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Wednesday, 2 September 2020
Page: 6426

Mrs ELLIOT (Richmond) (17:44): I too rise to speak on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Regional Commercial Radio and Other Measures) Bill 2020. In regional and rural areas, our media is exceptionally important in terms of reflecting our local issues and what's important to our local communities. But the reality is that regional media is in crisis, and that's due to some of this government's cuts and also the lack of support we see from this government for the regions generally. So the fact is that it isn't regional media that has failed; it's the Morrison government that has failed regional media and regional communities. I don't think there are any National Party members speaking on this tonight, and that is very disappointing. As I've often said, National Party choices hurt, and some of their cuts to regional media have really hurt rural and regional Australia. What they need in those areas is support, not cuts.

This bill amends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and the Australian Communications and Media Authority Act 2005, with a range of measures to reduce the regulatory compliance burden on regional commercial radio and commercial television broadcasters. Once again we are seeing the government serving up regulatory changes when what is actually needed is major reform. This government has been refusing to act on these issues for years. Yet again, the government delays genuine reform when the industry is really crying out for support. As we said, we're not opposing this bill; we won't stand in the way of relatively minor amendments to alleviate the burden on our regional broadcasters. But we are very concerned that regional Australians are missing out as a result of this government's ongoing failure to support regional media.

I would like to pay tribute to the local media in my area, on the New South Wales North Coast. Whether it be print, radio or TV, they are all outstanding. Unfortunately, the media landscape in areas like mine is diminishing. Only a short while ago, we saw the closure of several News Corp newspapers on the New South Wales North Coast and a whole range of closures by News Corp across the country. These newspapers are now digital-only editions. The fact that those newspapers stopped printing was a devastating blow for our local community. These papers include Ballina ShireAdvocate, Tweed Daily News, Byron Shire News and The Northern Star—all local newspapers for our area. The fact is that local newspapers and local journalists play an essential role in breaking news and telling stories that matter to us, to our families and to our communities. Our newspapers have been an essential service in times of bushfires and floods and recently with the coronavirus pandemic.

Over decades, these newspapers have been our community noticeboards for local events and sports announcements. They've also been an important place for advertisers to promote our outstanding local goods and services. It is important to note that this has been very difficult for older Australians, who have relied on their regular newspaper. Not many of them are on the internet, and they are really disappointed to not have their local community paper. I've been very fortunate to work with so many local editors, journalists and photographers over many years, and I know they all have a very deep commitment to the region. I wish them all well. It was a very devastating blow to have those major job losses in a regional area.

I would also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the outstanding independent newspapers in my region—newspapers like The Byron Shire Echo, Tweed Valley Weekly and The Nimbin Good Times. They are all run locally and independently. They provide great local information for our community. I note their important role, and they are even more important now with fewer newspapers in our region. We also have some new community newspapers starting up, which is very exciting. I wish them well. It is wonderful to see such strong independent newspapers, and we would like to see some more. Our community is certainly very supportive of that.

It's been a very difficult time for regional media right across the country. Also, this government's cuts to the ABC have made it very difficult for our region and many others. This is an issue that people raise with me all the time. The ABC is vital everywhere and it is exceptionally vital for regional Australia. It seems that, in the face of a crisis in regional media, this government is actively making things worse by cutting ABC funding. Since 2014, around 800 ABC staff have lost their jobs, the Australia Network has been axed, short-wave radio has been shut down, and the number of hours of ABC factual programming has dropped by 60 per cent, drama by 20 per cent and documentary by 13.5 per cent. It's important to note the final report of the ACCC's digital platforms inquiry examined ABC funding and found:

Further, the public broadcasters are not currently resourced to fully compensate for the decline in local reporting previously produced by traditional commercial publishers.

They recommended 'that stable and adequate funding be provided to the ABC and SBS'. They're very clear about that.

At a time when the government should be investing in the ABC, in fact we see the Morrison government continuing their cuts to the ABC. The latest budget locked in over $83 million of ABC cuts. The fact is that in times of crisis Australians turn to our national broadcaster for trusted news and information. Especially recently, we've seen how we really value and need a strong ABC. It's not just a critical part of the media or a critical part of the public service they provide but a critical part of our communities. I know my local ABC, ABC Lismore, really have provided vital information and updates during the floods that we've had, during the bushfires and, of course, most recently, during the coronavirus pandemic. I know all who work there are very committed to our region and our community. The ABC is such a trusted public service. It's been invested in and built up by generations of Australians and really dedicated ABC staff. I think that's one of the consistent themes that we see—a really dedicated workforce in the ABC.

