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Wednesday, 13 September 2017
Page: 7260

Senator FIFIELD (VictoriaManager of Government Business in the Senate, Minister for Communications and Minister for the Arts) (21:50): I'm just being courteous to a colleague. As it appears no further colleagues are wishing to contribute to the debate, can I thank colleagues for doing so. Also, more particularly, can I thank the colleagues who have engaged with me over an extended period of time. As I mentioned earlier in the procedural debate about extra hours, it should be acknowledged that crossbench colleagues and Green colleagues have constructively and positively engaged with the government. While we didn't reach agreement with the Greens, we nevertheless appreciated the fact that they were open to discuss this.

Crossbench colleagues have been very open. They've also been subject to a fair bit of criticism, bordering on abuse, by the Australian Labor Party on their exercising their appropriate rights as senators to examine propositions and to make a determination on those. The Labor Party have really been a very stark contrast, and I couldn't help but be reminded of the gracelessness of some of those opposite not only in the contributions in the place but over the last few weeks.

I do want to start with the alternative government. I want to start with something that those opposite have said often, and that is that they recognise the need for media reform and that they support all elements with the exception of the two-out-of-three rule abolition. But it's important not to go by what Labor say but to look at what it is they do. In the House of Representatives, the Australian Labor Party voted against every element in the media reform package in the second reading vote, and they voted against the whole package at the third reading. So there is a contradiction inherent in saying they support everything apart from abolishing two-out-of-three but then voting against the entire package. I've again heard Labor colleagues in this place tonight state that they support everything apart from the two-out-of-three component. So it will be interesting to see if Labor support the second reading of this bill. If they're to be taken at their word, if they're to be taken at what they say, they would support the second reading of this bill, but it will remain to be seen if that is indeed the case.

Something else we've heard repeatedly from those opposite, particularly Ms Rowland in another place, is that what there needs to be, when making decisions in the area of media reform, is an evidence base. The evidence is well and truly in. There is not a need for any more inquiries, there is not a need for any more Senate committees, there is not a need for further analysis of data. The evidence is in. It is clear. This is not 1988. The internet does exist. The media laws that we have were crafted for an era which is barely recognisable today. The media laws that we have had the perfectly good intention, back in 1988, of seeking to ensure diversity by ensuring that there wasn't an excessive concentration of ownership—and that probably made sense in 1988, when the only platforms were print, radio and TV.

We all know that things have changed dramatically since then. We know that the internet is all pervasive. We know that people have an unprecedented range of options when it comes to how they consume their media and how they consume their news. And those well-intentioned media laws, the two-out-of-three and the 75 per cent audience reach rule, now have the effect of constraining the capacity of Australian media organisations to configure themselves in the ways to best support their viability. And all of us in this place want to see, I would hope, strong Australian media voices.

From where I stand, the greatest threat to diversity in Australian media would be the failure of a significant media organisation. I think that would be the greatest threat to diversity. But we agree that it is important that there are diversity protections, which is why we are not proposing the abolition of what is known as the five-four or the voices rule, which says that: in a metropolitan market, you need to have five independent media voices; and, in a regional market, you need to have four independent media voices. We are not proposing the abolition of that. We are not proposing the abolition of the two-to-a-market radio rule, which says that you can't have more than two radio licences in one market. We are not proposing the abolition of the one-to-a-market TV rule, which says that you can't have more than one TV licence in a market. We will also continue to have the competition ruler of the ACCC, so there will still be important diversity protections.

What's being proposed by the legislation that is before the chamber is that we free things up a little for Australian media organisations, that we allow them to have a broader range of dance partners when it comes to who they might configure with to better support their viability. If you have more viable media organisations with scale, they will be in a better position to employ journalists and do the important work that they do. So we recognise the importance of diversity. We will be keeping important diversity protections.

I have commented before, in talking about media reform, that this is a somewhat unusual situation in that we have the support of essentially the entire Australian media industry. We have the support of Seven, Nine, Ten, WIN, Prime, Southern Cross Austereo, Fairfax, News, Free TV, Commercial Radio Australia, Foxtel and ASTRA. That is—and this is no understatement—unprecedented. The reason it's unprecedented is because these are fiercely competitive commercial rivals who understandably talk their own book, talk their own corner. But what we have seen here is, such is the challenge faced by the Australian media industry from online and over-the-top providers, that the leaders of Australia's media industry have looked beyond their own legitimate organisational interests to the wider interests of the Australian media industry. So it's a credit to the leaders of Australia's media industry, but it is also a key indicator of the fact that they are under such challenge.

What we have before the Senate is a comprehensive package which seeks to provide a shot in the arm for Australian media organisations to give them a fighting chance. The elements, as colleagues would know, include, for commercial free-to-air TV and for commercial radio, the abolition of the existing revenue based licence fees and the replacement of those with a more modest spectrum charge. That is a tax cut. That is an important shot in the arm for these organisations. Every commercial radio station in the nation—and they're in every city and town, big or small—wants to see this package through. Every free-to-air TV station in the nation, be they metro or regional, wants to see this package passed. I have mentioned already the abolition of the two-out-of-three rule and the 75 per cent audience reach rule. Media organisations that I have mentioned are all in favour of the abolition of these ownership control laws. This is a package that, indeed, does have something for each of these organisations, but it also has a community dividend in the form of further restrictions on gambling advertising. This is something that has been welcomed and well received in the community. Yes, there is certainly a dividend for media organisations, and we want there to be because we want them to be strong and viable, but there's also an important community dividend here.

