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Monday, 1 December 2003
Page: 23362

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (6:26 PM) —I was not going to speak on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2002 [No. 2] but the dramatic political events of the last few days have caused me to decide that I ought to speak up and tell a few home truths to that small, hardy political band out there who listen to the broadcasts of parliament. Generally, most of us remain silent about the issue of media concentration in this country. I think those of us in politics do so sometimes out of fear or out of the hope of political advancement but, from my point of view, it is time that I stated some of the things that I have learnt in my 15 years in state and federal parliaments about this issue of media ownership and concentration.

Australia has a very healthy democracy. We have one of the best functioning democracies, if not the best functioning democracy, in the world. The biggest blot on that democracy is the state of our media concentration: the fact that we have only a handful of news outlets who present news to us ordinary Australians from which we can get our understanding of news and current affairs and make our political assessments. This is very unhealthy, and the way in which it operates for our democracy is not healthy.

I can remember back in the eighties the electoral success of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments. It has been the case over the years that the commercial media have tended to be anti Labor and have played a major role in securing the defeat of the Labor Party at elections. There is no doubt in my mind that the Hawke and Keating governments were very effective Labor governments. Bob Hawke was a terrific and inspiring political leader. Indeed, I have had occasion to hear him in the last couple of years speaking on issues of public policy and it seems to me that perhaps we in the Labor Party—and in the broader Australian community—are a bit ageist because, if we are talking about leaders, Bob Hawke is someone who continues to display a great grasp of what is going on in the country and an ability to communicate that vision. There is no doubt that during the eighties his government received some political comfort from the large media proprietors, which was unusual for the Labor Party, and that came at a time when they delivered commercial advantages to those large media proprietors in the shape of reducing restrictions on media ownership, particularly as they applied to owning and operating more than one newspaper across a range of cities. During that period the Labor Party enjoyed a good, and even sometimes a cosy, relationship with some of those media proprietors, but those people ultimately were not satisfied with those media ownership changes. Indeed, they are never going to be satisfied: it is always in the nature of commercial organisations that they want new decisions made which will enhance their opportunities to build profit.

In around 1995 there was a well-known falling-out between then Prime Minister Paul Keating and the Packer group over the question of what amounted to offering a regional monopoly for Optus. The message from the Packer camp to Paul Keating was: if you do not do as we suggest, we will get you. Some would think that they did, because a very strong campaign came from that commercial media network against Paul Keating and in favour of John Howard, who was indeed successful in the 1996 federal election.

The significance of that to this debate is that the commercial media in this country have it in for federal Labor because we will not support the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2002 [No. 2]. We will not support it, because it reduces the cross-media ownership rules and it allows large media organisations—such as the Murdoch organisation, the Packer organisation and the Fairfax organisation—to grow in size and to expand both their political power and their commercial power to make money from that change. We do not think that this is in Australia's public interest, and we oppose it. As a result, those major commercial media enterprises have it in for us.

That is what this bill is all about. It is the backdrop to federal political discourse in this country. This bill is about Prime Minister Howard and the Howard government delivering to the Packer organisation, the Murdoch organisation and the Fairfax organisation what they want by way of commercial objective. As a result of our opposition to that, media throughout the past few years have been relentlessly anti federal Labor. They are frequently—almost always—anti Labor, but they now have a specific grievance: our failure to support this bill. That is why this bill underpins all current federal political discourse. This is not usually made plain, but let me quote what Mr Bruce Wolpe of Fairfax indicated to the journalist in relation to this bill when he was interviewed on The World Today on Thursday 6 November, less than a month ago. Mr Wolpe said:

You also discuss the consequences of people not coming to the table, engaging with the Government and those of us who support the bill on the legislation, because there are consequences that flow from rejection.

The questions, of course, are: who might those people be and who might these consequences be for? Later on in the interview, Mr Wolpe gave a clear answer to those questions when he said:

We keep talking to everyone who has not taken themselves off the table in this debate. Labor has taken themselves off the table in this debate, it's not interested in a serious debate on this.

The Fairfax lobbyist made plain in that interview that Fairfax are dissatisfied with Labor's position on this bill and that there are consequences which flow from that. So the message from those large commercial media chains—Packer, Murdoch and Fairfax—to us is: `We will hammer you. We will hammer the Labor Party until you pass this bill.'

When it comes to how this is worked out in practice, you need only look at the recent events in relation to Simon Crean's leadership of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. There have been incessant editorials and commentaries in those papers saying that we must change our leader. But will they support us afterwards? No. Indeed, there is a reasonable prospect that they will complain that the Labor Party got rid of Simon Crean and talk about what a decent leader he was. I do not want to suggest that there were not some people who were engaging in undermining him, but there is no question that the media organisations picked this up with relish and enthusiasm. My personal experience, having put out what must amount to hundreds of press releases during the past couple of years in my environment portfolio, has been that the commercial media take no interest in these press releases at all, yet I field any number of calls and requests for interview on the question of leadership of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. The media has used that question as a means of undermining and attacking the federal Labor Party.

