Labor does not oppose the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Foreign Media Ownership and Community Radio) Bill 2017, which contains measures negotiated over a year ago between the Turnbull government and Pauline Hanson's One Nation, but Labor condemns the Turnbull government for its lack of principles, its complete dysfunction and its utter disdain for evidence based policy and the public interest which brought about the measures in this bill.
This is the reality: the measures in this bill were negotiated by One Nation and this government in exchange for One Nation's support for the damaging repeal of the two-out-of-three cross-media control rule last year. That backroom deal included a grab bag of measures, including those contained in this bill, as well as the launch of a full-scale attack, both financial and ideological, on the ABC.
Unable to get its media ownership changes through on merit and refusing to accept that the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule was actually contrary to the public interest, this government turned to deals with Senators Pauline Hanson, David Leyonhjelm and Nick Xenophon to scrape together the votes in the Senate to junk a key media diversity safeguard. Standing for nothing but self-interest, the Turnbull government pandered to the top end of town, as is their wont, by repealing the two-out-of-three cross-media control rule and then stooped to agreeing to attack the public broadcaster to serve that end. It is a sorry state of affairs.
Labor opposed the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule on principle and evidence and condemned the Turnbull government for using the public broadcaster, the ABC, as a bargaining chip to get it done. Labor understands that high media ownership concentration is an enduring concern of the Australian public and that we need diversity in the control of our media to support the effective functioning of our democracy. Labor opposed the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule because it was not in the public interest to permit Australia's already highly concentrated media landscape to become yet more concentrated. The evidence shows that Australia's media is already amongst the most concentrated in the world and that traditional media—newspapers, commercial television and commercial radio—continue to be the main source of news and current affairs for Australians. Furthermore, the majority of the top 10 news websites accessed by Australians are either directly or jointly owned by traditional media platforms. In regional areas, media diversity was already at or below the minimum floor required by the rules, yet the Liberals, the Nationals and One Nation voted to make it worse. In regional and remote areas, the level of diversity was either at the minimum level or below it, with 42 per cent of licensed areas at and 28 per cent of licence areas below the minimum floor.
While the majority of voters disapproved of changing media ownership laws to allow a single company to control a newspaper, TV network and radio network in the same area, the Turnbull government went ahead and changed the laws. With the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule and the first media merger announced since its repeal now under consideration by the ACCC, Australia's media is primed to become even more concentrated. Sadly for regional Australians, indications are that the Nine Fairfax takeover is likely to be anything but positive for jobs and local news in rural and regional Australia. As reported in The New Daily on 26 July in an article entitled 'Nine hints it will shut down regional newspapers in Fairfax takeover':
Nine chief executive Hugh Marks has hinted the media giant will consider closing or selling Fairfax's regional newspapers when it assumes ownership of the business later this year.
… … …
In an investor presentation on Thursday, just hours after the dramatic announcement, Mr Marks was asked what the multibillion-dollar takeover deal would mean for Fairfax's regional papers.
Mr Marks said it would be "no surprise" that Nine would focus "on what we see as the high growth components of what this deal provides".
… … …
Fairfax's regional paper business has shrunk dramatically in recent years, and last year was by far the weakest performing arm.
Similarly, an ABC news article entitled 'Regional newspapers' place in merged Fairfax-Nine company questioned' stated on 26 July 2018:
Country Press South Australia president Ian Osterman, who is editor of the independent Mount Barker Courier, said the merger would remove regional newspapers from the "management epicentre".
"There's always been some criticism of Fairfax in the past that it was city-centric and Sydney-centric, and the regional newspapers in its stable were left out of the decision-making," he said.
"With Channel 9 having a 51 per cent share in this new company, it's going to further remove regional newspapers."
Fairfax has 160 regional publications and community-based websites, including the Newcastle Herald, The Border Mail in Albury-Wodonga, The Courier in Ballarat and the Illawarra Mercury in Wollongong.
Mr Osterman said regional newspapers were going to be a small fraction of the merged enterprise, and that "has some danger signs".
The Nine/Fairfax takeover is being scrutinised by the ACCC, but, as Labor has pointed out on many occasions, the ACCC is not required to apply a public-interest test to media mergers. As an economic regulator, it is not the job of the ACCC to look at issues of pluralism, informing a view on whether a merger will result in a substantial lessening of competition in a market.
