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Ministers for the Department of Communications and the Arts

Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield

Minister for Communications

Minister for the Arts

Manager of Government Business in the Senate

ABC Radio National Breakfast with Fran Kelly

2 March 2016

E & OE

Subjects: media reform, Party Room, Senate voting reform

KELLY:

The biggest changes in a generation to media ownership laws will be introduced to the Federal Parliament today. This legislation could unleash a raft of mergers and acquisitions. Prompting concerns again about diversity and local content, particularly in regional Australia. The Governments resisted pressure to change the anti-siphoning laws, but it has left the door open to a cut in television license fees. Communications Minister Mitch Fifield is in how Parliament House studios, Minister welcome to Breakfast.

FIFIELD:

Good morning Fran.

KELLY:

There are two key elements of this bill, scrapping the reach restrictions and the two out of three rule. Which we means we could see for instance News Corp buying Network Ten, we could see Fairfax merge with Channel 9. Is this a case of letting the market rip?

FIFIELD:

Look I don't think so. I think it's a case of making sure that our media laws reflect the reality of the world that we live in. The current media laws were designed in and for an analogue world. When print, radio and TV were just about it. Online is a major news source for people throughout Australia. And I think probably people under the age of 30 would be a little bit bemused about us even having a discussion about 'is there sufficient diversity in the media markets?'. There is a lot of diversity, there will remain some existing media laws such as the one to a market rule which will only allow ownership of one TV license in a market. The two to a market rule which will only allow an individual or an organisation to have two radio licenses in a particular area. So there are still significant diversity protections. But the greatest protection for diversity is the sheer number of news sources that are available today.

KELLY:

Well let's look at that. Yes there are all those resources so in one sense this whole argument that we've had for decades now about diversity which has helped put in place these limits on ownership have been about diversity of ownership, therefore diversity of view. The 2 out of 3 rule is about that, but how can you guarantee diversity of opinion or political commentary for example if you scrap it. Particularly as Jason Clare pointed out on AM a little earlier, that it's all very well to say diversity, but a lot of the sites that people are getting access to, are streaming are still owned by the same organisations that own most of our media like News Corp, like Nine MSN or like the ABC. I mean they are, these are the [inaudible] in that space.FIFIELD:

Look Fran, we're still going to have multiple radio stations with their own news sources. We're still going to have multiple TV stations. We're still going to have multiple newspapers. We're going to have online. And the current media laws do not in any way shape or form even address online ownership or online sources of information. So I've got to say I'm particularly untroubled by people who say they're concerned about potential lack of diversity. And let's not forget about the ABC. If there is a bulwark against lack of diversity, surely the ABC is it.

KELLY:

Surely it is. Labor has said yes it's there with you on the reach rule, scrapping that. It's not so sure about the 2 out of 3 rule. And there's going to be an inquiry into this, but it's holding out the option of urging the Government to split the bill so it could vote against that. Will you consider splitting the bill?

FIFIELD:

I think it's important for the Parliament to look at this as a package, which is why I'm referring the legislation to the Senate Environment and Communications Committee for examination. When that comes back to the Senate, again, I think it's important that the Senate look at this as a package. I've got to say, I've been heartened by Jason Clare's comments to date. I've been keeping him in touch over the past few months as to where our thinking is at. He's indicated on behalf of the Opposition that they support the removal of the reach rule. That's a good thing. I'd be pretty confident that they will support our enhanced protections for local content and local news content for regional TV. And he's indicated that they have an open mind in relation to the 2 out of 3 rule. Again Fran, can I say I think for people who are younger than you and I, they would be a little bit bemused that we're even having a discussion about if it's worthwhile getting rid of the 2 out of 3 or not. They would just see it as completely irrelevant to the world that we live in today.

KELLY:

Maybe not so if they're living in the bush though or in regional Australia. You talk about local content and this has always been a touchy point within the Coalition. Particularly some kind of protection for news content in rural and regional Australia. Now your rules I understand, you've agreed to higher protection for local news content and these protections will come in place after what you call a trigger event. What's a trigger event?

FIFIELD:

Well, a trigger event for the purposes of the legislation is if there are reconfigurations, changes in ownership or control in regional areas for TV that would see a group of TV licenses have more than 75 per cent audience reach, then that would constitute a trigger event. Six months after that there would be for what are known as aggregated markets in regional areas a new and higher local content requirement. At the moment those providers have to ensure that there are 720 points of locally significant material, that would rise to 900. So we would have a new benchmark. But on top of that in major population centres in the non-aggregated markets following a trigger event there would be for the first time local content requirements of 360 points, over a six week period that is.

