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Wednesday, 13 September 2017
Page: 7112


Senator BILYK (Tasmania) (12:10): These two bills that we're speaking about now, the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017 and the Commercial Broadcasting (Tax) Bill 2017, together achieve most of the agenda outlined by the Minister for Communications earlier this the year. On 6 May, Minister Fifield announced a number of broadcasting sector measures, including: repealing the two-out-of-three cross-media control rule and the 75 per cent audience reach rule and amending local programming obligations; amending the anti-siphoning scheme list; abolishing broadcast licence fees and datacasting changes; applying a fee for the spectrum used by broadcasters; imposing restrictions on gambling advertised in live sporting events across all platforms by codes of practice for broadcast platforms and by legislation for other platforms; a review of Australian and children's content; and funding to subscription television for women's and niche sports. Of these seven reforms, the first three are achieved by the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill and the fourth is achieved by the Commercial Broadcasting (Tax) Bill. The final three, with the exceptions of codes of practice for other platforms, do not require legislation at this stage.

Labor supports most of these measures in these bills, because they're our measures. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so it's really pleasing to see the government once again adopting Labor's policies. We led the way on broadcast licence fee relief, gambling advertising restrictions and funding to support the broadcasting of women's sports.

In March this year, Labor moved a second reading amendment here in the Senate which called on the government to work with broadcasters and sporting organisations on a plan to phase out the promotion of betting odds during live sports broadcasts. In a move that was the epitome of hypocrisy, the government voted against the motion and then, only a few weeks later, announced their own gambling advertising restrictions. The government's new gambling restrictions will prohibit all gambling promotions from five minutes before the scheduled start of play in all live broadcasts to five minutes after the conclusion of play or 8.30 pm, whichever is sooner. We have yet to see the impacts of these provisions, which still allow a fair amount of gambling advertising.

In relation to women's sports, Labor announced funding during the last election to support broadcasting of women's sports on the ABC and the importance of this commitment cannot be overstated. Currently, women's sport only comprises seven per cent of sports coverage on Australian television. And of course the situation hasn't been helped by the government's massive cuts to the ABC—cuts that they went ahead with in the previous term despite Mr Abbott explicitly ruling them out on the eve of the 2013 election. Expanding the audiences of women's sport is key to addressing the massive gender pay gap that exists in elite sports. While male players are earning six-figure salaries in sports such as soccer, cricket and Australian rules football, their female counterparts are struggling to earn even a living wage. And that's just not good enough.

I want to now comment on some of the other measures in this bill. It's widely accepted that the 75 per cent reach rule is well past its use-by date. Labor will support the repeal of this rule. We share industry's frustration at the government's delay on this reform. We support the new local programming requirements for regional commercial television in schedule 3 of the bill. The provisions are triggered when, as a result of a change in control, the licensee becomes part of a media group whose combined licence area population exceeds 75 per cent of the Australian population. Labor supports these provisions. However, they actually do little to promote diversity.

Schedule 4 of the bill amends the anti-syphoning scheme by extending the automatic delisting period for listed events from 12 to 26 weeks. This schedule also repeals the multichannelling restrictions, enabling free-to-air broadcasters to premiere listed events on a digital multichannel. In a post-digital switchover environment, this rule is now redundant, and Labor supports the ability of Australians to enjoy coverage of premium sporting events on free-to-air television.

Schedule 5 of the bill abolishes broadcasting licence fees and datacasting changes. Currently, these fees and charges raise around $130 million per annum. However, the media market has changed significantly since broadcasting licence fees were first introduced. Labor, in government, commenced the process of licence fee relief, particularly in recognition of the impact of the global financial crisis on local content production, and in the context of the digital switchover. The government's argument that this will mean broadcasters are better able to compete with online competitors was actually put forward by Labor in 2016. The related tax bill that the government has introduced as part of its broadcasting reform package introduces a new spectrum tax. This is estimated to raise about $40 million a year. The radio frequency spectrum is a highly valuable and finite public resource, so it's fair that the Commonwealth gets a return on the use of this resource. Some broadcast licensees will be worse off under the new spectrum tax, hence the inclusion of a $23 million transitional support package and the establishment of an ACMA review of broadcasting pricing arrangements, to be completed by mid-2022.

We will support all but one of the reforms in the government's broadcasting reform package. However, we find it quite disappointing that after four years in office—in fact, I think they've just clicked over to beginning their fifth year in office—the government would present such a lazy, piecemeal approach to broadcasting reform. As we've said many times before—in this place, in the House and through the media—Labor does not support the government's proposal to repeal the two-out-of-three rule. The repeal of the two-out-of-three rule is a misguided obsession from this government. Should the government succeed in repealing the two-out-of-three rule, it would concentrate media ownership and it would undermine Australian democracy. One of the best explanations of the importance of media diversity to democracy was provided by the Australian Media and Communications Authority, ACMA, in their 2011 report Enduring concepts: communications and media in Australia. They said:

At the core of liberal democracy is the idea of ‘pluralism’—that is, more than one perspective has validity, and there is social and political value in people expressing, and engaging with, these perspectives. The rationale for intervention is that in the absence of intervention, media and communications markets (or other interests) may consolidate perspectives or favour certain opinions at the expense of others, and that a diversity of voices has social value.