One of the more curious things that I've heard over the past few months is a contribution from Ms Rowland from the other place, in an interview on Sky with Kieran Gilbert. Kieran said words to the effect of: 'Given you've got every media organisation in the nation supporting this package, why wouldn't you embrace it? Why wouldn't you support it? Surely these people know something about their industry. Surely these people know something about what makes a good and conducive environment to employ people.' Ms Rowland's response was, 'Well, they're only supporting this package because there's something in it for them.' Yes, indeed—that's right. That's why they are, and that's why we put this package together, to ensure just that.

Colleagues opposite, like us, want to see media diversity, and we have some diversity protections, but diversity is not something that you can legislate into being. The necessary prerequisite for diversity is to have existing strong, viable media organisations that continue. If you don't have that, it doesn't matter what laws you have, you're not going to have diversity. That's why we think it's important that you have a combination of diversity protections, which we have in the form of the five-four rule, the two-to-a-market rule, the one-to-a-market rule and the ACCC, together with a package of measures which helps support the viability of Australian media organisations.

It has been commented by colleagues opposite that we have entered into agreements with various groupings in the chamber. The answer is, yes, we have. It's funny. When the Australian Labor Party enters an agreement, they call it an agreement. When the other side of politics enters an agreement, they call it a deal—they seek a pejorative term. In politics it doesn't matter the forum, whether it's a local council, a state parliament, the House of Reps, the Australian Senate, a local branch meeting of the ALP or a local branch meeting of the Australian Conservatives, you need 50 per cent plus one to do anything in any of those forums. So we have attempted to get 50 per cent plus one in this place.

There has been a bit of attention paid to some elements which will be the subject of subsequent legislation. I refer to a few matters to do with the ABC. I just want to advise colleagues that what we have agreed and what we will seek to pursue in relationship to the ABC are measures to enhance the ABC. I want to start in particular with some measures which were put forward by our colleague Senator Bridget McKenzie which have been adopted as government policy and do form part of an agreement that we have entered into in this place.

Senator McKenzie put forward, as you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, a range of measures in relation to the ABC and regional Australia. Now, it would surprise many people, I think, to discover that nowhere in the ABC Charter does it make reference to rural and regional Australia. But there is no such reference, and so what we will seek to do is to have a reference to rural and regional Australia in the ABC Charter, because that's an important part of their work, and I think most Australians would assume that's already there.

We're also proposing to ensure that there are at least two people on the ABC board who have a background from rural and regional Australia. Now, that's something that this government has already done by virtue of the appointment of Georgie Somerset, who's a beef producer from Kingaroy, and also Vanessa Guthrie, who is the chair of the Mineral Councils of Australia. We have already done that, but we think it's appropriate that that requirement be enshrined in legislation.

Senator McKenzie also put forward the proposition that there should be an ABC regional advisory council with which ABC management would need to consult when there's a decision being taken which has a material effect on residents of rural Australia, and we think that's a good thing. But there are a range of other transparency measures that she has put forward. There has been mention, obviously, of the issue of 'fair and balanced' being incorporated into the ABC's act. And I know colleagues will take great reassurance from the fact that chapter 4 of the ABC's editorial guidelines refers to 'a balance that follows the weight of evidence'—there's that word, 'balance'—and to 'fair treatment'. The ABC's own editorial guidelines in chapter 4 talk about being fair and balanced. The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance Journalistic Code of Ethics also talks about fairness no less than six times. So, if it's good enough for the MEAA and good enough for the ABC editorial guidelines, there should be no reason why 'fair and balanced' should not be incorporated into the ABC's act. So I know colleagues opposite will take great reassurance from that.

Senator Bernardi: You'll have the opportunity to vote for them later on.

Senator FIFIELD: That's right, Senator Bernardi. I just want to make brief mention of some of those measures, because they have attracted some comment.

When it comes to diversity, obviously, there are a range of measures for community radio that the government has agreed to. There are also a range of measures in relation to cadetships, in relation to scholarships and also in relation to an innovation fund. These are all good and positive things to further support diversity. But the most important thing that is being done for diversity in the package that is before the Australian Senate is measures that will help the long-term viability of Australian media organisations and ensure that we have strong Australian media voices into the future.

While those of us here may not always like what it is that those in the gallery and in other journalistic walks will post, write, broadcast, tweet or blog, nevertheless, what they do is an important underpinning for our democracy. The scrutiny that they provide is one of the things that make us a robust pluralistic democracy. We want to see that work that Australian journalists do continue. It's one thing to say that you value the work of journalists and that you value what it is the media organisations do, but it's another thing to demonstrate that. The package that is before the Senate provides a shot in the arm to Australian media organisations. It provides them with a fighting chance. On this side of the chamber, we're for strong Australian media organisations. Those opposite talk about it, but when it comes down to it in the House of Representatives they vote against each and every measure that would support that. I urge my colleagues to consider this package. I urge this chamber to consider this package.

Senator O'Neill: Two-out-of-three was the problem, and you're misrepresenting it!

Senator FIFIELD: I'll take the interjection, in the final 20 seconds, from Senator O'Neill: it's not a misrepresentation. Look at the Hansard in the House. Every Labor member voted against every measure in the House of Representatives. Saying that it's not so does not make it untrue.

The PRESIDENT: The question is that the second reading amendment moved by Senator Siewert be agreed to.