Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Breakfast with David Bevan and Ali Clarke
Topics: Media reforms; ensuring higher education is sustainable and promotes excellence; energy security

David Bevan: A big ABC Radio Adelaide welcome to Senator Simon Birmingham, Federal Education Minister. Good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David, and Ali, and listeners.

David Bevan: Senator Penny Wong from the ALP, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister. Good morning to you.

Penny Wong: Good morning all. Good to be with you.

David Bevan: And Greens Senator from South Australia, Sarah Hanson-Young. Good morning to you.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Good morning. Good morning guys.

David Bevan: Sarah Hanson-Young, let’s begin with you. Are you worried that Channel Ten in Adelaide could close if Parliament doesn’t get the media laws right?

Sarah Hanson-Young: Look I am; and one of the reasons I’m quite concerned about this is because yesterday in the court in New South Wales, the tender documents from Murdoch and Gordon, which was put in as a takeover bid for Channel Ten, outlined very clearly that if they won that bid, that they would be moving to close the offices in Adelaide. I think that’s a really big concern for the jobs in Adelaide. And the administrator themselves have said that this is a high risk to the operations of Channel Ten, and one of the reasons why, originally, the administrators ruled against that takeover bid from Murdoch of Channel Ten.

We know that at the moment we’re in the midst of a battle here in the Parliament about these media reforms. Murdoch and News Limited want these media reforms to go through so that they can buy Channel Ten, hopefully overthrow this winning bid with the CBS US station taking over. Look, it’s all very finely hinged at the moment, and one of the worst things we see is an attack on the ABC from One Nation – the Government signing up to that. And in little old Adelaide, we might even lose our Channel Ten offices. It would be a lose-lose for us right now.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, Federal Education Minister, but one of the lead Senators from South Australia for the Liberal Party, is that a possibility that you would consider?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m not sure that a possibility we would consider is the question there, David. We’re considering media reforms that will make it more viable for free to air broadcasters to continue to operate. And we …

David Bevan: [Talks over] No, when I say consider, is that something you would countenance? Would you allow that to be a consequence? I don’t know if Sarah Hanson-Young is right, wrong, or indifferent, but she’s saying this is a real threat. Would you allow that to happen?

Simon Birmingham: Well David, I don’t think that it’s for government to micromanage every media outlet or entity in the country. What we do want to do is make sure we’ve got a framework that sustains a strong media industry in Australia; one that sustains strong Australian media content, strong news coverage, all of the types of things that we want to ensure are there. And the media reforms we’ve brought forward are about improving the viability of existing broadcasters, responding to the changing landscape where, of course, they have found themselves competing for a declining advertising market, a declining audience share. And so, you can’t continue to levy the same rules, and conditions, and charges, and fees upon them as you have in the past. And it’s unfortunate that the Labor Party have said they support much of what we propose here, but stand in the way of having sensible negotiation.

David Bevan: But if Sarah Hanson-Young is right and Channel Ten in Adelaide was a casualty of that, is that just tough luck?

Simon Birmingham: Well I don’t know that Sarah’s right at all. But we want to make sure that there are clear requirements about domestic content, as there continue to be. So people must make local drama series, broadcast Australian-made content. Clear requirements about Australian news content and local news content in different markets, which would mean that guaranteeing you continue to have Adelaide news content for a market like Adelaide, is all part of the way in which our media landscape is regulated and that is something we would expect to continue and are ensuring will continue by actually trying to deliver reforms that make free-to-air broadcasters more viable into the future.

Ali Clarke: So then to Penny Wong, as ALP Senator, what’s your sticking points?

Penny Wong: Well I think there’s a problem-solution issue here. Simon’s right to identify that the media landscape has changed and that there’s competition in areas and in ways from platforms that weren’t envisaged. But the Government’s solution is to reduce media diversity, and that’s the problem. And in fact, none of what he just said should give Adelaide listeners any comfort that the Government actually is concerned about the prospect of Adelaide’s media market – which is already, if not one of the least diverse in the country – become even less diverse.

My concern is, and the Labor Party’s concern for some time, is that we don’t agree with repealing the 2-out-of-3 cross-media rule. We don’t think you should have print, radio, TV, owned by the same entities and running the same sort of positions. But I would say that …

David Bevan: [Talks over] That’s at the heart of these reforms, isn’t it? That’s the key thing.

Penny Wong: Correct, and that is the key. What Simon’s position is, is saying that we repeal the current laws which ensure that you don’t have the same entities owning print, radio and TV. Now there’s a second issue here though, which is the ABC. Now, we know One Nation, very clearly, wants to gut the ABC – and you don’t have to listen to me, just listen to them, they’ve been really clear about it. We know they want to gut …

Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] They said they wanted to whack hundreds of millions of dollars out of the ABC, remember?

