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Thursday, 14 March 2013
Page: 1765


Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia) (15:41): I move:

That the Senate notes Labor's relentless attacks on free speech.

I begin this debate on the coalition's motion on free speech by reflecting on the fact that we have a government in Australia at present with many addictions. The Labor Party have many, many addictions indeed. The modern Labor Party and, in particular, the Rudd and Gillard—and possibly Rudd again—governments are addicted to wasteful spending. They are addicted to new taxes. Labor are addicted to telling, it seems, outright lies to the electorate. They are addicted to running deficit budgets. Labor are addicted to racking up huge debts. Labor are most definitely addicted to backstabbing each other—if anyone would like evidence of that I suggest they go and have a look at the press pack huddled outside the Prime Minister's office at present. And, indeed, the modern Labor Party are addicted to attacking freedom of speech.

We have seen these attacks on freedom of speech mount and increase in their ferocity during the life of the government as they have become more and more concerned with criticism of themselves. What is remarkable is that amongst the leaders in the attack on free speech and a free media by the government is none other than the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy. One would have thought that, in a sensible government, the minister for communications should be the champion of a free media, the person who seeks to ensure we have the greatest, most competitive, most diverse but most free media possible. Yet, under this government's watch, Australia's ranking by Reporters Without Borders in their Press Freedom Index has dropped significantly. Australia has dropped from being the 18th most free country in the world for media freedoms in 2010 to the 26th. Lord only knows how much further we will fall if this government gets its way with further media reforms.

Of course, it is not just in relation to the media that this government has a track record of failing when it comes to free speech. We saw it as well during the debate on its draft anti-discrimination legislation. That legislation would have a draconian impact on the right of everyday Australians to engage in the type of criticism and commentary they should be free to engage in.

The mark of free speech is whether you defend it and whether you stand up for it when you do not like what people are saying—whether you defend somebody's right to speak when you disagree with them. That is the mark of a champion of free speech. That is not the mark of the minister for communications, Senator Conroy. When he and his policies in his portfolio have been under attack, he has gone on a personal attack against the media outlets, media proprietors and journalists who have been engaged in any criticisms of his policies, his conduct or the conduct of the government.

Those are the moments when a good communications minister—somebody who genuinely believes in free speech or a free media—would have stood up and said: 'I may disagree with what they are writing, but I defend their right to keep writing it. I may disagree with what they are publishing, broadcasting or saying about me, but I defend their right to keep doing so.' Senator Conroy has done no such thing. Senator Conroy, in fact, seems to have undergone some sort of miraculous conversion during his deliberations on media reform. He once acknowledged that there were, in fact, increasing voices in the modern media landscape. He acknowledged that we were seeing increased opportunity for more people to have their say in what is happening around the world and to influence it in more ways than ever before. Yet now he claims we face a threat to diversity. Senator Conroy once highlighted the rise of new media platforms and all the available opportunities on the internet for people to avail themselves of in ways of communicating to others and criticising, analysing and assessing traditional media content. Yet now, rather than recognising that the media landscape is completely changing and altering because of the rise of those new media platforms, he is completely distracted with how to regulate media content.

Media reform, when it was first discussed by this government a couple of years ago, was welcomed as a chance to modernise regulatory frameworks. Back in 2010, Senator Conroy said that the Convergence Review would take 'a fresh look at Australia's existing regulatory frameworks with a view to modernising them'. Instead, in the legislation—the six bills presented to the parliament today and the more than 130 pages of legislation that has been dropped on the table—we do not see any effort at modernising media regulation from this government; we simply see new layers of bureaucracy and attempts to regulate the media—and, in particular, the print media—in ways that have never before been attempted in peacetime Australian history.

So what changed since Senator Conroy first started his media reform process back in 2010? The answer, of course, is simple: the hate media. That is what Senator Conroy and those opposite have dubbed it: the hate media. It started out being perhaps just one or two News Ltd publications, but it has spread since then into the views of the Financial Review in the Fairfax stable and concerns about anybody who dares to criticise the policies and failures of this government.

Labor's reforms which they now propose to the media have been drafted purely and simply to meet their desire for revenge against their perceived enemies in the fourth estate rather than tackling the many regulatory issues facing our changing media landscape. This is far more than a package of reforms in media. This is far more about vengeance than it is about vision. Egged on by their friends in the Australian Greens, the Labor Party sidetracked the Convergence Review, which was established to take a sweeping analysis of media regulation, with the establishment, out of the blue, of the Finkelstein report, which looked specifically at news media content and how that was regulated. This was not part of the original plan, but Senator Conroy, in cahoots with the then Greens leader, Senator Bob Brown, suddenly established a second report—a report that seriously derailed this process of media reform. Instead of streamlining media regulation, Senator Conroy now proposes to subject both media ownership decisions and media complaints-handling processes to oversight by the rather Orwellian-sounding Public Interest Media Advocate.

This is by no means a reform driven by the public interest; it is a reform driven by the government's interest—by the Labor Party's interests—first and foremost. This new bureaucracy—the Public Interest Media Advocate—will be headed by a hand-picked government-appointed regulator who will assess who can own media outlets and who will influence what can be said by media outlets. This is a clear threat to the freedom of the media and to the operation of a free press and it is a threat unprecedented in modern Australian history.

