licence areas. The bill proposes, amongst other things, to repeal the following two rules: first, the 75 per cent audience reach rule. This rule provides that a person either in own right or as a director of one or more companies must not be in a position to exercise control of commercial television broadcasting licences whose total licence area population exceeds 75 per cent of the Australian population. This rule was first introduced as the 60 per cent reach rule in 1987 and was increased to the 75 per cent threshold in 1993.
The regulation impact statement published in the explanatory memorandum for the bill in late 2016 explains that the framework was based on the concept of control, not ownership per se. If a person has company interest exceeding 15 per cent, they are regarded as being in a position to exercise control of the company. However, holding company interest is not the only way to be in a position to exercise control. Another example of control is the ability to control the selection or provision of a significant proportion of the licensee's programming.
It is interesting to note that organic population growth does not result in the 75 per cent threshold being contravened. However, the current audience reach of the metropolitan networks and the application of the 75 per cent audience reach rule means that no metropolitan network can take over a regional network or acquire more licences without divesting one or more commercial television licences, which is very inflexible given the changing and dynamic nature of the current media landscape.
Second is the two-out-of-three cross-media control rule, which deals with television, radio and newspapers. This rule provides that mergers cannot involve more than two of three regulated media platforms: commercial television, commercial radio and associated newspapers in any commercial radio licence area. The two-out-of-three rule was introduced in 2006.
The three other rules which would remain if the bill were enacted include the five-out-of-four rule, which applies to television, radio and newspapers. This rule, which is also known as the minimum voices rule, is a requirement that at least five independent media operations or media groups must be present in the mainland state capital cities and at least four must be present in regional commercial radio licence areas. It is important to remember that that will remain even if this bill is enacted.
The one-to-a-market rule, which applies to television, is:
A person, either in their own right or as a director of one or more companies, must not be able to exercise control of more than one commercial television broadcasting licence in a licence area.
Again, if this bill is enacted, that will remain in place. The two-to-a-market rule, which applies to radio, is:
A person, either in their own right or as a director of one or more companies, must not be able to exercise control of more than two commercial radio broadcasting licences in the same licence area.
Again, no change to that rule is planned.
Under the BSA framework, a newspaper is associated with a television broadcasting licence, if more than 50 per cent of its circulation is within the relevant licence area; and with a commercial radio licence, if more than 50 per cent of its circulation is within the relevant licence area and the newspaper circulation covers at least two per cent of the licence area's population. National newspapers, such as The Australian and The Australian Financial Review, are not included in the definition of associated newspapers.
As mentioned, the arguments in support of the proposed measures stem from the technological changes and related developments that the media sector has faced. The arguments put by submitters to the inquiry that we conducted late last year include that, in recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that the 75 per cent rule does little to support media diversity as regional viewers essentially receive the same commercial television programming as metropolitan viewers due to affiliation or content supply agreements. In relation to the proposed abolition of the two-out-of-three cross-media control, as the rule focuses on traditional media platforms, it does not take into consideration the changed media landscape, where consumers access news content from alternative sources, such as online.
The technological change that has altered how media content can be consumed is strongly evidenced by the growing popularity of online content. Online video-on-demand services provided by international and domestic businesses distribute products throughout Australia without being subject to the ownership and control regulation rules in the Broadcasting Services Act. For example, the 75 per cent audience-reach rule prevents metropolitan television networks from broadcasting directly to 25 per cent of the population. However, this does not apply to online content. Clearly, it is a situation that is restrictive for those to whom the regulations apply.
Southern Cross Austereo noted at the inquiry that all three metropolitan television networks stream television programming—that is, online—with no regard for the exclusive broadcast licence areas and regardless of any cannibalisation this may cause to viewing or revenue in regional licence areas. The arrival of Netflix has crystallised the growing realisation that the existing media regulatory framework does not account for the internet. Indeed, Netflix's arrival represents for the first time a major media intervention in Australia that has not gone through a series of important regulatory gates.
