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Wednesday, 14 September 2011
Page: 6068

Media Inquiry


Senator BOB BROWN (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (14:19): My question is to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy. Is the minister aware of the release of an opinion poll by the public interest group NewsStand showing that a two to one majority of Australians back a media inquiry? If he is, can he account for the position of the opposition as espoused by Mr Turnbull that there should be no media inquiry? Is Mr Turnbull totally out of touch with public opinion or is he simply trying to send a warm glow down to Holt Street?


Senator CONROY (VictoriaMinister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) (14:19): I thank Senator Bob Brown for his question. Like you, Senator Brown, I am indeed surprised that those opp­osite are so out of touch with public opinion on this issue. Perhaps they should simply keep reading the Australian each morning.

The government believes it is necessary to support the independence and integrity of the media in the face of technological change and that the public have a right to have trust in our media. As I said earlier today when announcing the inquiry, a healthy and robust media is essential to the democratic process. Labor believes it is incumbent upon govern­ment to ensure that regulatory processes and industry structures are sufficiently strong to support the continuation of a healthy and independent media that is able to fulfil its essential democratic purpose and to operate in the public interest. I made this very clear a little over an hour ago, but let me repeat it for those whom seem to have missed it. The government is not interested in attacking any one media organisation or in seeking to reduce the necessary scrutiny of the political process that is at the heart of a functioning—

Opposition senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: I remind senators that any interruption to the answer is disorderly. It does not help question time with people wanting to throw their comm­ents into the ring during question time. Post question time, that is at 3 pm, there is a time for people to put forward in a robust manner their views on these issues. That is when it should be done.

Senator CONROY: The media inquiry will be conducted independently of the government as is imperative in a free and democratic society. A former justice of the Federal Court of Australia, Ray Finkelstein QC, will conduct the inquiry, assisted by Dr Matthew Ricketson, Professor of Journalism at the University of Canberra and a former practising journalist. The government is delighted that those eminently qualified— (Time expired)




Senator BOB BROWN (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (14:22): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. The NewsStand poll shows that 87 per cent of people believe it should be easier to make complaints about the media. I ask the minister if he is aware that Mr Turnbull has complained that the inquiry may put some sort of legislative backbone into the Press Council. Can the minister say why it is that Mr Turnbull would want the Press Council, against the public interest, to remain a jellyback?

Senator Brandis: On a point of order, Mr President—

Senator Carr interjecting

Senator Conroy interjecting

Senator Ian Macdonald: Goebbels would be proud of you, Stephen.

The PRESIDENT: Order on my right!

Senator Conroy interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Senator Conroy! I remind you that the time to debate the issue, if you wish to debate it, is post question time. I have said that already today. Senator Brandis is entitled to be heard in silence.

Senator Brandis: The question asked the minister to speculate on Mr Turnbull's motives and thinking. That is not a proper question—it is conjectural, it is based on hypothesis and it is beyond what the minister can possibly know.

Senator Ludwig: On the point of order, Mr President: if we were all to adopt that broad interpretation, many of the questions from the opposition would be ruled out of order.

Opposition senators interjecting

Senator Ludwig: I am entitled to be heard in silence.

The PRESIDENT: Order!

Senator Ludwig: In question time in this place we allow a broad latitude for the question, and the response should be directly relevant to the question.

Honourable senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Sit down, please, Senator Ludwig. Order! I am entitled to hear the person in silence. That is why I have sat the minister down. If you want to debate the issue, there is an appropriate time or you can take successive points of order. That is fine.

Senator Ludwig: The fallback always is that the minister may respond to that part of the question which he can respond to. That is what the standing orders say. There is no point of order raised by Senator Brandis. Senator Brandis has not asked that the question be ruled out of order. So I humbly submit that the question is in order.

Senator Birmingham: On the point of order, Mr President: I would draw your attention to your memo to all senators of 25 August 2011 in which you state:

A question inviting a minister to comment on opposition policies is strictly out of order—

you then go on to say—

although questions seeking the minister’s knowledge of how other policy proposals would affect matters within that minister’s responsibility have been ruled in order.

Mr President, I would contend that both the primary question of Senator Brown and the supplementary do no more than invite the minister to comment on Mr Turnbull's words or policies and are therefore clearly out of order on the basis of your own ruling.

The PRESIDENT: The minister need only answer the question insofar as it applies to the minister's portfolio.















