22 February 2021




SUBJECT/S: Government advertising on Facebook, News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation, culture at Parliament House.

HOST: Michelle Rowland is Labor’s Shadow Minister for Communications. Michelle, welcome.


GREEN: Are you on side there with Simon Birmingham? At a time like this when people are expressing reservations about vaccines, should we be pulling advertising from Facebook?

ROWLAND: I can completely understand why that decision has been made and it is most unfortunate that this has come in the middle of a pandemic and the start of a vaccination process. That is certainly appreciated, why that decision has been made. I think the most pressing issue here is the need for our health response to be effective. We need effective health information and messaging to all Australians. I guess we await information about how the Government is going to do that. I know there has been some advertising of the vaccination process on Facebook, but that may have been done before the Finance Minister made this announcement. I can assure your listeners that across the Parliament, and certainly in the Labor ranks, we are very committed to this vaccination being successful and we need to get that message out to all our local constituents.

GREEN: So we should keep Government ads on Facebook?

ROWLAND: I think the decision that’s been made – I understand the context in which it’s been made. It is unfortunate that in a lot of cases, particularly in outer metropolitan areas like mine in Western Sydney, in regional areas, there are very few avenue for advertising, but there are ways of getting messaging out. I think it’s incumbent on the Government to work across the Parliament so that local Members can get this information out to constituents who need it.

GREEN: I’ll one more time because you’re not really answering the question of whether that advertising should be pulled out of Facebook.

ROWLAND: I agree with it. I’ve supported it and now I think it is incumbent on the Government to be able to explain how we are going to get this information disseminated and there are many different ways for them to do that because we want the maximum number of people to take it up.

GREEN: Labor voted for this Bill in the Lower House last week. Are you supporting it now as it moved to the Senate? There were threats of withdrawal at the end of last week.

ROWLAND: I wouldn’t agree with the assessment that there were threats of withdrawal. We always said we would support its passage through the House and we would see what amendments, if any, were going to be made in the Senate. The debate has just recommenced in the Senate. As far as I understand, there are no Government amendments. We have been clear from the get-go that we support a workable Code. The premise of this Code is sound, in terms of media outlets receiving proper recompense for their news content. That debate will recommence, Labor is committed to a workable Code and we wait to see whether there are any other amendments coming forward. I anticipate our position will be the same as it was in the House.

GREEN: So, you’ll vote for it in the Senate?

ROWLAND: That’s right.

GREEN: Facebook took us all somewhat by surprise. Is it a bit rich for Facebook to be spruiking what it did today, this new disinformation code, at the same time it’s left Australians high and dry and left Australians exposed to fake news by removing real news?

ROWLAND: I can appreciate the scepticism that would be held in some quarters. Facebook, as part of the group that has formulated this voluntary code and indeed as a platform has unfortunately in the last few days has become a less compelling product as a result of not having official news on it. I think we also need to recognise this Code that has been released today – it is as I said, voluntary, it will be reviewed by the regulator, there’ll be a report provided by June. But it does only apply to a narrow type of content and conduct. What it is looking at is types of conduct that is verifiably false, misleading or deceptive, and they’ve got to be on digital platforms by what you call inauthentic behaviours, like bots or artificial intelligence; dissemination that likely to cause harm. When you’re thinking about that, you’re looking at everything from bushfires, to the pandemic, even the 5G rollout, and even vaccination itself. You can appreciate that while the ACCC did recommend digital literacy as part of its Inquiry, which did also happen to recommend the News Media Code, understand why some people might be looking at this quite askance and wondering how effective this is going to be.

GREEN: The Code you’ve signalled your support for as the Communications portfolio holder. Are you in favour of more regulation in this space? This is voluntary code that Facebook is proposing. Is it time the Government stepped up to these social media and informational monopolies and cracked the regulatory whip?

