SUBJECT/S: Media reform; Linda Burney’s tilt at Federal Parliament; redistribution of NSW seats  

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Michelle Rowland joins us live now from the nation’s capital, thanks very much for your company.


PVO: Quick reaction, do you think Labor is going to support the two out of three provision that’s the big question. Has it gone before Shadow Cabinet yet or is that something for now, now that you’ve seen the formal unveiling of the government’s policy?

ROWLAND: It hasn’t gone through our policy making process yet, PVO, and as you’re no doubt aware it’s only recently been announced. It was talked about and now we’re had an announcement. But I mean, these are issues that go to the heart of media diversity in our country. We have the reach rule which is about 75 per cent of the Australian population being reached by a provider. This leads to other questions of whether there’s going to be mergers in the regional segment and so forth, and there is also an issue that I know many in the government benches have been concerned about and that is content. I’ve heard Malcolm Turnbull make comments in the past that this is nothing about local content because the internet has changed everything. I hate to break it to him but in many parts of Australia, particularly regional and remote Australia, having access to high quality broadband isn’t there yet. And then of course we have the two out of three rule, the control in a particular licence area, of either radio, TV, newspapers, but I think that taken together these are going to be fundamental issues to be considered and will absolutely set up the landscape for years to come.

PVO: I get the impression from Mitch Fifield that this is a package, in other words, you take it or you leave it – they’re happy with the way they’ve pulled it together. Is Labor likely to tolerate that and take it or leave it or are you likely to support parts but not others?

ROWLAND: You get to my next point actually, PVO, which is it is a package and we actually haven’t seen what the full package is yet, like what it will say about issues around local content for example or whether those particular ownership rules are going to be changed in any other way. But we will examine this closely, we’ve always said and Jason Clare has maintained that when the government has a position we will examine it on its merits and that is exactly what we’ll do.

KRISTINA KENEALLY: Michelle, Minister Fifield suggested that they will be moving any decisions about licence fees off into the Budget. As I understand it, a potential loss of $150 million. Given our Budget circumstances, is this the time to be handing that type of money back to television networks?

ROWLAND: Again, I think this is something we need to examine as a package overall. I know the networks have been saying, amongst other arguments, that these are out of date, they’ve just been a source of revenue, and I agree with you Kristina we do have a revenue problem. At the same time I have listened to these precise voices arguing their case. Now what the government decides to do, whether it’s in the Budget, or announce it and have it in the Budget, that remains to be seen, but I think with media ownership laws you do have to consider these as a whole package and we’ll be doing that. 

PVO: What about the timing? Mitch Fifield says he wants it passed before the next election, I guess part of that will come down to whether we’re having a July election or a full term election, but is there enough time either way in Labor’s view to be able to consider this fully?

ROWLAND: It depends when they actually show us the legislation, PVO, and if they are going to make announcements before the Budget and then not actually show us the legislation – we’ve actually had a bit of history of this – just as an example in another area; how much talk did we have about the Citizenship Bill and those changes earlier in the year, and it took months before we saw the legislation and the government kept saying ‘are you going to support it, are you going to support it’, and we said ‘well show it to us’. So the date of the election is not something we can control but we will carefully consider anything in their proposed package and examine the legislation closely. 

KENEALLY: The Minister seemed to make very clear, he wasn’t canvassing any changes to the anti-siphoning rules, perhaps that would be an area that others in the party or the cross bench might want to take up. Has your position changed on anti-siphoning?

ROWLAND: I think there’s two things. Firstly there is an undoubted expectation in Australia that there are certain events of national significance and should be free to watch. And then there’s other arguments, and of course this is one that the subscription broadcasting sector would argue, that this is out of date. We take the view that you would have to be probably a very brave government to start proposing removing those things from the anti-siphoning list that the public undoubtedly arc up about. So again, I think while they say they’ve parked it for now it will be very interesting to see in their package whether they’ve got a time frame for reviewing it because I know of course, and you’ll be well aware, it’s something that ASTRA and the sector have been basically promoting since day one.

