MICHELLE ROWLAND MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS
ADDRESS TO COMMSDAY SUMMIT 2022
TUESDAY, 3 MAY 2022
*** CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY ***
[Acknowledgment of Country]
It is good to be back among so many friends here today.
And thank you to Grahame Lynch, and Commsday, for inviting me here again.
The mission of the modern Labor Party is to lift people up.
Expanding opportunity to enable people to live their best lives.
This is why I’d like to return to a touchstone quote that I drew on here at Commsday, around 5 years ago, from the former Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating, who said:
“I always hoped and believed that Australia could be a great country. Not a mediocre country. But a great country. But to be a great country you have to have a great idea about yourself – in our case, a new idea about ourselves.”
I respectfully put to this audience – after a decade in office, what great or new idea has this Government got for our country?
What new thinking have successive Liberal Ministers brought to this portfolio?
I, as I’m sure many of you, have been reflecting on what great idea Australia might forge for itself, and what role whole-of-economy inputs such as communications, energy and industry policy can play in making that a reality.
My starting point is that I want Australia to be a high wage, high productivity country, brimming with creativity, and underpinned by a healthy democracy.
While technology and industry evolve, the key principles remain the same.
The economic challenge is to lift productivity and expand opportunity in an inclusive way, and this will be more likely if we preserve and strengthen the health of our democracy.
These are serious challenges and Governments can play a meaningful role.
CONNECTIVITY AS A DRIVER OF PRODUCTIVITY
On the productivity front, I believe that mobility is going to be transformational, and also that the next wave of technological diffusion, powered by connectivity, will be a major driver of productivity growth — if not the major driver of productivity growth.
True machine to machine connectivity, and the coming wave of connected devices and sensors, hold enormous potential for this country.
In this context, it should be our objective to reduce the time and cost it takes to deploy mobile infrastructure, and this needs regulatory arrangements that are more fit for purpose.
If I am Minister, I will work with industry, across Parliament, and with jurisdictional stakeholders to pursue meaningful and sensible improvements to the carrier powers and immunities regime.
This is about ensuring Australians obtain access to improved mobile connectivity sooner and more cheaply, and that Australia remains well positioned to take advantage of technological developments and remain globally competitive.
I am also of the view that there is scope to improve the capital efficiency of the telecommunications sector.
In a practical sense, this means, where possible and achievable, improving the coordination of commonwealth and state co-investment in telecommunications infrastructure, and better defining the role of the private sector and NBNCo in delivering the most efficient outcomes for Australians.
If I am Minister, that is something I and Labor will pursue. The complexity of that task is not lost upon me, but any progress will be good progress, and healthy for this industry.
What Australians want is more reliable and faster connectivity.
And our NBN policy, announced in November last year, will support this by expanding full-fibre access to a further 1.5 million premises.
This means that by late 2025 nearly 7 in every 8 homes and businesses in the Fibre to the Node footprint — will have fibre access.
Up to 660,000 of these additional premises will be in regional Australia.
In conjunction with our support for NBNCo’s fixed-wireless upgrade, which was outlined in the Government RTIRC review response, this means that, under Labor, 80 per cent of the 3.7 million homes and businesses in regional and remote areas will have access to speeds of 100 megabits per second or more by late 2025. Currently this is only 33 per cent.
This will be a tremendous outcome if achieved.
We have also made clear that a Labor Government will keep the NBN in public ownership for the foreseeable future.
A public company with sprawling fibre assets is an enormous asset to Australia, and has the possibility to create options for infrastructure efficiencies and broader economic benefits we have not yet foreseen.
A key element of Labor’s connectivity plans will be the establishment of a $400 million fund to expand multi-carrier mobile coverage along roads, as well as for regional homes and businesses.
Investing to improve coverage along key road routes and transport corridors is not purely about quality of life and safety.
In the long run this will also create connectivity highways that support machine to machine connectivity.
To support our mobile coverage agenda, Labor will commit $20 million to commence in 2022 an independent national audit of mobile coverage.
