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Thursday, 14 March 2013
Page: 1708

Senator FIFIELD (VictoriaManager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (11:51): I move an amendment to the motion to adopt Selection of Bills Committee report No. 3 of 2013 to provide for a reporting date of 17 June for the package of broadcasting and media bills at item 3 in the report:

At the end of the motion, add:

"but, in respect of the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Convergence Review and Other Measures) Bill 2013, the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (News Media Diversity) Bill 2013, the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2013, the News Media (Self-regulation) Bill 2013, the News Media (Self-regulation) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2013 and the Public Interest Media Advocate Bill 2013, the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee report by 17 June 2013".

The Selection of Bills Committee process this week has told the chamber all that it really needs to know about both sides in this place. The Selection of Bills Committee referral proposal by the government states in relation to this package of bills that the reason for referral is: 'Legislative committee to examine bills for quick report.' What that says is that the government wants to have essentially a 'tick and flick'. It is not interested at all in having serious, careful examination of the legislation, and that is confirmed by the fact that the government has proposed a reporting date of 20 March. Can I just point out that between now and 20 March is the 15th, the 16th, the 17th, the 18th, the 19th and the 20th, so there are four business days for what are far-reaching proposals to alter the media landscape in this nation.

Mr President, can I just share, in contrast, the reasons for referral that I put down, with the advice of Senator Birmingham. These are as follows. Referral is proposed because of the extremely short time frame the government has proposed for consideration of these laws. The government's so-called media reforms are the largest shake-up of media regulation since 2006. Some of the most important elements of these measures, such as the precise criteria defining the public interest which the legislation will apply to changes of media ownership, have not been publicly disclosed prior to the introduction of these bills. As a result there has been no opportunity to consider any unintended consequences or conflicts with existing laws and regulations. The laws also propose the first direct government controls over material published in newspapers in peacetime in Australian history. To expect the parliament to debate and vote on such far-reaching bills without the opportunity to call witnesses, to hear evidence and to undertake the detailed objective scrutiny only a committee process provides would be an abuse of the democratic process. They were our reasons and our rationale for referral. Compare that to the government's, which was: 'Legislative committee to examine bills for quick report'. It is a stark contrast.

As you know, Mr President, these wide-ranging reforms include a proposed new public interest test to determine future media mergers and also a government appointed Public Interest Media Advocate that will have oversight of the Press Council. Freedom of speech is one of the bedrocks of our free and democratic society. A free and independent media who can hold governments or, for that matter, oppositions to account is a key part of freedom of speech. We know that what is happening here, what is proposed here, is the current government seeking to retaliate against its critics in the media. We always predicted that this would happen and we are seeing it come to fruition. We do have concerns that a public interest test risks becoming a political interest test for the government of the day. Who knows—maybe we should trust Senator Conroy, but maybe not all future communications ministers will be as serious and sober and professional as Senator Conroy.

The coalition think it is important that the committee of this Senate has the opportunity to carefully examine the proposed winding back of centuries of press freedom. Despite not having the actual legislation when Senator Conroy announced these reforms, he has threatened that he will not negotiate on any measures and that they must be passed in full by the end of next week. This is not the way that public policy should be made in this place. We know that this government is not a big fan or defender of free speech. It is certainly not a big fan or defender of a free press, so we are not surprised that this legislation is being brought forward. Equally, we are not surprised that the government is seeking to deny this Senate and its committees the opportunity to fully and rigorously examine this legislation.