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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications

Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications


CHAIR: We now move to the department for the first time today. I welcome Mr Simon Atkinson, who is Secretary of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

Senator PRATT: May I commence by asking the minister, Senator Hume, a question. Minister Hume, has the Prime Minister or his office instructed Liberal Party members and senators not to go on the ABC or to limit the acceptance of invitations to appear on any ABC programs, such as the 7.30 Report?

Senator Hume: I have never heard any such instruction. Certainly, no instruction akin to that has been directed at me and in fact I appear on the ABC regularly.

Senator PRATT: On 7 February the minister announced triennial funding arrangements for the ABC and SBS. Why did the minister announce ABC and SBS budgets some seven weeks before budget night? What prompted that announcement?

Senator Hume: I think it was simply time for the triennium funding to be announced. From memory, Senator Pratt, I think that the opposition pushed for that announcement at the last Senate estimates, so I'm surprised that you're surprised that it came.

Senator PRATT: Well, you certainly hadn't put that triennial funding on the table before that, when it had been the usual structure. But anyway, the announcement this year—was that announcement prompted by recent polling and research?

Senator Hume: No. It was to provide the broadcasters with certainty, which I think again was something that you personally were calling for at the last Senate estimates.

Senator PRATT: So the government did it because the Labor Party asked it to?

Senator Hume: No, we do nothing because the Labor Party asks us to.

Senator PRATT: So why did you do it?

Senator Hume: To provide the broadcasters with certainty.

Senator PRATT: Polling in blue ribbon Liberal seats in New South Wales, Wentworth and North Sydney, shows overwhelming support for increased ABC funding and for a more independent ABC board appointment process. Minister, I note that in his media release of 7 February the minister states:

This funding commitment is designed to provide certainty for both broadcasters and is being announced well in advance of the next funding period to assist the ABC and SBS to develop their forward plans.

Is the converse therefore also true? By that admission it has to be. Does the Morrison government acknowledge that a lack of funding certainty makes it difficult for the ABC and SBS to develop their forward plans, as has previously been the case?

Senator Hume: Senator, that is indeed a convoluted question and I can only answer by reiterating my previous answer, which is the reason why the funding announcement was made was to provide certainty to broadcasters. Labor may respond in a knee-jerk way to polling. That is not the way the government operates.

Senator PRATT: So you acknowledge they lacked certainty before this announcement?

Senator Hume: I acknowledge that the triennium funding was due to be announced and any organisation that relies on government funding would like to know exactly what that funding entails.

Senator PRATT: You acknowledge this history of arbitrary funding cuts to the national broadcasters under the National and Liberal government since 2014 and that has undermined funding certainty?

Senator Hume: There have been no cuts to the ABC's funding throughout the life of this government.

Senator PRATT: But you acknowledge that the triennial funding enables them to develop forward plans?

Senator Hume: I think that is stating the obvious.

Senator PRATT: So therefore the lack of funding in the past, in terms of that certainty, because it was year by year—

Senator Hume: There have been no cuts to the ABC's funding. They have had over a billion dollars in funding every single year. They have more funding certainty than any other media outlet in Australia and they now know exactly what the government's funding will look like for the next triennium.

Senator PRATT: I'm just trying to come to grips with the logic. On one hand, you said, 'We've made this announcement for triennial funding because the SBS and ABC needed certainty', but they haven't had triennium funding in the past. It's been year by year and it has been uncertain—

Senator Hume: That's not true, they have had—

Senator PRATT: And yet the government does not admit that contributed to an inability to develop forward plans.

Senator Hume: You're wrong, I'm afraid. They have had triennium funding in the past. That is the way that the ABC's funding operates.

Senator PRATT: To support certainty for both broadcasters, will the government undertake not to cut ABC and SBS funding over the course of the triennium commencing in 2022-23?

Senator Hume: That is the purpose of the triennium funding announcement.

Senator PRATT: So, yes, you commit to not cutting funding—

Senator Hume: That's why we announce triennium funding, so that they—

Senator PRATT: I'm trying to get the words out of your mouth, Minister. Yes, that is the purpose of triennium funding. Does the government commit to not changing those funding parameters?

Senator Hume: That's why we announced the triennium funding for the next three years.

Senator PRATT: Would you see, therefore, if that was to change, that would be a breach of—

CHAIR: These are hypotheticals. I hate to intercede here. These are hypotheticals and you actually can't put words in other people's mouths. That's now how the process works.

Senator PRATT: I understand that, but the minister is giving a very clever—

CHAIR: The answers are the answers. You can ask the question a thousand different ways, but the answer is the answer. I'm not sure how productive this is, but I invite you to continue to ask questions.