In addition to online entertainment, the widespread popularity of online news services is another key development over recent years. As already noted, Australian newspaper businesses and other traditional Australian media companies operate websites used by many Australians to access their news. Contrary to Senator Back's assertion earlier on, I do not get Hobart's The Mercury in paper form anymore. I get the digital edition, as I imagine many other people do. He was actually putting me in the older generation. I find the digital edition fantastic for somebody who travels a lot because, as long as I have access to the internet, I can access the newspaper. That has advantages, but it demonstrates the changing landscape within which the additional media outlets now operate.
As already noted, Australian newspaper businesses and other traditional Australian media companies operate websites for the many Australians who access their news online—as do I and others now. However, international businesses also provide online news services with recent entrances in the Australian market, including local editions of The Daily Mail, The Guardian, Huffington Post and Buzzfeed. Online newspapers are not covered by the BSA ownership and control framework. It is clear that the rise of online services has had a significant effect on Australia's media sector. In particular, it highlights how the increase in online advertising services is affecting the advertising revenue on which media companies have traditionally relied.
As was noted at the hearing last year, Mr Greg Hywood, the chief executive officer of Fairfax Media, stated:
The traditional media companies, including publications like us, originally had two main sources of revenue. One was classified advertising and one was display advertising. As we know, over-the-top players have come into the market—such as REA, SEEK and Carsales—and taken that classified component which, for Fairfax, was probably 60 per cent to 70 per cent of our revenue. About another 25 per cent to 30 per cent was display advertising. Most that is now going to Google and Facebook.
Mr Hywood added that although the overall marketing spend in Australia is increasing, that increase does not outweigh the falling market share of advertising that traditional media companies are experiencing. On the consequences of this for Fairfax, he said:
… we are attempting to invest in Australian media and we are attempting to provide jobs for journalists, which provides the transparency that is so valuable to this community, on a smaller and smaller amount of money.
Mr Hywood informed the committee that US research shows that '85 per cent of new display advertising coming in to the US market is now going to Google and Facebook'.
If the proposed changes are enacted, consolidation within the commercial television sector will be possible, subject to the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 and other relevant laws. It is argued—in my view, compellingly—that this would allow greater scale in operations, allowing commercial broadcasters to compete in an environment where audiences can readily access premium content online. Evidence to the inquiry backed the conclusion that 'without some form of consolidation you are going to see less and less local information and less and less diversity in the voice from regional Australia'. This is because the current economic circumstances regional media companies face will mean that over time their finances will not allow continued investment in local content.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has also observed the 75 per cent audience reach rule and the two-out-of-three rule appear to be outdated as the result of technological change. As the May 2016 report on the earlier version of the bill discussed, the ACCC's views on this were informed by the review it completed in 2015 of a transaction involving the Ten Network and Foxtel. As an aside, of course, recently the Ten Network has gone into receivership—no doubt a reflection of the challenging media business landscape it faces with outdated restricted ownership rules. The ACCC's chairman, Mr Rod Sims, noted that streaming activities by the free-to-air networks made it difficult for their activities to be contained by the 75 per cent reach rule. Free-to-air networks are not as constrained by that rule as the traditional media outlets are. Mr Sims also noted that 'had there not been a 75 per cent reach rule, it is possible that other buyers could have met a more competitive outcome than the one we ended up with', maybe having some impact on the viability of the Ten Network. We will never know.
Notwithstanding the evidence regarding the financial challenges some media companies are facing and the view that certain aspects of the media ownership framework are obsolete due to technological change, the continued influence of Australia's traditional media companies is evident. Mr Tim Worner, the chief executive officer of Seven West Media, noted:
Over 70 per cent of Australians exclusively rely on free-to-air television for their news, their sport and their entertainment content.
Interestingly, Professor Michael Fraser, the former director of the now-closed Communications Law Centre of the University of Technology Sydney, stated:
While it is the case that many people, especially younger people, now obtain their content—including news and current affairs—online, much of that is parasitic on the mainstream media and is recycling content which others have invested in the production and distribution of.
