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Tuesday, 10 October 2006
Page: 115


Senator STERLE (9:47 PM) —I rise to speak on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006. The Howard government has no shame. Its arrogance has no bounds. Its willingness to sell the Australian people down the creek is breathtaking. What we are debating here today is the great sell-out by this government to its big media mates. This bill is all about profit—nothing more, nothing less. This bill is not about increased media competition. This bill has nothing to do with protecting and enhancing Australia’s cultural heritage and social diversity.

The Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts tells us that the current cross-media ownership laws limit competition in the media sector and restrict access to capital, expertise and opportunities for growth. At the same time she makes no commitment to enhancing media diversity in this country, no commitment to a higher quality media sector and no commitment to improving the role and responsibilities of Australian public media companies to diversity enrichment and to integrity in news and information reporting—none at all.

The Australian public have a reliance on the public media for information on which they can make judgements about a whole range of matters essential to daily life. As well, media companies are a source of entertainment and general information. By any measure the media companies in this country are highly profitable, but the large players are still not satisfied. They are clearly after much higher profits, even if it means screwing the Australian public in the process. The primary goal of the owners of private media outlets is to leverage as much profit as possible from being a seller of news, information, entertainment and advertising. As has been said by a recent CEO of Fairfax, newspapers are basically advertising platforms. It has been argued by another newspaper executive that ‘a newspaper was basically a media for distributing advertising and the news was wrapped around it to make it attractive’.

We are entitled to ask what is behind these legislative changes. Is it the Australian community at large? I hear no call from the Australian public for these changes to media ownership law. Clearly, the minister has been put up to this by the major media companies in order to increase their profits. That is what these changes are about. It is as simple as that. And how is this to be achieved? By ‘economies of scale’—the magic words so loved by big business. We all know what ‘economies of scale’ really means: company mergers and fewer and larger companies, less competition, the slashing of input and distribution costs, and a reduction in jobs. In other words, cost cutting, job shedding and less diversity.

Even with the current cross-media ownership legislation, Australia stands out amongst the OECD countries as a country having one of the highest concentrations of media company ownership. What possibly can be behind this move by the coalition government to open the gates to an even higher level of concentration of media ownership in Australia? Where is the benefit for the Australian people? This is a heist, and the Australian public are about to be dudded. This bill will set in motion the creation of a very small number of very powerful media despots who are to be given the economic and media power to hijack and manipulate the political landscape in this country and make superprofits in the process. Silvio Berlusconi, forget Italy; your opportunity is right here in Australia. Come over here. It is all here for you. This mob of cultural vandals will not rest until they turn this parliament into a rubber stamp for big business and big media.

I wish to turn to the National Party dissenters. What a pack of wimps! What a pack of show ponies! What is the response of the National senators to this bill? A dissenting report! The second paragraph of the National senators’ dissenting report to the findings of the government dominated Senate committee inquiry into the bill states:

A major concern with the proposed media reforms remains the over centralisation of the media market and the lack of capacity of the ACCC to have effective oversight of media mergers and their effect on the democratic process of our nation.

In three lines the National Party senators have entirely blown the government’s cover. The National senators know that this bill will inevitably and rapidly lead to much greater media ownership concentration and that nobody will be able to do anything about it. The ACCC has already admitted it does not have a role to play as far as the public interest is concerned.

It gets better. The National senators go on to directly state in their dissenting report that there is clear evidence of manipulation in Australia’s media market that has inhibited true competition. This is nothing less than outright condemnation of the performance of the coalition government in its inability to ensure that Australia has a media sector that is fair and honest and impartial. Why should the Australian public trust a government that its own members do not trust?

Again, in their dissenting report the honourable National senators quote extensively comments made to the Senate inquiry by Mr Beecher of Private Media Partners. It is obvious that at the time they wrote their dissenting report the National senators must have been completely convinced that they were dealing with a dud bill and that they were unwilling to rely on the major public media company spokespersons for advice on the proposed amendments to media ownership laws. The National senators clearly do not trust the major media companies and they obviously do not trust the government’s commitment to looking after the public interest as far as the media is concerned—a government of which, I might remind senators, the National senators are members.

Mr Beecher is the publisher of Crikey.com.au, a small, independent, internet based news provider that has filled a big gap in the availability of independent and fearless news reporting—something that has become rarer and rarer in Australia. The National senators’ dissenting report makes clear that they do not trust the major media companies, they do not trust their own side, they do not believe that there is effective competition in Australia’s media sector, and not only that but they see clear evidence of market manipulation by the media companies. Furthermore, they believe that the proposed legislation will result in less competition, not more competition as claimed by the minister. They clearly endorse the view that media owners in Australia have a track record of filtering news and information to the Australian public to promote those issues that media owners are interested in in order to influence public perceptions and opinion in ways that fit with media owner interests and views.

The National senators believe that the proposed legislation will result in even greater capacity for the owners and managers of the major media outlets to direct the flow and interpretation of news and information in a way that is kind to their interests and to their close friends and fellow travellers. The National senators obviously do not believe as things stand that the relevant government regulatory bodies have the power, political support or resources to match the major media companies when it comes to promoting and protecting the public interest.

And the National senators are dead right. If there is nothing in this bill for rural communities, there is certainly nothing in this bill for the rest of the Australian public. But what do we get after these great statements of principle? A wishy-washy set of amendments. The National senators clearly do not trust their coalition colleagues on this matter. What makes them think that they will get anything more than lip-service from the government as far as their amendments are concerned?

If the National senators were fair dinkum about this matter then they would vote down the bill in total. But they are not fair dinkum. We all know about ‘Backdown Barnaby’ and ‘Nowhere-to-be-seen Nash’. But I must admit my good friend and colleague Senator Hutchins has flushed them out and they are now on the speakers list. I am glad about that, because I am really looking forward to their comments. But we believe they will slither into the chamber and vote in favour of this bill, just as they voted in favour of the sale of Telstra. And isn’t that going well! I tell you what: I do not think Stroker would have voted for this bill.


Senator Polley —Do you mean Wacka?


Senator STERLE —I apologise. I do not think Wacka would have voted for this bill. When Wacka gets to Canberra, he will not be putting up with this kind of rubbish.

This bill is not going do anything but serve the interests of one or two major media companies. The risks to fairness, objectivity and impartiality in media reporting of Australia’s political and electoral processes if this bill is enacted are immense. What makes the National senators think that a government with the arrogance to put up legislation of this type could be trusted to construct and pass amendments that will have any effect on altering the intent of this bill? If the National senators had any real gumption, any principles at all, they would stand up immediately and demand that the government scrap this pathetic bill and make it clear to the government not to bother coming back to the Senate on this matter until it is able to guarantee that media diversity in this country—in both urban and country Australia—will not be diluted and that there will be no further concentration of media ownership.

I have no doubt this extreme bill is being pushed by an increasingly extreme government. The National Party senators, by their own words, know this to be true. But the time has come for something more than words. Let us find out whether the National senators from New South Wales and Queensland are the real thing. Are they having us on? Who are they—Fine Cotton or Bold Personality? None of us really know. I think they will turn out to be another Fine Cotton, whom they tried to dress up as a Bold Personality: all show and no substance. You can be sure the crowd will be shouting ‘Ring-in!’ when this bill goes to the vote. Bold Personality will be nowhere to be seen. All we will see is the gelding that is left standing at the post.