16 September 2019


 I rise to speak on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Measures) Bill 2019, which is actually the third incarnation of a bill that has been gathering dust in one form or another since 2015. This bill is basically a carbon copy of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Measures) Bill 2017, which the government introduced on 18 October 2017, almost two years ago, pursuant to a deal with One Nation to repeal the two-out-of-three cross-media control rule. In turn, the 2017 bill was a cut-down version of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Advocacy) Bill 2015, a private senator's bill introduced by Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie way back on 1 December 2015 right after the Liberal-National government slashed ABC funding in breach of an explicit election promise not to do so. So bereft of an agenda and so utterly lacking ideas of substance in the opening months of this 46th Parliament, this government reintroduces these pointless measures which have sat on the books undebated since 2015 and will achieve nothing for rural and regional Australia. Lest there be any doubt: if the measures in this bill had any merit then the government should have brought the earlier versions of this bill on for debate long ago, but they never did.

I note the Prime Minister has boasted that he likes to set little tests for Labor, as if the time and resources of the Australian parliament should be expended on his juvenile games. It may well be that this bill falls into that category—another of this government's little tests or another attempt at a divisive 'Whose side are you on?' wedge—because this bill is without merit. This bill will achieve nothing for rural and regional areas, because all it does is meddle with the ABC Act and ABC charter and impose financial and administrative burdens on the ABC. Meanwhile, this government continues to cut ABC funding. As natural disasters beset our country, including bushfires in New South Wales and Queensland, the ABC continues its emergency coverage, which, as we discovered, it receives no discrete funding to deliver. Cutting ABC funding and meddling with the ABC charter does nothing to help Australians living in rural and regional areas. It does nothing to address the decline in local reporting across Australia. It doesn't help the ABC. It's nothing but short-term political tactics, and it's about time this government started governing for all Australians.

This bill is all talk and no action. Even worse, it is a flimsy attempt to pay lip-service to the news and media needs of regional Australians. With this bill, the government shamelessly pretends it is doing something to help rural and regional Australia when it comes to the ABC, when in fact the opposite is true. The fact is that this Liberal-National government is hurting rural and regional Australians when it comes to the ABC. As I mentioned, this government has cut and is continuing to cut the ABC's funding, after promising no cuts to the ABC. We had the then Leader of the Opposition staring down a camera and saying, 'There will be no cuts to the ABC.' They've cut hundreds of millions of dollars from our great public broadcaster. The Liberal-National government's latest round of ABC funding cuts, totalling $83.7 million over three years, kicked in on 1 July this year. That same month, on 31 July, the government reintroduced this bill to carry on crying its crocodile tears that the ABC isn't doing enough for rural and regional Australia.

By cutting ABC funding, this Liberal-National government is taking from all Australians, including rural and regional Australians. All Australians miss out. Australians in rural and regional areas miss out. The ABC is our national broadcaster, with a wide transmission footprint and broad charter responsibilities. It hurts rural and regional Australians when the ABC is forced to produce less programming across factual, documentary and drama, which has been one of the impacts of this Liberal-National government's budget cuts since 2014. According to regional TAM audience ratings from Nielsen Television Audience Management, some of the most popular ABC programs in regional Australia are Shaun Micallef's Mad as Hell and Australian Story. In Tasmania, Utopiais also very popular. In Western Australia, it's Les Norton and Hard Quiz.

It hurts rural and regional Australians when the ABC is forced to shut down short-wave radio because the government has slashed its funding so deeply. The government's own efficiency review, commissioned to assist the ABC in identifying budget cuts, listed ABC short-wave radio as something that could go. Well, mission accomplished. ABC short-wave radio is gone. And how does this Liberal-National government respond to the concerns out of the Northern Territory about the loss of short wave? It turns around and cuts more money from the ABC. It hurts rural and regional Australians when they miss out on local news gathering because the ABC doesn't have adequate funding to cover the decline in local reporting that has occurred over the last decade. If this government were serious about wanting to help rural and regional Australia with enhanced service provision by the ABC in rural and regional areas, it would ensure the ABC had stable and adequate funding to do so.

Nothing encapsulates the moribund nature of this government, now in its third term, better than this weasel-word bill that attempts to fool regional Australians into thinking that the government is actually doing something positive for them. Every time this bill has been introduced, there have been claims that it will improve things for rural and regional Australians, yet each time there have been cuts. The cut-o-meter is now at $366 million and 800 job losses, and that's without counting the axing of the Australia Network.

