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Wednesday, 20 March 2013
Page: 2770

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (BraddonParliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (13:29): I have been in and around this place for some 15 years, although not continuously, unfortunately. I have not come across more hysterical reporting of legislation before the House than I have with this Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (News Media Diversity) Bill 2013 and the other media reform bills which are intended to follow. I have found it quite extraordinary. It is the shrillness of the so-called debate, rather than the content and substance of it, which is concerning—if perhaps not surprising. That shrillness, unfortunately, is a little bit reflective of debate in this country, both within states and nationally. We rarely seem able to have a debate of any substance in which the proponents and those opposed can present their arguments in a substantive way and have those listened to and debated logically, rationally and carefully.

This is, after all, a political debating house, although I am not sure how much debate actually takes place in it. More takes place in our caucus rooms and in the parliamentary committees, but it rarely takes place in here. The shrillness of this debate, though, is unparalleled—at least in my experience from the last 15 years. That is of great national concern. You would swear, if you were purely guided by the shrillness of the debate and the narrow views of those providing those shrill arguments, that the intention of both the legislation before us and the further media reform legislation intended to follow is the complete destruction of democracy and the introduction of totalitarianism in this country. But I think—and I suspect I will be right in this—that, when people protest too much, the public become concerned.

What I thought I might do, both for those who read the debate and those who listen to it—although it is not being broadcast at the moment—is actually look at the legislation, at what it is intended to do and how it is meant to do it. I have heard everyone comment on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, journalism and its codes, and self-regulation. Amidst that discussion, I have heard people give examples of what the press freedom situation is like in various totalitarian countries. But I have not heard many people talk about the bills before us, so I thought I might do that for you.

Mr Hawke: There is no detail.

Mr SIDEBOTTOM: There is plenty of detail, friend, but you are typical—you would not be interested.

Mr Hawke interjecting

Mr SIDEBOTTOM: Go and get your water and then keep going to get some lunch. Show some manners.

Ownership of Australia's most popular and influential media organisations—and this is a fact—is already highly concentrated. The Prime Minister made that clear in question time and other speakers in this debate have made it clear as well. Market trends, particularly the shift of revenues to online and mobile services, are putting significant pressures on the existing market structure. That is a fact. These trends are not cyclical and will drive significant changes, with further concentration of ownership and a reduction in media diversity a real possibility. Hence we need to look at media diversity in this country and ensure that we have it. There is absolutely nothing illogical about that. It is a fact.

So what do we do about it? We introduce legislation to assure, to guarantee, that we have media diversity in this country. But, if you listen to the critics, we are out to destroy the media in this country. I will let those who hear the logic of this make up their own minds. The government's reforms will strengthen media diversity safeguards without inhibiting existing businesses from restructuring to adapt to the changing environment, which they have to do—we all recognise that.

Importantly, the reforms deal with national providers, such as national newspapers and subscription television, for the first time. They provide a mechanism which avoids a one-size-fits-all approach in a rapidly changing sector. The internet, as many have pointed out, has seen the emergence of a wide range of new formats for the delivery of news and opinion. Hooray! I hope we are always able to have access to that. However, and this is a fact, Australians still rely on the traditional authoritative sources for that news—television, radio and newspapers—and for the majority of their information on current events. This may change over time, not surprisingly.

The government's reforms update the existing control rules for the current and future environment and allow for inevitable changes in markets where a source of news may gain or indeed lose influence over time. The reforms arise out of the government's careful consideration of the findings of the Convergence Review and community feedback through that review's extensive public consultation process. Together, these emphasised the importance of media diversity to our democratic society and identified areas where reform is required.

How did the government react to this highly consultative process in an area of great interest to the Australian people? How did it seek to guard our media diversity—such as it is not, at the moment? The government's proposals introduce a public interest test, against which changes in control of media will be assessed. Why not? Why would you not? It makes sense.

Mr Hawke: How does that work?

Mr SIDEBOTTOM: Sit down and just listen for once. I know you know everything about everything and in so doing you know nothing. The proposed public interest test will assess whether transactions involved in changes in control of significant news media voices will result in a substantial lessening of diversity—I think you will understand that bit.

