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Wednesday, 30 November 2016
Page: 4888

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (10:18): It is a great pleasure to be speaking on a bill, which, in its title, promises great things. The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Media Reform) Bill 2016 contains three schedules. The first repeals what is referred to as the 75 per cent reach rule. The second, schedule 2, repeals the two-out-of-three cross-media ownership and control rule. And the third schedule provides a new division in the bill to introduce new local programming requirements for regional commercial television, and it revokes current programming requirements in the same schedule.

This bill has a grand title, as I have said. When we saw the title, we expected great things. We thought that it could be at long last the coalition government is going to focus its wandering attention upon the important task of comprehensive media reform in Australia. We were told that the Prime Minister himself with the original author of this material but could not get it through the cabinet in the previous parliament. But now he has the opportunity to paint with a broad brush the sort of media reform that we are calling for in this country but, when we go through the details of this bill, it is sadly missing.

The industry is crying out for reform—reform that will tackle the issues of convergence, reform that will bring our broadcasting legislation into the internet and live-streaming age and reform that will tackle the issue of the silo of regulation between telecommunications, between broadcasting and radio communications. This complex system of regulation needs to be updated. The bill we have before us does absolutely none of that. You would have thought that a government so seized with the issue of freedom of speech would turn its mind not just to the message but to the medium through which freedom of speech is transmitted. We find none of that within the bill.

It has long been recognised that the existing media ownership and diversity rules are based on distinctions between traditional broadcasting and print media that no longer exist. Today our media operates across a range of platforms. You only need to pick up your iPad and look at any major daily newspaper to find a combination of embedded video and multimedia technologies, which in many respects are hard to distinguish from the mediums that are broadcast over television signals.

The Abbott-Turnbull government has done nothing in the last three years on media regulation and ownership policy. It was virtually silent on the entire topic during the election campaign, but now Mr Turnbull and the minister want to rush changes through the parliament on the basis that they are urgent. I remind the House that it is not four days since the minister responsible made the announcement that there was no possibility that they were going to get this regulation through the House this year. In fact, they were not even going to put it on the agenda because they were far too busy. We were very critical of that approach, for reasons I will spell out, but now it seems that they have been panicked through that criticism. Concerned that they are going to be seen by many within the community and the industry as having done nothing, they have rushed this bill into the House in the dying days of this year's parliamentary sitting.

The reality for the urgency is the interests of a number of media players. At the recent inquiry into this bill, Professor Michael Fraser told the Senate that there is a lot of political horsetrading with powerful media interests and that has meant that we have had these small piecemeal approaches to legislative reform. Representatives of Seven West Media told that same inquiry last month:

Media policy is littered with trade-offs over the years. It is very hard to make changes in one area without that having impacts in a whole range of related areas.

We have to ask ourselves: what are the trade-offs being made for these changes? It is a valid question that Seven West Media asked.

This bill is a huge disappointment to the sector that it seeks to regulate. The minister said that the Turnbull government's failures on media reform are Labor's fault. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is the parliamentary equivalent of saying, 'The dog ate my homework.' Despite Minister Fifield proclaiming the importance of media reform, he has failed to deliver on any part of it. The minister knows that he could get the long-awaited and much-needed provisions that repeal the 75 per cent reach rule through both Houses of Parliament. In fact, if could happen this week. There is no reason why we could not facilitate the expeditious passage today and tomorrow of the 75 per cent reach rule provisions contained in schedule 1 of this bill. There is no reason why that cannot happen.

The only reason, if we get up from this place in a few days' time and the 75 per cent reach rule continues to exist, will be because of the intransigence of those opposite, the laziness of the minister and the incapacity and incompetence of the government. I want to make that very clear: if the 75 per cent reach rule continues to exist in three days' time it will be because of the incompetence of the minister and of this government.

Labor has repeatedly indicated its support for the removal of this rule, which stops a person being in a position to exercise control of commercial television broadcasting licences whose combined licence area population exceeds 75 per cent of the population.

The reason that there is unanimous support for repealing the reach rule is quite simple: with the advent of streaming capacity—the ability of any licence holder to stream all of their content over the internet, not just to 75 per cent of the population but to 100 per cent of the population, in an unregulated fashion—makes a mockery of the 75 per cent reach rule. So of course we support its repeal. When a media company can today reach 100 per cent of the Australian population through streaming over the internet it makes no sense to persist with a rule that does shackle media companies in their commercial arrangements but does nothing to present diversity of voices in respect of the ability of companies to broadcast a signal to 100 per cent of the population. Indeed, it has been argued by some media companies that live streaming is not even covered by the Broadcasting Services Act so they are free to ignore the legislative restrictions in any case. Clearly, the reach rule is long past its use-by date.