Professor Fraser added that although there are online sources 'we are still in this transitional phase where people rely on the mainstream media', which is why it is so important to get the regulations that relate to mainstream media right so that they can continue to compete in this environment.
Although there is an expectation that the availability and popularity of online content will continue to grow, Professor Fraser argued that 'we will still need to ensure that there are mainstream providers of news and information which are regulated'—I would say appropriately—'so that the public has confidence in the professionalism and journalistic standards of fairness and accuracy in mainstream media.' To illustrate this point, Professor Fraser commented:
If you go online to any site, you do not know whether it is a dissident in Beirut or somebody in Glasgow pretending to be a dissident in Beirut—you take your chances. But we need to have confidence in a regulated mainstream. That is why I connect these two issues intimately.
The bottom line is that the question of diversity of sources must be linked with the standards that apply to the professional level of their production, especially fairness and accuracy.
The issues that need to be addressed relating to the application of the 75 per cent audience rule—I note I have 18 seconds left, so I am not going to get into that one too much—were clearly articulated as well during the inquiry by regional broadcasters. Although local news is produced, overall, no more than three per cent of that content is local and so it is very important that we make the changes that we are looking at today to ensure that we can— (Time expired)
Friday, 23 June 2017
I rise this evening to speak on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017 and Commercial Broadcasting (Tax) Bill 2017. It is with great pleasure that I do so, even at this very late—I should probably say early—hour because the history of broadcasting in Australia is inextricably intertwined with the history of Victoria, probably something that you were not entirely aware of, Mr Acting Deputy President Smith.
Can I tell you, as senator for Victoria, this is very exciting stuff for me. I do not know whether you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, but Australia's first two-way wireless telegraphy station was actually built in Queenscliff, Victoria, in 1905 by the Marconi radio company. There is something you did not know! Let me tell you something else that you probably did not know about Victoria's relationship with broadcasting: television in Australia actually began, experimentally, as early as 1929 in Melbourne, with radio stations 3DB and 3UZ using the Radiovision system that was invented by Gilbert Miles and Donald McDonald.
But it does not end there. In 1954, the government of Menzies—another fine Victorian, I might add—formally announced the introduction of a new two-tiered TV system, which was a government funded service run by the ABC and two commercial services in Sydney and Melbourne. Of course, it was the 1956 Summer Olympics, also held in Melbourne, that was the major driving force behind the introduction of television to Australia.
But it does not end there, even. Can I add one more little bit of parochial information on the relationship between Victoria and Australia's broadcasting history: it was, in fact, an interview with Dame Edna Everage that first appeared on HSV-7's first day of programming in 1956—Dame Edna Everage, of course, being a great Victorian. That was 60 years ago, and here she is still performing today. So it is only appropriate, I think, that the reforms that we are talking about today have been introduced to the Senate by yet another great Victorian, the Minister for Communications, Senator Fifield—
No, I will not start all over again! It is fantastic. As a senator for Victoria, it is an incredible honour to be able to speak on these broadcasting amendments today.
Indeed, times have changed over those many, many years—certainly, Network Ten's announcement just a couple of weeks ago that they were going into administration was terribly shocking but, I suppose, unsurprising. This government, the Turnbull government, and industry leaders have been warning for a very long time that Australia's media industry is under considerable pressure and desperately needs reform. While the government has sought to progress those important reforms, such as the abolition of the two-out-of-three rule since March 2016, Labor's response has been to frustrate and to delay the passage of that legislation. Labor has displayed a callous disregard for the impact of their actions and the impact that their actions are having on this industry, an industry that desperately needs reform, that is crying out for reform. Labor's gamesmanship has limited the options for organisations like Ten. The government's media reform package has the historic and unprecedented support of the entire Australian media industry, yet Labor continue to ignore these pleas. But the good news is it is not too late. Today we give those opposite a great opportunity to abandon that politically motivated opposition and show that they care about the Australian media industry and the men and women whose livelihoods depend upon it.