Senator PRATT: The minister's media release states that the ABC will receive an increase of 82.7 million over the current triennium. May I ask what funding makes up that increase? How much of that sum of 82.7 is accounted for by the return of indexation on base operational funding?

Senator Hume: That's probably an appropriate question for the department.

Mr Atkinson : There are two elements to it. The first is the 82. That's the base operational and transmission funding over the triennium total with indexation applied.

Senator PRATT: I beg your pardon?

Mr Atki nson : The difference between the two trienniums—the 82 you're talking about—is the difference between the base operational and transmission amounts in the new triennium compared to the old triennium.

Senator PRATT: It's not indexation? Where's the return to indexation?

Mr Atkinson : The indexation is in the new triennium amount.

Senator PRATT: How much more is being provided to the enhanced news-gathering program in the next triennium compared with the current triennium?

Mr Atkinson : That would be 2.1 million.

Senator PRATT: In that context, with the $82.7 million increase, you're saying none of that is accounted for by indexation on base operational funding?

Mr Atkinson : No, that's not what I said. The new triennium includes indexation. The old triennium didn't have that—or it did on part of it. So it's the last three years total versus the next three years total.

Senator PRATT: So there's no indexation until the next triennium starts as per the announcement?

Mr Atkinson : There is indexation in part of the current triennium agreement, but there's full indexation in the new triennium agreement. Does that make sense?

Senator PRATT: It does. I know that indexation is returned in this next triennium, but—

Mr Atkinson : Sorry, I think there's indexation on the transmission element of the current triennium.

Senator PRATT: But not in any other part?

Mr Atkinson : Not the full.

Senator PRATT: The current indexation is only on those elements?

Ms Sullivan : On the transmission elements, Senator.

Senator PRATT: Mr Atkinson, let's work through this. The minister is saying that the ABC is getting an increase in funding when much of that so-called funding increase is frankly what the ABC is used to receiving but which the government took away.

Mr Atkinson : Sorry, what's the question?

Senator PRATT: Am I correct that, when you say 82.7 is an increase in funding, it is simply the return of indexation? We all know what's happening in inflation around the country at the moment.

Mr Atkinson : The easiest way to do it is to just look at the figures across the current triennium and then the growth in funding year by year—

Senator PRATT: Yes, thank you. I know I'm interrupting your answer, but I think I understand it now. In the media release of—

CHAIR: Senator, do you have a lot more questions?

Senator PRATT: Yes.

CHAIR: We'll come back to you.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Mr Atkinson, I've got some questions in relation to the devastation of the art sector over this summer. Last time we spoke, there was a sense coming from the government and this department that everything was going to be pretty okay by summer. In fact, Dr Arnott, you actually told the Senate committee into the insurance bill that there had been analysis done that and 'The analysis leads us to think that, once we get through this delta period and once we have vaccination rates and the reopening as per the national transition plan, we will see a similar bounce back in jobs in the performing arts'. It didn't happen, did it?

Mr Atkinson : I'd just like to add an extra bit of context. I don't think anybody could have foreseen omicron and the way that it impacted all of our industries. We agree with you that the impact has been very significant over the summer. I will leave it to Dr Arnott to finish the rest.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I think some people did predict it, actually. Lots of health experts were saying that we needed to be more cautious. But I understand the line from the government is that, because Mr Morrison didn't want it to happen, he didn't take the advice and he didn't think it would happen, therefore it's been a surprise. We can rewrite history. The fact is that it did happen, the sector was smashed again for the third summer in a row, and I'm extremely disappointed at the stubbornness from the federal government to refuse to invest in insurance for the industry. You take out insurance in the event that something might happen, and you couldn't even do that.

Senator Hume: Chair, are we going to get to a question at any point some time soon or are we just going to grandstand?

CHAIR: As you know, my view on this is quite simple: the senators ask questions and the witnesses answer the questions without being interrupted.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Dr Arnott, why wasn't the department better prepared? Why wasn't the government better prepared?

Dr Arnott : As the secretary said, we didn't predict the omicron outbreak in December 2021. The modelling that you just reported to me was accurate modelling at the time that I reported it to you at the committee. It is true to say that the sector has continued to call for insurance for business interruption and some states have moved to implement schemes, including Victoria and New South Wales.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Is there any rethinking going on within the federal department and the federal government as to what can be done to support the live performance and events industry in particular, given the absolute smashing that they've had over the summer?

