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Wednesday, 30 November 2016
Page: 4903


Mr BRIAN MITCHELL (Lyons) (11:22): Australia's media sector does not sell widgets. It shapes our culture and it moulds our national identity. Our media provides a bulwark against the otherwise unfettered power of the state. But, left to its own devices in a free market, the media sector can be just as tyrannical as any nation-state. As companies devour each other to increase market share and audience reach, the owners of the few remaining corporations, whether individuals or boards, wield ever more power because of their ability to shape what is said, seen and heard over their networks. And, as the corporate stakes get higher, when government decisions can make the difference between mere billions in profit or tens of billions, the temptation to wield that power, to influence the making of decisions most profitable to the corporation's own interests, becomes irresistible.

It is for this reason that media requires being treated differently to other companies on the market and why this parliament, which embodies the collective will of the citizens of this nation, is charged with ensuring our media sector remains both viable and diverse. It is with both viability and diversity in mind that Labor supports abolition of the 75 per cent audience reach rule but opposes abolition of the two-out-of-three rule. This is a sensible outcome that meets the needs of broadcasters in the internet age while also protecting the public interest in ensuring some level of diversity in Australia's already too-concentrated media market.

I am disappointed that this legislation is the best the coalition could come up with after three years in government. This so-called media reform bill, the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Media Reform) Bill 2016, offers mere tinkering around the edges of a rapidly evolving sector that requires significant policy attention. It is not major sector reform. The government have had three years to take action and have done nothing to date. Now, as usual, they bring it on in a rush, demanding it be passed because it is suddenly so urgent.

Australia's rapidly evolving media sector deserves to be taken more seriously by the government. Any so-called media reform bill should have at its centre the national interest, not the interests of powerful corporations whose focus is on squeezing out the competition and maximising profits. I do not hold it against corporations for seeking an outcome that best serves their own corporate interests. They are entitled to lobby for laws they believe will best enhance their bottom line. But I do hold it against this government, and this minister, for failing to better balance the public interest against the self-interest of corporations. The public interest requires regulatory processes and industry structures that support strong and independent and diverse media outlets. The public interest requires investment in regional media infrastructure and services, and the public interest requires a minister and a Prime Minister and a government with the will and the strength to stand up to the self-interest of corporations and occasionally say no. Notably, this bill fails to provide any assurance of greater local content, including in regional areas.

More and more, across every sector, we are seeing regional communities hollowed out, with services either disappearing or being centralised in big towns and cities and then provided on a drive-in drive-out basis. I have seen this happen in my electorate of Lyons. Services are taken out of communities to meet an economic bottom line that looks good on paper but ignores the people who live in the town and the community. With media, we are hearing fewer local voices over the air and seeing more syndicated material. Again, I do not blame the corporations. Syndicated content is cheaper to produce and license. Without robust regulation that legally demands local content, corporations seek to save every dollar they can and they will cut where they are allowed to do so. I recall the words of comedian Chris Rock, who said—and I will not try the accent:

I used to work at McDonald's making minimum wage. You know what that means when someone pays you minimum wage? You know what your boss was trying to say? "Hey if I could pay you less, I would, but it's against the law."

It is the law that provides the minimum standard beyond which companies may not go. Companies will do what they can within the law to maximise their profit and their market share. It is up to us as the representatives and the guardians of the public interest to act and to set boundaries that are in the public interest. If we want more local content over our airwaves and on our screens, we need to legislate for it. If we want to protect diversity, we need to legislate for it.

But what about the internet? Well, if there is anyone who should not mention the internet it is those opposite. Despite the best efforts of the government to frustrate Australians' relationship with 21st century broadband, the internet is being used by communities in my electorate precisely because of the failings of corporate-owned media to offer local content. As the many members of this place who are my age or older will remember, there used to be local newspapers everywhere around Australia. Radio stations, and even TV stations, used to be owned locally. Local stories got told on locally owned media. Those days are largely over, and social media accounts run by local community groups are filling the gap to some extent. In my largely regional electorate, Facebook pages centred on particular communities are popular and serve a useful information-sharing function. One proved invaluable, for example, during the Dunalley bushfires nearly three years ago. Another, in Bridgewater, brings folks together during clean-up events. But such sites are generally run by volunteers and share community information and events but do not carry journalism. Social media is no substitute for professional news and current affairs broadcasting, and nor, for that matter, for the production of dramatic content that tells our local stories.