We have taken a position of principle on this bill. Occasionally people say that the Labor Party fail to take positions of principle. That is not correct; we have taken a position of principle on this bill—and, indeed, we are paying a price for it. I will talk a little further about the sort of price you pay in these circumstances. In my own portfolio area, we release policies but none of the commercial media take the slightest interest in them. Given that polling frequently shows that the environment rates in third place in issues of public concern behind only health and education—that is, it is the third-largest issue of public concern—you would think that perhaps the views of the federal parliamentary Labor Party were worth mentioning. We have been putting those views forward. Whether it is on land clearing, climate change, water for the Murray River or protecting the Great Barrier Reef, we have been putting policies forward. But the commercial TV stations and newspapers never touch federal Labor's positions.

We have an environment reporter for the Australian, Amanda Hodge, who would sooner die than publish anything concerning federal Labor's position on these issues. The Age is about the same: Point Nepean is an issue that the Age has pursued with some vigour but there was not a word about things like the visit by Simon Crean to Point Nepean and his declaration that federal Labor would hand over that land to Victoria to be incorporated in the national park. There was not a word about the private member's bill which I introduced into the House to transfer Point Nepean to the Victorian government to be used as a national park.

Even worse than failing to mention our position, there have been fluff pieces by Susan Brown in the Australian and Louise Dodson in the Age pretending that this government has a good record on the environment. This is laughable for anyone who has seriously followed the debate about land clearing or about climate change and this government's failure to ratify the Kyoto protocol, for anyone who seriously followed the debate about the health of the Murray-Darling and the need to restore environmental flows to that river system, or for anyone who has seriously followed the debate about the Great Barrier Reef. There was no coverage of the opposition's response or position in those articles, which places me in the situation of putting out numerous press releases on these issues, unsullied by any commercial reporting of them, the issues they raise or what they say about Labor policy. We have a commercial media whose intention is to keep marginalising Labor until we capitulate on this bill. They want this bill through because it means more power to them and more money in the bank.

I do not know how to solve the problem of the way the commercial media uses its political power to seek commercial objectives but I do know that we cannot capitulate. We cannot support this bill. It would be a betrayal of political principle for political expediency, and we cannot expect our supporters to support us on that basis. Furthermore, if we say yes now, the media barons will just get even more powerful and it will become even harder to say no to them the next time around. I just hope that maybe there are a few ordinary Australians out there who are interested in and thinking about this issue and who will demand that the Howard government withdraws this bill and backs off—some people out there who will demand that we keep some media concentration laws in place and that we make an effort to protect media diversity. Ultimately the health of our democracy depends on it.

Before I conclude, I would like to briefly refer to some of the debate conducted in the Senate when this bill was first introduced, which makes clear precisely what the bill is all about. When this bill entered the Senate, Senator Harradine moved an amendment which stipulated that operators were not allowed to own both a newspaper and a TV station. The opposition supported that amendment and it was carried. The net effect of the bill that passed the Senate was to take radio out of cross-media ownership altogether so that anybody could own a radio station. It also eliminated the restrictions on foreign ownership of Australian media.

The bulk of the government's original package—what it describes as `a reform package'—was accepted by the Senate, but one crucial point was not: the capacity of a media proprietor to own both a newspaper and a television station in a metropolitan market. What happened then? The government chose not to proceed with the bill even though it had got through three-quarters of its agenda. Why did the government decide that the bill was no longer of any value? The answer was simple: the key media proprietors—in particular PBL and News Ltd—did not support a bill like that. As the bill was amended in a form that precluded News Ltd from buying a TV network and PBL from buying a newspaper, particularly Fairfax, it is no longer of any interest to them.

We have a situation where the government abandoned in the Senate the opportunity to get three-quarters of its agenda through—to get substantial deregulation and liberalisation of our media ownership rules through—and they abandoned that. Therefore their real agenda and their real reasons for putting this legislation to the parliament in the first place were completely exposed. The Prime Minister stands exposed on this matter. He is simply seeking to deliver to Packer, to PBL, to Murdoch via News Ltd and to Fairfax something they regard as in their commercial interests; not something which is in the public interests of ordinary Australians. I hope that enough ordinary Australians become concerned enough about what this issue says for the health of our democracy and the need we have for media diversity that they will demand the Howard government abandons this legislation and supports cross-media ownership rules which encourage diversity of opinion and a range of places from which we can draw our political and current affairs news.