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Tuesday, 10 October 2006
Page: 112

Senator POLLEY (9:34 PM) —I rise to speak on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006. This legislation effectively abolishes the cross-media laws and relaxes foreign ownership laws currently in place in this county. This is yet another attempt by this arrogant government to use its power in this place to pass legislation that is extreme and dangerous. We know that the deal has been done and that regional and rural Australians have been abandoned once again by The Nationals.

I have to say that I agree with the comments made by my colleague Senator Hutchins about the sell-out of the bush by Senator Joyce and Senator Nash. This legislation will negatively impact on media diversity as it has the intention of concentrating media ownership on the big players. Just in case the Prime Minister and Senator Coonan have forgotten, Australia is supposed to be a democracy. A democracy cannot exist without freedom of speech, without freedom of thought and without freedom in the media.

In this technological age, we have seen the massive growth of the internet and web-based blogs. News is available 24/7 and is able to be transmitted as it happens into the homes, offices and mobile phones of all Australians. There is no doubt that the media industry is changing as a result of the technologically aware age and generation. Let us be honest, how many of us in this place can truly claim to have read one of these strange things called ‘blogs’, let alone written one!

Labor recognises that amidst all these wonderful but strange new technologies there is a need for media reform. The debate, however, should be about exactly what media reform is needed. Media reform does not mean that we should relax the rules and let the big companies run rampant. But that is exactly what this government is doing. It is saying, ‘Let’s reduce media diversity, stifle competition and reduce consumer choice.’ The majority of Australians are opposed to a further concentration of media ownership for this very reason. In Sydney and in Melbourne, this legislation will see the number of owners of the most influential media businesses halved. This legislation will allow companies to own several media assets, across a range of formats, as long as there are five operators in mainland capitals.

The legislation in its current form states that there must be only four media operators in rural and regional areas. I note that the Howard government in its continuing arrogance has excluded the capital of Tasmania—Hobart, for members of the coalition who are searching their memories—from the criteria requiring that capitals must have at least five operators. That would mean that Tasmania is classed as a rural or regional area under this legislation. Thus, there would be a requirement for only four media operators to function.

There is no doubt that this legislation is all about stifling diversity. This legislation will see the editorial interests of proprietor businesses influence the content and opinion portrayed to the public. This, by any stretch of the imagination, is definitely not what springs to mind when one thinks of free media.

With this in mind, Labor has supported reforms of the foreign ownership rules since 2002 on the basis that this could increase media diversity in this country. But with this legislation as it stands the changes to the cross-media laws would lead to a massive concentration of ownership in metropolitan and regional Australia, wiping out any advantage that would come from the relaxation of the foreign ownership restrictions.

The government is making much of its so-called voices test, but the simple fact is that it is another smokescreen. It will not do anything to protect diversity. By international standards, Australia already has a highly concentrated media market. The Prime Minister knows that this legislation will negatively impact on our democracy. Through it, he is looking to give even more power to the most powerful people in the country.

Cross-media laws are common in many other countries throughout the world, to protect the public’s right to a fair and diverse media. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Korea and the Netherlands all have cross-media laws. The only winner as a result of this legislation will be the big players, who already own a large share of Australia’s media landscape. These so-called reforms will lead to mergers, a loss of jobs and a loss of content.

The legislation was referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts for inquiry. As farcical as the inquiry turned out to be, with government senators using their numbers in an attempt to ensure that the bill did not receive the proper scrutiny warranted, the submissions received by the inquiry speak for themselves. Professor Franco Papandrea, the Director of the Communication and Media Policy Institute for the Division of Communication and Education at the University of Canberra, was among those who forwarded a submission. He stated in his submission that his concerns relating to the legislation primarily related to the replacement of cross-media ownership with a minimum number of voices rule. Professor Papandrea states:

My assessment from personal research and detailed assessment of the proposed changes is that they will have a detrimental impact on diversity of opinion in Australia.