Dr Arnott : We continue to implement the government's COVID recovery programs and the RISE Fund has now reached $180 million committed to the sector since it was announced in June 2020. We continue to deliver emergency support through our sustainability fund for nationally significant organisations, as well as significant other supports in regional Australia and through Support Act charities. So we continue to roll out the government's programs.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Given what has now been experienced—and even the Prime Minister himself accepts that he was wrong to not foresee this and be prepared for it—has there been a rethink in what role the federal government can take in helping with insurance?

Mr Atkinson : There are just a couple of things there. Obviously, what we've seen at the moment is quite different to the state government responses we saw through delta, where we had significant lockdowns, particularly in the major capital cities. It has allowed significant economic activity to continue and activity in these sectors to start again. Once again, as you said, they've been seriously impacted. The government's package of response measures supports those and the latest round of RISE also supports those. Of course, it's open to government to make future decisions, but at this stage we're focused on implementing the billion dollars of response package that we have in front of us.

Senator HA NSON-YOUNG: So there's been no rethink on insurance, despite the fact that uncertainty has been proven to be the biggest obstacle?

Mr Atkinson : I suppose the government's policy is what it is.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do we have any economic analysis that's been done as to what the loss to the sector was over this period and therefore the rest of the economy?

Dr Arnott : We have looked at the jobs data for the relevant period. We were going to report that to you in the arts side at midday today. What I can say now is that, while there were again significant job losses as a result of that outbreak, they weren't as severe as they were during the delta outbreak for the reasons that Mr Atkinson outlined. There was activity continuing, albeit at a reduced rate, because there weren't total lockdowns during that period.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do we have a sense of what the industry is worth now, two years on? Prior to COVID the department's own figures were a worth of $112 billion to the overall economy. Do you have any figures as to what the industry is worth now?

Dr Arnott : We haven't yet done that update to the satellite account. I'll have to get back to you on when that's due to be done, but it will be done.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: It is in the works, is it?

Dr Arnott : Yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Is that all being done within your department or are you relying on Treasury?

Dr Arnott : It is being done by our bureau of economic research.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Is there a deadline for when we're meant to be able to see that?

Dr Arnott : I will have to get back to you.

Mr Atkinson : We'll come back to you today on that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you. It would be helpful to know, given that the next time we see each other it will be after the next budget, an update on what the actuals are at the moment in terms of what's been spent as part of that COVID recovery package.

Mr Atkinson : We can provide that now, if you like, or at the arts update at 12. Would you like it now?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Now would be great.

Mr Atkinson : For RISE, the total paid is $157.6 million. The Arts Sustainability Fund is $30.6 million. I will pass to Dr Arnott for the rest.

Dr Arnott : Then we have that Regional Arts Fund Recovery Boost. All $10 million of that has been paid and contracted; 349 projects have been supported. All of the $40 million that went to Support Act has been paid. As at the end of 2021, $35 million had been paid out in direct crisis grants, and additional counselling services at $5 million, so funding is fully expended under that one. For the supporting cinemas retention fund, the SCREEN Fund, $10.4 million has been committed out of the $20 million allocated to that fund. For Playing Australia, an additional $5 million has been fully allocated through the Australia Council, and, under the $11.4 million Regional Arts Tourism package, $9.1 million has been paid out.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you.

Senator DAVEY: Senator Hanson-Young mentioned this committee's inquiry into the Live Performance Federal Insurance Guarantee Fund Bill. I know the committee didn't recommend the passage of the bill, and the committee found that states had already begun to act on the issue. At that time I believe Western Australia had something in place, but am I correct in saying that now New South Wales and Victoria have also introduced a live performance insurance scheme?

Dr Arnott : That's correct.

Senator DAVEY: If we were to do it federally, it would be a duplication of effort?

Dr Arnott : It's not entirely clear how a federal scheme would operate, given that there are substantial schemes in the bigger states.

Senator DAVEY: For the RISE Fund that you mentioned, Mr Atkinson, the committee heard at the time that RISE grants that go to events that are then subsequently cancelled—due to a lockdown or something—didn't have to be repaid because they could put it towards rescheduling. Is that still the case?

Dr Arnott : That's correct. No funding has been repaid to the RISE Fund due to any COVID interruption or cancellation of events. The money's gone to where it was intended to go.

Senator DAVEY: And, with that RISE Fund, which I note has gone out across Australia, have you got a breakdown of funding to organisations located in regional areas compared to urban organisations, and where the funding has gone?

Dr Arnott : I do, Senator.

