25 August 2020


I grieve for Australians who are missing out as a result of failures in media and communications policy under this Liberal-National government. Next month marks seven years of inaction and confusion in the communications portfolio under this government—seven years of lacking in values, policy coherence and progress in the public interest. Australians today have less than they should as a result—from Malcolm Turnbull's overbudget broadband network, whose substandard technology is having to be upgraded before the rollout is even complete, to the Fifield triangle, where under Mitch Fifield all manner of reform tasks, submissions, reviews and inquiries simply went missing. There is now a backlog of outstanding policy work and remediation to be done. But, unfortunately, there is no sense this groundhog day is coming to an end any time soon. The portfolio is now suffering under the Fletcher paradox where the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts says one thing but does another. Indeed, this minister is a walking, talking oxymoron. We now have a minister for the arts who has banished arts from the title of his department; a minister for communications who wants to abolish an entire communications service—broadcast community television; a minister who fails to communicate, simply ignoring proposals and correspondence from the ABC; and a minister who instructs ACMA to develop a misinformation code for digital platforms, yet himself spreads harmful misinformation about the ABC—the trusted institution for which he is responsible. This year the minister suffered the humiliation of having his claims about ABC funding found to be misleading by RMIT ABC Fact Check. But instead of retracting he doubled down, prompting Fact Check to issue a statement asserting its assessment standards. How does this minister expect anyone to believe him on important matters such as the fact that 5G technology is safe, in the face of unfounded conspiracy theories to the contrary, if he can't be trusted on something as simple as the fact of ABC funding cuts? It is little wonder that stakeholders have become wistful, saying that they wish they still had Mitch Fifield in the role. When industry starts suggesting that Mitch Fifield should return, you know you're in trouble.

I turn now to media reform. There was some early hope, at the start of the 46th Parliament, that this minister would make up ground on media reform. After all, the ACCC had just landed the final report of the digital platforms inquiry—a report, with recommendations, that devotes an entire appendix to 'Recent reviews of media industry laws and regulations'. But, unfortunately, there has been no advance on this minister's undertaking to harmonise the media framework. There is still no sign of a genuine road map, methodology, principles or objectives, and, once again, industry submissions have fallen into a void. When this government first took office, they knew Australia's media laws were broken. The regulator had said so. Industry had told them. The government themselves decried the regulatory framework as 'analogue era', yet in seven years they have failed to provide a digital-era replacement, leaving the hulking analogue framework in place. In September 2017, Malcolm Turnbull and Mitch Fifield described the government's changes to media laws as 'A new era for Australia's media'. Less than three years later, the explanatory memorandum to a bill listed for parliament this week warns of market failure of regional broadcasting. This government's failure to address the systemic challenges facing the media has left the sector exposed to external shocks, and this minister still has no plan. Australians are missing out on public interest journalism and Australian content as a result.

On the issue of Australian content, this minister has been all over the shop. Three years after his predecessor started a review of the Australian and children's screen content rules, the minister finally managed to release an options paper for consultation. But during this review he did two things. First he claimed to have suspended the content obligations in response to COVID-19 when in fact he had not. Then he introduced a bill to amend the Australian content transmission quota for commercial television broadcasters when the provision was still under review as part of consultation on the options paper, which was still open on the department's website. Both his action and his inaction are compounding industry uncertainty and frustration and have potentially cost jobs in the screen sector.

Speaking of doing things under the cover of COVID-19, I turn to Australia Post. There is an important principle I want to state from the outset: this government should not be using the pandemic as some sneaky back door to cut postal services. Labor has sent this message to the government loud and clear. These changes, debated in recent times, were initiated as an opportunistic cost- and job-cutting exercise, which was the agenda of this government before COVID-19. The dishonest foundations of this announcement are evidenced by the shifting explanations for the changes. First they said Australia Post was going broke, but the Senate learnt that Australia Post was forecasting more revenues as a result of COVID. Then they claimed that addressed-letter volumes had collapsed by 50 per cent, but evidence to a Senate inquiry blew that claim to pieces. Addressed-letter volumes went from 139 million in February, the last month before lockdown, to 155 million in March. In April, addressed-letter volumes were on par with the pre-COVID baseline.

Having run out of luck with these arguments, the minister then tried to claim that posties were not busy enough and that these regulations were actually giving them work to do. What a disrespectful and ignorant thing to say—and just plain wrong! The fact is that frontline postal workers have never been busier. They have been working endlessly throughout the pandemic, and they deserve respect and not insults. The minister then claimed that posties were dedicated to delivering letters and that he was liberating them to deliver parcels—a blatant untruth. Australia Post actually gave evidence to the Senate in 2018 that postal workers delivered between 45 per cent to 50 per cent of total parcel volumes. No wonder people don't have confidence in this minister.

It's no secret that the minister has sought to frame himself as some sort of Titan of competition policy in the telco sector. Apparently he even wrote a book about this over a decade ago. So let's just step back for a moment. He's written a book and he's had 15 years to think about what he would do to improve competition in the sector—and what does he actually do when he becomes minister? He introduces a tax—but no ordinary tax; a broadband tax. It's not even an ordinary broadband tax; it is a tax specifically aimed at companies that compete with the NBN. In other words, if you have a go, this minister will give you a tax. Imagine spending all those years in opposition lecturing people about competition and encouraging the private sector to compete with the NBN, and then actually becoming the minister and legislating a tax aimed at discouraging that very thing from occurring. It says a lot.

The Prime Minister has made a lot of saying, 'If you have a go you get a go'. It is clear that this sentiment doesn't apply in the communications portfolio. And it's not just the minister's broadband tax on competition that makes a mockery of the statement. Community TV is having a go, but, instead of giving community TV a go, for no good reason, this government is saying, 'This is your last year on the air.' Community radio is having a go. Station staff and volunteers played a key role during the bushfire season and those times when we have been hit by this pandemic. Yet the minister provides little to no relief for the sector.

Small and independent news publishers are having a go, but the government failed to get funds from the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund out the door to them, and then directed the underspend to larger players under the PING. Small businesses in the screen sector are having a go. But, by suspending the content quotas, the minister has meddled in the screen production ecosystem, undermining the commissions our producers so desperately need. Our public broadcasters are having a go, and they face rising costs as against deep funding cuts. They want to do more in regional Australia and in the Pacific to keep Australians safe, but they aren't funded to do so. So no-one is getting a go.

At a time when money is tight for households, this minister and his government have all the wrong priorities. Australia needs a minister who gets the job done in responding to digital disruption. But, sadly, we have discovered that, under this minister, he is not all that.