You would think that the Liberals, of all the parties, would share this perspective. I've heard those on the other side speak in defence of free speech. A party that genuinely believes in liberalism would value a diversity of voices in the media.

Australia already has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world, yet this government would seek to make this situation worse. The argument that appears to be advanced by the government in favour of this change is that, currently, there is a collapse in traditional forms of media—that's radio, television and newspapers. And it's true that the media landscape is changing as technology changes. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram and content-streaming services like Netflix are becoming part of the media landscape. But to suggest that a diversity of voices can be maintained in the media when one person exercises control over radio, television and newspaper in a broadcast area absolutely defies credibility.

Despite the changes in our media landscape, there is no denying that radio, television and print media remain dominant forms of reporting. For example, a 2016 study by the University of Canberra's News and Media Research Centre found that TV, print and radio are still the main sources of news for over half of Australians. This is a lot higher—more than 70 per cent—for people aged 65 and over, who make up a significant portion of the population. This figure does not account for news generated by these platforms but shared through other means such as social media. I know from my own use of social media that links to newspaper articles, in particular, feature prominently among the news reported on Facebook and Twitter. And the majority of the most popular news websites accessed by Australians—in fact, eight out of the top 10—are either directly or jointly owned by traditional media platforms. We should also recognise that many Australians, either by choice or due to poor service—of which there is quite a bit—are not active online and therefore continue to rely on traditional media platforms for their news.

This is the government's second attempt at repealing the two-out-of-three rule. Their first attempt was in a 2016 broadcasting reform bill, which was referred to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee. Three eminent academics provided evidence to that inquiry, outlining concerns about the current concentration in Australia's media market, and their comments were quoted in Labor's dissenting report. Professor Michael Fraser, from the University of Technology, Sydney, said:

It is notorious, in terms of news and current affairs, that we, among the democracies, have the least diversity in our newspapers and have very little in television.

Professor Rodney Tiffin, from the University of Sydney, said:

Media concentration in Australia is amongst the highest in the world. Our daily press is the most concentrated in the world … Our pay TV industry is the most concentrated in the world.

And Professor Graeme Turner, from the University of Queensland, said:

[It] is important that we are alert to the likelihood of any relaxation of media ownership restrictions making what is already an undesirable situation any worse.

Australia's high media concentration was also noted in the Finkelstein inquiry, which observed that we are the only country in the world where the leading newspaper company accounts for more than half of daily circulation, and the top two companies have an 86 per cent share. Commercial Radio Australia, the peak body for commercial radio stations, found in a study of Australia's audio consumption that new digital platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music had failed to dent radio's dominance of the audio landscape. Broadcasters such as Channel 7 and Channel 9, and newspaper companies such as Fairfax and News Limited, already have extraordinary power, and that power could be further concentrated.

In my home state of Tasmania, I think it's fair to say that our newspapers are dominant enough that political careers are made, or broken, based on which candidates our newspapers choose to cover and in what light they choose to cover them. Unless you can get positive coverage in TheExaminer, in the north of the state, or the Mercury, in the south, it's very difficult to have any success in politics or any recognition of what you may have achieved. This gives them incredible power, which they can potentially wield to influence public policy in Tasmania.

I mentioned earlier traditional media's use of online platforms. The proliferation of new digital media platforms has not necessarily led to a proliferation of new independent sources of news. The government's own department of communications submitted to the inquiry into the 2016 broadcasting bill:

… the internet has, to date at least, tended to give existing players a vehicle to maintain or actually increase their influence …

We recognise that much of the competition faced by traditional media is from overseas digital content providers who are not subject to the same taxes and media regulation. This is why, as I said earlier, we support broadcasting licence fee relief and the removal of the 75 per cent reach rule. Removing the two-out-of-three rule will not effectively address these competitive pressures, but it will have a number of unintended consequences, not the least of which is the further concentration of an already heavily concentrated media market. Australia's democracy depends on the availability of a diversity of opinions and points of view to be heard. The state of Australia's media market makes it difficult enough already to have a genuine public debate, without media owners steering and influencing public opinion. The government's misguided proposal to remove the two-out-of-three rule will undoubtedly make this situation worse.

