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Tuesday, 15 October 2002
Page: 7577

Mr HATTON (5:36 PM) —The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2002 has been a long time coming to this House. It is a bill that the government has looked forward to passing for a considerable period. Indeed, when those opposite came to government in March 1996, this kind of legislation was on their minds. In October 1996, it was on the minds of the now Prime Minister and Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. They indicated their determination to break the existing media ownership rules and to put in their place an entirely different regime.

This bill and its provisions are a wonderful example of the diversity of opinion in the Australian parliament between the government and the opposition. We can have different points of view, seen by both sides as being valid. We can argue those out; we can put them to this House and to the Senate. Proposed legislation can either be voted through or voted down. In the past, the government's attempts to put these kinds of measures through have been voted down. We expect that when this bill goes to the Senate this time, after considerable debate, it will be voted down again. We also expect that the government will be able to wander along to the media operators and say, `Well, we tried. We tried to open things up. We tried to create more room for you to move.'

At the very beginning of the debate on this particular bill—though this debate effectively started many years ago—the Labor Party, in terms of broader principles, announced that it would not support the legislation. One can understand the government's approach, the philosophical underpinnings of that approach and the arguments they have put forward. I will go in some detail to some of the arguments that have been put forward, particularly those of the member for Curtin. That was an interesting set of arguments, and it has a philosophical underpinning. You can readily understand the purchase that that has not only on the member for Curtin but also on other members of the coalition—that it seems as though a breaking of the current provisions would incline people to have a greater freedom of expression, a greater general freedom. That is the general argument put forward not only by the member for Curtin but also by others on the government side.

I would also like to go to the fact that this has been looked at over a broad period. If we encompass the entire history of Australia—not only the history of the Commonwealth of Australia over more than 100 years but the entire history of Australia since colonisation in 1788—there has not been a great deal of media diversity around the place. There has not been a great deal of media diversity in Sydney, the biggest market in Australia. We have not had that many newspapers, gazettes or journals offering different approaches.

Let me look at one of the problems of the current period. As the technological capacity for greater diversification becomes readily more apparent, more open and cheaper to operate, we should have a greater diversity not only of ownership but also of opinion. But all we need do is look at the news from 5 o'clock to 7 o'clock on any weekday. We will see the editorial decision making in terms of which bits of news footage—largely from overseas, but also from continental Australia—to run. There is an absolute underlying conformity. It does not matter whether it is Channel 2, 7, 9, 10 or SBS, though SBS is a little different from the others because of its market approach. The editorial tendency is to fashion one product and make the market homogeneous. That is a strange and anomalous thing. The capacity is there to put out differing opinions and take entirely different approaches, and that capacity is much greater than it has been in the past. With the new technologies that are available through the Internet, having a say and being able to disseminate information should allow for a much greater openness and a much greater freedom of expression. Yet there is a sameness about what is done. There is a greater sameness in part because the coalition is in power.

Since 1996, I have noted that, by and large, the journalists in Australia have become timorous in regard to criticising the government. We know from debate earlier today on this bill and from observation that some people have wanted to give a kick to conservative or neoconservative commentators. There is a legion of conservative commentators who have made it their life's work to support the coalition, both in government and in opposition. We should not be surprised about this, because media companies and media ownership in Australia have largely been held through a conservative enclave and a conservative entity—from the Age in Melbourne to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Telegraph and the Australian in all their guises. There are those who have and those who have controlled because in the past they owned the dominant forms of print media—both the Packer and Murdoch empires as they have been built up and as they had extended themselves into the television area.

It is not surprising that people with enormous clout because they own newspapers, television stations and, in the past, things like the Macquarie network, have an enormous capacity, through the power of their ownership and through the power of their money, to influence the way society is constructed and to put forward demands to this parliament as to how media ownership should operate. It is not surprising that they would adopt a conservative approach. And they have, time and time again, in the history of this country. They are not for an opening up and diversification of ownership. It is in their economic interests to keep it tight and keep it running as it is.

This runs into a broader area. It is a great problem for the future of Australia with the government hell-bent on selling the last 51 per cent of Telstra. Looking at what has happened over the past number of years, particularly the last three years, I think, with the different management style that Telstra have undertaken after the sell-off firstly of a third and then the next 16 and two-thirds per cent, we have seen the entrepreneurship in buying up pretty dud properties in Singapore and elsewhere, taking on debt where they were looking for equity and great gains. There have been bad decisions and bad acquisitions that have been to the cost not only of the specific shareholders of the 49 per cent that is in private ownership but also of everybody else—the almost 20 million people who still own 51 per cent of that entity. It is an area where there should be great concern because Telstra basically have said that they would like to buy the Nine Network—effectively, they would like to buy up PBL. They would like to aggregate ownership in the general content area and also in the broadcast area and create the situation where they are still an effective monopoly within the communications area but they can add to that in the broadcasting area as well.

One would not have to think too hard to actually think that there is a proposition here. Maybe it is like when Alan Bond wandered onto the scene and offered Kerry Packer a deal that he could not refuse. He sold the Nine Network to Alan Bond and then bought it back later at a considerable profit—smart business on Mr Packer's part and dumb business on Mr Bond's. We may have a situation here where, if the company that is in effect in a monopoly situation in communications is allowed to buy its way into the broadcasting area, it may in fact be setting itself up to be owned by Mr Murdoch and Mr Packer. We have already seen a series of arrangements across the pay TV media, through the broadcast area and the telecommunications area where what should be the main competitors are actually acting in concert time and time again, and doing so in relation to both Optus and Telstra as well.