The government's reforms are vital measures that will unshackle Australia's media industry from redundant laws and allow it to best respond to the increasing international competition that it faces. Just last month, Network Ten's CEO, Paul Anderson, warned that the media sector was under extreme competitive pressure from foreign owned tech media giants. Mr Anderson has repeatedly pointed out that the current media rules, particularly the two-out-of-three rule, spoken about so eloquently by Senator Bushby, are stifling growth and threatening jobs. There is an awful lot of talk about media diversity, but the greatest threat to media diversity in this country would be the failure of our media organisations.
Previous speakers tonight in this chamber have spoken about the 75 per cent reach rule and the two-out-of-three cross-media control rule and how they will change under this legislation. They have also spoken about the rules that will not necessarily change: the five-four rule, the one-to-a-market rule and the two-to-a-market rule. I am not going to get into the weeds and discuss those changes in any great detail, but what I would like to do is talk about this legislation in the context of the overall broadcasting and content reform package that the government is introducing. These are landmark reforms that aim to protect children from gambling advertising, modernise and assist the broadcasting sector and also recognise the changing consumer viewing patterns for high-quality Australian content. The reforms that this government is introducing demonstrate that the government is actually listening to the community, in particular to the community's concerns on gambling advertising, and is acting to protect children while at the same time fostering a vibrant, competitive and sustainable media industry. These reforms, as I mentioned, enjoy the unanimous support of Australia's media industry, which is quite a breakthrough in this difficult sector.
Free-to-air broadcasters play a very important role in providing access to high-quality Australian content, such as sporting events, current affairs, drama and children's programs, to all Australians; however, they are operating in an increasingly competitive and challenging environment due to the entry of online service providers. Audiences now have unlimited viewing opportunities across more platforms than ever before. So this industry is crying out for modernisation. Audiences are increasingly fragmented, and the advertising revenue that is available to commercial broadcasters is falling as competition in this sector increases so dramatically. The coalition's broadcasting content reform package will modernise regulation and help position the broadcasting sector to adequately deal with existing and future challenges far more effectively.
There are six key elements to the broadcasting reform package. First and foremost is the abolition of broadcasting licence fees for television and radio, which will allow broadcasters to better compete with emerging media platforms, in particular online platforms. The second element is the introduction of a price for the use of spectrum by broadcasters that better reflects its use. The third element is protecting Australian children by banning gambling advertising during sports broadcasts and children's viewing hours. Fourth is amendments to the anti-siphoning scheme and list. The fifth element is a wideranging and comprehensive review of Australian children's content. And the final element of the package is a $30 million funding package for subscription television to support the broadcasting of women's sports and niche sports.
These reforms will ensure the ongoing production of very high quality Australian content and will strengthen the competitiveness of Australia's broadcasting sector. But the package also acknowledges that the broadcasting sector is facing increased competition and that the measures, such as the new gambling advertising restrictions, placed pressure on broadcasters. Hence the government's decision to abolish the broadcasting licence fees and also to make sure that the new restrictions on gambling advertising apply to all platforms, whether they be free to air, subscription or online. These changes in fees are very significant reforms for the broadcasting industry, and they build on the media reforms that we have already announced and that are before the parliament tonight.
I want to go through a couple of these other reforms that are an adjunct to this legislation. The broadcasting fees and the licence fees really are a relic of an analog media era and they cannot be justified in this increasingly competitive environment. The fees were introduced at a time when commercial broadcasters were in a completely different and highly privileged position to provide media content, and there was far more limited competition during that era. Today, the opposite of that is true. Commercial television and radio broadcasters compete on an entirely different playing field, with a range of subscription and digital providers, for audiences and for advertising dollars. The broadcasters are caught in this incredible pincer movement. Their revenues are flat or are declining, in real terms, as online and on-demand services draw audiences away from that traditional broadcast content. At the same time, costs are rising, and the capacity of broadcasters to contain that further cost growth is limited, given the need to invest in programming and technology across those multiple media platforms.