Labor acknowledges the particular challenges faced by regional broadcasters. I come from a regional electorate; I have the headquarters of one of the largest media broadcasters, the WIN Corporation, based in my area in the Illawarra in New South Wales. We understand the problems that they are facing. I see the member for Ballarat, also a member who represents a regional electorate, very keenly focused on these issues as well. We on this side of the House—and I know also that you, Mr Deputy Speaker Mitchell, representing a regional electorate—are keenly focused on these issues.

Today, in an act of bipartisan cooperation, we can see reform which will make an enormous difference to this sector and to this industry. We can do that by the end of this week. Labor has offered the minister a pathway to securing some reform. If the government persists in ensuring that the other two provisions of the bill must be passed as a package then this will not occur. Let me explain why.

In Labor's view, schedule 2 of the bill, which abolishes the two-out-of-three rule, would lead to an increased concentration of media ownership in Australia. The government quite simply has not made the case for the repeal of this provision and Labor cannot countenance supporting such a provision that is so far from our national interest. And I want to talk about media diversity in this country. Among comparable democracies, Australia has the least diversity in its newspaper and media. This is a matter of deep concern to Labor MPs and senators. In our democracy we take great pride in our free press and in our free access to multiple sources of news and information. This free access to information is a basic tenet of our democracy. It is the right of citizens to know what is happening in their name in the parliament and elsewhere, and to have the ability to speak out freely on information which is unrestricted by government interference. Our democracy, therefore, is predicated on the availability of a diversity of voices.

Concentration of media ownership is the enemy of this diversity. Concentration of media ownership means that certain corporate interests may have louder voices in our information landscape and in our democracy than others. That is not in the national interest. If all of the information that we have comes from one media business then there may be stories that we simply do not hear about. There is no doubt that there is a vast range of voices in the new online space—more news and information is available to us—and quality journalism based in fact and information should be distinguished from the vast output, the wall of noise, that often populates and passes as content on the internet. The producers of such content are not bound by the code of ethics that governs the people who report our news in this place and elsewhere.

The primary argument in favour of repealing the two-out-of-three rule is the rise of these online sources that are competing for both news and advertising revenue. However, traditional media players still dominate the production of news information consumed by Australians. There may be more places to access news, but seven out of the 10 top news sites in Australia are still owned by the traditional media companies; it is simply the same voices on different platforms. That is not media diversity, and that is why Labor is unwilling to give the green light to more concentration of media ownership. And it is why Labor rejects the abolition of the two-out-of-three rules.

We understand that the media industry is facing challenges—this impact, and the forecast decline of traditional media, is irrefutable. However, it does not necessarily follow that the technological developments have negated the need for Australia to maintain rules around ownership and control of broadcasting licences in order to satisfy the objectives of diversity in the Broadcasting Services Act. The big disruption to broadcast media is coming from Google and Facebook. Neither of these companies practices journalism as we understand it nor creates much original content, and these companies do not pay licence fees to operate. Some have described their roles as parasitic, as they provide access to the journalism and content created and paid for by others. I have seen evidence from the Australian media companies that say that 70 to 80 per cent of total Australian digital advertising revenue is going to these very same platforms—Google and Facebook.

Similarly, evidence to a recent Senate inquiry by media companies claims that Australia's commercial free-to-air broadcasters have had a $4.2 billion decline in their market capitalisations in the three years since 2013—that is more than 50 per cent of their combined market value. By contrast, the market capitalisations of the big tech companies are growing. However, the many challenges faced by all aspects of the broadcasting sector and the appropriate regulatory arrangements to meet these disruptive challenges now and in the future are not served by this narrow bill.

I am reminded that disruption is not new in the media landscape. The owners of newspapers in the 1920s were not enthusiastic about the arrival of radio. They claimed it was likely that broadcasters would pirate print and news stories without providing compensation to their sources. And so it was with the arrival of television to the broadcasting landscape; there was a lot of reticence from radio and newspaper proprietors that this was going to be an unwelcome entry into the market. But time moved on, there was a rationalisation within the market and regulation moved to adjust to the new media landscape. It is our position that we need a thorough reform, and this bill is not that.