SUBJECTS: Barnaby Joyce NBN Wastage; Morrison-Joyce Government Wasting Taxpayers' Money; Regional News Media; NBN.

Michelle Rowland is The Shadow Minister for Communications. Thanks for joining us on Flow. We like to think that when the NBN gets rolled out, there's a benefit for regional communities in our listing areas and across regional Australia. There's been one rollout that's been highlighted by the Guardian recently that maybe only had one major beneficiary. 

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Well, that's right. The whole purpose of the National Broadband Network under Labor was to ensure that the digital divide between regional areas and metro areas was plugged. But unfortunately, that has not been the case over the last eight years as the Government shifted from fibre to copper, and now done another backflip back to fibre. Now we've just found out that this Government has spent over half a million dollars of taxpayers’ money to connect a single business in Barnaby Joyce's electorate with fibre. That is a staggering 200 times more expensive than the average cost to connect a single premises with optical fibre. So the question really arises — what sort of management is this of taxpayers’ money? And what about everybody else?

HOST: Well, we all remember the opposition's criticisms of when Labor was in government of the fibre-to-the-home proposal, that it was going to be too expensive to roll out. It seems a bit rich with this one going out to one particular business.

ROWLAND: It certainly does, and even Minister Paul Fletcher in November last year, when Labor announced our plan to invest more money to boost fibre access, including some 600,000 premises in regions to get the fibre access that they otherwise wouldn't have had, he actually criticised it and said this is more wasteful government spending of taxpayers' money, and that's what Labor does. I think he needs a mirror to say what is going on right now on his watch.

HOST: There's been concerns expressed in The Guardian that the actual beneficiary here was someone that Mr. Joyce's own partner has shares in. Labor has been talking about rorts and concerns and needs for an ICAC. Is that enlightened in this particular instance?

ROWLAND: I note those media reports. My concern here is from a purely policy perspective, and that is we should ensure that everyone has the quality of access to the best communication services and infrastructure and that is fibre. Both other questions are for Barnaby Joyce to answer. But again, I would just point out that this is a great inefficiency and I think it is an extreme disrespect to taxpayers' money to have such an expensive single fibre connection compared to everybody else.

HOST: What we're seeing during the pandemic is not only a tree change of people moving to the regions but people during the pandemic having to work from home. Has the telecommunications network NBN and the mobile systems become an essential service? Is that something that needs to be now looked at in that sort of light rather than just a commercial operation?

ROWLAND: I think it's fair to say these have always been essential services and we saw that even with the bushfires and other natural disasters. The point now, however, is that a lot of new habits that we have adopted, including working from home and including I think the shift towards the regions, not only because in some cases it's more affordable, but really distance doesn't matter anymore. This has just accelerated this whole notion of communications, and the best infrastructure being a game changer. Of course, all this depends on having the best quality access. That is why Labor has put forward a proposal to have up to 1.5 million of the estimated 1.8 million premises that we've got by 2025 having access to fibre, rather than fibre-to-the-node or a copper network. We believe everyone deserves the best quality infrastructure for their business, for their study, for every lifestyle activity, irrespective of where you live.

HOST: Now, just talking about technology and the impacts it's having - also looking at the media scene - there's this parliamentary inquiry now looking at the survival of regional newspapers. But what does that say about media diversity in regional Australia generally?

ROWLAND: I think this is a grave concern and we have seen the ongoing trend unfortunately, not only in newsrooms being shut down, but also in local papers and local voices being impacted as well. And you talk about that inquiry, let's be clear; this was on Christmas Eve, over the summer holiday period and during the Omicron outbreak, Minister Paul Fletcher referred an inquiry into Australia's regional newspapers that is yet to even hold one hearing.  I think that this is too little too late. I note that many news publishers have complained that his timing was really inconvenient. In early February even before the submissions closed, the Minister announced a $10 million journalist fund to support public interest journalism in the regions but you're not even going to have the eligibility criteria for that worked out until April. So, this is the Government just making it up as it goes along. We really need a plan. I would argue that we have had multiple inquiries that haven't been acted on yet. We've got the ACCC having done its epic Digital Platforms Inquiry. The news media bargaining code was a big story that came out of that. Let's remember that one of the ACCC's recommendations was for direct grant funding. But this Government under Scott Morrison, and Paul Fletcher as Minister, completely under-delivered and mismanaged taxpayer funds for media support.

HOST: During the cross media ownership debate and allowing larger organisations to own media groups, there was a move by an Independent Senator that achieved these regional grants for regional media outlets. But what we're seeing is that a lot of these have been swallowed up by metropolitan interests or even in stations or other broadcasting points. They end up getting swallowed by metropolitan counterparts. Is there a concern that this funding the Federal Government has put into regional media just hasn't really landed where it was intended? 

ROWLAND: That's a valid criticism, and it's based on the facts. In 2020, Minister Paul Fletcher announced this $50 million public interest newsgathering fund but a portion of this fund, around $13 million dollars of that was actually taken from a previous fund announced three years earlier – and they didn't even get it out the door. I think it is highly problematic that the Minister himself determines the eligibility criteria of these grants and they went to companies on the basis of revenue rather than geographic reach. That was really unfair for small broadcasters in regional and remote areas like Flow FM who received very little. I'll also point out, I talked about the ACCC's recommendation: They said $150 million over three years would be required in direct grants, but under Scott Morrison, they haven't delivered nearly that much and that's what the regulator said was needed.

HOST: Is there some policy in the Labor point of view regarding this going into the federal election, regarding regional media outlets and broadcasting?

ROWLAND: Certainly. We're looking really closely at this. I think one of the really inhibiting factors is that every time we have sought information to try and inform what sort of policy should be developed, this has really been stymied. I'll give you an example. Despite repeated requests, the Minister's Department still hasn't supplied a list of newspapers around Australia. It took the Department 18 months to supply Senators with a list of Local Government Areas without coverage by a single local newspaper - areas of great need. As recently as this month, the department was still unable to supply a simple list of newspapers. So we are very committed to implementing inquiry recommendations that have already been there, looking at that really closely and seeing what works including public interest journalism, including those sorts of philanthropic initiatives that have been suggested by multiple inquiries. All of these things have recommendations sitting there that this government has yet to look at.  We think that they deserve close examination to really deliver to people in regional Australia.

HOST: Michelle Rowland, we appreciate your time here with us on Flow today. Good to hear from your perspective on communications. Thanks again for joining us.