To enable broadcasters to compete in this modern media environment, the government, as part of this package, will abolish broadcasting licence fees—currently about $130 million per year—starting with the payment that would be payable in December 2017. Instead the government will introduce a price for broadcast spectrum that far more accurately reflects its use. The government has already reduced the licence fees that the broadcasters pay by 25 per cent. It did that in the 2016-17 budget. This was a very important first step in recognising the changing media environment, but it did not go far enough. The licence fees, as I have said before, are a relic of an era when commercial broadcasters were in a very privileged position to be highly profitable as a consequence of holding one of a very limited number of commercial broadcasting licences.
Owning a broadcasting licence no longer grants that same privilege of exclusive provision of content. Audiences can now choose to get their content from so many of those multiple services, and it no longer makes any sense at all to impose an outdated tax on businesses whose competitors pay no such fees. This is a levelling of the playing field in the new era we now find ourselves in. There is no longer a case for licence fees. There is no point in reducing them further, and they should be abolished entirely. The rationale for maintaining the tax on commercial broadcasters has been entirely eroded. We could drop the fees to a lower level—that is true; that would potentially be an option. Nonetheless, it would constitute the maintenance of a tax that really is no longer justified at all. That is item No. 1 in the broader package of reforms.
The second very important measure is spectrum pricing. The new spectrum price for television and radio is to be set at a total of around $40 million. The first spectrum payment is to be paid in the 2017-18 year. Unlike broadcast licence fees, the spectrum fee is not paid on revenue. Rather, the price takes account of the type of transmitter that is used and the amount and the type of spectrum that is used and its location. It is a very similar approach that applies to other spectrum users. Overall, the vast majority of broadcasters will pay considerably less in spectrum fees than they currently pay in licence fees, an announcement that has been met with enthusiasm from the industry. The fee relief will enable broadcasters to better compete with their online competitors, invest in their businesses and produce greater Australian content. However, there are a small number of broadcasters that will face a small net increase overall in the charges. The government's intention is to support those broadcasters to ensure that they are no worse off, by providing a five-year transitional support package.
Broadcasting licence fees are just one of the many taxes that are imposed on Australian broadcasters. This particular tax was implemented at a time when broadcasters held that very privileged position in the content market, and, just as the broadcasters no longer hold that position, the ongoing imposition of this additional tax really cannot be justified. There is absolutely no rationale any more for broadcasting licence fees if broadcasters are not earning those excessive economic returns. Their new competitors, such as Netflix and YouTube, do not pay them at all. Importantly, many commercial broadcasters, particularly radio broadcasters, are very, very small businesses. There are currently 274 commercial radio broadcasting licensees in Australia. Many of these operate at only the local level and they serve a very, very important role, delivering news and entertainment to the thousands of communities across Australia. Finally, Australia's commercial broadcasters provide Australian audiences with free access to truly iconic and cultural sporting events, to news, to current affairs and to high-quality entertainment. It is very important, therefore, that our regulatory frameworks do not impede the ability of Australian businesses to continue to fulfil this very, very important role.
The way the spectrum fees are set is at a level that far better reflects the value of that spectrum. The fees will, of course, vary depending on the kind of transmitter that is used and the location of that transmitter.
Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—
It is very late. The approach is the same as many other spectrum users.
It is; it is fantastic. I have been working on it for hours! There are some broadcasters, as I mentioned earlier, who will be worse off under these changes. The vast majority will be better off, but there will be a few that are worse off. The government recognises that it can take time for businesses to transition to this new fee model—especially if their revenues have been low.
Senator McKenzie interjecting—
Senator McKenzie, wait until I get to regional and rural transmitters.
I will be on that in a moment. The transitional support package will ensure that broadcasters are no worse off as a result of those changes. It gives broadcasters certainty for the next five years that their fees to government will not increase, and gives them time to review their operations.
