25 November 2019


I rise to speak on the Communications Legislation Amendment (Deregulation and Other Measures) Bill 2019 and foreshadow that I will move a second reading amendment.

This bill contains a collection of proposals to reduce the regulatory burden on the broadcasting and telecommunication sectors. As noted in the explanatory memorandum, the bill proposes to amend the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, the Telecommunications Act 1997 and the National Broadband Network Companies Act 2011, amongst other pieces of legislation.

Some of the measures outlined in this bill propose to allow the minister to appoint an industry based numbering manager in place of the ACMA, provided certain safeguards are met; remove duplicative reporting requirements for licensees to notify the ACMA of certain changes in control of regulated media assets; allow NBN Co to dispose of surplus assets whose sale is currently constrained by the National Broadband Network Companies Act 2011; provide a consistent classification arrangement by removing requirements for certain television broadcasters to apply different classification standards for films when developing industry codes of practice; remove the requirement for the ACMA to consult with an advisory committee before declaring a submarine cable protection zone, given the ACMA has a legal obligation to consult anyway; and to remove the ability of the ACCC to issue tariff-filing directions to certain telecommunication carriers and carriage service providers.

As some might be aware, this bill is not new. Indeed, the bulk of the measures in this omnibus bill were, by and large, introduced on 2 December 2015. The bill was supported in the House, and during debate in the Senate a Labor amendment was passed to expand the financial and deployment forecasts reported by NBN Co. After the bill returned to the House, the government never brought it to a vote and allowed it to lapse at the 2016 election. The then minister, Mitch Fifield, resurrected this bill to the House of Representatives on 27 March 2019. It took him six months after the election to dust off the brief, but eventually he got there. After the initial introduction it took the government a further 12 months before it reached a second reading debate in the House. Talk about enthusiasm; they couldn't wait to get this one passed! The bill then entered the Senate in March 2018 and sat idle for the remainder of that term of parliament—a big year for that bill. It was never brought to a vote and, as a result, lapsed at the May election.

So here we are, in the last sitting period for 2019, four years after the bill was first introduced—we should get it a cake!—debating it for the third time. It makes you wonder why this has taken so long. I suspect the origins of this bill provide an important clue. At a time when the government should have been focused on proper reform in this sector, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and his then parliamentary secretary were too busy focusing on the wrong priorities. Mr Turnbull almost exclusively dedicated himself to stuffing up one of the most important things in the portfolio, the NBN and holistic media reform, and left it to his then parliamentary secretary, now the minister, to manage the relevant aspects of the overall fizzer that was Tony Abbott's dereg agenda. So uninspired was the bill that over a span of two electoral terms, Mitch Fifield did not even see fit to bring it to a final vote. I genuinely cannot even recall the last time a stakeholder asked me where the measures in this current bill are up to.

The reason I am running through the history is that it points to a broader issue in the comms portfolio. This bill is symbolic of the small-mindedness that dominates the Liberals and their communications agenda. It is nearly 2020 and the first two pieces of communications portfolio legislation this minister has to offer is a window-dressing ABC bill trying to distract from the government's cuts to public broadcasting, and this essentially do-nothing deregulation bill that was drafted in 2015. Maybe those opposite can call it their five-year plan. It really makes you wonder what the point of the Morrison government is.

Speaking of the government's window-dressing on the ABC, we're beginning to see the implications of their funding cuts. After years of cuts at the hands of the Liberal-National government, and with a further three years of cuts ahead of it, the ABC has decided to end its 67-year run as the official non-commercial Olympic Games radio broadcaster, citing budget pressures. It is sad and disappointing that the ABC will not pursue radio broadcast rights and live coverage for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and that 'competing budget priorities' are responsible for the end of an era in Australian sports broadcasting. When the government cuts the ABC, Australians miss out. This government broke its promise not to cut ABC funding. It has since cut $366 million from the national broadcaster. The ABC warned the latest round of budget cuts, totalling $83.7 million over the next three years, would make it very difficult for the ABC to meet its charter requirements and audience expectations, but the Prime Minister locked them in any way. Now it looks like Australians will miss out on much-loved content that is part of Australia's media, sporting and cultural identity.

