Senator BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (18:56): Earlier today, in question time, Senator Bob Carr in his capacity as the Minister for Foreign Affairs answered some questions relating to democracy in Fiji. His answers were welcome. They were strong and clear on the expectations that Australia has for democratic advancement in Fiji and on the lifting of sanctions in Fiji that would-hopefully-result from that.
Amongst the criteria that Senator Carr rightly set out were that we would expect any changes in Fiji towards the restoration of democracy to include robust freedom of expression, association and the media. I hope that, as Senator Carr spoke about the freedom of expression and of the media, his colleagues in the Labor Party were listening-especially the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy. We are soon to face media reforms from Senator Conroy, if speculation in the media is accurate. I hope that Senator Conroy is very mindful of maintaining the utmost level of freedom of expression and freedom of the media in whatever reforms he proposes.
I have concerns, however, that that may not be the case. My concerns are driven by the words of many Labor MPs, by the words of Senator Conroy himself and by the encouragement from some on the cross benches, including Senator Ludlam, who I note is here this evening. Recently we saw Mr John Murphy, of the other place, single out a news entity. His words were:
We cannot possibly allow News Corporation to own more print or electronic media and that is a top legislative priority to deal with what is becoming a cancer in our democracy.
They are strong words indeed. I would be extremely concerned were the minister for communications, the man who should be the chief defender of a free media within the government of the day, to believe that we have a cancer in our democracy because we have robust and critical media. I would be concerned if Senator Conroy were to believe that somehow restricting that capacity of the media to be robust and critical were, as Mr Murphy says, ‘a top legislative priority’. Of course, Senator Conroy is encouraged by others, such as Senator Cameron, who has made very clear his view about the need to further regulate how the media reports, how what it says is adjudged and assessed and how determinations of any complaints against it are made.
Once again, we need to be very careful that such processes do not step into a zone where they impinge on the capacity of the media to critically assess what is said, and in particular to critically assess what is said and done by those of us in this place of whatever political persuasion.
I know the minister is well inclined towards these things. Over a period of time his embrace of terms like ‘hate media’ have made clear his prejudicial attitudes towards some media outlets. Of course, they happen to be media outlets that have, from time to time, criticised policies of the government. In particular, Minister Conroy’s venom towards a media outlet seems to be turned up whenever they criticise policies in his particular portfolio area. Once upon a time, for example, the Financial Review seemed to be in a stable of newspapers that Senator Conroy thought was appropriate and did not seem to criticise terribly much. But then they ran some stories critical of the National Broadband Network and all of a sudden the Financial Review fell in with others that Senator Conroy likes to single out.
In recent days, Senator Conroy has been consulting with the Australian Greens in developing his media reforms. This I find particularly remarkable-not that the government would consult with the Greens, for we know that they have been bedfellows with the Greens throughout this term of parliament. Despite the theoretical tearing up of the marriage agreement, the reality is that they still work hand in glove with the Greens on so many policy issues. On media reform, I am sure we are seeing another demonstration of this. The fact that Senator Conroy is in discussions with Senator Ludlam and others in the Greens on media reforms before he even takes those reforms to his own cabinet is a demonstration of how close the working relationship remains. Given some of the approaches the Greens have taken in arguing for tighter controls on the media in terms of ownership, content regulation and complaint adjudication, this is again a cause for concern about the types of policies that this Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy may yet come up with when he produces his media reforms in the near future.
We know that Senator Conroy himself is inclined towards reforms-he has made it very clear in his responses to the Finkelstein report and the Convergence Review that were released nearly a year ago. He has made it very clear and stated on 3AW last year that a public interest test when it comes to media mergers, which is based on a Productivity Commission report from a number of years ago, is something that he supports-never mind that the only surviving author of that report, Stuart Simson, labelled the minister’s plans ‘a dog’s breakfast’.
I particularly note the interjection and endorsement of the minister’s comments from Senator Ludlam. What appears to be occurring now is that contrary to the recommendations of the Convergence Review, there is an endorsement of multiple tiers of regulation. Senator Ludlam and Senator Conroy seem hell-bent on moving towards introducing a public interest test with all the nebulous and vague criteria that will no doubt be applied in subjective judgements of the minister of the day or other parties as to how such a test would be applied; yet, against the recommendations of the Convergence Review, maintaining some type of cross-media ownership test may possibly be expanded to include pay television, free-to-air television, radio and print. Both tests may actually operate, contrary to the recommendations of the Convergence Review that found the existing test to be increasingly irrelevant, given the rise of other media sources, particularly online media sources.
That is the whole amazing point of where media reform has come to in this country. When Senator Conroy started out on the convergence review, it looked as though it was going to be about modernising our approach to media regulation, noting the great expanse in the number of media outlets and opportunities right across this country and the world because of the globalisation of media outlets. The barriers to getting messages heard are reducing because online news vehicles have the capacity to get coverage through a whole range of sources and there is increasing diversity of viewpoints coming through blogs and other opportunities. This is reflected in terms of the media in the declining revenue basis for traditional media. There is a decline in advertising take in traditional media because the audience is becoming more fragmented, getting its information from an increasing number of sources rather than the type of concentration that seems to be driving the responses of Senator Conroy.
It is a concern that rather than seeing this as an opportunity to reflect what is happening in the real world, to reflect and respond to those increasing number of voices and to actually decrease the level of regulation, we instead appear to have a minister who is going down a path driven by Mr Murphy, Senator Cameron, the Greens and Senator Ludlam towards greater regulation. This is exactly at a time when we should be trying to create and inspire greater innovation in our media sector instead.