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Thursday, 14 March 2013
Page: 2208

Ms O'DWYER (Higgins) (16:04): This week we have seen a new low from the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy with his announcement of Orwellian media reforms. Those who have followed the career of the minister—the factional power plays and the egocentric statements that he can, if he so chooses, get people to wear red underpants on their heads—might describe these Big Brother media reforms as a new low, and they might think that is a big statement. In this place, when I make such statements, I am at least protected by parliamentary privilege. But, if Senator Conroy has his way, those who critique him in the press may not be so lucky.

Why? He has announced that the government will regulate the media in this country—a media that has been, until this point, free of government control and interference. In all other longstanding democracies, the media has been free for centuries. He has said that the government now will intervene and interfere here.

Why does the media need regulation? What is the problem that he says needs solving? No-one can in fact articulate this. The Prime Minister herself, when questioned by journalists—something that may well become an inconvenience of the past if these reforms go through—ducked the question. She could not give one example. We know, though, the real reason why these so-called reforms have been brought into this place: the Greens have demanded it. Bob Brown demanded it when he was leader. He described News Limited as the 'hate media'. The member for Reid describes the media as the 'Murdoch press' and 'press barons'. Christine Milne, the new leader, is very concerned about who owns what in the media. The simple fact is that the Labor Party do not like being held to account. They do not like scrutiny. Why is this? Because a free media does not do as it is told.

A free press is critical to our democracy. That is why we stand opposed to any restrictions on the press. Winston Churchill said so accurately some time ago:

A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny … 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.

This is why it is important. We have seen the investigative reporting of our press in recent times. We have seen them uncover the scandals of the HSU. We have seen them uncover the scandals of the Obeid empire. All of this of course is very inconvenient to those who sit opposite.

What has been the reaction to Senator Conroy's announced changes? Have they been universally acclaimed? No. His announcement has united each and every voice in the media to condemn the move. Let me remind the House of some of the statements which have been made. Kim Williams, the chief executive officer of News Limited, said:

This government will go down in history as the first Australian government outside of war time to attack freedom of speech by seeking to introduce a regime which effectively institutes government-sanctioned journalism.

Seven West Media said:

This is an unprecedented restriction that is wholly inconsistent with the notion of a free press.

Greg Hywood, the chief executive of Fairfax, said:

… there's no evidence that there is a problem to solve in Australia. We can't see the purpose of further regulation of news publications.

Andrew Bolt, the HeraldSun commentator, said:

I never dreamed—never feared—Australia would have a government plotting to control journalists it did not like.

But lest they think that this is some media conspiracy, News Limited conspiracy, let me quote Mark Scott, the managing director of the ABC:

It's a disaster for us all. It's profoundly disappointing. The voice of industry was ignored.

Let us examine the reforms which the government says are so vitally needed. There are two in particular that I want to examine today: the new public interest test, which it says will apply to media mergers; and, secondly, the government appointed Public Interest Media Advocate.

First to the public interest test. The government is very concerned that we have a diversity of voices. Yet never before have we seen in the media such diversity as exists today. The internet has definitely changed the landscape, as has social media. We now have access to voices like we have never had before. This should give some comfort to those opposite.

Already we have regulators who look to the very questions of diversity and competition. We have the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the ACCC, which actually implements the former Trade Practices Act, now the Competition and Consumer Act. They make sure that we do have competition in this space.

Only recently the ACCC knocked back Channel 7 in its attempt to buy Fox Sports. When those opposite have been asked the question, 'What is it in particular that this public interest test will ensure does not occur?' they cannot explain it. Also, the Australian Communications and Media Authority looked to the question of diversity. Yet the government says we need to add another regulator, that we need to add a new test, a test which no doubt will cost more and a test which so far lacks any detail. If the government is truly concerned about media diversity, let me remind them that in 1986 it was the Hawke-Keating government which allowed News Limited to buy the Herald and Weekly Times. Yet it is only now, months out from an election, that the government seems to think we have an issue with media diversity.

Let me also touch on the Public Interest Media Advocate. The government say that this is vital in order to have the right ethical standards and sanctions. Yet we know that this is simply a solution in search of a problem. They cannot say what it is that the Public Interest Media Advocate will do. They also ignore the fact that we already have an independent body, a self-regulated independent body, the Australian Press Council, which does indeed regulate the ethical standards of the media.

In the time remaining, I want to touch briefly on the process which has led us to this matter of public importance today. After doing nothing for two years, Senator Conroy now claims that there is great urgency to respond to the Convergence Review and the Finklestein inquiry. He says it is an imperative to regulate the media and to pass the bill by the end of next week. We on this side are alarmed at the lack of process, the lack of due diligence, the lack of consultation and the lack of detail which have become a hallmark of this current government and the way they do business.

I reflect upon recent initiatives of the government which have had a similar lack of process and lack of scrutiny: the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, again another Greens-Labor special, a $10 billion Bob Brown bank, with no consultation, no notice, no detail and $10 billion of taxpayers' funds being whittled away. This was all done in less than five business days and according to the timetable set by Senator Conroy. We know that he wants to put through this bill by the end of next week. There has been no detail, there has been no consultation even among the cabinet of the Labor Party. It has been rushed through to try to restrict the voice of freedom in Australia. This is something we all must stand united against.

A free press is essential for our democracy. The Conroy announcement will ensure that the media is turned into a eunuch. We must stand united against this. It will hurt our democracy and ultimately hurt the Australian people.