The Federal election was called on 8 May 2016. No political or election material will be placed on this website during the caretaker period. Election material is available from party websites.


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

Sky News Richo and Jones

29 September 2015

RICHO:

And in our Canberra Studio is the new Minister for Communications, Mitch Fifield. Welcome.

FIFIELD:

Thanks very much Graham and Peter.

RICHO:

We have so much to ask you about your portfolio. But you would not be too surprised if we wanted to ask you questions about the events of two weeks ago. We have to try, it's part of our job. Now you were definitely one of the chief plotters. What everyone is trying to work out is, why the Monday? Why then? Why the week of a by-election?

FIFIELD:

Graham, I gave a number of media interviews immediately after the party room ballot to provide a bit of context to what happened. To what was a very difficult decision for all of us. My colleagues as a collective decided to make a change. That's a matter of record. We have a new Prime Minister. I'm not one for looking in the rear-view mirror. I am focused fairly and squarely on my task as the Minister for Communications and the Arts.

REITH:

It was a bit of a surprise though to go before the Canning By-election and we have heard Tony Abbott talking about it today saying that he would have won it, you know, but for going earlier. The thing that intrigued me was that tweet from Rupert Murdoch that was reported earlier. That Tony Abbott had spoken to Rupert Murdoch and he had blurted it out early. And the story was that Tony was thinking about a post Canning double dissolution. And that would actually be a damn good reason to go earlier. In my view…. Your turn Mitch. (Laughing)

FIFIELD:

I was not sure if that was commentary or a question Peter. I am very happy to leave it to commentators such as yourself and people who will dissect what happened over the last few weeks in books and newspaper articles. I will leave it to commentators to do that. As I say I want to focus on the job that I have, and the opportunities that we have as a Government to convey our message to the public in a warm way, in an embracing way, in an inclusive way. To take the Australian public with us and explain to them what are the challenges we face and what the solutions are that we are going to put forward. I am very happy for us to be judged at the next election on our performance.

RICHO:

Warm, embracing and inclusive. Does that mean the Abbott Government was cold, lacked the capacity to cuddle and was exclusive? FIFIELD: Look, I think there was a capacity to cuddle and include. But we have a new Prime Minister, he has his own style, he has his own tone. And we just want to get on with transacting the people's business.

RICHO:

Let's get on with the job at hand then. We will tonight ask you about the more spectacular sexy media reforms. But, I want to start off with the NBN. Where are we with the NBN? I know where I am in Sydney, we don't have it. When will we all be able to say we have it? FIFIELD: Well Graham, we have about 1.3 million premises that now have the potential to connect to the NBN. I think it's something in the order of 600,000 people who have connected. The target is to have the NBN fully rolled out by 2020. And by June 2018 we should have something in the order of 9 million premises that have access to the NBN. In effect we are going to have a doubling of the NBN's footprint each year. So it's a very ambitious timetable. It's a little bit like my former gig with the NDIS, that's an ambitious timetable with similar timeframes.

Look, good progress is being made. And in the very near future the NBN will announce its three year rollout plan. And so most Australians will have a good idea as to when the NBN is going to come to their neck of the woods.

RICHO:

When the NBN does come, what NBN is coming? Obviously we had Labor's grand plan, you diminished it somewhat. What am I gonna get when it finally hits my door. And by the way at the end of this question, tell me when it gets to Dover Heights in Sydney. That's the other thing I need to know.

(Laughing)

FIFIELD:

I'll take a note to look at Dover Heights. But, Stephen Conroy's plan as you know was well documented. It was framed on the back of an envelope, in effect. What we are putting forward, the good work that Malcolm Turnbull has done with the board and management of the NBN, will see the NBN rolled out six to eight years earlier than it would have been under Stephen Conroy. And at tens of billions of dollars less cost. One of the prime differences as you probably know is Stephen Conroy was looking at fibre to the premises for every location. What we are pursuing is a multi-technology mix, where NBN is in effect technology agnostic. Where it makes sense to go fibre to the node, that's what the NBN will do. Where it makes sense to connect people by satellite, that's what they will do. Where fixed wireless makes sense, that's what will happen. The main thing in our approach is to get the NBN out to people much much sooner than they would have received it under Stephen Conroy.

RICHO:

What about speeds. Are they going to be the same as Conroy's plan?

FIFIELD:

We are looking at between 50 and 100 megabits per second for most of the technologies.

Satellite will be about 25 megabits per second. But what we are finding so far with the NBN is most people aren't accessing even up to the need for 25 megabits per second. So there is the capacity there for people to do the things that people want to do.

