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Wednesday, 30 November 2016
Page: 4895

Ms SHARKIE (Mayo) (10:48): The government's recent reforms to broadcasting legislation have been welcome. Recently I voted in support of reducing the licence fees on Australian free-to-air broadcasters. These are broadcasters who invest heavily in local Australian content, employ Australian workers and serve as a fantastic training ground for Australian talent. I note that my Nick Xenophon Team Colleague, Senator Stirling Griff, moved amendments to abolish licence fees entirely but that the major parties rejected those amendments. Given the incredibly high licence fees that our free-to-air broadcasters face, I was surprised to see that the major parties showed no consideration for these amendments, especially when they continue to let other companies pay no licence fees or taxes.

As I have stated previously, the biggest competitors to our commercial broadcasters are now multinational content companies such as Netflix, Apple and Google. These companies pay no licence fees and do not invest in local content. The number of Australian jobs they provide are minimal. Facebook, for example, employs roughly 75 people in Australia. The NXT have made it quite clear that our position when it comes to these multinational corporations is to impose a 'turnover tax' on these companies to make sure they pay their fair share.

I urge the government to look to the United Kingdom, where a stricter line was taken after it was revealed that Facebook paid only 4,327 pounds in corporate tax in 2014, despite Britain being one of the company's biggest markets outside of the United States. Recently, Facebook announced that it will pay back over 200 million pounds in tax to the UK government. Given where Australia is with its current budget deficit, and considering the revenue lost with the much-needed reduction in licence fees, forcing these multinational tax avoiders to pay their fair share could deliver a significant windfall. Earlier this year, The West Australian newspaper reported that Facebook paid just $814,000 in tax in Australia in 2015, despite its gross revenue being over $30 million. This is staggering in itself but, given that the investment bank Morgan Stanley estimates that Facebook earned over $500 million from advertising in the Australian market alone during the same time, some serious questions have to be asked about its disclosure practices and the tax that it pays.

So, while I am very supportive of the reduction in licence fees, there are some aspects of this current legislation that deserve further consideration. The majority of stakeholders that I have met with on this issue support the removal of the 75 per cent audience reach rule, which prohibits a person from holding a commercial TV licence which covers more than 75 per cent of people in Australia. Given the current state of the online media sector, with news from across the world available at the click of a finger or a swipe of a finger, this rule effectively works as a barrier to longstanding commercial broadcasters and disrupts their ability to compete with online content providers.

My biggest concern with this legislation is that it proposes to repeal the two-out-of-three rule, which will remove the limitation that precluded one person or company from owning more than two out of the three traditional media platforms in a certain area—these platforms of course being television, radio and newspapers. The removal of the two-out-of-three rule opens up the possibility of mergers and buyouts, and the added corporate efficiencies that come with them. While I understand the need for all companies to be as efficient as possible, the real effect of this will be that, as mergers happen, local branches will merge with companies and will scale back their regional workforce. This means there will be fewer local journalists to cover local issues, and this will impact regional and rural communities the hardest.

I will give an example to illustrate my point. Mount Barker sits in the heart of my electorate, nestled in the Adelaide Hills. It is serviced by the Mount Barker Courier. The Courier is an independent, family owned and operated newspaper that has been publishing local news for over 125 years, winning many state and national awards in the printing industry. The district council area of Mount Barker is a region with approximately 30,000 people and is growing rapidly. It is roughly 40 minutes to an hour from Adelaide, depending on where you live within that region, and as a consequence many people choose to commute to Adelaide each day for work. Many have no other choice, I might add. However, Mount Barker has news stories and community interests that are very different to those on the Adelaide Plains, and these interests can be lost on people that do not live in the hills. Whether they be local sporting results, updates on infrastructure developments or local interest stories of Adelaide Hills citizens, this gap is filled very admirably in local media by the Mount Barker Courier. My concern is that, given the geographic proximity to Adelaide, a merger under the proposed legislation would see the local media reporting specifically on Adelaide Hills issues removed. I fear the impact of this would be a decline in rural communities knowing what is going on in their communities.

I understand there is going to be required minimum local content included as a part of this legislation, but this will only do so much to alleviate a problem that can be easily foreseen. In my electorate, there are five high-quality regionalised local newspapers that service our community admirably. Each service has its own niche. I have talked about the Mount Barker Courier, which services the Adelaide Hills. A 20-kilometre drive south of Mount Barker, which takes around 30 minutes—unless you are behind a tractor, when it takes a lot longer!—is Strathalbyn, which is serviced by The Southern Argus. Just 30 minutes south of Strathalbyn, you enter the readership of the Victor Harbor Times, which provides content specific to the southern communities of Goolwa, Victor and Middleton: the Fleurieu Peninsula. After a short ferry ride from Cape Jervis, you hit Kangaroo Island, where locals read The Islander with great interest every week. I must not neglect to mention the Adelaide Hills Weekender, which services a number of towns throughout our region. As you can see, we have regionalised, high-quality newspapers and I want to ensure their longevity and that they will not be compromised. All of these newspapers are geographically close to each other and independent of the metropolitan area of Adelaide, but they each service their own specific communities. My concern is that, with the lifting of the restrictions on media ownership, papers such as these will be under the threat of merging and regional communities like mine will have media distributed to them from people who work in the cities. At the very least, the local flavour that adds so much to these outlets will be lost.

The removal of community minded media outlets has already begun in South Australia, with a long-time favourite, our local Channel 44, being forced to transition from free-to-air broadcasting to purely online delivery as part of the Prime Minister's decision in 2014, in his capacity as Minister for Communications, to clear broadcasting space for the commercial networks. Many of the viewers of Channel 44 are elderly and they will not be able to watch their favourite channel anymore because they possibly do not have the internet or a computer at home. I think this is a great travesty for Channel 44 and for community television more broadly.

Removal of the two-out-of-three rule could lead to a smaller number of media owners in Australia, which in turn leads to less media diversity. Media diversity is a fundamental part of our free and democratic nation. The public deserve the right to have news and current affairs delivered to them by different sources, as it creates a more informed and engaged nation. An engaged nation is a great nation, and we should not allow any legislation to lessen the media diversity in our country. We should make sure that we look out for our local radio stations, our local newspapers and our local television broadcasters. I think everyone in regional Australia will join me in stating how important they are to our local communities.

I welcome the broadcasting reforms that the government has already passed, although I believe they should have gone further. Allowing our homegrown broadcasters to be competitive with the international giants is a step in the right direction. I hope the government will follow the lead of the Nick Xenophon Team and examine the tax paid—or the lack of tax paid—by companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple. My colleagues and I are still considering the legislation, and my Senate colleagues will have greater time to consider the bill. Today, I will give my cautious support to this bill, and that will allow my Senate colleagues to consider the bill in further detail and move any amendments we consider appropriate in the upper house.