JIM CHALMERS MP
MEMBER FOR RANKIN
MICHELLE ROWLAND MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS
MEMBER FOR GREENWAY
PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
THURSDAY, 18 FEBRUARY 2021
SUBJECTS: Facebook’s response to the News and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code Bill; NBNCo executive bonuses; Brittany Higgins.
JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW TREASURER: Michelle and I are here to talk about the actions taken by Facebook in response to the Government’s media code legislation. This is a mess of the Government’s own making. It’s up to the Government to tell us what has gone on here, what they are doing to fix it, and what it means for real people who are trying to access news. This will have consequences for people who are trying to access health news during a pandemic. It will have consequences for all people who rely on Facebook to get credible news from credible sources. We don’t want to see people denied access to the news they need, particularly when it comes to health news during a pandemic.
This exposes the big gap between announcement and delivery in the Morrison Government. Not twenty-four hours ago, the Treasurer stood near here and said that this was a ‘historic moment’ and he declared victory over the tech platforms. Now we know that this is just as much of a mess, if not more so, today than it was yesterday. The Treasurer said it was a ‘historic moment’ – in many ways, he was right. But he shouldn’t declare premature victory here, when there’s still lots of questions to be answered, still lots of mess to be cleaned up, in the interest of people who want to access quality news via Facebook.
Before I go to Michelle, I want to say a few things about the jobs figures which are out later today. The Australian economy is emerging from the deepest, most damaging recession in almost one hundred years. When there are encouraging signs, we welcome them in the economy. But the Government needs to acknowledge that, no matter what the jobs figures say today, people are still struggling in our economy. There are still people, small businesses and industries which have not recovered from the deepest recession in almost a century. We still have almost two million Australians either unemployed or underemployed. We have 1.3 million Australians on the JobKeeper payment. 100,000 Australians are expected to lose their job when JobKeeper ends, according to the Commonwealth Treasury. We don’t know what the figures will say at 11:30am, but we do know that Australians are struggling. Millions of Australians can’t get the work they need to provide for their loved ones, millions more can’t get access to the kinds of wages they need to get ahead when they work hard. We don’t know what the numbers will say, but this is clear: the Government’s plan to cut wages, attack job security, cut super and their budget riddled with rorts will not provide the jobs and opportunities that Australians need.
MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Make no mistake, the impact of the decision by Facebook today, which has been effective immediately, is profound. It is profound for Australian consumers, businesses and also news outlets. It is incumbent on the Government to explain clearly, precisely and urgently what is going on and what the impact will be. Not only that, what it intends to do about it. Labor has been consistent that the objective of this exercise, initiated by the ACCC, in bringing in a workable media code to ensure we have a thriving public interest journalism sector in Australia and a sustainable media industry needs to be upheld. We need a workable code.
This Government only circulated amendments two nights ago – the night before the Code was brought into the Parliament. We only knew about the impact of them at such a late stage. Yet, the way the Government was explaining it, you would have thought this was a set of amendments that was going to deliver a workable code. Clearly, in the mind of Facebook, that is not the case. I have been in touch with Facebook’s Australian representatives today and it is clear that their decision is based on the uncertainty they perceive with that code. In that event, this is not a workable code that has been landed by this Government.
Now who will miss out as a result of this? We will have media organisations missing out on potential revenue from deals flowing from Facebook to those news outlets and ensuring public interest journalism is properly recompensed. We will have consumers missing out on quality news journalism. The fact is that some 40 per cent of Australians now get their online news from search and social media. Those people will be missing out. So, it is incumbent on this Government to explain where it goes from here. The reality is that they have been talking the biggest game in the world over the last few days. They have been name dropping everyone they have been talking to and discussing this with, in terms of these deals. And yet, today, we see the end result of these negotiations. They have inserted themselves in this. It is up to them now to find a pathway forward and to give confidence to the Australian people that we will have the best quality ICT, the best platforms, the best ability to access news, because Australian consumers and Australian news journalism deserves nothing less.