A competitive tender process will be used to identify a partner company capable of placing mobile signal measurement devices on Australia Post’s transport assets.
Australia Post covers more road than any other logistics company in the country – and has a transport fleet of over 15,000 vehicles, which are on Australian roads across communities in every corner of the country, every day.
We believe this is a great example of leveraging a public asset, in the form of the Australia Post, for public good.
We will use this data from the national audit to better understand where coverage and capacity issues exist, to better guide Federal and State governments with their investment priorities, and to assist councils in better understanding where local connectivity gaps are.
I am also open to suggestions about how else this data could create value for the country, and if we have the privilege of forming government, Labor would welcome engagement on that subject.
Labor has also committed $30 million to helping expand on-farm connectivity, to enable more farmers to take advantage of productivity enhancing applications through connected machinery, sensor technologies, and data.
Farms which are more deeply embedded with technology isn’t just good news for farmers – it’s good news for the country.
So I hope by now the message is clear – regional Australians, and Australia as a whole, will have better and more reliable connectivity under a Labor Government.
CONNECTIVITY AS A DRIVER FOR NATIONAL IDENTITY AND SOCIAL COHESION
Connectivity drives more than productivity and economic benefits, of course, it drives immense social benefits too, including national identity, social cohesion and community wellbeing – which are building blocks of our stable democracy.
The health of our society and democracy, in turn, impact the health of our economy – these elements are inextricably linked.
To fail to understand this is to fail to understand communications and the principles at play when it comes to steering communications policy.
My concern is that the Liberal National government has a blind spot when it comes to the Communications portfolio and its role in our society and economy – indeed our digital economy and network society.
My sense is that they just don’t really “get it”, on any level.
At the network layer – they spent a sizeable chunk of time and money downgrading the NBN from a full-fibre model to a multi-technology debacle, only to backflip $50 billion later.
This multi-technology mix now costs $58 billion.
This is $29 billion more than what the Liberals said it would – double the original promise - yet delivers less than the original fibre plan.
At the transmission layer – for years they tried to boot Community TV off air, despite there being no alternative use for the spectrum and despite the fact that CTV adds to media diversity, local news and content, supports local businesses and community organisations and provides a much-needed training ground for the journalists, producers and the Logie-winning talent of the future
Finally, they came around to accepting that they’d got this call wrong and ended up supporting a Senate amendment that overrode the Minister’s own discretion by extending CTV broadcast licences for a few more years.
They just don’t get it.
At the apps and services layer – they abolished the Australian Interactive Games Fund in 2014, only to finally realise, just last year, that the Australian video games sector is a jobs and productivity powerhouse with industrial, training, education, entertainment and health benefits – that ought to be supported.
We recently witnessed the spectacle of the Regional Communications Minister railing on about the absence of multi-carrier coverage on black spot towers. Of course, we’ve heard similar from David Littleproud too, the Deputy Leader of the National Party, over this term of Parliament.
Amy Remekis summed up everyone’s thoughts quite succinctly when she said, and I quote:
“I know this is an election campaign and nothing is supposed to make sense and logic means nothing – but the Coalition has been in government for almost a decade. All these policy gaps it is talking about are its own.”
And at the content layer – they have failed to legislate an Australian content obligation for over-the-top streaming services to grow our creative economy – despite having had this matter under one review process or another since 2017.
All these decisions have impacted our economy and our society; have held us back and prevented us from realising our potential as a nation.
But it’s not just the short-sighted decision-making that eventually gets reversed, after they’re dragged kicking and screaming.
It’s the lack of a clear, principled and evidence-based framework for what they do embark upon, too.
For all the time, energy and resources spent on processes and announcements, many of these have gone nowhere because they don’t grapple with the fundamentals at issue, or consider the whole of the ecosystem being impacted.
Take modernisation of the media regulatory framework. This work has been overdue for many years now.
At the start of the 46th Parliament, the ACCC delivered the Final Report of the Digital Platform Inquiry, adding its voice to a chorus recommending the harmonisation of media regulation between traditional media outlets and those delivering services over the internet.