KELLY:

And what's the definition of local content? Because there is also fears that the National Party has been airing again recently. They don't what just a rip and read bulletin from capital cities dealing with issues for their area. They want real crews on the ground. Journalists on the ground.

FIFIELD:

Look regional broadcasters say that if they can get scale as a result of changes to media law then they will be more viable and in a better position to provide local content.

KELLY:

Well they say that but what's the guarantee that that's where they spend their money. There's always plenty of places to spend their money.

FIFIELD:

What we're saying is we take that at face value and therefore those organisations will be untroubled by the fact that we're introducing new and higher local content standards. We're also introducing an incentive for those media organisations to produce content. They will get 3 points if they not only have material that's relevant to a local area but also has footage from the local area, so we're providing an incentive for them to provide that local presence.

KELLY:

The ABC of course does produce local content. It produces in there in the regions. We have radio stations, we have crews and we have journalists on the ground. Jason Clare again told AM this morning that the ABC becomes even more important to regional Australia after these changes. Do you agree with that and therefore will you guarantee our regional funding? Maybe self-interest at play with that question Minister but I may as well get you on the record.

FIFIELD:

Sure. Fran the ABC is and always as been and always will be very important in regional Australia. Which is why at the end of last year there was some sensitivity when there were some changes made by ABC management to regional radio. There's a great sense of ownership of rural and regional ABC radio. And that's important. So that will continue. But we also want to make sure that we have a good and strong and a viable future for TV in regional areas and that there are good local content protections. So we're through this legislation introducing new and higher local content protections in the aggregated markets. And in the non-aggregated markets in the major population centres introducing a baseline of local content for the first time. So that's good news for regional Australia.

KELLY:

It's 16 to 8 on Breakfast. Our guest is the Communications Minister Mitch Fifield who's also the Manager of Government Business in the Senate. In that role Minister the proposed changes to the Senate voting rules. Are you running the risk of crossbenchers blocking everything the Government puts up? Given that you're now bringing in rules that would basically put them out of existence? How do you think you're going to have a workable Senate in the future?

FIFIELD:

We've taken a principles based approach to the introduction of electoral law reform that deals with the issue of the method of voting for the Senate.

KELLY:

Is it a principles based approach though that only works in terms of the functioning of the Senate if you go to a double dissolution election? Only makes sense in that context?

FIFIELD:

This is change that is required regardless of when the election is held. I, as you mention Fran, have the great joy and delight of being the Manager of Government Business in the Senate. I spend a lot of time with our crossbench colleagues. Yes, numbers of them have made clear they don't like our electoral reform proposals. It's important to recognise that Senator Nick Xenophon, an independent, is supportive of these proposals. But I take my crossbench colleagues as I find them. And they have issue by issue, by and large, been prepared to look at the issues on their merits and I hope that continues.

KELLY:

On another issue the Government seems to be at six and seven's over tax policy. In your view, I know you were in the Party Room meeting yesterday. Did Tony Abbott help things with his help things with his intervention there or has he made it basically impossible for the Government to make any changes on negative gearing?

FIFIELD:

One of the virtues I think of our Party Room system is that there is a forum where colleagues can speak in confidence. Because it's a closed forum they have that opportunity. So I won't be commenting on what may or may not have been said in the Party Room.

KELLY:

Well we've had the official briefing though and we have been told some of the things that have been said and we know he said the Government needs to take up the challenge of spending. And we know he said it's not the time to make changes to negative gearing you should just focus on tearing down Labor's policy. Did you welcome his intervention in the Party Room? Let me just ask you that.

FIFIELD:

I guess if I can make a broader point. I think every former Prime Minister and former leader has a right to comment. Look at John Howard, I'm enjoying his comments at the moment on the 20 year anniversary since he was elected. I think we should look to John Howard as a model for how former Prime Ministers and former leaders contribute to debate.

KELLY:

Mitch Fifield thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.

FIFIELD:

Mitch Fifield is the Federal Communications Minister and Manager of Government Business in the Senate, which is quite a job at the moment, might get a bit tougher going forward shall we say.

Media contact: Justine Sywak | 0448 448 487 | Justine.Sywak@communications.gov.au

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