As I highlighted yesterday in question time, not since 1827—when Governor Darling in New South Wales proposed legislation to establish a licence system for newspapers, providing for the forfeiture of such licence upon any conviction for any blasphemous or seditious libel, and conferring upon himself as Governor an unconfined discretion to revoke a newspaper licence—have we seen a government in Australia attempt to regulate and license the existence of newspapers. Senator Conroy's reforms are a very clear step in the path towards such a licensing regime. His reforms, in establishing this Public Interest Media Advocate, will see organisations like the Press Council subjected to scrutiny—and an unclear level of scrutiny, because the types of reforms being talked about by this government are at best vague, and vague reforms can lead to enormous powers for new regulators.

We now know from the detail of the legislation that the assurances we get from the Prime Minister and from Senator Conroy about this reform process are not worth a scrap. These assurances cannot be trusted any more than the Prime Minister's promises about not having a carbon tax could be trusted. The Prime Minister and Senator Conroy said yesterday that the opposition of the day would be consulted over the appointment of the advocate. Yet that is not contained or required in any of the proposed legislation. Senator Conroy says he cannot imagine that a former member of parliament would be appointed to the position of advocate. Yet, unlike appointments he made to the ABC board, there is no requirement in this legislation that would prevent a former member of parliament being appointed to this position. This will simply be a regulator who can be appointed by the government of the day, who can be dismissed by the government of the day and therefore who can be influenced by the government of the day, who will have the power to influence media-complaints-handling processes, as well as of course media acquisitions or purchases.

These regulatory ambitions have been promoted with quite a degree of rhetorical flourish by many of Senator Conroy's colleagues. The member for Bendigo, Mr Gibbons, when he was not on Twitter, called for reforms to 'bring dodgy media outlets to heel', while his colleague Mr Murphy described certain media outlets as 'a cancer on our democracy'. Mr Perrett just yesterday, reflecting on the reforms that were proposed, said, 'You can't have unchecked freedom.' We do not have unchecked freedom; we have some of the world's toughest defamation laws. We have some of the world's toughest restrictions to ensure that there is a right for citizens who believe they have been wronged by the media to address those wrongs. But we should have unchecked freedom when it comes to the right of the media to criticise governments, oppositions and the workings of this place. That is at the centre of any effective democracy. Far from Mr Murphy's claim that certain media outlets are a cancer on our democracy, it is these reforms that pose the greatest threat to our democracy.

The reality of course is markedly different from the tainted perceptions of those opposite. In our rapidly- changing media landscape the number of voices that can be heard or opinions that can be expressed have risen daily. Even the ABC managing director, Mr Mark Scott, has argued:

Now, there are multiple players: anyone with a mobile phone, laptop or camcorder can be a broadcaster.

Similarly, anyone with a keyboard and internet connection can be a publisher. Increasingly, we see across the internet new and existing media outlets of all sizes operating as both publisher and broadcaster, and citizens from around the world not just acting perhaps as publisher or broadcaster themselves, through blogs, tweets and the like, but also acting very importantly as media critics, watchdogs and guards on the internet and on the media themselves. Senator Conroy's 'fewer voices' arguments simply do not stack up.

While the case for a government appointed regulator, administering what will be a very subjective and vague public interest test over media ownership, is weak, the risks of this proposed regulation of media ownership are quite profound. This is an interventionist approach and, like any new form of government regulation and any such intervention, it does risk stymieing investment in the media sector. This is an increasingly globalised sector and is a very dynamic sector and, if government regulation in Australia holds up the type of change in reform in this sector, we will most likely see more Australian eyeballs shift to internationally sourced content, to the detriment of an Australian media industry that is already shedding thousands of jobs.

Senator Conroy wants his same government appointed regulator to also accredit media-complaints-handling procedures. While this may be one step removed from the highly interventionist News Media Council, recommended by the Finkelstein report, the words of that report still ring true, where it said:

… whatever mechanism is chosen to ensure accountability speech will be restricted … that is the purpose of the mechanism …

This quote has been put to Senator Conroy in recent days and he has not denied it, not refuted it. Mr Finkelstein was at least honest in his ambitions and honest in the recognition that any reform to media laws and any new mechanism to restrict or regulate or manage in any way the Australian media would be a restriction on speech, because that is the very purpose of the mechanism. It is just amazing to hear Senator Conroy come into this place and proclaim: 'No, no, you're all prophets of doom—no, it's not actually happening, it won't have any effect and in fact it won't make a single change to the existing self-regulatory arrangements.' There is nothing in the proposed legislation that guarantees that. There is nothing that makes certain that this regulator will not recommend, request or enforce changes to existing self-regulatory arrangements. There is a very real risk that it will have an impact there. The alternative is that it is a toothless tiger, and then what is the point of these reforms? If Senator Conroy is to be believed that it will have no impact whatsoever, what is the point of going down this path? The point is that the government knows and Senator Conroy knows it will have an impact and it will be the first step of what this government hopes will be many towards greater regulation of the media.

Former Labor Premier Steve Bracks knows what accountability mechanism for the media works best. He recently wrote, 'Consumer driven feedback, in particular through social media, has arguably become far more effective in influencing media behaviour than any belated actions by the regulator.' This is a salient point and one that everyone interested in this debate should reflect upon. The growth in digital and online media has not only spawned countless new sources of news, entertainment and information but generated even more empowered critics of media content regardless of its platform or medium.

When the media do wrong nowadays, the public hold them to account far better than any regulator does. That is where we should be placing our faith. We should place our faith in the public. We should back free speech and a free media to the hilt. We should put some vision behind media reforms rather than the vengeful approach of those opposite who simply target those who report that which they do not wish to hear.