The various numeric rules contained in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 currently act as a quasi-public interest test by imposing constraints on mergers and acquisitions between different media groups. However, these are blunt regulatory instruments that do not effectively cover potential mergers between national media groups and do not provide flexibility for considering new voices that may come to prominence in a converged media environment. The public interest test will allow for a more cohesive, in-depth assessment of proposed changes to media ownership and control than current rules allow—there is a bit more in-depth information for you so that you can understand what we are trying to do—in the light of a highly concentrated view of the media and how it operates.

The government also considers that an effective public interest test over time can result in a significant rationalising of the blunt numeric tests which form the basis of current legislation and regulation. Let's go into it in a little bit more depth, seeing as you asked for that. The government's proposed public interest test model will only apply to new media voices whose audience or subscriber number is above a threshold based on audience—you have that one, so write it down and keep yourself busy. It will also require news media voices that reach this threshold to be included on a register maintained by the Australian Communications and Media Authority and test whether or not 'a substantial lessening of diversity of control of news media voices' will take place under a proposed control change.

We are looking at some form of public interest media advocate. The public interest test will be applied by the advocate, operating at arm's length from government, to changes to ownership and control; require news media voices involved in a transaction that results in a control event to apply for prior approval for that transaction to proceed from the advocate; and empower the advocate to reject or approve subject to the enforceable undertakings, changes of ownership and control following assessment under the public interest test. There is a bit more detail for you. You wanted it, and you are getting it, so just be nice and listen to it. See if you can absorb some of this stuff. You will have your say, no doubt. The public interest test will also allow the advocate to take into account a range of issues and criteria directly relevant to diversity considerations in making its assessment and will allow the advocate to approve a substantial lessening of diversity of control of registered news media voices if satisfied that the transaction will result in a benefit to the public and that the benefit outweighs the detriment. So, what is the public interest test?

Mr Murphy interjecting

Mr SIDEBOTTOM: No, no, you have provided the passion. Others on the other side want to provide the passion. I am just dealing with the facts and trying to put the legislation so that people who listen to this can actually understand what this is about instead of listening to the shrillness of those opposite and some of those in the media itself. So let us keep going, because we like to do this logically. We do not need the loudmouths of life getting all the attention.

What is the public interest test? We are going to test whether or not a substantial lessening of diversity of control of news media voices will take place under a proposed control change. However, the advocate can approve a transaction where satisfied that the benefit of the transaction would outweigh the detriment, which I mentioned earlier, to the public cause by any lessening of diversity of control.

The public interest test is not a fit-and-proper-person test; it is solely aimed at ensuring that Australians continue to have access to a diverse range of news and opinion as the media and communications landscape changes over time. That is reasonable, rational, responsible. However, if you listen to those on the other side, it is the death and destruction of democracy itself, and the media with it.

Let us have a look at aspects of the new test so that we can give you some more substance and some more detail, because that is what you wanted. A new test will enable the advocate to approve a transaction where the applicant satisfies the advocate that a relevant control event will not result in a substantial lessening of diversity of control. This aspect enables simple transactions that do not affect diversity to be easily dealt with by the act.

Mr Hawke: Who is the advocate?

Mr SIDEBOTTOM: Of course, the advocate will be the advocate. Hang around and you will find out. You will have a vote, and we will give you all the detail you want. You might be able to apply, along with a few of your cobbers.

Mr Murphy: Alexander Downer.

Mr SIDEBOTTOM: No thanks. In assessing whether a transaction is likely to result in a substantial lessening of diversity of voices, factors the advocate would likely consider include the extent of the applicant's control or likely control over two or more news media voices as a result of the control event—that is, the breadth or concentration of that person's control whether alone or in concert with others. Why would you not? We have enough concentration as it is. We all support more diversity, so why would you not support that? It defies logic. I do not understand the criticism. The advocate would also consider whether the control event materially changes the overall or relative diversity of controllers for the affected news media voices—again, logical, responsible—and, finally, a total level of diversity of controllers across all registered news media voices as a result of a control event or across the spectrum of news media voices. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The debate is interrupted. In accordance with standing order 43 the debate may be resumed at a later hour.