This deregulation bill before us is arguably the last ember for the red tape bonfire initiated by Tony Abbott many moons ago. In the context of the comms portfolio, one only has to look at how much regulatory burden the coalition government has introduced on the telco sector in the past two years. Worse still, much of the regulation in the consumer sphere has been a direct consequence of the government's failings on the multitechnology mix of the NBN.

It's worth noting that this bill isn't the only thing in the comms portfolio which has been sitting around for years. Spectrum reform, launched with great fanfare back in 2014, has fallen on its face. The August 2015 joint announcement between Malcolm Turnbull and the now minister stated that the government had considered and decided to implement the recommendations of the spectrum review, and set out an implementation timetable. After helping start it off over four years ago, the current minister is seemingly back at square one, asking basic questions, such as: 'What benefits will the proposed reforms deliver? And are wholesale changes the way to go?' One would assume that the government had a well-considered view on such questions before deciding to commit four years of significant public sector and industry resources to a wholesale spectrum reform process. What we have seen is a government that has consistently lacked a coherent agenda and, as a consequence, which doesn't appear to be in command of the processes it has commenced.

I'll move on to the individual measures in this bill. One schedule of this bill proposes changes that would allow the transition of telephone numbering to an industry managed scheme. Self-regulation is an important feature of the telco sector, and has been for a long time. Where appropriate, it allows industry to take responsibility for its own affairs, in turn potentially reducing the regulatory burden and administrative costs, and, in turn, leading to consumer benefits. Numbers are an important scarce resource. Like spectrum, numbers are used but not consumed. The management of telephone numbering has matured over the years, and this presents an opportunity for industry to play a greater role in managing the telco numbering scheme.

A move towards self-regulation naturally raises the question of whether there is a risk of misalignment between the objectives of regulators and policymakers and the commercial incentives of industry. We have considered this question, and are satisfied that the legislation before the House sets out sufficiently clear principles and contains adequate reserve powers should the Commonwealth need to re-intervene.

One point I do want to stress is the important connection between the integrity of our numbering system and scam calls. Communications technology and digital platforms have made it cheaper and easier for scammers to operate. The telephone line has now become an option of choice for scammers. Everyone agrees that telephone scams are not just a nuisance: they are an assault on the integrity of our numbering system; an incursion on the privacy of Australians and the right to enjoy their homes; and they are criminal in their intent.

As I noted earlier in the year in an opinion piece, it has always struck me as odd that criminals based overseas can effortlessly use Australian telephone numbers they don't own to generate calls and to rip people off. The explanations for this vary but, clearly, the international standards and interconnection arrangements that underpinned voice calling were not adequately designed to safeguard against this problem. In the absence of such arrangements, domestic interventions to protect the integrity of the telephone-numbering system and to reduce the impact of scams are beginning to look increasingly desirable. Encouragingly, other jurisdictions are showing that progress is possible and, hopefully, any transition of numbering towards a self-regulatory model could provide even greater operational and technical flexibility to improve the integrity of the numbering system, in turn making it harder for scammers overseas.

In summary, this is a straightforward bill that forms part of a rudimentary housekeeping exercise. As such, Labor will not oppose this bill. But the reality is this: these amendments actually do little to reduce the cost of regulation on the broadcasting or telecommunication sectors. As I noted earlier, the government has actually spent the last three years increasing the regulatory burden on telecommunications companies, and this bill does nothing to reverse that trend. While earlier deregulation bills actually did deliver more significant cost savings for industry, in comparison this bill looks by and large inconsequential. What we would like to see is the government developing a genuine and timely reform agenda to advance the interests of citizens, consumers and the communications sector. That is why Labor will move a second reading amendment to this bill. I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1) notes that it is nearly 2020, and the first two pieces of communications portfolio legislation presented by Government in the current Parliament are:

(a) a window-dressing bill about the ABC designed to distract from the Government’s funding cuts to public broadcasting; and

(b) a do-nothing bill about deregulation, which was originally drafted in 2015;

(2) notes that it has been more than four years since the Government commenced a spectrum reform process that has yet to deliver any outcomes; and

(3) calls on the Government to develop a genuine and timely reform agenda to advance the interests of citizens, consumers and the communications sector".