SUBJECTS: AFP Raids; Press Freedoms; Regional Journalism; Religious Freedoms.
JEREMY FERNANDEZ: Michelle Rowland, thank you for joining us.
MICHELLE ROWLAND MP, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Pleasure.
FERNANDEZ: The ABC has today asked the Federal Court to set aside this warrant the AFP, the federal police, used to raid the ABC a few weeks ago. What are your thoughts?
ROWLAND: This comes off the back of very strident criticism by the Chair, Ita Buttrose, where she even said that this was to the effect of being unprecedented, that it was designed to intimidate, and the ABC, I think, also said they were going to reserve their rights, if not implicitly then certainly that was the tone of what was being said at the time. But I think it's clear that from what we know was in the application that it is being sought to be set aside on a number of grounds, including the validity of the warrant, but also that there is some implied freedom of political communication that could have been breached here. So it will be interesting to see how the court determines this. It's one on which not much comment can be made, because of course it's now before the courts. It will take some time to be heard. But in the interim, we've also seen that News Corp has lodged its own challenge. And again, they have been strident in their criticism of this process as well.
FERNANDEZ: Is that frustration in the media sector warranted?
ROWLAND: I think it is warranted in the sense that you've got, on one hand, raids on these two organisations for two specific issues. We've had issues also where information has been leaked, information that could certainly be considered to be equally confidential and of national security interest, and raids have not been conducted. So I think the selective nature of that is a factor that has not been lost on anyone.
FERNANDEZ: Are you concerned about the impact this will have on whistleblowers with information that would serve the national interest?
ROWLAND: Certainly, and Labor has long supported enhanced protections for whistleblowers. And as one of the whistleblowers involved has even intimated here, this has been an issue that this individual does not regret. But there has been analysis about how difficult it is to be a whistleblower these days, and probably the most effective form of disseminating information is through the post because so much of what we do now is traceable through digital footprints and so forth. So it's actually very difficult to be a whistleblower in those circumstances.
FERNANDEZ: Is Labor's credibility in critiquing what's going on somewhat damaged because ultimately Labor supported that legislation that enabled this raid to take place?
ROWLAND: To the contrary, over the past two terms Labor at all stages sought to address the very Iegitimate concerns of the sector in these different areas, in issues ranging from amendments to the Crimes Act, to the encryption legislation and so forth, and in each case we worked in a bipartisan manner with the Government and primarily through the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security to ensure that we gave effect to addressing those concerns and to make those laws better.
FERNANDEZ: But ultimately the laws passed with Labor's support?
ROWLAND: They certainly did and Labor made them better laws. I think we need to remember that in the case here of the News Corp raid in particular, these were done under laws that have been in place since the first World War. I recognised legitimate concern and I have consistently recognised in my comments to the Parliament and publicly that we should be very cautious of the chilling effect that these laws could have, which is why Labor has been very strident in calling for, where necessary, reviews of these laws, and ultimately why we took such a proactive role in the last two Parliaments to make these laws better.
FERNANDEZ: What about in this new Parliament? What is on your policy agenda to fix those laws, fix those frustrations to ensure particularly that whistleblowers and journalists who report on them are protected?
ROWLAND: Well, from Opposition this is not something that we are going to develop in a vacuum. Mark Dreyfus, who is our Shadow Attorney-General, is acutely aware of these matters and acutely aware of some of the other matters that the media has been concerned about for some time, including reform of defamation laws for example, to ensure that we have quality investigative journalism still being allowed to thrive in Australia.
FERNANDEZ: Before the election you took a policy to the election expressing some concern about media diversity around the country, and since then in the last week or so we've seen WIN newsrooms being closed in regional New South Wales and Queensland. What impact will that have on regional Australia and the diversity of voices in regional Australia?
ROWLAND: We've always recognised the importance of media diversity. It's an unfortunate circumstance we have here where, by and large, producing news has become more expensive for these organisations. But what ultimately makes them viable and successful, and why people value it so much, is because of its localism. Localism being more expensive, these production houses needing to rationalise their operations, and ultimately it means that localism suffers. So it is unfortunately a vicious cycle.
FERNANDEZ: Is the reach of the ABC part of the problem here for some of those private broadcasters, those commercial broadcasters, in trying to be commercially viable, particularly in places like regional Australia? That's certainly the criticism that comes from some sectors of the media.
ROWLAND: Well, it's equally a challenge for the ABC, and I recognise that the ABC in the past couple of years has included an increased emphasis on its role in rural and regional Australia. And certainly I know that has been very welcome in that regard. But ultimately it comes down to costs of production increasing, the cost of transmission in rural areas is also high, but also needs to be met. Despite all the other factors that are at play, you need to be able to pay for that transmission cost. So it's a challenge for any broadcaster in this area, and I include in that also newspapers, for example. Radio continues to thrive, but as radio will tell you also, just as WIN has cited, there is an uneven regulatory playing field there as well when it comes to localism in those areas as compared to other metro markets. So it does need an overhaul to recognise these competing factors.
FERNANDEZ: I want to bring you to the Israel Folau issue. GoFundMe has today decided to pull his fundraising page down and refund all those people who donated to him. You personally had a bit of an evolution on the same-sex marriage issue. You were initially opposed nearly a decade ago and over time you came to support the same sex marriage Bill. I wonder what your observations are of this episode of GoFundMe's decision to pull that fundraising page down and where his case, his appeal for money and for sympathy, as this case being a precedent. Where do you stand on that right now?
ROWLAND: Look, I actually take the view that this is a matter of the terms and conditions of this particular portal, this particular website in this organisation. It's quite clear that they decided that the purpose of the fundraising was not in accordance with their terms and conditions and therefore applied it in that sense, applied the rules in that sense. I think that, by and large, in the public from my observation what sympathy there was in this case has been somewhat tarnished by what's gone on here and look, I don't make any particular judgement on it. But it's quite apparent to me that there are people who did have sympathy for this issue prior, but I think this GoFundMe has actually worked against the interest in this case.
FERNANDEZ: Is it inflaming this whole question of religious freedoms and where does Labor ultimately come down on it?
ROWLAND: Well, we have made it very clear that we're ready to work with any sensible proposals in this area, and it took quite a while, as you'll be aware, for the Ruddock Review report to actually be released. I've seen reports that the Government says that it's going to introduce a Bill to this effect. We haven't seen that Bill. I know that there are some elements within the Government who were pushing to have some form of Folau's law inserted in this as well, and that's been resisted by other parts of the Government. So at the moment the Government doesn't seem to have a set position on what it's going to introduce, but we'll examine whatever Bill there is when it's presented to us and work constructively wherever possible.
FERNANDEZ: Michelle Rowland good to talk to you, thank you.