The other thing I want to point out is the outrageous $77 million in bonuses that were paid out over the past few months to NBNCo staff. This is at a time when Australia is in recession, when people are doing it tough. And yet, we have a network which is four years behind schedule, almost $30 billion over budget, and some 238,000 Australians still can’t access the minimum broadband speeds mandated by law. Now the Prime Minister said he was shocked and appalled by the gifts of Cartier watches as bonuses in the case of Australia Post only a couple of months ago. Is he still shocked and appalled that $77 million has been paid out in bonuses to these executives, management and staff? It is clear that this Communications Portfolio is a complete and utter mess under Minister Fletcher. Nothing is going right, not with Australia Post, not with the NBN, and certainly not when it comes to Australia’s digital media platforms and the ability of this Government to finally land a workable code.
JOURNALIST: Labor resolved to back the code on Tuesday at Caucus. Is the Opposition now not going to back it?
ROWLAND: We’ve always supported a workable code. That went through the House of Representatives last night and it is yet to go through the Senate. I would point out two things: the first is that we have utilised the Senate scrutiny of bills process to raise significant concerns on the potential for this very situation to occur. We asked – expressly asked – Treasury officials what contingency, what cost-benefit analysis and what risk assessment has been done in the event that one or both of the major platforms chose to leave Australia. It was clear that zero work had been done. That is an indictment on Josh Frydenberg and Paul Fletcher. Secondly, even up until 7:30pm last night, I was questioning Minister Paul Fletcher in the Chamber, asking him about this very question about what services and products would be designated. It is that uncertainty about what will actually be designated, when the law comes into effect and enlivens the code, that is precisely the concern of Facebook.
JOURNALIST: Don’t you think it’s irresponsible for Facebook to do this during a pandemic?
ROWLAND: Therein lies the entire problem identified by Rob Sims. The ACCC –which pointed out the market power of these platforms and their ability to conduct themselves in a way that is actually anti-competitive. Secondary to that is the quality, exactly as you say. This is going to have adverse implications for Australian businesses, consumers and media. Of course, Facebook is a commercial entity that is always looking after the profit motive, there’s no denying that. But let’s also be clear, and it’s not just me saying it: f Facebook does choose to stop putting news on its platform, what will we be left with? It’s been described as everything from a cesspool of misinformation and disinformation, to be something that is so diminished that no one will want to use the platform. In that sense, it is most disappointing that this has happened.
JOURNALIST: Shouldn’t the Government get more leverage over Facebook to make them bow down to the rule of law?
ROWLAND: I’m not in the room. I’m not name dropping who I’m having conversations with overseas. This is for the Government which has inserted itself directly into these global commercial negotiations to resolve. I hope that that is done swiftly so that we can get a situation where Australian consumers, businesses and media outlets actually have a workable code which delivers for everyone as intended.
JOURNALIST: [inaudible] could affect uptake of the vaccine?
ROWLAND: I certainly am. I was worried about it yesterday, even before this happened. I would note that the publication of a disinformation code is something that many of the platforms have been working on, that hasn’t been released yet, but one would have hoped that that would have gone some way to alleviating that. But as you say, it’s already a platform where these things circulate, you need only look as far as Craig Kelly.
JOURNALIST: Facebook has been clear that this was a path they were prepared to go down if the code became law. You voted for it. To the extent that this is a mess, you’ve aided and abetted the Government in this mess?
ROWLAND: We have always supported a workable code, and the evidence demonstrated today that that has not yet been delivered. Even though this is yet to go the Senate, Facebook has made that decision based on any number of reasons, those reasons being the uncertainty around designation and what will actually be regulated. Labor has pointed out all of these concerns, we made it very clear we would support passage through the House and we would reserve our position on amendments when it gets to the Senate. When it gets to the Senate, we wait to see what sort of amendments the Government will be proposing and it is hoped that in that intervening time, we will have a situation where the Government has re-engaged in talks with Facebook and we have a workable code which was always the intention of the Digital Platforms Inquiry recommendation.
JOURNALIST: Don’t you think this is just bullying by Facebook to get more concessions by the Government and reduce their financial liability?
ROWLAND: No-one is saying the Government should give in; the Government should do its job. Part of its job is to ensure that we have public interest journalism in Australia, that we have an ecosystem where consumers benefit from the best ICT, the best platforms and the best digital economy in the world. That is the Government’s job. No one is asking them to respond to threats or back down; just do your job.
JOURNALIST: The Government have been talking tough on this. Who backs down though? Does Facebook back down? Does the Government backdown? Are we at a stalemate?