ROWLAND: It is time to step up and I think you need to apply regulation for specific purposes to achieve specific outcomes, and this is a global issue as well. In this case, when we are talking about misinformation, we are talking about harm that arises. It is harmful when you have people spreading misinformation about the pandemic and the efficacy of vaccination. It is harmful when you have people asserting that 5G causes COVID-19. These are real world consequences. We have seen it playing out in the streets, those pockets of misinformation arise in various forms. The process that has been set out by the regulator in assessing the effectiveness of the Code, we’ll certainly let that take its course, and we’ll see how effective that ends up being. It certainly is one that is directed towards suspicious or malicious activities, shows up in fake accounts, its coordinated, that sort of behaviour. We certainly want Australians to see more transparency, and that’s the issue here one that regulators and governments around the world have been grappling with: the transparency of these digital platforms, the sheer sizes of the information they hold, and the way in which they conduct themselves.

GREEN: Michelle, Facebook has been one of things occupying the national conversation the last few days. The other has been the culture within the workplace of Parliament House, particularly around sexual misbehaviour, sexist behaviour more broadly. What will Labor be asking for in terms of this mooted external inquiry into the culture at Parliament House?

ROWLAND: I think first and foremost, we need to have the self-awareness as a Parliament to recognise that this has been going on and it’s not acceptable. That’s the first step. The second step is to identify very practical measures that can be taken, in particular more women, to be part of the political process in any way possible. Certainly, in the case that has been shown by Ms Higgins, these do not appear to be isolated cases. There does appear to be systemic problem in Parliament House, and I think the self-awareness in recognising that is a really important step.

GREEN: We’re now running at four cases since Ms Higgins revealed the details of her alleged rape. One of the cases being discussed today was reported in 2019. It seems that time and time again that incidences are reported but there are no consequences. Is that self-awareness there on both sides of the aisle?

ROWLAND: Certainly in these cases, and we’re looking at these particular cases within Government ranks, there certainly isn’t. Clearly, there have been failings in processes, failings in recognising what would be considered basic standards of decency, but also basic standards of corporate behaviour. I came from the private sector and a CEO would not tolerate and would be informed if such a criminal act was alleged to have occurred on their premises. I find it extraordinary that the People’s House does not have the same application of such prudent conduct, apparently.

GREEN: Is that a political issue? You say there within Government ranks. You’re politicising this as a cultural point. I mean surely, this took place in previous administrations of different political stripes. Isn’t it a matter of far broader behaviour than can be defined by political allegiance?

ROWLAND: Well, I’m calling it factually from what has been exposed, particularly in the media in the last week or so, and even before that. As to this being an issue arising across the entire Parliament, certainly I agree our Parliament needs to do better as a whole. We need to be more representative of the Australian population, not just in terms of elected officials, but also in terms of the support staff at Parliament House. I’m merely commenting on fact.

GREEN: Are you confident that Parliament can bring that toxic masculinity to account?

ROWLAND: It depends on the will of the Parliament as a whole, and whether this is going to be an exercise, quite frankly, making excuses for what has gone on in the past, or whether there is a genuine desire for change. I think the majority of Members across the aisle do want genuine change, and I think there has been some progress, particularly in terms of increasing women’s representation in the Parliament, but not enough. Unless you have that sort of systemic change, you’re going to have these systemic behaviours happening.

GREEN: What would be Labor’s alternative path to that sort of systemic change?

ROWLAND: What we’ve decided to do is to assess what our internal processes are, in terms of complaints handling. I think it goes back to even twenty years ago when we made a collective decision to promote women. The promotion of women doesn’t just mean elected officials, it means involving them in the highest ranks of decision-making and advisory roles. Sometimes that occurs organically, but certainly is I think far more of an impetus in the private sector than I see in the Parliament. I think there are a lot of lessons we can take from corporate Australia here. I think involving – and if I was asked what I would recommend in a Labor forum – the private sector much more in that, looking at best practice examples of where this has been successful, would be an excellent start.

GREEN: Michelle Rowland, thank you for your time.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.