Penny Wong: The Government is clearly- they’ve agreed to an inquiry; they’re clearly doing deals with One Nation on the ABC in order to get their votes for this media ownership change. And my question is to Nick Xenophon, what is the deal? Nick can’t sign up to this package knowing that the Government is doing a deal – even if it’s hidden in the shadows, being delivered by another mechanism – if he knows that deal is occurring as part of this package, he is morally responsible to ensure it doesn’t proceed. He says he’s a strong supporter of the ABC; certainly we’re strong supporters of the ABC. The ABC, particularly in South Australia, is such- as much as sometimes- this is tough coming on this show, it is a critical voice in our media market, and this Government must rule out doing any deal with One Nation that impinges the ABC, because we know what their price of their vote is.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, I know you’re a huge fan of the program too. So what do you say?

Penny Wong: It’s a love-hate relationship.

Simon Birmingham: Oh, I love it. Wednesday mornings are the best morning of the week, of course.

David Bevan: Then clearly we’re not doing our job properly. So if you could answer the question.

Simon Birmingham: Look, Penny firstly is being quite misleading when she talks about media diversity. And the whole problem here is that networks like Channel Ten and other free-to-air broadcasters and traditional media outlets, are competing for a declining market. They’ve got fewer eyeballs watching their programs, fewer people, and that is because people are accessing news, entertainment information from an increasing array of different sources. Diversity is absolutely what is driving the need for media reform to ensure the viability of local producers, local content,

Penny Wong: The question the Government never answers – how does repealing 2-out-of-3 improve diversity?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Penny, diversity has been enhanced greatly, not because of the 2-out-of-3 rule, but because, of course, people are driving to new technologies, new media platforms, and that is what is improving enhancing diversity – and that is an unstoppable march. That is going to continue regardless …

Penny Wong: [Talks over] So print, TV, Radio, all owned by the same entity is fine? That’s essentially what …

Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] And what we’ve learnt, is that that’s not even – the argument that media organisations need to merge in order to save jobs is actually the exact opposite. That’s why I brought up this issue in relation to Channel Ten, because it’s not saving journalist jobs. Actually, what they want to do is consolidate and sack people, and close off business.

Simon Birmingham: I mean it’s a completely antiquated rule, though, a completed antiquated rule though, David [indistinct] …

David Bevan: [Talks over] If we could move- I think we got the idea. But Simon Birmingham, if we could move on because you are the Federal Education Minister, there’s another issue here.

Penny Wong: [Talks over] Can we have an answer on the ABC deal?

Simon Birmingham: Well David, I do just want to make one point here, that there’s a completely antiquated rule to pretend nowadays that you can have a newspaper over here and a television station over there, and a radio platform over there …

Penny Wong: [Talks over] What’s the deal on the ABC?

Simon Birmingham: … when of course media platforms are converging; newspapers are producing video content.

David Bevan: Okay.

Sarah Hanson-Young: If government shouldn’t intervene, why did the Government give $30 million to Foxtel? You pick and choose which media you want to prop up.

Simon Birmingham: To support women’s sport, which I thought that you supported as well, Sarah.

Sarah Hanson-Young: I don’t think Foxtel [indistinct].

David Bevan: Okay now, alright we’re going to move onto another topic and that is universities. Your university reforms are going to go …

Penny Wong: [Talks over] Can I just …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] No, no we’re going to move on.

Penny Wong: But there’s no answer on the ABC deal.

David Bevan: Yeah, well this is the ABC and the ABC’s now deciding to move onto another topic, alright?

Penny Wong: Oh yeah, see you’re a despot, there goes diversity.

David Bevan: Okay. I thought you loved us Penny Wong?

Penny Wong: Well I’m defending you more than you are, mate. I just think he should tell us what the deal is on the ABC.

David Bevan: At 8:45, let’s move onto the topic of universities. Simon Birmingham, Federal Education Minister, I’ve got an email here from the Group of Eight unis, saying we have reached a new low when the Minister for Education is now accusing students of gaming the system and racking up debt? How do you respond to the Group of Eight?

Simon Birmingham: Well I think the idea that students are genuinely accruing $300,000 and $400,000 debts on student loans is pretty questionable; that those students in those instances are highly unlikely to have accrued those debts out of a genuine desire to genuinely complete degrees, to go on in the workforce and to repay those student loans that taxpayers have provided.

Ali Clarke: Well, then just on that …

Simon Birmingham: But the Group of Eight can continue, of course, to try to find every argument they want to defeat these policy reforms, but what they fail to acknowledge is that they’ve had enormous increases in revenue to those universities over the last seven-eight years. That they’ve gone up around 71 per cent, in terms of their revenue streams. And under our reforms, they’re still going to see average revenue growth of 23 per cent across all Australian universities.

Now, that’s something that many small businesses listening would think was a pretty good deal to be on. All we’re asking them to do is to accept a slightly slower rate of growth so that we can continue on our work to repair the budget deficit.

