LYNDAL CURTIS: The Government’s still at least four votes shy of the number it needs to pass the bulk of its media reforms. Just one element – the licence fee cut for commercial TV stations – appears certain of victory, with the Coalition supporting it and it looks like the House of Representatives may be set for a late night tonight. The Independents, we’ve heard this afternoon, are discussing a compromise which could see them support the central plank of the Government’s media reforms, changes to the Government’s Public Interest Media Advocate. Well, joining me this evening are two perhaps glad they’re Senators right now – Labor’s Louise Pratt and Liberal Simon Birmingham. Welcome to you both.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We’ll start with the media reforms. While the debate about substance is going on now in the Parliament, in the Labor Party there’s a debate, too, about the process.
SIMON CREAN: You won’t get the right outcomes unless you go through proper process and I hope it’s another lesson to all of us about the right way to do things.
JULIE BISHOP: What confidence can the Australian people have in a government whose Cabinet Ministers are now failing to support, or openly criticising, each other?
JULIA GILLARD: Of course there are times when the process has a bit of stress on it. In this Parliament, on a number of occasions, we’ve dealt with bills late at night, we’ve dealt with bills under some pressure. The motivation here is no more or no less than a bit of craven political advantage. The one thing that they will never do, that they will never bother about, that they will never worry about is, of course, the public interest.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, is it the case that, when a Government proposes reforms of this type… that it would face the sort of reaction it’s faced from the media and have a battle to get them through Parliament and get them accepted by the media companies whose laws it’s seeking to change?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Lyndal, I think there’s always been debates when there have been reforms to media ownership laws and the laws that govern mergers and acquisitions and the like and we have quite sturdy laws that the ACCC [Australian Competition and Consumer Commission] enforces in that regard. These laws, however, go a step further. Not only do they impose a new level of regulation over media ownership and mergers and acquisitions, but they create a first ever for Australia which is the peacetime regulation of the print media, as well as online media sources. That really has come, in terms of the structure proposed, as a complete bolt from the blue. You’re right, 12 months ago the Government got the Convergence Reviewand the Finkelstein report. They’ve had 12 months to come up with this. Last Thursday, without showing the proposal to any of the media companies or the [Australian] Press Council, the Government suddenly released these proposals for a new regulator and said ‘and the Parliament needs to pass them by the end of next week’.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Is there anything wrong, per se, with looking at the question of applying a public interest test, looking at the public interest, when you’re talking about either media ownerships, mergers and acquisitions or looking at regulation for the media.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There’s something terribly wrong with it when it is a poorly and vaguely defined public interest test and when it is a duplication and addition to existing rigorous structures around media ownership. The ACCC not long ago told Seven West Media, Kerry Stokes, that, no, he could not go ahead with possibly buying more of FOXTEL, so they’ve shown teeth in this regard. They do consider matters of diversity, not just diversity of ownership but the impact on diversity of content and voices as well, so these things are already taken into account. Why on earth do we need a new regulator, especially such a poorly thought through one as this one?
LYNDAL CURTIS: Now, Louise, because it happened in the House you may not have heard but Tony Abbott effectively asked the Prime Minister if she would make these bills* effectively a test of confidence in the Government. Without going that far, and given that the discussion about the bills is still quite fluid as we’ve heard already this afternoon, does it say something about the Government if these bills fail or if the Government in fact has to pull bills from the Parliament because it doesn’t want a vote to go against it?
LOUISE PRATT: Well, it’s no surprise, we’re in minority government and we have to work with the crossbenches to get major reforms through. This is no different. We’ve had to do some very hard yards on some very controversial topics, whether it’s the Minerals Resource Rent Tax or climate change, all kinds of things and I would hope that we will be successful in making some gains to get some major reforms through. We already hear word that there is engagement coming from the Independents on some of those questions. You’ve already indicated that, indeed, the Coalition is supporting some parts of the reforms, so I would expect that we will make progress.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Most of the crossbenchers have all appealed for more time, though, Louise, so why not give them more time and say ‘we can leave these reforms to lay on the table until Parliament comes back for the budget sitting’? Why not deal with it then and have sensible negotiation with the crossbenchers, with the media companies, with the Press Council? You might never convince me that this reform is a good idea but you’ve got a chance of convincing them. In the end, the process question that Simon Crean highlighted is dead right. The Government’s dug this hole for themselves.
LOUISE PRATT: Either we’ll convince them this week in that timeline or we won’t, you know? I think that that will speak for itself.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Why the timeline? Why the urgency?