Yet, since then, there’s been no real attempt to grapple with this task.
Aside from a few attempts at watering down Australian content obligations, Minister Fletcher hasn’t delivered.
And I note that, of his attempts to water down Oz content rules, Labor managed to block a couple of them with amendments and did so – not just with the support of the crossbench – but with the support of the Minister’s own Government Senators.
People talk about potential minority government after this election as if it’s not already right in front of them with this loose coalition of Liberal and National members, who don’t agree on anything much at all, and who don’t forge real or lasting progress.
Thirty years after it was enacted, the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 is still with us.
The BSA continues to be subject to Ministerial Determination, first made back in the year 2000, which decrees that ‘internet services’ are not ‘broadcasting services’ – and thus are not regulated by the Act.
Only now, instead of being referred to as the “Alston Determination” – named after Minister Fletcher’s old boss, Senator Richard Alston – it is the “Fletcher Determination”.
This is because when the Alston Determination was due to expire in September 2019, this fundamental policy issue still had not been resolved.
Minister Fletcher had to buy himself some time to work out, in his own words: “whether livestreamed TV and radio services delivered over the internet should be regulated under the Broadcasting Services Act”.
But he only bought three more years, because, according to the related Explanatory Statement, this limited duration would give “a clear signal that the distinction between broadcasting and streaming services will be considered during future reform processes”.
Well, the Fletcher Determination is set to expire on 18 September 2022 – less than four months after the election – and the only clear signal Minister Fletcher has sent is that the policy inertia, regulatory asymmetry and aimless uncertainty is set to continue on his watch.
Nothing better exemplifies the Minister’s lack of guiding principle or clarity of purpose than his so-called “Media Reform Green Paper”, released November 2020 which, by its title, purports to be concerned with “Modernising television regulation in Australia”.
Many in this room will be familiar with the Green Paper because – as people across the sector were surprised to discover – it was actually more concerned with how to rationalise television broadcasting services to free up spectrum for future mobile broadband allocation, than it was with the future of television regulation, per se.
Indeed, while the Green Paper makes zero mention of the anti-siphoning scheme or list – important pieces of television regulation – it makes nine references to the term “digital dividend” and seventeen references to the words “auction”, “auctions” or “auctioned”.
More curiously, only a few months after the Green Paper had been released, the Minister was writing to the Attorney-General saying he was going to reform the anti-siphoning list.
Why? Well, he did so because he needed to give reasons in support of his application for a Certificate to defer the sunsetting of the anti-siphoning list, which was due to expire in April 2021.
According to the Explanatory Statement, the Minster advised the Attorney-General that:
“… it is expected that the anti-siphoning list, and the broader anti-siphoning scheme, will be reviewed before 1 April 2023.”
So it’s odd that the Minister didn’t even so much as flag a review of anti-siphoning in his broad-ranging Green Paper consultation process on television regulation, only months before.
And it’s odd that he didn’t then get the process underway, in any meaningful sense, in the months that followed, over the remainder of the 46th Parliament, given the sunsetting clock continues to tick down on the expiration of the anti-siphoning list.
What’s more, it’s curious that, when the Minister finally got around to responding to the consultation on his Green Paper, in February 2022, his media release on the “way forward” for media reform didn’t mention a review of anti-siphoning list at all, despite his advice to the Attorney-General that this is on the cards.
Buried on page 18 of his Media Policy Statement: Green Paper Response and Next Steps is one line only on anti-siphoning which states:
“The Government will separately consult relevant stakeholders on other potential areas of reform identified by industry, such as the anti-siphoning scheme”.
Why is this Minister so open with the Attorney-General about a review of the anti-siphoning list when he needs an extension on his homework, yet so coy with industry and the public when it comes to the task of reviewing the scheme?
To fail to grasp the significance of the review of the anti-siphoning list is to miss the point of the Communications Portfolio.
The anti-siphoning list aims to facilitate access to iconic sporting events, live and free for all Australians to enjoy rather than behind the paywalls of multinational streaming companies.