Ali Clarke: So where’s the checks and balances though, Simon Birmingham? I mean you’re saying that people racking up $300,000, $400,000 worth of debt is unlikely to be the case. I mean there’s a report in The Advertiser today that a South Australian needs to pay over $220,000 which is equivalent to a cost of eight four-year nursing or teaching degrees. So where are the checks and balances if you’re talking about money from that basis?

Simon Birmingham: Well, you do have to ask, what are universities doing enrolling students in multiple degrees in those circumstances? They have enormous autonomy under the demand-driven system. They choose to enrol students, they have clear view of the academic transcripts, records and history of different students, and yet of course they seem to be accepting this type of behaviour.

Ali Clarke: So does Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator of South Australia, but also spokesperson on education.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Look, I think this is just really one of those issues where the Government’s gone, you know, what do the Liberals need to do in order to try and show that they are tough on education? Oh, well, let’s whack students at university and cut university budgets. It is ideological from this government. And they can’t cry poor when they’re spending $65 billion in tax cuts to big business and yet they’re saying, oh, we have to have these budget cuts to universities. At the time when we have the highest youth unemployment rate in the country, this is going to be a significant disadvantage to young people in South Australia. We know our three universities are worried that they’re going to lose up to 220 jobs as a result of these changes. Ninety-million dollars less into our state is a huge whack, not to mention the impact on the rest of the country. And I think our South Australian crossbench senators – the Nick Xenophon Team, Senator Gichuhi – they need to think very hard about whether they want to back in these types of attacks on universities, cuts to our academic institutions which will have devastating flow-on effects for our state.

David Bevan: Now, before you leave – it’s 8.48. This is Super Wednesday. The last voice was Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator from South Australia. Penny Wong is also on the line, ALP Senator from SA, and Simon Birmingham, SA Senator and Federal Education Minister. Penny Wong, I think it’s agreed all round that Australia has failed to find a consistent energy policy for 10 years. Everybody agrees with that, it’s just been a mess. Would it have been better to keep a carbon tax?

Penny Wong: Well, Malcolm Turnbull crossed the floor as you might recall to vote for the legislation that he and I agreed in 2009 which was an ETS. But look, we’re a long way down the track …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Yeah, but looking back on it after all the flaws and the problems with the carbon tax, would that have been better than what we’ve ended up with?

Penny Wong: Look, we are where we are and I think the key issue that we’ve experienced over the last decade – and Tony Abbott really has been a critical player in ensuring this there has been chaos – is a lack of certainty. And we’ve got three-quarters of our base-load generation which is essentially beyond its design life. So it’s getting old, it’s not as reliable, but more importantly it’s not being replaced because the market is quite rightly saying there isn’t certainty so we’re not going to invest. Now, there’s a lot of discussion we can have about this but in the timeframe can I just say this. As someone who has negotiated over previous years with Mr Turnbull and Mr Hunt and others, the most important thing here is that [indistinct] …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] And Kevin Rudd. You negotiated with him and he let you down.

Penny Wong: Yeah well that’s just life isn’t it, it happens sometimes. But I think the key thing is to actually try and get a sensible solution. And it might have- I know that the Government thinks it can play politics with this but let’s remember Labor has said, we’re prepared to work with the Government on the implementation of the key recommendation of the report they commissioned from the Chief Scientist. We have said that. We’re prepared to work with them because we actually think the country needs some bipartisanship, some sensible discussion on this. [Indistinct] …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Simon Birmingham – there you go – there’s the olive branch. What’s the problem?

Simon Birmingham: Well it’s Labor’s definition that one out of 50 recommendations is the key recommendation. We’ve acted on 49 and we are working through the design options and the implications of some type of model of the clean energy target. We’re going to be very thorough in our analysis and assessment there about what is going to truly work in terms of ensuring that we have the type of investment landscape that Australia needs in our energy systems that isn’t based on the ideology of saying it cannot possibly be coal or other base-load fuels at any time, it is actually based on what sensibly works for the long term interest of Australian consumers.

Penny Wong: [Talks over] I love a lecture on ideology from people who bring coal into the Parliament as a stunt.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Oh totally.

Penny Wong: I mean seriously. Give us a lecture on ideology mate.

Sarah Hanson-Young: We have reached peak stupid when it’s gotten to a point the Government, a Liberal Government, is begging and bullying a coal company to get out of coal. And the Government are all over the place with energy policy and that’s the truth. You don’t know …

David Bevan: Well some people might say …

Sarah Hanson-Young: On the one hand they’re arguing that we can’t subsidise renewable energy…

David Bevan: No, Sarah Hanson-Young, some people might say peak stupidity is when you can’t pay your power bill and after years of reform …

Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] Well, absolutely. Let’s do something about that.

David Bevan: Well …

Sarah Hanson-Young: Let’s do something about that. Spending a billion dollars of taxpayer money propping up an old coal-fired power station ain’t going to do it.

David Bevan: Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for South Australia, thank you for your time. Penny Wong, ALP from South Australia, and Simon Birmingham, Education Minister and Liberal Senator from SA, thank you as well.