We have all heard the complaints about the Americanisation of our media and our culture, and much of it is inevitable, given the popularity of American movies and music. But surely we should be doing all we can to provide Australian voices, and, beyond that, localised voices, on our TV screens and over our radio airwaves—and not just one Australian voice, as one corporation might see it to be. We are a diverse community, and that diversity must continue to be reflected in our media.

Yes, there is news on the internet, but it is the traditional players who continue to dominate—the same traditional players who stand most to benefit from any relaxation of the two-out-of-three rule. News Corporation and Fairfax mastheads continue to be the most popular commercial offerings.

The government argues we do not need the two-out-of-three rule because the internet provides diversity. After all, there are—to name a few—Crikey, New Matilda, the Conversation, the Guardian and more. But I have got news for the government. If one corporation dominates print, radio, TV and the internet, we do not have real diversity, irrespective of how many small players there may be. If one political party holds the vast majority of seats across the various governments of Australia, and a grab-bag of small parties and Independents hold the remaining handful in perpetual opposition, would the government argue that we have democracy?

I suppose it all depends on your perspective. My perspective is rooted firmly in my largely regional electorate. We are relatively well served, with Tasmanian news offered by two commercial TV outlets, Southern Cross and WIN, and the ABC. With radio we have a number of commercial stations offering local programming and bulletins, and the ABC, which also provides morning talkback and a 'country hour' every day. I would hate to guess what would happen if the two-out-of-three rule were abolished and we were to see more concentration in that market, because, as good as the commercials are in Tasmania, they do focus on the more heavily populated cities and suburbs. That is where the audiences are, so I understand that.

Might I say that regional Tasmania would be absolutely stuffed without the ABC. I know the ABC is not part of this bill, and the shadow minister and shadow Treasurer may groan at this, but I would love it if Labor could go to the next election pledging more resources for our national broadcaster. They have been cut to the bone in Tasmania and are operating on the smell of an oily rag, but the ABC crews do manage to tell Tassie's story every day. And right now ABC staff are giving up their own time for the annual giving tree, which provides donations to families and kids facing an otherwise bleak Christmas, and I take my hat off to them.

But I come back to my point about the importance of regional focus in Tasmania. Only last weekend I visited the community of Bronte Park, the gateway to the central highlands of Tasmania. Because of the topography, folk in this community cannot get any local TV signal; they never have. All they can receive is satellite from a mainland-based service. Of course, if they had decent broadband they might be able to stream a local TV service, but that is out of the question, given the awful—or even non-existent—internet service they get.

People in regional communities like my electorate deserve better than being forced to receive all their information essentially from the one source, no matter what that source is. The challenges faced by all aspects of the broadcasting sector, and the appropriate regulatory arrangements to meet the disruptive challenges now and in the future, are not served by this narrow bill.

Labor will develop a comprehensive, principles-based approach to sector reform and is prepared to work with the government to achieve this. If they support our amendment, then we are halfway there.

Economic reform of current licensing arrangements is clearly the priority of the sector and should be addressed before any reform to industry structure. We understand that Australian media companies are concerned about their viability in the face of licence fees and local content requirements which are not borne by online competitors such as Google, Facebook and Netflix. And, having come from the media myself in a previous life, I know that the fracturing of advertising content and the fracturing of audiences across the sector has just been devastating. The once-coined 'rivers of gold' from the classified sections of print newspapers are no longer there; that has all shifted to the internet. The relationship between advertising and journalism is broken. People used to read newspapers; that would fund the journalists and then the newspaper would be funded by the advertising revenue. Well, the advertising revenue has now shifted to the internet.

So who is funding journalism? That is a very critical question. And, frankly, that is one that I would have loved this bill to have addressed, because the future of journalism in this country is really under threat. Just today I have learned that the Mercury newspaper in Tasmania is facing another round of cuts. Some might say it is inevitable that print newspapers and print journalism in Australia are going to face cut after cut, year after year, as audiences decline as they move to the internet. But the fracturing of audiences for the old technology involved in print journalism is undeniable. We need to find ways to better fund journalism and better ensure that the local Australian voice is heard and does not disappear from our TV screens nor our radio stations.