REITH:

I'm not sure when it was, maybe six weeks ago or thereabouts, the NBN and Malcolm Turnbull were talking some of the additional costs, really flowing from the reality that the thing was so badly organised to start with. There are a lot of risks in there and some of those risks have come forward. I was also led to believe, or understood from what was said then that there might still be some more costs associated with this. You have been getting some briefings, so I was just wondering if there is any insight you can tell us on that? Because the cost is a continuing problem for the Government.

FIFIELD:

The Governments equity is capped at $29.5 billion. But obviously the NBN as a scheme will cost significantly more than that. One of the problems with having so little good foundational work done for the design of the NBN, is that the initial management and board did not have a good idea of what the costs were. In light of experience of rolling out the NBN, the new management and board have a much better handle on what the ultimate costs will be. So they are continually improving their costings. It's just a pity the previous government didn't do the sort of preparatory work that they actually did with the NDIS, where they actually had a 2,000 page Productivity Commission report first to lay out the blue print. So the NBN is getting much, much better not only at estimating costs but also in estimating the timeframes for rollout.

REITH:

Looking further down the track. It might be too early. At some stage is the Government going to be looking at privatising this monopoly that we are establishing under the auspices of a previous government.

FIFIELD:

I can't predict what may be decided down the path. That's not something in my contemplation. What we do want to make sure in the meantime is that other wholesale providers, provide their services on a level playing field. Yes, NBN does have some pretty serious monopolistic characteristics. But it's also important that were there is the opportunity for others who want to provide services that they compete with NBN on a level playing field.

RICHO:

Can we turn now to the stuff that the papers do write about all the time, and let's look at media reform? Where are we up to on reach? Which is obviously fascinating about six people in Australia but not the rest?

(Laughing)

FIFIELD:

You are right Graham, it's something I have found moving from disabilities and aged care to the Communications and media portfolio. When I spoke about disabilities and aged care I didn't always get much of a run. But now I find I only have to whisper, and the things I say get broad coverage. Who knew the media like to report on media more than anything else.

So where we are at is we do have a regulatory environment that was designed in and for a pre-digital world. Australians as consumers of media are determining the way they want to access their media. How they want to access it. Where they want to access it. And that's really challenging the laws and rules that we have in place. The current laws won't last forever. Either government will change them or consumer choices and the technological capacity for them to access their media in different ways will render the media laws irrelevant. So it's appropriate that we look at the media rules and the two that are the most often cited are the 75% reach rule and the 'two out of three' rule. That you can't have more than two of the three traditional platforms in the market.

Now obviously those particular rules don't cover things like subscription television. They don't cover online media. They don't cover local newspapers. I think we all understand what the original intent of these laws were, it was that no particular provider or organisations could have undue influence, particularly in terms of news. But 'reach' doesn't relate to influence necessarily, and 'the two out of three' rule relates to platforms, not influence. So it's appropriate for Government to look at this issue and seek a consensus. I have said before there is a difference between consensus and unanimity. You will probably never get unanimity in this area, but I would like to see if we can reach something close to consensus in relation to these media laws.

RICHO:

The thing that worries me, and this is not something the party that I have been a member for nearly 50 years would say, it concerns me that with the advent of the internet, and these rules were invented prior to the internet, once you have got the internet here it seems to make a large part of it irrelevant. Now everyone focuses on how many people listen to Alan Jones or Ray Hadley, truth is that more people listen to FM radio when they get up in the morning and listen to pop music. There is only a little bit of news and it's not taken very seriously. It's not really relevant anymore to have a reach rule that, in the end it was always about news… Whether you can shape the news because of who you were. It just seems there are so many ways you can shape the news now, how many political blogs can you get a hold-of now. There are literally thousands of them, literally. So it seems to me to be a complete waste of time.

FIFIELD:

Look technology and consumer choice will overwhelm these rules. It's a little like the boy with his finger in the hole of the dyke. But I am looking forward to getting around and talking to each of the main players in media. To see what they think. Because you can always make assumptions about what people might think, given their commercial perspectives. But you are sometimes surprised, when you sit down and really drill down and see what someone's bottom line is.

REITH:

Yeah, but when you go and drill down with the guys that are actually running these media outfits, they are interested in their interest. Which can be a very different thing to the public interest. Can you tell me that the Government is going to be any different to previous governments, including the Howard Government where we had a lot of time talking about anti-syphoning and all of these elements that go up to the industry. But in the end it was just too hard politically and we didn't produce a rational outcome quite frankly. It seems to me it's a bit of a tricky job you have got there Mitch.