If the people who are running Telstra now have their way and buy into the Nine Network, buy into the media in that way, it may well be that Mr Packer—no doubt in conjunction with Mr Murdoch, because they are used to doing these sorts of deals—ends up effectively having a monopoly of the most significant Australian media, not only the old broadcast media but the new media that promises so much. That new media is nascent; it is only just emerging and being born. That new media has the possibility of having a vast range of ownership, a vast range of people with the capacity to put forward different ideas, to run different debates and to see things possibly differently, and the possibility of not being entirely homogenised by the process of either community expectation or the process of the editorial demands of the Murdoch and Packer empires, or those people who run SBS and the ABC who want to run with the pack and not be too far outside what the private broadcasters are putting forward.

So Labor is opposed to this bill which seeks to entirely deconstruct and dismantle the current restrictions on media ownership in Australia. We think it is a bad thing to allow proprietors to own not only the major newspapers but also the major radio sources and the television in a city like Sydney, and also in the future to own the new technology rights in a city of five million or so people. That is not a bad thing for Packer or Murdoch, or anyone else who has current economic power because they have the dough and the profits in their pockets. But they are also the ones who have market dominance through the work that they have done to build up their companies. They have a right to compete in the market, but they should not own the whole thing and they should not monopolise it.

The government has put forward arguments. The member for Curtin has argued that a liberal democracy has as its foundation particular freedoms and that one of those fundamental freedoms is free expression. She hopes that this bill will actually advance that. The poor old ALP, in her view, is chained to a pledge that subjugates individual expression to group goals. Well, my word, what a terrible thing! I am actually allowed to get up and make my own speeches but those speeches are within the framework of our party policy position. They are within the framework that we have determined collectively as a group. I will plead guilty to that. She thinks, though, that that has actually distorted social democratic politics in this country for over a century. Oh, isn't that terrible!

I suppose it did distort politics in this country for a century, because before the Labor Party came along there were not any full parties—the Whig like or Tory like groups—within Australia. They were basically divided up between Victoria and New South Wales, between the Victorian manufacturing protectionists and the free-trading agricultural groups in New South Wales. But under the threat of one group of people, the Labor Party, working out their policy and voting together as a group, giving the pledge and having a concerted policy position that they would agree to on all things and by arguing forcefully for that within the parliament, these people actually got themselves together and formed the first fusion or Liberal Party in, I think, about 1907. The Liberals, in fact, have followed us in that, but what they have kept is the idea that they have free expression and that they do not actually line up and have a policy position that everybody has to be aligned to. I think they are actually a bit smarter than the Democrats, who, if they have seven or more people in the Senate, end up with 42 different policies—

Mr Tanner —Is that all?

Mr HATTON —At the current count—while they are still there and while the progressive centre has not moved off to form its own entity and take away party rights from those in the Democrats. But they have a total licence in that regard.

I have seen very few examples of government members coming in, bill after bill, to vote against the government. By and large those members are cowered—as are a lot of people in the press gallery in Canberra—by the fact that there is a conservative government in power. They are cowered not only by the people who run the major media organisations but also by the people who control most of the content or the output of this place. They are very reluctant to get in and put the boot into the government. There are some who professionally do that because they have marked themselves out in that way. But that reluctance was not there during the 13 years of Labor being in office, when it was a case of `one in, all in' and the stronger the steel capping on the toes to boot the government with, the better.

When Labor was in government, people did not seem to mind too much when it got a real belting from media entities, but the whole tone has lowered since this lot came into office. There may be a reason for that. However it happens, psychologically journalists are shackled to the fact that they should not kick the government too much as it will bite their heads off if they do. They did not have that problem with us. It is something that Labor should reconsider when in government and should take a different approach to that which was taken in the past. By and large, the sameness of editorial approach from this press gallery is the sameness the government would inflict on us if this bill is passed.

This is not a bill for openness, diversity and freedom of expression. It is not a bill, as the member for Curtin thought, which should be guaranteed by a free society. She identified `the broader apparatus' of a free society as the right to property, to self-defence, to democratic and parliamentary institutions and the right of freedom of movement, particularly immigration. If she has not caught up with it, the current government is not particularly happy about freedom of movement, particularly of immigration—people deciding of their own free will and free expression to bring themselves to Australia.

The member for Curtin alluded to the idea of an open society and the fact that a free press can guarantee the rights of people. She argued that the key intermediaries between this parliament and the rest of our society are members of the press, both here and more broadly, and I think she is right. This bill would condemn the freedom that is currently there. The previous government had the courage to put some restrictions on ownership, to regulate to try to ensure that there was a bit of diversity not only in ownership but also in opinion in regional Australia.

The great waves of movement that we have had right across Australia in government institutions, departments and Australian companies reflect the same rationalisation. The cutting back of the people employed and the infrastructure of private companies and public entities has had the effect of homogenising not only companies and governments but also media ownership and control within country areas. This bill, while throwing up a patina of concern about how things should be managed in regional Australia to try to keep the current controls there, actually lays open the wastage of diversity that we have seen for more than a decade in regional Australia. Members who come from regional Australia understand how important it is to regulate and legislate for some controls so that regional Australia receives the coverage that the rest of Australia enjoys. This also ensures that one family, one set of interests, does not control the joint, as the National Party used to do in Northern New South Wales. When Doug Anthony was Deputy Prime Minister, his mob controlled the local news. (Time expired)