He goes on to say:

The case for the repeal of the existing cross-media rules appears to be based only on economic efficiency considerations with insufficient regard to the loss of social benefits that would flow from the change. There is no credible evidence that the current rules impose significant economic costs. On the other hand, there is widespread agreement that a substantial social loss is generated by reductions in viewpoint diversity. Consequently, the proposed changes are unlikely to be in the public interest (in the sense that the economic benefits outweigh the social cost).

During the committee inquiry, the coalition senators had widely differing views on this legislation. It is now obvious that deals have been done on the legislation, and they have been done at the expense of rural Australians. However, the minority report prepared by Labor senators following the inquiry noted that during the course of the media law debate the government failed to put forward a convincing justification for its extreme approach to what it calls ‘reform’. The report says:

The Explanatory Memorandum on the bill concedes that the benefits of cross media reform are ‘unclear’ but suggests that they are likely to be obtained from a reduction in expenditure by media companies.

From the explanatory memorandum, it would seem that the Howard government is recognising that, as a result of this legislation, it is likely that the number of journalists throughout the country will be cut through newsroom mergers and that local content will be reduced.

Safeguarding the Australian public against excessive concentration in media markets under this legislation would be left up to the ACCC under the Trade Practices Act. However, Labor does not believe that the merger provisions in section 50 of the act would be an effective substitute for the current cross-media laws.

The media play an important role in the lives of all Australians, and there is little doubt that as technology improves it will play an even greater role. With this in mind, Labor believes that media diversity is too important to be left to chance. The decisions made now regarding this legislation could well influence the Australia of the future.

The committee’s majority report recommended an amendment to the bill to prevent more than two of the three traditional media being owned by one company in regional markets. Labor does not support this proposal as it would do nothing to address the overall problems contained in the bill itself. Make no mistake: Labor supports genuine media reform. However, the government’s ‘reforms’ in this package, which have been hastily grouped together to try to force all the legislation through, are not reform. Labor believes that media reform should provide the industry with the capacity to grow and deliver the benefits of digital technology to consumers; enhance consumer choice and competition; and protect and promote diversity by preventing a concentration of ownership.

The function of Australia’s media ownership regulation must be to promote the free expression of diverse views. As legislators, we cannot agree to proposals that will see Australians bombarded with media from a limited range of sources. We already know that the modern technology that we have come to take almost for granted—the internet, mobile phones, television—plays a huge role in influencing people’s minds and lifestyles.

There has been a huge debate recently about the direct effect of advertising on children and whether junk food advertising has a direct relationship with childhood obesity. I think the consensus, as a result of this ongoing debate, is that, yes, overexposure to advertising, television programs or the like that endorse junk food does have a very direct influence on the types of food our young people are consuming. So it is a fair enough conclusion to draw that if this is so with children then a lack of media diversity and the deficiency of a wide range of viewpoints being portrayed in the media through these so-called ‘reforms’ of the Howard government would have a negative effect on Australians. The fact is that, whether we realise it or not, we are all affected by the media that surround us. Whether it be the portrayal of superskinny models on the covers of magazines, negatively influencing Australian women to have an unrealistic and unhealthy body image, or the issue of young people and hotted up vehicles being portrayed in films and television, influencing what has become known as the ‘hoon culture’, there is no doubt that Australians are influenced by the things they see, hear and read.

The government’s decision to group the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006 and the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 as a package is aimed at detracting from the implications of both bills. The bills reflect what would be the most significant changes to Australia’s media laws since the introduction of the cross-media ownership laws back in 1987. The fact that the government has treated the committee process which examined this legislation with contempt comes as no surprise. The committee chair’s report that backs the government’s claim that this legislation must be taken as a package is not supported by Labor. Labor sees no reason for improvements to digital television regulations to be tied to the government’s cross-media ownership agenda, and Labor will seek to amend the legislation so that the current cross-media ownership laws are retained. Once again the minister has obviously done deals at the expense of the Australian community, particularly those living in the bush and living in rural and regional Australia. Shame on the National Party, shame on the Tasmanian Liberal senators, who once again have failed to stick up for the rights of the Tasmanian community, and shame on the Howard government!