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Thursday, 14 March 2013
Page: 2203

Mr HARTSUYKER (Cowper) (15:44): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on a matter of public importance. I would like to start by contrasting two quotes. The first is from Winston Churchill, who said:

A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny … Under dictatorship the press is bound to languish, and the loudspeaker and the film to become more important. But where free institutions are indigenous to the soil and men have the habit of liberty, the press will continue to be the Fourth Estate, the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen.

That is a very important quote. I would like to contrast that quote with another from a very famous person, Lenin. Back in 1920, Lenin said:

Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?

Well, this is a government that has made an art form of embarrassing itself. It does not even really need the assistance of a printing press to do that; it is doing it all by itself.

But I must say that it is a sad day for democracy in Australia, a sad day for the history of the Australian parliament, when the opposition has been forced to bring on a debate to defend the freedom of the press from a democratically elected government seeking to muzzle its influence. Make no mistake, the media reforms introduced into the parliament by the government this morning are nothing more than a full-frontal attack on the freedom of the press in this country. It should not be for the government to approve the standards by which the media outlets must conduct themselves.

This debate about free-press controls and the reform of the media industry provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the key parliamentary figures involved in this matter. On the government side, we have the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy. Senator Conroy is quite famous—for nothing particularly good, I might say, but he is quite famous. He is famous for bragging that he has unfettered power over the telecommunications industry in Australia and that he could make senior executives of Australia's major telecommunications companies 'wear red underpants on their head'. Would you like to hand control of what good media reporting is to a minister who has claimed that he has the authority to make telecommunications company executives wear red underpants on their head? I think not. He is also famous for overturning the Australia Network tender process because the preferred tender came from a company that he in fact despised. I could go on, but those two examples give a fair indication of the type of man we are dealing with. I need say no more.

But on the other hand, on the coalition side, we have the shadow minister for communications, the member for Wentworth, and he has a track record in relation to freedom of speech. It was the member for Wentworth, the shadow minister for communications, who rose to prominence by standing up to the establishment and defending free speech in the Spycatcher trial. His reputation goes before him.

The contrast could not be more obvious. The government only support freedom of the press when it suits them. We on this side of the House recognise that freedom of the press is the foundation stone of a democracy. On the other side, we have a minister who spends his days attempting to deceive and mislead this parliament and the Australian people about the true status of the NBN, and in his spare time he is now attempting to muzzle the media.

For this reason, we are resolute in our opposition to the government's proposal to regulate the media. Not only are we opposed to the government's attempts to control the media on an ideological basis; we are also appalled by the chaotic handling of this issue and the minister's insistence that these reforms must be rammed through this parliament. We found out this morning that the minister rammed the changes through cabinet, even though some of his senior colleagues were absent from the meeting. The minister rammed these changes through the Labor caucus despite the protests of the caucus chairman. The arrogance of this minister is breathtaking.

The bills introduced this morning should be subject to a major Senate inquiry. They should have been released for comment before being introduced into this House. The key stakeholders should have been consulted. At the very least, the cabinet should have been given time to read the papers. At the very, very least, the cabinet ministers should have had the chance to read the papers before being asked to approve them.

These are typical bullying tactics from Senator Conroy. I have a message for the minister: these tactics may work in your factional fights within the Victorian ALP, but they are not appropriate in this parliament and have no place in this parliament.

As the shadow minister for regional communications and a member representing a regional electorate, I am also bothered by the government's approach to the reach rule. Geographical boundaries are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the media landscape. Media consumers are accessing news and entertainment on demand, from all over Australia and the world. In years gone by, someone living in my town of Coffs Harbour would have had access to a local newspaper—whichever newspapers were delivered to the local newsagent. Now we have access to newspapers from all around the world. We used to have a choice of two TV stations. Now we have more than a dozen digital television stations and access to online videos from many, many sources. People are getting their local news and stories from blogs and websites as well as the local newspaper. We have YouTube and scores of other sources. So, while the reach of traditional television networks is still restricted by law, the reach of new media is unlimited. With this in mind, changing the current reach rule does not appear to be an unreasonable proposition.

However, I am deeply concerned about the possibility that mergers between television networks could result in a reduction in the amount of quality locally significant content broadcast in the regions. Unfortunately, the government has given the new joint select committee only one day to examine how the reach rule might impact on local news services and what measures should be put in place to protect local content. This is a very complex issue and the amount of time being offered for consideration does not do justice to it. We need to have proper scrutiny, proper analysis, and we need the opportunity for stakeholders to make a meaningful contribution. These are measures that need to be properly thought through and they ought to be subject to thorough parliamentary scrutiny. A one-day inquiry and the deadlines imposed by the minister with regard to these bills fall far short of the standard of proper parliamentary scrutiny that the members of this House see as appropriate.

The free-to-air television body Free TV Australia made two submissions to the Convergence Review which advocated the removal of the reach rule. We have now seen two of the three main free-to-air networks air concerns about removing the reach rule and one national network enter into preliminary merger discussions with a regional network pending the removal of the reach rule. It is clear that some stakeholders are eager for the reach rule to be removed, and some believe that removing the reach rule would be detrimental to business. I mention these background issues to make the point that removing the reach rule is a complex issue that requires more scrutiny than can be provided in a one-day committee meeting.

Despite the complexity of the issue, the bottom line is quite simple: we will not be railroaded into supporting an outcome that is not in the best interest of our constituents. We will only be satisfied with the outcome if it protects local content and local news. Despite the rise of the internet, Australians living in the regions still rely on their local television network as their key source of local news and stories. We must not allow any changes that reduce the amount of local content and storytelling broadcast in regional licence areas.

I am also concerned about the impact on local presence if the reach rule is removed. Whilst these are separate issues, they are linked. Local news and content is important, but it is also important to have reporters and cameramen on the ground in the regions. We need to have local news and stories told by local people, not by some syndicated network 3,000 kilometres away, where the individual involved cannot even pronounce the local place names. Holders of regional broadcast licences are using limited public spectrum to make money. In return, the least we can expect is that they broadcast material relevant to that licence area.

This government has a history of introducing rushed and ill-considered reforms and seeking to avoid the harsh glare of public and parliamentary scrutiny. We will participate in the joint select committee in good faith, but we will not be rushed into supporting an outcome that is not good for our constituents, we will not be rushed into any measures that will reduce freedom of speech for the press and we will not be rushed into playing the minister's games—a minister who cannot be trusted. He cannot be trusted with the NBN and he certainly cannot be trusted with media reform.