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Wednesday, 11 October 2006
Page: 28

Senator BARTLETT (11:29 AM) —I do not support the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 and related bills. It can be argued that some of the amendments that have been negotiated by different members of the government over recent days reduce the negative aspects of the legislation. But, inasmuch as that is true, it only changes very bad legislation to simply bad legislation. And voting for bad legislation is still a bad thing; it is certainly not in the public interest and I certainly will not be supporting it. I will briefly emphasise a couple of the key reasons why and outline just a few of the key aspects of this debate.

It is not particularly an issue for me whether or not there is diversity of ownership with regard to people pumping out three different versions of a commercial music station in the one market. The big issue with regard to this is, of course, the presentation and provision of information, not entertainment, and that is where this legislation will cause serious harm to what is already, frankly, the fairly sick democracy that we have here in Australia.

One of the things that emphasises how ill that democracy is is, of course, the contemptible process that has been followed, from the parliamentary side of things, in enabling—or supposedly enabling—this legislation to be considered. As some of the minority reports from the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts that looked at the legislation emphasised, members of the public were given just over a week to make submissions on the legislation. Yet some of the key media players involved, who have a lot to gain from this legislation, have been involved in negotiations behind the scenes for months. I do not have a problem with them being consulted; that is totally appropriate, as it is with any other area. But, for an area that is so fundamental to the public interest, to have members of the general public given just a week to respond and make a submission on the legislation is simply unacceptable.

Sometimes I think there is a perception that, when the Democrats and others complain about the grotesquely short time frames for Senate inquiries, we are just complaining about how we do not get enough time. That is certainly true. But the big problem is not senators not getting enough time—it is people in the wider community not getting enough time. Certainly that is a problem for those of us who are actually interested in the views of the wider community and the expertise and knowledge in the wider community. I accept that that probably does not include at least some members of the government—there is a growing number, particularly in the ministry, who have shown that they are not remotely interested in the views, expertise and knowledge of the wider community.

But many of us in the Senate do still believe that it is an important part of democracy to consider the views of people who might actually know what they are talking about, to consider the views of people in the real world and to consider the impact in reality of what has been put forward in legislation. The key flaw here is that the process has not allowed that. It has not allowed people in the general community, people with expertise, independent commentators—let alone people with a direct interest, commercial or otherwise—to have enough time to respond to the legislation.

That was clearly demonstrated with the farcical committee process that was followed. There was too short a time for advertising and the writing of submissions; too short a time for interested senators to read and absorb those submissions; too short a time for the public hearings, for witnesses to present evidence and for interested senators to ask questions; too short a time for information to be returned for questions that were given on notice and too short a time for all that evidence to be sifted to be presented via the senate committee report. When you combine all those things together you have a perversion of democracy, and a very serious one.

I would note that that impacts even on the members of the government. I would also note Senator Joyce’s comments, including a couple that I think were important and that I agree with: that there is a real need for democracy to continue to operate. And, whilst I certainly do not support the final outcome here, I think it is clear that some significant changes have occurred because some people like Senator Joyce have said, ‘I am going to consider this as an individual and take a considered view.’

One point he made that I think does need re-emphasising is that the entire parliament and our entire democracy would benefit if more of us across all parties were prepared to act on the basis of our views of the public interest and were prepared to show at least some degree of independent thought and some degree of independent action. Clearly, that is something that, as the record shows, the Democrats have done and, indeed, have promoted as a key part of our ethos for nearly 30 years now.

We all need more opportunity to operate in the way that we are elected to do, which is to represent the community, rather than just maintain power for whichever party we happen to represent. But a key part of that is, again, enabling the committee process to work. We had the ridiculous process where even the government members involved in the inquiry—and there were basically six of them; I think there were four Liberals and two Nationals—were getting roughly 10 minutes between them per witness. How can there be any serious, genuine opportunity for people such as Senator Joyce or anybody else to explore an issue with a witness when they have a time frame—which government members forced upon themselves, I might say, by voting for ridiculously short reporting dates—that means that they get just a couple of minutes to ask questions of witnesses, of people who actually have knowledge about what the impacts will be? That just demonstrates how corrupted the process is.

