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

RN Drive interview with Patricia Karvelas

1 October 2015

KARVELAS:

It's six past six on RN. First, an exclusive interview with one of the new look Government's most important figures. Victorian Senator Mitch Fifield walked into last Monday's ballot right beside Malcolm Turnbull. He's gone from holding a junior ministry to being both the Minister for Communications and also the Arts. Senator, congratulations and welcome to RN Drive.

FIFIELD:

Thanks very much, Patricia.

KARVELAS:

With Malcolm Turnbull at the helm, and his new team in place, are the culture wars now officially over?

FIFIELD:

Well, Patricia, what I want to do as Minister for the Arts and the Minister for Communications is be part of a conversation with the Australian people about the positive future that we have as a nation. I want to engage with the community, I want to engage with both sectors, and talk about the tremendous opportunities that we have as a nation. I'm not someone who is in the business of picking fights for the sake of picking fights. I think in my former portfolio I demonstrated what I'm all about is getting good outcomes and working with anyone of good will to achieve those.

KARVELAS:

Do you think that there have been too many fights picked under the previous regime? 

FIFIELD:

Well, as a Government I think that the public just want you to get on with transacting the people's business. They want you to do that methodically, efficiently, even on occasion quietly, and that's what I want to do. That's what Prime Minister Turnbull wants to do.

KARVELAS:

The Labor Party has dug up a speech you gave to the Australian Adam Smith Club in 2008 where you apparently said, and I quote, "Conservatives have often floated the prospect of privatising the ABC and Australia Post, there is merit in such proposals." Do you still believe that?

FIFIELD:

Well Patricia, I confess I was about seven or eight years ago a frisky back bencher who sought to give a provocative speech, as you can probably tell by the title of the address. But look, I had an important caveat there. Really, the key point I was making was that although people talk about different ownership arrangements, ultimately the Australian public have a settled view on these matters. So, changing the ownership arrangements of the ABC is not something that I'm seeking to do.

KARVELAS:

The ABC is currently negotiating its triennial funding, are there more cuts to come?

FIFIELD:

Patricia, negotiations are just that. It's various parties sitting down, each with a starting point, and hopefully reaching a point of agreement in the middle.

KARVELAS:

Sure, but the previous Prime Minister who won an election which is why you're all in government. Tony Abbott, did promise not to cut the ABC or SBS – will that now be honoured?

FIFIELD:

Well Patricia, look, I certainly take the point that we've got to speak plainly and let the words that we use mean what people would take them to mean. We did, as you know, seek to identify some efficiencies in the ABC and look, I think as a general principle, any Commonwealth Government funded agency should look to be the best possible steward of tax payer dollars that it can be. I've yet to come across a Commonwealth agency that has achieved administrative nirvana. But one thing is certain, we as a government will ensure that the ABC is well-resourced to do the job that Australians want it to do.

KARVELAS:

It has dealt with one round of cuts though, do you think that's enough for the cuts now?

FIFIELD:

Well I don't want to pre-empt where the triennial funding will end up but look we're a government that recognises the important role that the ABC plays. I mean, I think you can probably characterise how Australians experience the ABC a bit like a long term relationship. Sometimes you just can't get enough of it, sometimes you want nothing to do with it, sometimes it drives you to distraction, but ultimately, you keep coming back because you want some more.

KARVELAS:

So that's – how are you feeling right now, what are your emotions about the ABC in this interview right now?

FIFIELD:

Well Patricia, you know when I talk to you, more is never enough. So that's the space I'm in at the moment.

KARVELAS:

So how will you approach your responsibilities for the ABC and the SBS, do you think it's appropriate, for instance, for the Communications Minister, to direct or influence the boards as was suggested by the Lewis Report. Did you support Tony Abbott's boycott of Q and A in July?

FIFIELD:

Well look, as a government, we're committed to freedom of association and that means that any individual, even if they're a Minister in the Government has a right to turn up to a program or not as they decide. Now obviously, lots of people, not just the Government, but lots of people in the community, were concerned with that particular Q and A episode. And you know, I think that was a pretty unique set of circumstances. But I think as you'll see, the Government is engaging well with the ABC, we're not being strangers.

KARVELAS:

On RN Drive, my guest is Victorian Senator, Mitch Fifield, the Minister for both Communications and the Arts, in his first interview. What do you make of what the Minister is saying? 0418 226 576 what changes would you like to the approach that the Minister takes on Communications and the Arts? Now, you're responsible also for the NBN rollout, are you currently considering further changes to the NBN? There are reports from telco analyst, Paul Budde, who apparently received a call just before the leadership spill that a bigger rollout of fibre to the home may be on the cards. Is that on the cards?

FIFIELD:

Well Patricia, I'm barely 24 hours into the seat of Communications Minister but look, Malcolm Turnbull has done an incredible job, in turning the NBN around. It was headed for an incredibly expensive rollout, Malcolm has identified a way to deliver broadband to Australians at a much lower cost. The NBN as an organisation is continually learning, They're continually adapting. We're not fixated with any particular technology to roll out the NBN. In a sense, we're technology agnostic, and what that means is that over time, there's the capacity for an evolution in terms of where the balance of technological solutions lies. I'm not indicating anything by that other than to say that we're technology agnostic and where the business leads, is where the business will go in terms of the solutions that it provides to the community.

KARVELAS:

Now we haven't seen a Minister looking after both Communications and the Arts since the days of Hawke and Keating and Howard, why has Malcolm Turnbull set it up this way?

FIFIELD:

Well Malcolm I think has long had the view that Communications and the Arts are a natural fit. That both of them in a sense are mechanisms for the community expressing itself, for the community to reflect on itself. There are a lot of synergies between the Arts and the Communications Portfolio and I think it's a good thing that they've come back together.