Senator CONROY (VictoriaMinister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) (14:26): As I said earlier, Australia has traditionally been well served by media institutions. As citizens in a demo­cracy, we rely on the media to scrutinise the actions and decisions of those in power, to hold business and political leaders to account, to reflect and contribute to our national identity—

Senator Brandis: What about what you said about the Daily Telegraph?

Senator CONROY: The Daily Telegraph have a democratic right to be biased and I have a democratic right to point out their bias. We need media which are independent, diverse and capable of putting the public interest above the interests of media owners, whether those are govern­ments or private shareholders—

Senator Ian Macdonald: Goebbels would be proud of you, Stephen.

Senator Bob Brown: On a point of order, Mr President: that is the second time Senator Macdonald has referred to Goebbels and the minister, and I ask him to withdraw that comment. He said, 'Goebbels would be proud of you,' to the minister. I think that should be—

The PRESIDENT: I have not heard those interjections, Senator Brown.

Senator Bob Brown: I ask you, Mr President, to ask the member if he said that and to have it withdrawn.

The PRESIDENT: I have not heard those comments. People know, if those comments are being made, that they should not be made.

Honourable senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Just wait! If people find them offensive, I have asked, on a previ­ous occasion when someone took offence at such comments—but it was the person to whom they were directed who took the offence—for the comments to be withdrawn and that was followed through. I have not heard, on this occasion, what was taking place. I am just asking people to be careful what they say within this chamber.

Senator Ian Macdonald: On Senator Brown's point of order, Mr President: I am quite open in saying that I did say that Goeb­bels would be proud of Senator Conroy—and he would be. If Senator Conroy finds that offensive, I will withdraw it.

Senator Conroy: I did not make him withdraw because I did not hear him say it.

The PRESIDENT: I did not hear him say it either, but I advise people that those comments should not be made.

Senator Chris Evans: On Senator Brown's point of order, Mr President—

Honourable senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Order! On both sides!

Senator Chris Evans: I am not one to be terribly precious about such things in the chamber and have engaged in vigorous debate across the chamber myself. So I do not pretend that I do not support that. But, while I think you quite rightly said that you did not hear the comment made—and neither did I—the senator, to his credit, got up and admitted to the comment. It then becomes, I think, a question for you as to whether or not it is appropriate. I think this is the second occasion where a coalition senator in the last few days has referred to senators on the crossbenches, comparing them to Nazis. I do not think that is appropriate. I do not think it is a standard this Senate should set. As I said, given that the senator informed you, Mr President, that he made those comments and that he was prepared to withdraw, I think it would be best for all concerned if the senator just withdrew.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Macdonald, it will help us get ahead with question time if you withdraw.

Senator Ian Macdonald: I do not know what is wrong with Senator Evans's hearing, but I did withdraw.

The PRESIDENT: All right. That is withdrawn. Let's proceed.

Senator CONROY: Crucially, we have asked the inquiry to investigate ways by which to substantially strengthen the inde­pendence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to online publications and with particular reference, Senator Brown, to the handling of comp­laints. The government wishes the inquiry to report on the ability of the media— (Time expired)




















Senator BOB BROWN (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (14:31): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Is the minister aware that the EMC poll released today by NewsStand shows that 70 per cent of people believe too few people control the media in Australia? Is the mini­ster aware that, in response, the opposition spokesperson has conjectured that the make-up—

Opposition senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Senator Brown, resume your seat. You are entitled to be heard in silence. Order!

Senator BOB BROWN: The opposition is very tetchy on this. Are the comments of Mr Turnbull simply reflecting those of the Tea Party?

The PRESIDENT: Again, Senator Conroy, you need to answer only those parts of the question that relate to your portfolio.





Senator CONROY (VictoriaMinister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) (14:32): The media inquiry I announced today will focus on print media regulation, including online publications and the operation of, as I said, the Press Council. The government believe a separate and distinct examination of the pressures facing newspapers and their newsrooms, including online publications, will enhance our consid­eration of the policy and regulatory settings.

Australia needs to ensure that the news media continue to serve the public interest in the digital age. The inquiry will be asked to assess the effectiveness of the current media codes of practice in Australia, particularly in light of technological change, the impact of this change on the business model that has supported investment in journalism and the production of news, and ways to enhance media diversity in the digital area.

For the opposition spokesman in this area to pretend that he is supportive of what has gone on is to beggar belief. Mr Turnbull has been a consistent supporter of— (Time expired)