I emphasise that, to me, this really goes back to the wider problem of the weakness of the Trade Practices Act in ensuring proper competitive practices in any industry, including the media, and the ACCC’s weaknesses that flow from that—their inability to deal properly with assessing mergers and acquisitions—and the lack of divestiture powers within the Trade Practices Act. That is really the problem here. If we had strong, overarching trade practices laws that prevented excessive concentration in any particular area of any market then that would overcome a lot of the problems.

The fact is that these changes will reduce competition. There is no doubt about that. They will reduce diversity. Whilst there has been a lot of talk in this debate about the need to protect some degree of diversity in regional and rural areas—and I fully support that—as somebody who has lived their entire life in a capital city, I get very tired of there being very little attention paid to the damage that this is going to do to diversity in capital cities, which after all is where the majority of Australians live. That is not a shot at people who do not live in these areas. I think we would all be better off, quite frankly, if more people lived outside the capital cities. But the fact is that the majority of Australians do live in capital cities and major urban centres, and this legislation will lead to reduced diversity and reduced competition. They are two separate things, but we would benefit from having greater competition and greater diversity, particularly in this area. This legislation will lead to less of that, including—and, in some ways, even more importantly—in metropolitan areas.

This is particularly the case if you are talking about information. Some of the key problems with the concentration of ownership are not just the reduction in the number of outlets where people can get information—that is not necessarily going to be reduced—but the continual reduction in diversity; cross-promotion and integration, which distorts the genuineness of information flows; and even something as basic and very fundamental as career paths for journalists. If only a few major media players in the entire country employ news journalists, that is a very effective control mechanism over those journalists. They know that, if they get out of line, if they get offside with a particular proprietor, that cuts off an enormous component of their career options. That in itself means a reduction not only in diversity but in the independence and fearlessness of reporters and journalists who provide a lot of that information. To me, that aspect is one of the most serious.

From my point of view, the passage of this legislation will mean a greater necessity to again look to newer sources for information. The view of Mr Samuel that was given to the Senate committee, which has been quoted a few times, about how the internet is yet to provide much by way of greater diversity of information has a lot of truth to it, but I do not think it is completely accurate. In fact, I know that it is not completely accurate, certainly not in my view. I think there is a greater diversity of news, particularly international news, and opinion available to people now because of the internet, and I am using the word ‘internet’ in its wider sense—electronic technology, email communications, mobile technology and all those things. There are now plenty of opportunities for people to get a vast array of information about international news, without having to rely on the narrow options that are available within Australia.

Where it is still a problem and where I do agree with Mr Samuel is with regard to local news. Certainly that is where new technologies are yet to provide the range of diversity. These changes will basically force that on people—people will need to go elsewhere to get information that they believe is truly independent. I can only hope that we do better at improving the technology that is available to Australians to enable them to do that. It is another reason why we need to be ensuring greater support—and some components in the report went towards this—for community based media: public broadcasting, public radio and community television. Those forms of media are also important and will become more so. How widespread the listenership is to community based radio is very much unrecognised. It provides local news—not so much hard news, in the sense of perhaps what is happening here in this chamber—and local information. That is not recognised as widely as it should be and certainly more support there is important.

When we pull back what the core part of this legislation is really about, which is a fundamental aspect of democracy—the ability for citizens to access independent and accurate information about what their representatives and government are doing—it will undoubtedly make things worse. That is probably in the interests of the government—because the fewer the people they need to get positive reportage to, the easier life is for them—but for the general community, which already has a great mistrust about the accuracy and the adequacy of information that is available to them, it is going to be a significant problem.

Certainly the information that gets out about what happens in state parliaments—and, in my view, certainly from the Queensland perspective—is worse than what gets out about federal parliament. There are better options available to find out what happens in this parliament than what happens certainly in the state parliament of Queensland and I suspect elsewhere, let alone to find out about local council issues.

The situation is already not good. This legislation is going to make it worse and, in some ways, is going to hasten the need for people who are wanting genuine information about issues that affect them to develop, explore and support alternatives. It does not need to be that way. It is very unfortunate that we are going down this path. If we could simply support and have stronger overarching trade practices and competition legislation that allowed diversity and effective and fair competition in a whole range of areas, we would be a lot better off not just in our democracy but, frankly, in our economy more widely.