COMMUNICATIONS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (REGIONAL AND SMALL PUBLISHERS INNOVATION FUND) BILL 2018

Labor does not oppose the Communications Legislation Amendment (Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund) Bill 2017. However, the circumstances which gave rise to it coming before the parliament do require further scrutiny.

I would say by way of commencement that there is something very ominous about the fact that a bill which is about communications legislation, which is about providing a fund to assist regional and small publishers, which has the title Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund and which is brought into this House by the government cannot attract a single member from the government to speak in favour of it. Not one single government member, apart from the minister who introduced this bill in the House, has thought that this bill was important enough for them to come into the parliament and speak in favour of it. Perhaps what I'll go through, which explains some of the circumstances which brought this bill before the House, explains why there is not one government MP, and particularly not one government MP from a regional electorate, who's willing to speak in favour of the establishment of a Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund.

The context is everything. In October last year, the government was determined to remove the two out-of-three rule, which prohibited a person owning all three licences—television, radio and newspaper—in a single radio broadcasting area or in a single market. Labor opposed this proposition. The government had been pushing it for many years. The industry, particularly the television industry, had been advocating very strenuously in favour of it. Labor opposed it on public interest grounds. Quite simply, we were concerned that giving three green lights to media companies to merge would lead to fewer voices, less diversity and certainly fewer jobs in the television broadcasting industry, in the print publishing industry and in radio broadcasting. In fact, if, as many tried to argue, these mergers were going to create more jobs, it would be the first time in the history of the industry that two companies merging into one actually created more jobs. We know that this has never occurred.

The government was determined to do it, but they did not have the numbers. They didn't have the numbers to get the legislation through the Senate. So what we saw over the course of several months were more deals being done than at a blackjack table at Star Casino on a Saturday night. There was One Nation, that was willing to dust off its culture wars against the ABC—and there are always many members in the coalition parties who are willing to jump in on this one—and the result of that was the competitive neutrality review, which is nothing more than an attempt to continue the culture wars against the ABC. Why, I do not know, because if you cripple the ABC, you'll cripple the capacity of regional storytelling in this country. There is not a publisher or broadcaster in the country that has a greater commitment to rural and regional reporting than the ABC. But that is the wisdom of
One Nation, and many of those opposite.

Of course, there were plans to give special tax exemptions. They were floated and sunk almost as quickly as they were raised. But then there was the Nick Xenophon Team, once a member of the other place, spectacularly imploding after the recent South Australian elections. They managed to strike a deal with the government which enabled the last bulwark against the merger of these large television entities with radio and print entities being removed. The deal that they did concluded in a fund being established, which is now the subject of this legislation, with some $50 million worth of funds to be set aside—and I'll go to the details of this in a moment—together with $8 million being set aside to create 200 short-term cadetships and another $2.4 million over three years to facilitate the establishment of 60 regional journalism scholarships.

Now, of course, Labor supports small publishers; of course, Labor supports more regional journalists; and, of course, Labor supports initiatives which will see more cadets entering the industry. But we are not convinced about the measures that are a part of what many are calling—and I happen to agree—a dirty deal with the Nick Xenophon Team to enable the largest media deregulation initiative to pass through this parliament in decades to occur. We do not think they were worth the price.

There's another important point about the context of the bills before the House, and that goes to what can only be described as the collapse of the traditional business model that has supported what we now refer to as 'traditional' media and the traditional media outlets in this country—and, in fact, right around the world. The first onset of the collapse of this business model occurred with the print media. Print media has operated in this country for close to 200 years under a pretty unsophisticated business model. You bolt a series of news stories onto the back of a big book of advertising and you sell that to your consumers. You would remember the times, Madam Deputy Speaker Claydon: on a Saturday there would be three thuds on your front lawn, which were the Saturday edition of The Sydney Morning Herald being delivered. Two of those thuds were classified advertising. It now arrives with more of a pat than a thud, in one roll. The reason for that is the collapse of the classified advertising business as it once was. That has come through online classifieds. Quite frankly, most of the print media either didn't see this happening or were not nimble enough in their response to it.