Broadcast television is a free, stable and ubiquitous platform around Australia.
It’s free for everyone to receive, it works, and everyone gets it – unlike the postcode lottery of NBN and mobile broadband.
The anti-siphoning list is about facilitating access by all Australians, regardless of means, to watching the sports they love and even inspiring them to participate in their local community sports groups.
It’s about the health of our nation, physically as a sporting nation, and in terms of social cohesion in uniting to celebrate the events of national significance that develop and reflect our shared character and identity.
It’s about cost-of-living pressures while wages have flatlined. People will rely on free TV and sports even more as the cost of inflation, rate rises, petrol, groceries, you name it, hits the hip pocket.
It’s also about the health of our domestic broadcast media industry, which delivers not just sports, but Australian content, local news and current affairs as well as emergency broadcasting – fundamental public interest goods essential to maintain in our democracy.
Australian broadcasting services are competing with big tech, global giants that are popular with Australian consumers but which don’t produce news and emergency broadcasting, for example.
The Morrison Government talks a big game about “taking on big tech” – but the fact is they’ve sat back and done nothing in the face of evidence from industry that smart TV manufacturers and software providers are eating their lunch with increasingly onerous prominence and advertising revenue share deals.
I raised this in a speech over a year ago. Free TV raised it formally 18 months ago in its submission to the ACCC on digital apps, yet the Minister only managed to acknowledge it as an issue to be examined, without any assurance that action would be taken.
Contrast Minister Fletcher’s vision for the future of TV in Australia – with what the UK Government has just announced.
With Minister Fletcher:
- his Green Paper proposed a reduction in broadcast television services and capacity, including in regional Australia where broadband connectivity is substandard
- he has kicked multiple processes into the long grass on everything from SVOD regulation for Australian screen content, anti-siphoning, regional broadcasting and commercial broadcasting tax arrangements and the underlying regulatory construct – everything is deferred or extended while none of the intellectual hard yards are done
- he barely acknowledges any upcoming review of anti-siphoning and has committed merely to “examining” prominence rather than making any committed or principled statement about it
- according to reports this week, he says there is “ample” time to review the anti-siphoning list but this lack of urgency is concerning and it’s difficult to believe this Government when they say “it’s not a race”
- let’s be clear, this is the Minister who
- set his own deadline for the Fletcher Determination, which will expire in September 2022 before the necessary work has been done
- had to defer the expiration of the anti-siphoning list, which now expires in under a year but still hasn’t kicked off the process for reviewing it
- took a whole 15 months to figure out that he needed a Working Group, through his Green Paper process; and
- finally convened the Future of Broadcasting Working Group which didn’t hold its first meeting until the last business day of the 46th Parliament.
Says it all, really.
Meanwhile the UK Tories have just last week announced a comprehensive package to secure what they call a “golden age of British TV” stating that the government will update decades-old broadcasting regulations to give the UK’s system a deal fit for the streaming age.
This announcement sets a clear direction for reform – not yet another process for kicking things into the long grass – inclusive of a comprehensive review of the UK equivalent of the anti-siphoning rules as well as a firm commitment on legislate on prominence, “to make sure UK content is always carried and easy to find for UK audiences on connected devices and major online platforms, including on smart TVs, set-top boxes and streaming sticks.”
Importantly, the UK Government acknowledges the rapid changes in technology, viewing habits and the emergence of global media giants and emphasises timeliness: saying it intends to legislate as soon as the parliamentary timetable allows.
A BETTER FUTURE
I asserted that Australia’s communications agenda should be about creating a more equal and prosperous society.
That is, a country that is more productive, more creative, extends greater opportunity, and whose democracy remains healthy.
If Labor have the privilege of forming Government, one of the key contributions I want to make to this portfolio is to give communications back its purpose.
This means engaging in serious policy discussion rather than sweeping things under the rug.
This means embracing creativity in how we think about our hard long-term policy challenges, such as the USO, and the sustainability of the media sector.
I’ve honestly felt that over the last four years in particular, this portfolio has lost its positioning, momentum, and purpose.