Mr Atkinson : While Dr Arnott is looking for that, there's just one little caveat I'd put on that. The activities of the organisations where that happens is not necessarily identical to the geographic location of the main office where we pay money to.

Senator DAVEY: Absolutely, I acknowledge that. It's also very good to hear that organisations based in regional areas are getting funding, and they might do activities in the cities and vice versa.

Dr Arnott : I should have it. I can't quite lay my hands on it now. I know I read it.

Senator DAVEY: You can take it on notice.

Mr Atkinson : We'll take it on notice. When we've got the rest of the arts crew here we'll get the answer for you.

Senator DAVEY: Fine.

CHAIR: There were some adjusted guidelines, right—on the RISE?

Mr Atkinson : Yes.

CHAIR: And that's been successful?

Dr A rnott : The minister agreed to change the guidelines to allow expenditure that was being incurred for rescheduled events to be eligible, and we funded a few projects that have needed that additional support.

Senator DAVEY: Thank you.

Senator PRATT: Turning to the statement of expectations, the minister's media release on 7 February also said at the time that he had written to the ABC and SBS outlining their funding packages and issued statements of expectation regarding reporting by the two organisations in relation to a number of their key activities, a National Broadcasters Reporting Framework for Australian Content and, in the case of the ABC, its rural and regional activities. Mr Atkinson, has a minister for communications ever previously issued a statement of expectations to the ABC and SBS, and, if not, why not?

Mr Atkinson : Not that I am aware of, but statements of expectations are being updated for most of the government business entities—I have 38 entities in our portfolio—to make sure that, while many of them are independent, they're in an operating context of what government's expectations are. I don't think it's an unusual thing, in the context of statements of expectations being updated, for this to have gone out.

Senator PRATT: So you assert that it means that operations should be within government expectations? Is it correct—

Mr Atkinson : Senator, I didn't say that.

Senator PRATT: Okay, I'll check the Hansard.

Mr Atkinson : I said it was in the context.

Senator PRATT: Is it correct that a small number of bodies, including the ABC and SBS, have previously been exempt from such statements because they're independent and are generally not subject to ministerial direction?

Mr Atkinson : I think the most important thing to do is actually read the third paragraph of the statement of expectations, which says, 'In setting out its expectations, the Australian government continues to respect the ABC's statutory independence and the requirement that it performs its functions free from government interference or direction.' I think that's the underlying principle that's articulated right in the face at the top of the SOE.

Senator Hume: This isn't an unusual situation, Senator Pratt. There are government agencies—for instance, in the Treasury portfolio, like ASIC—that operate entirely independently and free from ministerial directions—

Senator PRATT: I don't like that the ministerial directions—

Senator Hume: that also have a statement of expectations, even though they are entirely independent organisations.

Senator PRATT: So why was there a policy change in this regard? Why is it that we have a statement of expectations for the national broadcaster, which was not regarded as appropriate under the Howard government and is now regarded as appropriate under the Morrison government?

Senator Hume: Who are you directing that question to? I think you can in fact ask the reverse: is it not appropriate for the ABC to report on its regional and rural activities, including things like the number of staff employed in the ABC in regional rural Australia and how that compares to metropolitan areas? I think that's a pretty fair and reasonable request of the ABC.

Senator PRATT: What's the legal status of the statement of expectations in relation to the ABC and SBS?

Senator Hume: As a government funded entity and a government business entity it has the same legal status as a statement of expectations for any other business entity.

Senator PRATT: Do the ABC and SBS have to comply with that statement of expectations?

Mr Atkinson : I'll just check with Mr Windeyer, and I'd need to take legal advice, but I don't think that there's a compliance requirement.

Mr Windeyer : That's correct. The way I would characterise statements of expectations, as they apply to lots of entities across the Commonwealth, is as an expectation that the governance framework of that organisation has regard to them. But they don't have a compliance regime attached to them, and, as Mr Atkinson pointed out, this one quite clearly makes the point that it doesn't constitute anything by way of direction.

Senator PRATT: So there will be no consequence if they choose not to comply?

Senator Hume: I would imagine it would be unusual for them to not comply with something as basic as the extent of Australian content—I know that's an issue that's dear to your heart, Senator Pratt, and we discuss it in different contexts all the time. The ABC is the only broadcaster that doesn't have an Australian content obligation. I would imagine that they would be very keen to demonstrate to government that they are committed to Australian content.

Senator PRATT: If the minister wants a new national broadcasters reporting framework for Australian content, why hasn't the minister sought to legislate one?

Senator Hume: We don't need one if we have the statement of expectations.

Senator PRATT: But it's not binding.

Senator Hum e: It doesn't matter.