Of course, TV was second. What we are seeing is a drift of eyeballs from big screens to small screens. Quite simply, people's viewing habits are changing. It is now more the case that, if you are under the age of 20, it's more likely that you are going to be doing your media consumption on an iPhone, an iPad or an Android device than on the big box in the corner of your lounge room. And with eyeballs goes the advertising. Of course, this didn't happen alone. You saw a recycling or a pinching of content by other online players, whether that be Facebook, YouTube, Google, Twitter and others, but this has put enormous pressure on the traditional revenues of the traditional TV businesses in this country.

Radio, I have to say, which many were predicting was going to collapse, has seen itself being much more resilient. Perhaps that's because it's always on. You're able to listen to the radio while doing several other things, and it has been more local and more nimble, which has enabled it to persevere and succeed when many of its traditional rivals were collapsing.

Of course, we have seen jobs being lost and journalists' jobs being lost in great numbers. Over the last five years alone, over 3,000 full-time, paid journalist jobs have been lost from the industry. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance estimates that nearly one-quarter of all working journalists have lost their jobs, as we've seen these changes—technological, economic and business model changes—work their way through the industry.

So, these three things—the determination of the government to agree to remove the protections against further media mergers within the TV, radio and print media market; the fact that they didn't have the numbers, and they had to do a dirty deal with the Nick Xenophon Team and the crossbenchers; and the fact that we are seeing what many describe as a collapse in the traditional business models which have supported media in this country—are the context which brings this bill before the House. 

The bill itself, as I've described in outline form, will establish a regional and small business innovation fund. It's part of a package, which also includes the establishment of a one-off funding arrangement for the establishment of cadets, and a one-off funding arrangement which will support scholarships. The fund will enable three tranches of grants, of $16.7 million each, over the period from 2018-19 to 2019-20 and 2020-21. The grants will be administered at arms-length from government. However, government has set the rules about who is and who isn't eligible for this, and the other aspects of the deal that was done. The Australian Communications and Media Authority, ACMA, will be the independent statutory body which administers the distribution of the grants. They'll be contestable. Presumably the instruments which will be necessary to advertise the commencement of this fund will be made public soon after the passage of these bills through both houses.

We support the legislation. We are sceptical about its origins, and we are also sceptical about its capacity to make a demonstrable difference to the crisis which media is facing around the country. You would have thought, at a time where media outlets around the country, many of whom, particularly in the print media, are closing down or consolidating or reducing staff within newsrooms, that the government would take a view about the one media outlet that it, in and of itself, funds: that it would be doing more to support that media outlet to ensure that that media outlet, particularly in rural and regional Australia, was able to continue to tell stories about rural and regional Australia, and to ensure that those people are represented in the national narrative.

But, sadly, in the budget that was introduced not three weeks ago we see the very opposite of that. We see the government taking up the cudgels in the cultural war against the ABC, with $84 million worth of cuts to the ABC's triennial funding. This is nothing more than the government attacking the institution because it disagrees with some of the stories that the ABC runs. Well, I disagree with many of the stories that the ABC runs as well. I don't like it when I'm interviewed by the ABC and they give me a hard time and they put the blowtorch on the soles of my feet and take me to places that I may not necessarily like. But I understand that that's their job. I understand it is the job of a fiercely independent national broadcaster, with first-class journalists, to put the people who come to this place to the test, and people who are in government or aspire to form government to the test, to ensure that the Fourth Estate actually does its job—that it does its job of keeping the government and the elected representatives to account. For a government to punish a national broadcaster because it disagrees with its editorial content is nothing more than antidemocratic.

On budget night the cheers were audible throughout the chamber when the Treasurer announced his $84 million worth of budget cuts to the ABC. But I guarantee you this: if there are job cuts from the ABC in those very same members' electorates, they will be the first to complain. You don't have to take my word for it. There's a by-election going on in Braddon in Tasmania as we speak. And what was the first commitment that the Liberal candidate in that by-election, one Brett Whiteley—not the oil painter—gave to his putative voters? It was, 'My government's $84 million worth of budget cuts will not fall on the ABC's studio in Burnie.' There is a brave tiger; there is somebody out there championing the government's budget. Yes, 'Let those budget cuts fall on every other electorate in the country, but not on mine.'