Who knows if this bill is going to make it through both chambers? But I know this: those rural and regional Australians who love the ABC—and we know they are many—can ring and email and approach their local member and ask them: 'Specifically what would this bill achieve? What actual, practical impact will result for my community from this bill becoming law?' Perhaps they can ask: 'Precisely how many jobs will be created in rural and regional Australia as a result of this bill becoming law?' Perhaps they could ask: 'Exactly how many more hours of local news will be produced as a result of this bill becoming law? What new content will be created as a result of this bill becoming law? What quality of service improvements will there be for my local area?' I believe that it's the job of this parliament to be transparent in these things.

If this government is so confident in this bill and so confident in all the spin that has been put out each time—not once, not twice but three times—this bill has been introduced, they will be able to actually answer those questions. Rural and regional Australians who love their ABC should find out exactly what real, practical, specific benefits they will get, as constituents, if and when this bill passes. They should also, I would suggest, ask another thing. They should ask their local member exactly how funding cuts to the ABC hurt their local community. As I said, this bill is nothing but window-dressing to make the government look like it is doing something for rural and regional Australians, but I can tell you this: if those questions are asked they will not fool people living outside of our metropolitan areas; they won't fool any Australians, for that matter.

Labor opposes this bill for four key reasons. Firstly, it is unwarranted, it's duplication and it's burdensome; the bill will achieve nothing for rural and regional Australians. Secondly, it does nothing to address—and here is the key point: we have heard a lot about the ACCC digital platforms inquiry's report lately, but it does nothing to address the findings and recommendations of the ACCC digital platforms inquiry when it comes to supporting the ABC and its particular role in the current news environment in rural and regional areas. Thirdly, this bill is a cynical attempt by this government to deflect blame for the ABC budget cuts and their policy failures in regional media and communications. Fourthly, this bill furthers the agenda of the Liberal and National parties to privatise the ABC by stealth.

I will take each of these issues in turn. Firstly, the bill is unwarranted, it's duplicative and it's burdensome. It's unwarranted because, under the current act, the ABC has maintained a strong commitment to rural and regional Australia—even in the face of harsh budget cuts. Moreover, this bill has duplication and is burdensome because a number of its key measures actually duplicate existing powers or functions and waste limited ABC funding on that duplication of administration. It's notable that the ABC already apportions around one-third of its budget for the one-third of Australians who live in rural and regional areas. It's also notable that, since 2015, the ABC has created a regional division, and, in 2017, despite the budget cuts, the ABC increased its regional investment by $15 million per year, creating 80 new content jobs across the country with its Connecting Communities initiative. Even today, I note that the Nine papers are reporting that the ABC is planning an overhaul of its news coverage to attract outer suburban and regional audiences. There is clearly a self-awareness within the ABC that has been there for some time and is being articulated yet again by the ABC News head, Gaven Morris. I would note this—and I quote him, from an article published today:

Our budgets have been going down year-on-year, so we can't invest our way into more audiences. Instead we have to transform the fundamental offerings we've got to appeal to a broader cross-section of Australia …

That self-awareness demonstrates that our public broadcaster understands its obligations under the charter and is putting the limited amount of funds it has where its mouth is—unlike this government, which is not putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to supporting the ABC. This is a public broadcaster constantly seeking to improve itself, to understand its audiences and to deliver on its charter.

I also note that the bill amends the ABC charter to include words 'regional' identity and 'geographic' diversity, when the ABC already interprets the charter broadly to include such programs and produces, broadcasts and convenes a range of regional programs and initiatives. Labor opposes measures in the bill that amend the ABC charter to insert words around contributing to regional identity and reflecting geographic diversity. As I said, the current charter already creates obligations for the ABC to serve rural and regional Australians, which the ABC delivers effectively—serving all Australians. Australians living in rural and regional areas enjoy the wide range of programming the ABC provides, and so they should. The current phrases 'national identity' and 'cultural diversity' must be and are interpreted broadly, and the addition of the words 'regional' and 'geographic' are unnecessary and may even serve to narrow the existing interpretation of the ABC charter.

I note the ABC has a strong commitment and record of achievement with respect to rural and regional programming and initiatives, including the Country Hour, Landline, Back Roads and Heywire. I'll expand on just one of those innovative programs. The ABC has run the Heywire annual regional youth project in partnership with the Australian government since 1998. The annual Heywire cycle begins with a storytelling competition, encouraging young people living in regional or rural Australia to tell stories about their life outside of the major cities, in text, photo, video or audio format. Every ABC regional station selects a winning entry to represent their part of Australia. The young winners feature their work on ABC radio and online, and receive an all-expenses-paid trip to the Heywire summit in Canberra.

I have been to some of those events, and I can say that they are truly inspiring. In Canberra, these young rural and regional Australians undertake leadership workshops, meet with members of parliament, government departments and community leaders and work together to develop ideas aimed at improving the lives of young people in regional Australia. The ideas are presented at Parliament House in front of an esteemed panel, and one of them is adopted and then put into action, with grant support from the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal. This is an incredible example of the power of the ABC as a national platform and how it can be used to build capacity, which is then leveraged in a multitude of ways.