On the subject of maintaining a diversity of voices in broadcasting, I want to acknowledge the importance of having a strong independent national broadcaster. This role continues to be served by the ABC and SBS. Our public broadcasters are not the subject of this bill, but, as Senator Hanson thought it okay to bag the ABC, I thought I would say a few words in their defence. In talking about the role of broadcasting in Australia's democracy, their contribution must not be overlooked. Australia's investment in national broadcasting ensures that, while having a variety of voices in our media, we also have an independent voice in the media that is free from commercial influence and subject to a stringent code of practice. The ABC serves several other useful functions, including the opportunity for Australian content to be seen and heard and the provision of local news, public announcements and emergency broadcasting in remote and regional areas. SBS was established to ensure that Australia's multicultural diversity was promoted and celebrated.

These national broadcasting functions have been threatened by the government's aggressive budget cuts. It's utterly shameful the way in which this government has undermined our public broadcasters, and continues to undermine our public broadcasters. We all remember Mr Abbott's pronouncements on the eve of the 2013 election, which included the promise of no cuts to the ABC or SBS. But the 2014 budget included $254 million in cuts to the ABC, overseen by Mr Turnbull as then communications minister. It has led to the loss of hundreds of staff across the ABC, cuts to transcription services for the deaf and hearing impaired, an end to shortwave radio transmission in the Northern Territory, and programing cuts, such as changes to Catalyst and cuts to music programs on Radio National. In my home state of Tasmania it has led to the loss of the local edition of the current affairs program 7.30.

Since coming to government in 2013 the Liberals have cut the ABC's funding by $355 million over five years. To make up for their cuts to SBS the government tried to increase SBS's hourly cap on advertising. This would lead to SBS prioritising revenue at the expense of its charter obligations and would further undermine its unique role as Australia's ethnic broadcaster. I find it incredible that the Liberals' coalition partner, the Nationals—a party which purports to stand up for the bush—would not be standing up for the ABC when it provides such a valuable service to rural and regional Australia. But, like on so many issues facing rural and regional Australia, the Nationals have sold their soul and are willing to jump to the Liberals' tune.

As if the ABC isn't facing enough pressure, the government has made a grubby deal with One Nation to further undermine the ABC. Senator Burston has made it clear that the proposed amendment to the ABC Act requiring the ABC to be fair and balanced is absolutely aimed at giving equal weighting to groups like the antivaxxers, who promote outdated and dangerous ideas. When Senator Burston offers Fox News as an example of a broadcaster that is fair and balanced, we really have to be concerned about what this government's intentions are for the future of the ABC. Of course, the ABC should be independent and promote public debate, but the public interest is not served by giving quack science and conspiracy theories equal airtime to proper expert analysis and opinion. It's outrageous that this government would be willing to give more airtime to antivaxxers, climate change sceptics and Holocaust deniers on the ABC in return for support for these bills.

The government's agreement to a competitive neutrality inquiry into the ABC and SBS is also extremely concerning. It could diminish the role of the ABC and SBS to mere market-failure broadcasters. What could this inquiry possibly be aimed at achieving other than setting the stage for the end of public broadcasting in Australia? Now we know that Senator Hanson and One Nation want to see the end of the ABC. It begs the question: in addition to this grubby deal, is there a secret side deal for the government to cut funding to the ABC in the next budget? Australians love their ABC, and I don't think they'll take too kindly to the government's or One Nation's attempts to undermine their national public broadcaster.

Even if these bills pass, there are a number of issues in the broadcasting sector that remain unaddressed by this government, even after four years in office. The community broadcasting sector still has no certainty about funding for community digital radio. I've mentioned in this place many times how the Liberal coalition partners, the Nationals, have lost their soul, as they fail to stand up for rural and regional Australia. Given 66 per cent of community radio services are focused in rural and regional Australia, this just adds to the growing list of issues where The Nationals have failed to serve their core constituency. The government's reforms also do nothing to support the introduction of audio description for the blind and visually impaired. Over 350,000 Australians are missing out on this service despite it having been available for years in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, New Zealand, Thailand and Japan. I understand the government have a working group on audio description which is due to report at the end of this year, but they're dragging their feet and it's just not good enough.

To conclude, I would like to thank my colleague in the House, Michelle Rowland, who has worked very hard on scrutinising this package as shadow minister for communications. Broadcasting reform is a wide ranging and complicated policy area. Ms Rowland has also been a strong advocate for broadcasting reform and holding the government to account for their years of inaction in this area and the piecemeal approach they are taking with this package.

I will acknowledge that the government's package, piecemeal as it may be, is a step in the right direction. It would be a great shame if they held this package hostage for the sake of insisting on their misguided pursuit of repealing the two-out-of-three rule. I have given a number of reasons that the two-out-of-three rule is bad for Australian democracy, and I urge the government to accept our amendments. (Time expired)