LYNDAL CURTIS: Is there a case, though, Simon, that the Government says that media reform has been discussed for quite a period of time? Is it not the case that those people who are interested in the subject know the kind of broad scope of what was being looked at?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Nobody was expecting a Public Interest Media Advocate, who would be a single person, who would be appointed exclusively by the Minister, who would have such vague terms of reference applied to it as have been outlined. I mean, these bills are done on the rush. They are…
LYNDAL CURTIS: Although, if that changes, if the Independents talk about… they’re talking about a panel either appointing the Advocate or being the Advocate. If that changed, would that change how you see the position?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think this is an unnecessary position, full stop, but, regardless of that, Julian Disney, the head of the Press Council, just outlined four areas of concern regarding this and the composition of the panel was just one of them, so there are a range of other factors that we’d need to get to it his standard. Regardless of the argument, though, I think this is just an unnecessary additional regulation.
LOUISE PRATT: But the Press Council needs reform. There is no doubt that they need some oversight. You know, we know that complaints take way too long to be resolved. Someone can have their reputation trashed on the front page of a paper only to find that it takes weeks and weeks, if not months, for that complaint to be resolved, for the apology to be buried somewhere in the back of the paper. The Press Council is supposed to be able to provide for media companies to have an exemption from the Privacy Act. These are really important issues.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, journalists can’t do their work without an exemption from the Privacy Act and the Government is threatening to take that away.
LOUISE PRATT: Agreed. We’re not debating taking away…
LOUISE PRATT: We’re happy for journalists to have an exemption from the Privacy Act only if we’re not leaving the media to completely regulate itself.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, if we could finish discussion on this issue, I just wanted to ask you…you’re on both of the committees that have been going this week. I understand the committee that was looking at the reach rule for commercial TV can’t come to an agreement to release an interim report. Will the other committee release a report this week?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I expect the Senate committee will provide a report tomorrow. That report will address the legislation that’s before the Parliament and clearly there are a lot of different views on that legislation. It may well, of course, be quite redundant if some of the legislation is defeated in the House of Representatives tonight but report we will. I do think it’s important, though, just to note that it’s not up to government to regulate the media. This is the core argument here. We think we should have a free media and a free press in this country.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We might move on now. There was another debate in the Labor Caucus today over the cuts to payments for some single parents. A handful of MPs expressed concern about them and Employment Minister Bill Shorten says he’s listening.
BILL SHORTEN: If you’re a sole parent trying to work, trying to raise your kids, there’s a job there for government to be as of as much assistance as possible. Now, I believe in many ways we do that. There’s clearly concern from people, so no one is ever so arrogant to say they’ll stop listening to sincerely held points of view when we’re talking about things as fundamental as ensuring that people get their best chance in life with a job, with education and raising their kids.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Louise, do you think this is something the Government is going to seriously consider in the lead up to the budget, either increasing the payments for single parents or looking at other ways of easing the burden on them?
LOUISE PRATT: I hope they do because I hear my Caucus colleagues and, indeed, my constituents talk about their day-to-day struggle with raising children on a single parent’s benefit but, you know, most of our… our policies are actually targeted at doing the one thing that will help people get their families out of poverty and that’s giving them a job and that’s where our policies are mostly targeted at.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, what the Labor Party did was, in fact, a continuation of a policy that John Howard started. He, at the time, grandfathered some single parents into the decision to move some from the parenting payment to Newstart. Do you think there has not been enough care taken with the burden that places on single parents, to move to a lower payment?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Lyndal, John Howard’s reforms are part of a comprehensive package – it was the Welfare to work program – and there were a lot of measures in place at the time that were designed to try to help people who were on welfare and, in particular, single parents to do, absolutely, as Louise says, the best thing they can do to lift themselves out of poverty and to provide the best example they can to their children, which is to get a job. Now, unfortunately, this Government seems to be trying to pick the pieces up after its changes. They changed payment arrangements that took effect at the start of this year and now we have Bill Shorten suggesting they need to make further changes or alterations.
LYNDAL CURTIS: The Government only extended what the Howard Government had started. It didn’t take away other support systems.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It took legislative change that was an initiative of this Government that passed the Parliament last year [Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Incentives to Work) Act 2012]. It was a budget measure, a budget savings measure, and that’s fine to take those steps but you need have the complementary measures in place at the same time to make sure you are doing all you can to help people from welfare onto work, to make sure they’ve got appropriate skills and support and, of course, to make sure we’ve got an economy that’s growing appropriately to be able to absorb them and that was something that we had in far better condition in 2007 than we have today.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And that’s where we’ll have to leave it. Louise Pratt and Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for your time.
LOUISE PRATT: Thank you.
*Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Convergence Review and Other Measures) Bill 2013, Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (News Media Diversity) Bill 2013, News Media (Self-regulation) Bill 2013, News Media (Self-regulation) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2013, Public Interest Media Advocate Bill 2013, Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2013.