Regional Australia—I can see Senator McKenzie is jumping out of her seat wanting to know how these changes in this reform package will affect regional Australia. As I told you, the vast majority of broadcasters are better off. You should know, Senator McKenzie, that, as with other spectrum users, one of the things that has been factored into the pricing is location. Of course regional and rural providers will not suffer under this transition, you will be very pleased to know.
There are so many other things that I am going to talk about in my next 2½ minutes. One of the things I should tell you about—
I should yes—is digital radio and community broadcasters, because that is obviously very important. The pricing structure does not apply to those groups. The national and community broadcasters, they were not paying existing broadcast licence fees, so obviously to oppose a spectrum fee would be—
Senator O'Sullivan interjecting—
I could start again if you like, Senator O'Sullivan. You missed the first part, and it was excellent. To impose a spectrum fee on those broadcasters would obviously be unfair; it would increase their fees, if they were not paying them already. While commercial digital radio providers do pay some broadcast licensing fees, the government is not proposing the imposition of a spectrum fee on this type of service at this stage.
In the two minutes that I have left, I could probably go into the restrictions on gambling advertising. This is a particularly exciting area of reform. The coalition has taken the opportunity to provide a community dividend from these broadcasting reforms. We are responding to the widespread community concerns about the prevalence of gambling advertising during live sporting events, which ratings data indicates are very popular with children and with young audiences. This will prevent young viewers being bombarded with gambling advertisements during live sport. There is a safe zone—it is called a 'safe zone' now—platform for children watching live sport, and it will be very straightforward for families to observe. That applies up to 8.30 pm, but it does not necessarily mean that viewers will be bombarded after 8.30 pm.
I have so much more to say about this. I will just reiterate a few points about how important the history of broadcasting is to the great state of Victoria. I do not know whether I told you at the very beginning that radio actually started in Victoria at Queenscliff with the Marconi company and that the first television broadcast in Australia was also in Melbourne in the 1920s and that it was, in fact, Robert Menzies, another great Victorian, who introduced television broadcasting to Australia in 1956 in response to the Melbourne Summer Olympics, also held in Melbourne.
I am just going to say one extraordinarily important thing: this is a very, very important reform. The strength and the viability of the Australian media voices can only be enhanced by allowing the industry more options for how it configures itself. This legislation, which will give effect to the government's very comprehensive reform package, has been introduced by the eminently capable Minister for Communications, Senator Fifield, a great Victorian. This is the time to step up. It is now time for the parliament to come together. We can all come together here and now to support this package as a whole and give Australian media organisations a fighting chance.
I do not know how I can follow on from such a fantastic effort. I have 19 minutes and 53 seconds. Not only is it about 20 to one in the Senate, but for those listening at home—and I want them to visualise this—what is surprising and very interesting about tonight is that there are a lot of senators in this chamber. Normally, when you speak late at night when you have the open-ended adjournment, there will be just a couple of senators in the chamber. One or two may have wandered in by accident. But tonight there is a huge crowd of senators in the chamber.
With your indulgence, Mr President, I would like to pay tribute while I can to Senator Back—and it is not just because he gave me his microwave, which I am very grateful for. I got the microwave, so I am very happy about that. Senator Back, you will be missed. Your wit and your wisdom will be missed.
But I am here tonight to talk about the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017.
I will, Senator Macdonald; I will get on with that. But before I get onto it, I just want to tell a story. A couple of weeks ago I was driving down from Longreach through to Charleville and I stopped in a little town called Blackall. And this is where media reform is very interesting. In Blackall there is a little newspaper called The Barcoo Independent.
I do not know whether it is the outer Barcoo or the inner Barcoo, Senator Back! TheBarcoo Independent is a weekly newspaper and it costs $2. I know that we are talking about broadcasting media reform, but what is interesting is that this newspaper was asking for people to donate reams of paper. A community newspaper privately owned—not a News Limited paper or anything like that—was finding it so hard to operate in a small country town in Queensland that it was asking members of the community to donate reams of A3 paper to help it put out its publication each week. On a much lower level, that shows what we are trying to achieve here with the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017—and that is to make sure that our media organisations continue to survive, continue to be diverse and continue to provide a service to consumers in Australia who desire to have information, shows and products through the media organisations so they can be better informed. If we do not support this bill, what will happen is that in five or 10-years time—and we can see it already with Channel 10—we will be passing around the collection bucket, just like TheBarcoo Independentis doing, to make sure our media organisations can be sustainable and continue to operate and provide a service to the Australian people.