Senator PRATT: I'm thoroughly confused if it's not binding. If the minister wants more ABC reporting of its rural and regional activities, why doesn't the minister seek to legislate that requirement?

Mr Atkinson : In terms of what's being asked for here, it's a simple set of transparency pieces because the ABC plays a really, really important part in regional media as well as Australian content. As we look at the broader changes in the media landscape, as we've been asked many times in this committee what the data set looks like of who's doing what, this is simply asking for ABC to contribute to that dataset. As we've talked about with NBN and Australia Post and others who are recipients of large amounts of taxpayer funding, we think that transparency of funding is really important.

Senator PRATT: Minister Fletcher has the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Measures) Bill before the parliament, to require additional reporting of ABC staffing and content matters in rural and regional Australia—a legislative change sought by the LNP since about 2015, as well as by One Nation. Is the minister's request for reporting of ABC rural and regional activities in his statement of expectations more or less the same as the proposed rural and regional reporting requirements in the bill?

Senator Hume: I think we can safely say that the government reserves the option of considering other approaches and potentially they may have to go through legislative avenues should the statement of expectations that's issued to SBS and to ABC fail to enhance the transparency of these key functions. But I would imagine that both organisations, very proud organisations that they are, would be very keen to contribute to that reporting requirement on things as basic as the levels of Australian content and rural and regional activities.

Senator PRATT: We're here because the Labor Party respects Australian content and wants more of it. I understand the answer is, 'Yes, they are largely the same.' Will you legislate if this statement of expectations is not met?

Senator Hume: It sounds to me like the Labor Party would have similar expectations of the ABC and SBS, so we're hoping we wouldn't need to.

Senator PRATT: I would think that we have expectations across all broadcasters, and therein lies the problem in terms of your lack of focus on Australian content more broadly, but I'll leave it there.

Senator URQUHART: What is the rationale for the shift in policy, for the statement of expectations for ABC and SBS?

Senator Hume: I think Senator Pratt already asked that question.

Senator URQUHART: I didn't get the answer, I'm sorry. Can I just get you to repeat that? What is the rationale?

Senator Hume: Increasingly, I think the government, and indeed the opposition, realise the importance of the regional and rural focus of our national broadcasters, and, of course, the level of Australian content. That's why the statement of expectations spells that out.

Senator URQUHART: So it's about the regional context? That's the rationale?

Senator Hume: That's what the statement of expectations specifies.

Senator URQUHART: That's the rationale for why it's a shift in policy for—

Senator Hume: It's not a shift in policy. It's just an emphasis on a particular aspect of existing policy, which is not just government policy but, I know, something dear to the heart of the Labor Party as well.

Senator URQUHART: I have a few questions around the government's plans to spend the $4.4 million over this year on the ad campaign on the new Online Safety Act—I think that commenced in late January—to let the community know of the support available. At estimates in October 2021 an official—I'm not sure which one—said that the start of the campaign would coincide with when the new laws came into effect, and that was likely to be January. Has the campaign commenced?

Ms Charles : Yes, the campaign commenced on 30 January.

Senator URQUHART: I haven't seen anything—I must admit I don't watch a lot of TV. Can you just step me through where it is and what's happening?

Ms Charles : We're in a number of channels. In television we're in select channels. It's run for four weeks, so we're halfway through that at the moment—it started on 30 January. We've got the usual search functions, digital and social media. It's predominantly a social and digital campaign. We've also got out-of-home, which is placements in public transport, shopping centres and those sort of things. That's going on for six weeks from 30 January, so it concludes around 6 March. We're also in Indigenous radio and television and also in CALD social and television.

Senator URQUHART: In October at estimates the official said the media plan had not been finalised. That's been finalised?

Ms Charles : It has, yes.

Senator URQUHART: It commenced on 30 January. What's the conclusion date for the media?

Ms Charles : Television runs for four weeks, so we're halfway through that. The out-of-home will conclude on 6 March, and the digital and social and the search will run up until the 30 June.

Senator URQUHART: For the legislation that commenced in January 21, we would expect the media plan to be finalised, the media to be booked and the campaign ready to go. Are you able to table a copy of that media plan, including the buy and the schedule?

Ms Charles : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: Can I ask that you table the creative as well?

Ms Charles : From the campaign?

Senator URQUHART: Yes.

Ms Charles : Yes.

CHAIR: We are closing off on general questions. We'll be back after the break with the Office of the eSafety Commissioner and we'll have the department back for various outcomes throughout the course of the day.

Proceedings suspended from 10:4 6 to 10:59