ROWLAND: Yet again, I’m not in the room, so being a commentator about who is backing down is not within my purview. But I will say one thing: the whole intention of a workable code was to ensure that public interest news journalism in Australia could not only continue, but we could somehow thrive and manage to overcome all of the contractions we have seen in Australia’s media sector. This sort of disruption has been happening for decades, and that is why Rod Sims in his monumental project identifying the market power of the platforms made it one of his key recommendations: that we have a mandated code in place to ensure proper recompense for journalism. In terms of who backs down or not, that is a matter for the Government to solve with the platforms. Labor stands ready to continue to support a workable code, if and when we do see that arise.
JOURNALIST: So, will Labor definitely vote for this in the Senate, or you still haven’t made up your mind?
ROWLAND: We haven’t seen if any amendments are coming. This is all subject to what happens in terms of crafting a workable code. It goes to your question of what should the Government do from here? Yes, every entity from around the world that chooses to do business in Australia must comply with Australian laws. Those laws must be well-crafted, they must be robust, they must ensure that they are fit for purpose. That is what this Government needs to deliver. Whether it is one party backing down or the other giving in, the end result always needs to ensure the sustainability of public interest journalism in Australia and Australian news media businesses have the best technology available to them.
JOURNALIST: Will you vote for it in the Senate or not?
ROWLAND: We wait to see what the amendments are.
JOURNALIST: And if there are no amendments?
ROWLAND: Well, hopefully the Government will end up resolving this situation with amendments which make this a workable code. This is out of our hands. We do not know what is going before the Senate.
JOURNALIST: ABC and SBS haven’t yet brokered any deal with Google like some of the other big media businesses have. Would you like to see a guarantee from the Government that if they do broker a deal, their funding is not cut by an equivalent amount?
ROWLAND: Well, I’ve heard the Government make intimations for the ABC, at least, that any revenues derived as a result of the code will not be offset by budget cuts. I must say personally, I find it very hard – impossible – to believe this Government when it comes to ABC funding, especially after 2013 when Tony Abbott stared down that camera and said there will be no cuts to the ABC or SBS. The ABC has expressly said that any money it derives as a result of the operation of this code will be put into rural and regional public interest journalism. I think that is certainly a sign of good faith on the part of the ABC and I am sure something similar could be given on the part of the SBS. I remain very concerned, irrespective by any deal done by our public broadcasters, that they will be subjected to more cuts by their Government.
ROWLAND: We wait to see when this will actually be listed in the Senate. It’s not listed today. I don’t know whether it will be listed for next week. Again, I’m not in the room. This is not Labor’s role to assert ourselves into these negotiations – the Government is doing that well enough on its own. However, we will wait to see what the timing of that will be and what the Government will do to amend its own legislation, if it does at all.
JOURNALIST: Do you think Facebook is negotiating in good faith?
ROWLAND: I’m not in the room, but Facebook has been very upfront as a stakeholder with whom we have regularly consulted.
JOURNALIST: If this drags on, for months, that’s a big risk for jobs and revenue. Are you concerned about that?
ROWLAND: Deeply concerned. Not only does that mean this affects the health of our democracy, it affects jobs. While this delay is going on, money is not flowing to media outlets and the whole point of this was to ensure a sustainable media sector which could enjoy more journalists and have more public interest journalism.
JOURNALIST: Brittany Higgins released a statement yesterday. It was quite powerful. What have you made of the Prime Minister’s rhetoric this week?
ROWLAND: I can appreciate Ms Higgins’ concerns and her deep feelings in respect of being victim blamed. I think that the sensitivity that needs to be shown to this matter is one that could have been done a lot better. To read her accounts that she wasn’t aware that security guards were coming in and saw her in a state of undress, it is horrific at any age and certainly for someone who is that young and who had landed her dream job. I sympathise with her completely. The last thing I would say is that we should all commit to ensuring victims are believed and not questioned. I can appreciate why Ms Higgins feels let down on this matter.
JOURNALIST: Labor is keen to work with the Government on addressing workplace issues?
ROWLAND: Absolutely. This is a matter that affects all of the Parliament. We don’t approach this in terms of partisanship, when it comes to ensuring we have a safe workplace, and a workplace where people actually want to come and be part of our democracy, and not be repelled from participating in the political process.