The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017 forms part of a historic package of media reforms that Minister Fifield, along with the Prime Minister, announced back in May this year that will improve the sustainability of our free-to-air broadcasting sector. Another bill that forms part of the package is the Commercial Broadcasting (Tax) Bill 2017. This bill comprises the following measures. It reforms outdated media regulations contained in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 to better reflect the contemporary digital media environment. This includes repealing the 75 per cent audience reach rural and the 'two out of three' cross-media control rule. It will introduce some additional local programming obligations under the Broadcasting Services Act for regional commercial television broadcasting licensees where, as a result of a change in control, their licences becomes part of a group of commercial television licences whose combined licence area populations exceed 75 per cent of the Australian population. There will be amendments to the anti-siphoning scheme under the Broadcasting Services Act and the anti-siphoning notice. It will permanently abolish annual television and radio licence fees and datacasting charges payable by commercial broadcasters and will remove apparatus taxes payable by commercial broadcasters. It will establish tax collection assessment arrangements for the new interim transmitter licence tax and establish a statutory review of new tax arrangements in 2021, consistent with the broader review of spectrum pricing that is underway.
Senator Brandis interjecting—
Senator Brandis is telling me to put some passion into it.
So, it will establish a transitional support payment for 19 commercial broadcasters to ensure that there is no commercial broadcaster that will be worse off during the first five years as a result of the transition from a revenue based licence fee and charge arrangement to a new interim transmitter licence tax arrangement.
Before I go into further detail I would like to say that these reforms demonstrate that the government is listening to community concerns about gambling advertising and will act to protect children while at the same time fostering a vibrant, competitive and sustainable media industry. These reforms that are before the Senate this evening enjoy the unanimous support of Australia's media industry. If you know anything about our media industry—and a lot of people tonight have expressed how much they do know about Australia's media industry—it is interesting that the fact that the industry has come together with unanimous support for this package shows that this is a good thing, because they are diverse: we have the big players, the small players; we have those that target different markets. So it is very, very important to listen to the industry in terms of what the industry understands is in the best interests of the long-term survival and viability of the Australian media industry.
Free-to-air broadcasters play an important role in providing access to high-quality Australian content such as sporting events, current affairs, drama and children's programs, and they provide that to all Australians. However, they are operating in an increasingly challenging environment due to the entry of online service providers. Audiences now have viewing opportunities across more platforms than ever before. What we have to understand, especially for those people who are listening at home, whether you are sitting around the wireless or you are out on the tractor or wherever you may be—
Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—
Well, there could be some late cane harvesting happening, Senator Macdonald—very late cane harvesting—although it would be very surprising if that was happening. But there has not been a serious reform of Australia's media really since the internet exploded onto the scene in Australia. That is a very important point, because the internet can be an unregulated market, in a way, and it has had a massive disruptive effect on our free-to-air broadcasters. This bill today is trying to achieve reform in this industry that can ensure that the industry continues to thrive and, unlike TheBarcoo Independent, will not be calling for people to provide reams of A3 paper.
Audiences are becoming increasingly fragmented, and advertising revenue for commercial broadcasters is falling as competition in the sector increases. Our broadcasting and content reform package will modernise regulation and help position the sector to deal with these existing and future challenges more effectively. The key elements of this package include the abolition of the broadcasting licence fees for television and radio, allowing broadcasters to better compete with better media platforms.