As I've said many times, National Party choices hurt. I think one of the cases where it hurts the most is those cuts to the ABC in our regions. It is so detrimental. Many in our community, of course, do hold the National Party to account when it comes to those cuts. Not too long ago, we saw further reports of the impacts of the government's cuts to the ABC. Now, again, due to those years of cuts, the ABC has been forced to cut 250 staff across news, entertainment and regional divisions. This has been devastating for those regional areas.

The fact is that since this government was elected in 2013, they've cut $783 million in funding for the ABC. Let's remember that this really is a major broken promise by this government. When this government was elected, they specifically promised no cuts to the ABC, and of course that promise was broken almost straightaway. We all remember when the former Prime Minister, the former member for Warringah, promised on election eve that there would be no cuts. Since then, what have we seen? We have seen successive cuts to the ABC's budget. At a time when we are losing so many media outlets, we see these constant cuts. The government's also ignored the ABC's warning that this latest cut would make it very difficult for the ABC to meet its charter requirements. It's not just Labor calling on the government to reverse these cuts; people right throughout the community are continuing to do it. We certainly will continue to hold them to account because it is devastating, especially for the regions.

This bill says it all about this government's failures in regional media. It's inadequate and it sells regional Australia short. It really only tinkers with a few provisions and minor regulatory changes. Whilst the bill might ease some compliance burden for regional broadcasters, the measures are relatively minor and are insufficient to address the concerns about the widespread issues that we have in regional media—which, as I've said, are very wide ranging. It really does sell regional Australia short, because it assumes that, where broadcasters face challenges in meeting Australian content requirements, the answer is to relax those content requirements rather than assist those broadcasters to bridge the gap or undertake genuine reform to address structural changes or provide necessary funding and support. That's what's required here, and that's how it continues to sell regional Australia short.

Also what we're seeing is that when it comes to regional media, this government just has no plan. In fact, they have no plan right across the board. We know that, whether it's about addressing the very dire economic situation—here we are in the worst recession in almost a century, and they've got no plan for jobs. We don't see any plan for job creation at all, we certainly don't see any plan for the regions and we certainly have no plan for regional media.

The government has had years and years to fix the outdated regulatory framework and to address the systemic challenges facing regional media but they just haven't done it, and that's despite calls from so many people for them to address it because of its importance in our regions. What we've seen from the government instead has been a lot of reviews and there have been a lot of recommendations made and yet they just continue to absolutely ignore them. The government did release its response to the ACCC's digital platforms inquiry in December 2019 but, unfortunately, the government did not support all the recommendations that the ACCC made. That's very challenging, because they did make some good recommendations—particularly around proper funding of the ABC and SBS.

The fact is, as I've said, that we really have an absolute crisis in regional media and a crisis in public interest journalism. This existed way before the coronavirus pandemic. It's been in place and I think it has got a lot worse since the pandemic, but it certainly was there. Data collected by the ACCC shows that between 2008 and 2018 106 local and regional newspaper titles closed across the country, representing a net 15 per cent decrease in the number of these publications. These closures have left 21 local government areas previously covered by these titles without coverage from a single local newspaper. That is just so devastating when we look at that. Also, according to the Public Interest Journalism Initiative, 200 titles have closed since January 2019.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance has stated that in recent months we've seen more than 150 regional and community newspapers cease printing. This is on top of the 106 local and regional papers that have closed over the previous decade. Many of those papers were more than a century old and many may never reopen. It shouldn't be this way. The stories of regional and rural Australia are important—our stories matter. In regional Australia, the local paper is the heartbeat of the community. It provides local news which the big cities can't or won't provide. It's often also a focal point for community connection, cohesion and education. That really encapsulates the importance of our regional media.

Yet the fact is that on this government's watch we have widespread closures of newspapers, closure and consolidation of multiple television newsrooms and the mass sacking of journalists as well. That is such a devastating loss for so many local communities—the jobs there, the stories they tell, for our culture and, indeed, for democracy. I will certainly continue to condemn this government, and especially the National Party. I'm very disappointed that none of them are speaking on this bill; this is about the heart of regional and rural Australia and the fact is that they're not here at all. It's because of them and the choices the National Party make that regional Australia is now facing this crisis, along with a range of other ones as well. The fact is that the National Party, along with the Liberal Party, have really failed our regions.

But Labor will always stand with regional and rural Australia. We're very proud of that. We will fight for them all the time, whether it comes to regional media, or it's about job creation and sustaining regional economies, or it's about better services, or it's in health or education, only Labor will stand with these rural and regional areas. That's because we understand them and we will fight for them, unlike the National Party.

(Quorum formed)