KARVELAS:

Senator Brandis, the previous Arts Minister, took $105 million from the Australia Council to create the National Program for Excellence in the Arts overseen by the Arts Minister. Now, you would know that the Arts community has complained very loudly that this shuts out individuals and smaller groups and allows the Minister to favour his own pet projects. Here's Tamara Winikoff from the National Association of Visual Arts speaking on RN's Books and Arts Program last week.

Audio:

What it doesn't do is to ensure that both artists will have support to do the kinds of interesting, exploratory work and it's going to decimate all the small to medium infrastructure organisations, which are the sort of supply line really for both artists to work from at any stage in their career and also to feed into the major organisations.

KARVELAS:

Now Senator Brandis' program hasn't started yet so will you get rid of it?

FIFIELD:
Well I think it's important to put in perspective what George was seeking to do. What we're talking about is $26 million dollars a year which has been shifted from the Australia Council. The Australia Council still has an annual budget of $185 million which is not insignificant. But the $26 million that George has set aside is actually to support small and medium organisations. There has been an extensive period of consultation, something of the order of 320 submissions have come in. Those submissions…

KARVELAS:

They were very opposed to this change though, Minister.

FIFIELD:

Well those submissions and that consultation will be taken into account. We haven't released the final program, but these are matters that I'm being briefed on at the moment. But obviously, I hear what some organisations are saying, but I think it's important to emphasise that we are not cutting a dollar from the Arts Portfolio and what we're looking to see if we can do innovative and different things, so that's the objective.

KARVELAS:

So Minister, I just want to get back to that, just so that I can get clarity, it's still under negotiation, the National Program of Excellence in the Arts? Your door is still open on this issue?

FIFIELD:

Well the exact form has yet to be announced. As a Government we seek consultation for a reason. It's because we know that we can always benefit from the views of people who are intimately involved in the sector.

KARVELAS:

Will you at least restore the funding taken from the Australia Council?

FIFIELD:

Well there's been not a dollar, as I say, taken from…

KARVELAS:

Will you move it back to the Australia Council?

FIFIELD:
…from the Arts Portfolio. We've still got the same quantum of money in the Arts Portfolio. The only issue is exactly how that money is deployed and look, we're looking at trying something a little different.

KARVELAS:

So you might move it back to the Australia Council?

FIFIELD:

Well you shouldn't read anything into what I've said. We've undertaken a period of consultation and the program is not yet announced in its final form.

KARVELAS:

Ok, well I think that's pretty clear that you're not settled on that, it might go back to the Australia Council. Interesting to find that out.

FIFIELD:

No, I'm not saying that, I'm not saying for a moment that money will return to the Australia Council. What I'm saying is that…

KARVELAS:

Are you saying it might?

FIFIELD:

No, what I'm saying is that the exact nature and design of the program outside the Australia Council is yet to be completely nailed down.

KARVELAS:

Alright, there's currently a Senate inquiry into the creation of that program and cuts to the Arts budget over the past two years, it's due to report in November. Will you act on its recommendations? Will that be part of how you land an answer on all of this?

FIFIELD:

Well, I think I'll be looking at this particular program prior to the reporting of that committee but the submissions to that committee are certainly available and I'll be taking a look at those.

KARVELAS:

Now you've not only taken the Arts Portfolio from George Brandis, you've also taken copyright and internet piracy from him. One plank of the Government's anti-piracy policy will see internet service providers or ISPs as they're known, to send copyright infringement warnings to illegal downloaders. That was meant to start on September the first. Why has that stalled? Is it because you can't decide who should pay for it or because you and Minister Turnbull are keen to get rid of the plan entirely?

FIFIELD:

You're right – copyright and classification responsibility has transferred from the Attorney General's Department to the Communications Department. And part of the rationale is so that you have the Communications Portfolio looking at issues of content, looking at the broad issues of intellectual property, and I'll confess Patricia, I have not sat down to closely examine the copyright issues in the last 24 hours but that's certainly on the agenda for the next day or two.

KARVELAS:

You're a senior Cabinet Minister now, what do you think of Tony Abbott saying the new Treasurer didn't warn him of a challenge, that Scott Morrison was, well basically, wasn't honest with the former Prime Minister?

FIFIELD:

Patricia, my eyes are fairly and squarely looking forward. I'm focused on the big responsibility that I have as Communications Minister and Arts Minister. The Party Room took a decision and, as a government, we're looking at the business that's in front of us.

KARVELAS:

One last thing – Peter Dutton said that the ABC and Fairfax was running a jihad against the former government. What do you make of complaining about the media? This culture of politicians blaming the media for the things that they see before them, is that something you are going to engage in or are you going to avoid that?

FIFIELD:
Well look I think that whether you're a politician or anyone in the community, the only thing that you can control, are the things which are within your grasp. Prime among which are your personal reactions to circumstances. So you focus on controlling those things that you can control, and the others you just let go. I follow the approach of John Howard, I don't recall John Howard ever being critical of the media. Sometimes you love them, sometimes you don't. Sometimes you like the coverage you get, sometimes you don't. But, you know, that's show biz.

KARVELAS:

Ok, and you're now doing the Arts Ministry – do you love the Arts? What's your favourite thing in the Arts? Are you into dance, are you into theatre, do you love books?

FIFIELD:

Well, can I confess – 80s music. I'm in demographic lock as you know, as someone born in 1967. If it's any of the new romantics, Pet Shop Boys, well, I won't say that I lose control, but I enjoy it very much.

KARVELAS:

Mitch Fifield again, we're fellow travellers on that. Thank you for joining me.

FIFIELD:

Thanks very much Patricia.

Back to top