The creation of the ABC's regional division in 2015, as well as the ABC's March 2017 announcement of a content fund, which included a $15 million a year investment in regional jobs, was realised without the inclusion of the words 'regional' or 'geographic' in the charter, for the reasons I noted above. To the extent that there could be improvements in the coverage, amount or frequency of local news in rural and regional Australia, neither the problem nor the solution is related to the ABC Act or the charter. It is related to this government's funding cuts and to broader trends at play in the media sector at large.

I want to turn to the establishment of an ABC regional advisory council, which, according to the bill, would come at a cost of $0.1 million per annum. The ABC Act already establishes an advisory council, which already has a number of regional members on it. The bill would establish the regional advisory council to, apparently, ensure that the ABC board takes into account the unique views and needs of regional areas in making any significant changes to its broadcasting services that impact regional audiences. Why? The ABC board, as I said, already has an advisory council that provides advice to the board on all matters, including rural and regional matters. The current advisory council includes a number of members residing outside of capital cities. I note too that the ABC conducts an annual Newspoll of ABC audiences. So the duplication to establish a regional advisory council, particularly as the ABC's resources are already stretched in service provision, is not warranted. As I noted, the establishment and ongoing cost for the regional advisory council would result in an outlay for the ABC of $0.1 million per annum, ongoing, to be absorbed by the ABC at a time when the ABC is searching for ways to meet the government's latest cut of $83.7 million.

I turn to the requirement for the board to consult with the regional advisory council. As I said, the ABC board is already required to consult with the existing advisory council, so, frankly, it begs the question: what does this say to the members of the current advisory council that a second regional advisory council has been proposed? Is this government so lacking in confidence in the way this is currently running? If so, why haven't they done something about it in the past? Why haven't they pursued this bill and its three incarnations in the past? I note too that this bill provides for at least two ABC board members to have a substantial connection to or experience in a regional area through business, industry or community involvement. Labor opposes this measure because section 24X of the ABC Act already provides for the minister to establish additional selection criteria for board appointments. The current ABC board already has a number of non-executive directors with regional connections and experience to do precisely that: ensure the perspectives, views and needs of regional areas are appropriately considered by the ABC board.

The ABC is a corporation operating in a complex and rapidly changing media environment, and stewardship of that business requires board members with business and media skills, to name a few. It would be concerning if a substantial regional connection quota were to hinder the government in selecting people best qualified to steer the corporation through this challenging media landscape, and, whilst regional connections are a desirable attribute, that alone does not qualify a person to provide advice to the national broadcaster, nor do they guarantee the appointment of a person who will actually advocate for regional Australia.

Finally, the bill amends the ABC Act to increase annual reporting requirements when the ABC already includes regional staff profiles and extensive lists of service transmissions and frequencies by location. The bill will require the board to report annually on a range of additional matters, including the total number of individuals employed by the ABC in regional and metro areas, the ratio of individuals employed as journalists to those employed as support staff, and the total number of hours of local news or regional news bulletins broadcast during the reporting period. As I said, Labor notes that the ABC annual report already includes a staff profile detailing regional corporate management, finance and operations, employee figures, extensive lists of service transmissions and the frequencies by location. We note that the ABC's efforts in increasing the ratio of content roles over operational roles and otherwise encourage the ABC to provide greater transparency where feasible through its existing processes and reporting requirements.

The other reason Labor opposes the bill is that it will achieve nothing for rural and regional Australians and nothing to address the findings and recommendations of the ACCC digital platforms inquiry. The bill will achieve nothing in this respect because what the ABC needs is ongoing funding and support, not legislative change that introduces more bureaucracy. Coalition budget cuts are putting pressure on the ABC to find efficiencies in ways that undermine important service provision. The ABC's decision to see shortwave radio transmission in the Northern Territory is instructive in this regard. The ABC is one of Australia's most important and trusted institutions. It plays a vital role in the diversity of news in our media landscape. It provides an opportunity for Australian content to be shown and heard in local news, public announcements and emergency messages to regional and remote communities. If the government really cared about the ABC and its regional and remote viewers, listeners and other consumers, it wouldn't just point the finger; it would fund it properly.

I detailed the government's record of cuts and the impact of these cuts in rural and regional Australia in my remarks, and this bill, as I said, does nothing to address the final report of the ACCC's digital platform inquiry. The ACCC has just completed its 18-month study on the impact of these platforms on the production of public interest journalism in Australia. It recommends 'that stable and adequate funding be provided to the ABC'. Furthermore, the report says:

... the public broadcasters are not currently resourced to fully compensate for the decline in local reporting previously produced by traditional commercial publishers.