Minister Fletcher has said a lot, without actually saying much.
He’s published a mini book about the history of the internet, and given many speeches.
To be fair, he was responsive during COVID and took his responsibilities during natural disasters seriously.
I commended him publicly at the time and am happy to do so again, here this evening.
Yet beyond that, you would be hard pressed to identify a single insightful contribution which he has made in three years.
The occasional backflip announcement.
No thread or fidelity to a policy principle or an overarching objective.
As with all things associated with this Government, the agenda has been driven by politics, with the national interest as an afterthought.
So I do believe the choice at the next election is clear.
Australians can re-elect a Liberal Government that has taxed more, borrowed more, wasted more, and delivered less than prior Labor Governments.
In doing do, they would be re-electing a Prime Minister who has an excuse for everything, but a plan for nothing.
Or alternatively, Australians can elect an Albanese Labor Government with a plan for a better future.
A Labor Government that will be useful to the country, by offering fresh ideas and renewal - not revolution.
Take our energy policy for example.
What I say to people in this room is even if climate change and emissions reduction is not a priority for you, you should still back Labor’s energy policy.
Independent modelling by Australia’s most respected energy economists indicates it will make energy cheaper for households relative to what electricity will cost under a Morrison Government.
It will also lower costs for businesses.
And by providing markets with certainty, it will encourage private investment.
These are all good things for the business community across the economy, including the energy intensive communications sector.
Our policy to make childcare more affordable also has important benefits for organisations in this industry and their productivity.
It means that parents in your organisations will have greater ability to return to the workforce sooner after they have had children.
If that is a choice they and their families want to pursue, they will have those incentives under the policies outlined by an Albanese Labor Government.
For every $1 invested in our childcare policy, modelling has found it returns $2 to the economy.
It is not a social reform — it is an economic reform with an economic dividend.
A Labor Government will also be committed to revitalising and growing our advanced manufacturing sector.
One of the key lessons of the COVID-19 was the need to increase our resilience, and to be more self-reliant in key areas.
The combination of cheaper energy, with the revitalisation of TAFE, and investments in local manufacturing, means that under a Labor Government more things will be made here, in Australia.
In a world that seems increasingly uncertain, having more control over our supply chains and essential goods can only be a positive thing.
It can provide some buffer against the supply and inflation shocks which we are seeing today, and will again see down the track.
Mobility, connectivity, research, and innovation all have a role to play in making our advanced manufacturing as competitive and efficient as it can be.
A common question is will Labor’s policies address every pressing problem that is out there?
The answer to that is no.
We have to be realistic, and recognise there will always be challenges, because the economy, as life itself, is inherently complex.
But the threshold question is not whether a Labor Government can fix every problem.
The threshold question is whether a Labor Government will make things better for people relative to the path we’re on now.
I have put my arguments to you in good faith today, and the Australian people will make their judgements in under three weeks time.
What I can say to you is that Anthony Albanese and Labor are ready to govern, and we have a meaningful plan underpinned by our principles.
I am pleased I could join you tonight.
I want to extend my thanks to all of you for your courtesy and engagement.
I have been very fortunate to come to these events and be among good friends and people who are very passionate about the industry and policy.
In closing I wanted to acknowledge the service of Andy Penn as Telstra CEO, Teresa Corbin who recently departed ACCAN, and Joan Warner who recently departed as CRA CEO.
I congratulate Vicky Brady on being appointed as the next Telstra CEO, and welcome Andrew Williams as the new ACCAN CEO, and others who will be further acknowledged tonight.
I also want to thank CommsDay for being a forum where ideas can be debated about how to take this industry and the country forward.
This Parliamentary term has been unprecedented in terms of the bushfires, floods, and pandemic that have beset the nation.
And I finally want to acknowledge the industry for its professionalism, and in particular the serious approach you have taken during natural disasters. Everyone from regional broadcasters, in providing emergency broadcasting, to telecommunications providers in seeking to restore services for Australians and local communities, often in very challenging circumstances.