FIFIELD:

I guess something that has changed from the Howard Government is the advance of technology. I don't want to describe the Howard Government as being in the pre-digital age, I don't want to reflect on the Howard Government, they were certainly there for part of the digital change. Things technologically have changed dramatically in the last eight years. It's a different environment. I'm not setting a timeframe for this particular work that I am undertaking. I think the discussion that I have, not just with the providers, but with my parliamentary colleagues will really dictate the timeframe in which I operate on this.

RICHO:

So do you think there will be any changes to the anti-syphoning because that's a big issue for the public's view?

FIFIELD:

Well yeah look anti syphoning is a separate issue really to the other two that I've mentioned, although often they are conflated. I fully support, and the government fully supports, having nationally significant events on the list that's available for free to air TV. But I think something that's often not appreciated is that the laws don't mandate that the free to airs have to purchase particular sporting events. They don't mandate that even if they do have the rights that they've got to show them. And also there is nothing to prevent the free to airs on selling all or part of the rights that they have. So I think they're a few things which aren't always understood. But the anti-syphoning list, it does certainly provide a degree of comfort and protection for the viewing public which I think is important and we're not proposing to alter that. But I obviously will talk about whatever the subjects are that the various media outlets want to talk to me about. RICHO: Well I think you can be assured Foxtel will talk to you about it, I don't think there will be too much doubt about that.

FIFIELD:

No doubt about that. Happy to engage.

RICHO:

In the UK where obviously the main sport football as they would call it, soccer as we would, migrated entirely to subscription television. I mean it can't happen here can it?

FIFIELD:

Well, I'm not even going near that.

RICHO:

Not if you want to keep your job.

FIFIELD:

Well, I'm not even going near that. Particularly in grand final week Graham. I know the AFR got a little excited earlier in the week in relation to anti-syphoning, but look it will come up in discussions, but I appreciate the importance of the list. Yes, there are from time to time particular events that come onto and go off the list, but I think Australians like to know that they can have access through free to air to the events that they love the most.

RICHO:

Now I've always been one opposed to censorship but seems to me there are some areas in the internet where censorship would be a great idea, one obviously is terrorism and the incitement of people to do some horrible things and the other one that has always concerned me that we seem to powerless about is cyber bullying which can be a massive problem particularly for our young. Is there any way that technology will ever allow us to do anything about either?

FIFIELD:

Well I think in relation to cyber bulling Paul Fletcher, as the former parliamentary secretary in this area, established and legislated the Children's E-Safety Commissioner. And part of the brief of Alastair McGibbon, the inaugural commissioner, is to tackle that very issue of cyber bullying and to take steps to remove people who are perpetrating those acts from the platforms that give them that capacity. Now what he is finding is that he does not need to use laws or regulations in most cases it's just a conversation with the particular platform provider that will address that particular issue. So the Children's E-Safety Commissioner only commenced work on the first of July but he's doing some good things already.

RICHO:

Now we've got time for one last question because we've gotta leave it, but I was going to speak to you tomorrow night on Richo about the NDIS but certain events occurred about that you will not speak two weeks ago which rendered that not possible. I was wondering where we are on the NDIS, I know it's not your responsibility now but the big question is as Scott Morrison sits down to make a whole lot of hard decisions, even though everybody said and I was one of them that this was a reform whose time had come, can Australia afford it in the current circumstances?

FIFIELD:

Well the short answer is yes. Australia can. And it has to. At full scheme the NDIS will be a $22 billion a year operation. $10 billion of that, is money that the states would have ordinarily been putting into their disability services in the absence of the NDIS. There's another $3 billion which is the money that the Commonwealth would have put into a limited range of disability services in the absence of the NDIS. Which leaves a $9 billion gap which is the Commonwealth's new investment into the scheme. Now 40% of that $9 billion is covered by that half a percent increase in the Medicare levy, which in effect leaves a $5 billion a year funding gap per year. So it's not the $22 billion, which is the number people hear, it's really $5 billion. But this is the core business of government. This is why people pay their taxes. It's to provide additional support to people who face challenges for reasons beyond their control. And it's one of the reasons why it is just so important that we get the budget back into balance. Why Scott Morrison as Treasurer wants to get the budget back into balance, is to make sure that we can do this, which really is a part of the core business of government.

RICHO:

Alright Mitch we're going to have to leave it there Mitch Fifield in Canberra thank you very much for your time. I'll know who you've offended as I listen, watch and read the various parts of the media. I'll know who's got you onside and who hasn't because I can tell you one thing mate you will make enemies. No matter what you do in your job, it has to happen.

FIFIELD:

That's showbiz.

RICHO:

It is indeed.

REITH:

You've had a good start best of luck.

Media contact: Luisa Anderson | 0417 309 812 | Luisa.anderson@communications.gov.au

Back to top