I note that, amongst other things, the ACCC report observes that, in order for the public broadcasters to continue to provide public interest journalism, they must maintain both independence from the government and adequate access to government resources. The government had the benefit of the ACCC digital platforms inquiry for some time before it decided to re-introduce this bill. Now, with the benefit of this work and despite this recommendation, the government is proceeding with its cuts to the ABC and is going ahead with the window-dressing contained in this bill.

Another of the key reasons Labor opposes this bill is that it is an attempt to deflect blame for this government's failures, its cuts to regional Australia and, in particular, regional media failures. These include, as I said, the ABC cuts, the cessation of ABC short-wave radio, a regional media fund that is undersubscribed and the closure and consolidation of media newsrooms. This government is crying crocodile tears over the delivery of services to rural and regional Australia and it beggars belief that this government slashes ABC funding only to turn around and complain that the national broadcaster isn't doing enough for regional Australia. If this isn't blame deflection of the highest order I don't know what is.

Just as staggering is how they ride in and say the ABC Act needs to be changed, as if the ABC Charter, the ABC board or the ABC management are somehow to blame for the general decline in rural and regional media coverage in Australia. Meddling with the ABC Act will not achieve anything worthwhile in this respect. It serves only to distract from the real communications problems facing rural and regional Australia in terms of our public broadcaster.

Data collected by the ACCC shows that between 2008 and 2018 a total of 106 local and regional newspaper titles closed across Australia. That represents a net 15 per cent decrease in the number of these publications. The closures have left 21 local government areas previously covered by these titles without coverage from a single local newspaper, including 16 local government areas in regional Australia. We've had the trend of closure and consolidation of regional newsrooms by commercial broadcasters. Since the election there have been further closures of commercial broadcast regional newsrooms in Orange, Dubbo, Albury, Wagga Wagga and Wide Bay. Of course, on the media diversity side this government's media policy has been failing regional Australia for years.

The final reason Labor opposes this bill is that it furthers the agenda of the Liberal Party to privatise the ABC by stealth, and the good people of rural and regional Australia will not fall for this. Australians have every reason to regard this bill with great suspicion. The Liberals have proven they can't be trusted with the ABC. In 2018 the Liberal Federal Council voted to privatise the ABC. Any move by the Liberal government to alter the ABC Charter must be treated with extreme caution.

It is time for this government, into their third term now, to get real in rural and regional media and get a plan that addresses the underprovision of public interest journalism and underserved areas in rural and regional Australia. There needs to be a plan for regional media in the digital future. This bill is not a plan. It is a pathetic attempt to hide and deflect responsibility for this third-term government's failures when it comes to media and our public broadcaster.

In conclusion, this government should put its money where its mouth is. Stop cutting the ABC, listen to the ACCC and provide stable and adequate funding to the ABC for local news in rural and regional Australia.

I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1)notes that:

(a)in the final report of its digital platforms inquiry, in recognition of the ABC's role in addressing the risk of the under-provision of public interest journalism, the ACCC recommends that stable and adequate funding be provided to the ABC; and

(b)in addition to $254 million of efficiency cuts to the ABC over the past five years, the 2019–20 Budget locks in a further $83.7 million funding reduction through a pause in indexation over the next three years; and

(2)calls on the Government to put its money where its mouth is for rural and regional Australia by ensuring stable and adequate funding for the ABC, to enable the ABC to enhance service provision, including local newsgathering and emergency broadcasting, in rural and regional areas".

In closing, I would like to pay tribute to Mick Millett, who was the ABC's director of communications over this past decade until his untimely death recently from cancer. On behalf of Labor, I extend our heartfelt condolences to Mick's family and friends; his wife, Debra; his children, Dylan and Shayne; as well as his colleagues at the ABC and in the broader media sector, where he was respected by all players in the sector. He was a man who commanded great respect. Mick had a distinguished career in journalism, including as a foreign correspondent, a member of the press gallery and a senior editor for Fairfax.

Over the last decade at the ABC, he was a tireless advocate for the public broadcaster during some of its most challenging times. He was someone who was across the breadth of the ABC. He loved the public broadcaster and what it stood for. He understood that our democracy is made stronger not by a state broadcaster but by a public broadcaster. He was often on the receiving end of much criticism but he took that because he understood that it was the role of an independent public broadcaster to perform its function without fear or favour. Ever the journalist, in his final few months he took up the fight for media freedom in Australia with vigour. He was a true gentleman, a straight talker, ever incisive and insightful. He will be sorely missed and, indeed, with debate on this bill today he is already missed. Vale, Mick Millett.