The journalist union, the MEAA, has said that the takeover of Fairfax Media by Nine Network should undergo a far more detailed examination by the ACCC than that currently proposed. The MEAA has written to the heads of Nine Network and Fairfax, urging the companies to seek formal authorisation of the merger from the ACCC—a far more rigorous process than the current 12-week, informal merger review.
In this context, we have seen yet more evidence of consolidation in Australia's media market, with the recent announcement by WIN to close its Tasmanian news bulletin. The Tasmanian presenters of WIN have signed off for the final time, as fears grow that a move to present bulletins from New South Wales will lead to audience decline. Nine Network jobs have been slashed as part of a move to present Tasmanian news bulletins from WIN's Wollongong studios. The newsroom has been halved from 18 down to just four journalists, four camera operators and a news manager.
It's here that I'd like to turn to this government's attacks on the ABC. Sadly, for all Australians, the attacks on the ABC are well underway. The Turnbull government has launched the biggest attack on ABC independence in a generation with its deal with One Nation, but it is little wonder when you consider that the Minister for Communications has been a member of the IPA for quite some time. In response to questions on notice, it was revealed that the minister has not only been a member of the IPA for a decade but has also made private donations to the IPA. The IPA is an organisation which has advocated—and I'll name just a few of the special ones—privatising the ABC and SBS, immediately halting construction of the NBN, privatising the CSIRO, defunding Harmony Day and abolishing the ACCC and the ACMA. Since 2014, ABC funding has been cut by $366 million, and 800 staff have lost their jobs. This is despite the Liberals' pre-election promise of no cuts to the ABC or SBS. In this year alone, the Turnbull government has cut $83.7 million in ABC funding, launched two damaging public broadcasting inquiries and has three bills before the parliament to meddle with the ABC charter—all inspired by their deal with Pauline Hanson's One Nation.
The ABC belongs to the Australian people. It is not the minister's or Senator Pauline Hanson's to trade, yet, in August 2017, the minister used the ABC as a bargaining chip in their deal with One Nation to get the two-out-of-three repeal across the line. As I said, that deal includes no less than three bills to change the ABC Act and charter, as well as a damaging so-called competitive neutrality inquiry designed to undermine the ABC in the online environment. The Australian Financial Review has referred to this as:
… deal for the biggest assault on the ABC's independence in decades.
On top of that, the ABC is under attack with a pre-emptively announced cut of $83.7 million to the ABC ahead of this further efficiency review into public broadcasters, which is due to report later this year. I note that the ABC managing director has stated publicly:
The impact of the decision could not be absorbed by efficiency measures alone, as the ABC had already achieved significant productivity gains in response to past budget cuts.
She has also said:
The decision would make it very difficult for the ABC to meet its charter requirements and audience expectations.
Stable, adequate funding is essential if we are to continue to deliver for Australian audiences.
These cuts have been referred to as 'payback' by conservative commentators and 'vindictive' by others. Even Andrew Bolt has said that it's now 'open war' between the government and the ABC. The $83.7 million cut and the efficiency review in the 2018 budget come on top of successive budget cuts by the Turnbull government.
At a time when the ABC is undertaking its biggest restructure to adapt to the digital age, the Prime Minister has launched the biggest attack on the ABC that we've seen. In 2014, the Liberals cut the ABC budget and ran an efficiency review that pushed the ABC to close down short-wave radio, a move that hurt, and continues to hurt, regional and remote Australians. In 2016, they cut local news-gathering initiatives, and there is a question mark about this funding going forward. It begs the question: how many times do the Liberals and Nationals think they can cut ABC funding without it hurting rural and regional Australia? Now, with yet another efficiency review on foot, we wonder what will be cut next. The government that cut the ABC budget and shut down the Australia Network is now running a review into 'soft' power. This government is nothing but dysfunctional and short-sighted, and cannot be trusted with media policy.
Earlier this year, the Liberal's federal council voted overwhelmingly to privatise the ABC. And, in stark contrast, at its state conference on 3 July this year, New South Wales Labor voted unanimously in support of a motion that Labor would never do so. That's because we believe that the ABC is one of the most important institutions in our democracy.
The difference could not be clearer: Labor believes in public broadcasting and those opposite do not. That is why Labor will stand up for the ABC and fight against the conservatives' ideological war against our public broadcasters. Only Labor will reverse the Turnbull government's $83.7 million of cuts and guarantee funding certainty over the next ABC budget cycle. Not only is the bill before us today yet another example of the cosy relationship between the Turnbull government and Pauline Hanson's One Nation it does precious little to fill the void left by the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule.