PVO: We’ll get on to your portfolio in a moment, but just a quick question on electoral reform. We’ve had hearings with the likes of Malcolm MacKerras and other psephologists today, I don’t expect that you would have been sitting there diligently doing nothing but watching it but let me ask this as a broad question; Gary Gray as the relevant Shadow Minister seems to have opposed the position Labor has taken in his April 2014 submission, your national secretary George Wright took a position which is exactly the policy that is being put forward by the government, I know that the electoral affairs committee had a slightly different take on reform. How can it be tenable for Gary Gray to stay in the portfolio he’s in when he doesn’t agree with the portfolio position?

ROWLAND: Well the Opposition has had [audio drop out] those comments but I think he was referring to two things. Firstly, he was talking about the integrity of the system and the importance of following the process that we set out in that final report and he made that clear that the amendments that the government is putting forward don’t accurately reflect entirely what was in there. But secondly we have debated this as a caucus and we have come to a position. And it is no secret, as I said, it’s on the public record and it’s no secret that Gary held some different views there. But at the end of it we have come to a position and that is the position that we are going to prosecute. 

PVO: You don’t normally have a Shadow Minister saying that publicly when announcing the Labor position in Parliament that he basically doesn’t agree with it. It’s unusual, you’ve got to admit.

ROWLAND: I haven’t been in a Shadow Cabinet for very long but the thing that drives me most of all PVO is this: in my part of the world and many of my neighbours, we have some of the highest rates of informal voting and it hasn’t come down, it has remained variously static or has gone up in some parts. So I am very concerned, not only that this has been a deal – it’s been a fait accompli essentially. Secondly, the informal votes that we have the ability of the Electoral Commission to get through an education campaign before the next election. And there was one snippet I did hear, it was along the lines of it would take 100 days in order for the AEC to get its act together to conduct an election. Now whether or not that includes a full education campaign that’s going to make sure that we don’t have a spike in informal voting as a result remains to be seen. And I am very sceptical of the fact that this is being pushed through in such a rushed manner and we know that the government wants to keep its options on the table for election time but I don’t think this bodes well for the democratic process.

KENEALLY: Michelle Rowland, one question on the democratic process I suppose. PVO and I had a little chat at the beginning about the manner in which Linda Burney is getting preselected. We should acknowledge that if she’s elected she’ll be the first female Aboriginal woman in the lower house. Your thoughts on Linda Burney as a potential colleague and the contribution she might bring?

ROWLAND:  I welcome Linda’s entry to the Federal Parliament. She knows full well that the first thing she needs to do, even though she’s been preselected, first thing she needs to do is win her seat. So that will be step one for her. I’m very pleased that she will be an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman going into the House of Representatives for Labor. I think we also need to remember that Linda comes with one of the most distinguished records in the public service and also having served in a ministerial capacity, I know you would have served closely with her Kristina. And I haven’t met a single person who did not comment on her razor sharp mind, on her ability to master a difficult brief, her capacity for empathy and her ability to think and act with good governance. I think that all those talents will be very welcomed in the Parliament itself. Not just for Labor but in the Parliament itself. It’s great when you have good people in the Parliament and I welcome her entry and I’ll be campaigning with her to win her seat.

PVO: I don’t think anyone disputes that she’s a good candidate and a good get for the Labor Party, but as a senior member of the Right faction, how do you feel about the Right happily capitulating one of its traditional seats in Barton simply so that Joel Fitzgibbon gets to keep fighting a safe seat rather than have to get his hands dirty fighting a marginal. 

ROWLAND: Unfortunately I’m not a backroom person, so I don’t know the ins and outs of that. But I have seen today Pat Conroy is going to nominate for Shortland, Joel is going to nominate for Hunter, so I think a few of those jigsaw pieces are falling into place, let’s face it, pretty much where we thought they were going to. The only wildcard in this, maybe it’s wild to me, was Linda Burney going into Barton.

KENEALLY: All right, Michelle Rowland, we’re going to leave it there and let you get off to Question Time. Thanks for joining us on To The Point.

ROWLAND: A pleasure.