This goes back to my earlier point in terms of how the internet and online portals are behaving in such a disruptive manner against the traditional free-to-air broadcasters. It is introducing a price for the use of spectrum by broadcasters that better reflects its use. It will protect Australian children by banning gambling advertising during sports broadcasts in children's viewing hours. This is a very important reform in that one of the many complaints we get on this side of chamber, which we have listened to, is the growth of gambling ads and how people are unhappy that gambling advertising is taking place during sports shows, especially when children are watching sport and are connecting gambling with sport. We want to make sure that children are focusing on the benefits of sport and competition and make sure they understand that sport is not often about a financial gain; it is about competing and winning.
Amendments will be made to the antisiphoning scheme and there will be a broad-ranging and comprehensive review of Australian and children's content. There will be a $30 million funding package for subscription television, to support the broadcasting of women's sports and niche sports. That is something that we should all encourage. Speaking as a Queenslander, the State of Origin was on last night—
The State of Origin was broadcast on free to air, but it is a popular sport, especially in Queensland, in Senator Macdonald's home town of Ayr but also where his office is, in Townsville—which I think, Senator Macdonald, should be renamed Thurstonville to reflect Johnathan Thurston and what a magical person he is and what an all-round decent person he is. But I digress. As important as the major sports like rugby league, netball and soccer are, we have got to look at the niche sports. This is what this package will do, in terms of promoting niche sports. I have been lobbied, for example, in relation to lawn bowls. I would not call lawn bowls a niche sport. I would say it is a mass participation sport. It is very popular up in Queensland, especially in the winter months.
These reforms will ensure the ongoing production of high-quality Australian content. When you think about the quality of some of the programs that have been produced over the years, like TheSullivans or The Flying Doctors and programs like that which reflected the Australia of that particular time but also a changing Australia, you can see that Australia produces some fantastic content for television that is spread around the world. Our television programs are electronic ambassadors for our country in the message that they take to the world. Any of us who has spent any time in the United Kingdom will know that those in the United Kingdom see Australia through the prism of Home and Away and Neighbours and—they do not call it Prisoner; they call it Prisoner: Cell Block H. I think The Sullivans was a great drama. What I am trying to say is: we produce high-quality television programs in this country and we should be proud of that. This package will ensure that we continue to produce high-quality television programs.
This package also acknowledges that the broadcasting sector is facing increasing competition and that measures such as the new gambling advertising restrictions will place pressures on the broadcasters. With these reforms that have been put through Senator Fifield, the government has deliberately gone out and listened to the media industry and asked: what can we do in order to help you survive; what can we do to help you provide jobs for thousands of Australians; what can we do to make sure that your industry not just sustains itself but grows in the decades to come? That is why the government has decided to abolish broadcasting licence fees. There are new restrictions on gambling advertising. As I mentioned earlier, gambling advertising is not popular in the community, especially when children are watching television programs. These new restrictions on gambling advertising should apply to all platforms—free-to-air, subscription and online.
These changes in fees are significant reforms for the broadcasting industry and they build on the media reforms that we have already announced and that are currently before parliament that look to abolish the two-out-of-three rule and the 75 per cent reach rule.
It is very important. I want to make the point, Senator Macdonald, that the government would really like to thank the broadcasting sector for engaging with the government in such a constructive and cooperative manner. It is a little disappointing, Mr President, that everyone has stopped listening to me and is watching the person over there. I will continue speaking because I think these bills are very important. I would like to continue to thank the broadcasting sector. This is a significant reform in an area where reform is hard. It has only been possible with the good faith engagement of the broadcasting and media sector. The government is seeking the passage of these bills to implement these reforms. I would like to move to spectrum pricing.
Honourable senators interjecting—
If you would like me to wind up now, I am more than happy. If you want me to sit down now, I will commend the bills to the House.
That the debate be now adjourned.
I do so because of the desire of colleagues to conclude the Australian Education Amendment Bill 2017 and also because, on the broadcasting bills before the chamber, a number of crossbench colleagues wish to continue discussions and negotiations with the government and the government also wishes to continue discussions and negotiations with the crossbench. So this is a decision of the government that we are putting to the chamber.
Question agreed to.