Turning to the foreign media limits contained in the bill, this bill amends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 to establish a Register of Foreign Ownership of Media Assets to be administered by the ACMA. The Howard Liberal government abolished foreign media ownership limits in 2006 in recognition of the need for foreign investment to support media diversity in Australia. In 2007, Senator Helen Coonan published an article in the UNSW Law Journal, summarising the 2006 Howard government media reforms. On foreign ownership and control, it stated:
The removal of all media-specific foreign ownership and control limits is consistent with the BSA’s object to facilitate the development of an efficient, competitive and responsive broadcasting industry in Australia. The repeal of the restrictions will achieve this by improving access to capital, increasing the pool of potential media owners and acting as a safeguard on media concentration. Removing the foreign investment constraints will open up the capital market for television broadcasters and print media, improve access to technology and managerial expertise, and, particularly in print media, increase the possibility of greater diversity through new market entrants. Compliance costs will be reduced through simplification of regulation and through removing the need to monitor foreign interests for the purposes of compliance with the BSA.
The recent CBS acquisition of Network Ten demonstrated the power of the two-out-of-three rule in fostering competition and diversity—just prior to its abolition—as well as the utility of foreign ownership as a safeguard on media concentration by improving access to capital and increasing the pool of potential media owners.
This bill will provide some further information about foreign ownership of the media in Australia, which is already considered to be a sensitive business. Current law and regulation provides for a number of checks and balances on foreign ownership of the media in Australia. Under the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act and regulation, investments by foreign persons in excess of five per cent in an Australian media business must be notified to and approved by the Treasurer. However, the details of the proposed or actual investments, or the foreign persons involved, are generally not publicly disclosed. Under ASX requirements for disclosure of relevant interests in listed entities, about five per cent are made public, but they don't indicate whether the shareholder is a foreign person. Further, under the Broadcasting Services Act, the reporting regime requires disclosure when a person comes into a position to control or ceases to be in a position to control a regulated media asset. However, these disclosures don't specifically identify foreign persons and generally wouldn't require disclosure of interests less than 15 per cent. The bill introduces some additional disclosure requirements on top of existing requirements and sources of information under the foreign acquisitions and takeovers regulation, the ASX requirements and reporting administered by the ACMA.
I'd like to turn to the issue of community radio localism measures. The community broadcasting sector needs all the help it can get, given the Turnbull government has been so inconsistent with the sector on certainty of funding for community radio and access to spectrum for community television. Community radio services play an important role in informing local communities and providing community members with the opportunity to have their views heard. The bill adjusts the criteria against which licence applications and renewals are assessed. The amendment is designed to encourage community radio broadcasters to provide greater coverage of local issues and to provide greater opportunities for local participation in producing and hosting radio programs. Labor, along with the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia, the CBAA, supports the intent of the bill to strengthen localism in community radio broadcasting and understands the need for the proposed changes to strike a balance between providing clarity to the community broadcasting sector while avoiding overly prescriptive or burdensome requirements. Labor notes that CBAA is concerned with the wording of the bill as it currently stands, and we encourage the government to address CBAA's concerns to ensure clarity and certainty for the sector.
I would like to turn to local programming requirements for regional commercial television broadcasting licensees. Labor do not oppose the government's amendment to this bill as contained on sheet EK129. Last year, Labor supported the proposal to bolster local content following a trigger event but took no comfort in the fact that those provisions do little to promote diversity. We are mindful of the compromised position of Australians in regional areas in terms of access to a diversity of news and current affairs content in both the traditional and new media environments.
Schedule 3 of this bill outlines some amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act to address an anomaly in the treatment of television licensees in Western Australia, as set out in the amendments I just mentioned. These amendments will equalise the local content obligations on the regional Western Australian licensees—GWN7 and WIN. For historical reasons, GWN7 currently holds four licences which cover specific regional areas of Western Australia while WIN holds only one licence which covers all of Western Australia. This is important in the context of the trigger events for media ownership. A trigger event occurs where a change in control would result in a person controlling television licences that, together, service more than 75 per cent of the Australian population. The anomaly in Western Australia that these amendments are seeking to address, as described, is that, if a trigger event were to occur with the current licensing arrangements, the local content requirements for GWN7 would be triple that of WIN. Labor does not oppose the amendment to even the requirements in Western Australia between these two entities.
In conclusion, Labor will not oppose this bill. However, we note it is yet another example of the cosy relationship between the Turnbull government and Pauline Hanson's One Nation party which does precious little to fill the void left by the repeal of the two-out-of-three rule.