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ABC Lateline Parliament House

9:30pm

E & OE

Subjects: House of Representatives, media laws, targetting Daesh, Sam Dastyari

MATT WORDSWORTH:

Mitch Fifield is Communications Minister and Manager of Government Business in the Senate. He joins us now live from Canberra; Senator Mitch Fifield welcome to Lateline.

MITCH FIFIELD:

Good evening Matt.

MATT WORDSWORTH:

Tony Abbott says everyone's learning lessons tonight, even Prime Ministers. What lessons are the Coalition learning?

MITCH FIFIELD:

Well look, you've got to recognise that the floor of the House of Representative and the floor of the Australian Senate are dynamic places. As long as the Chamber is live, you've got to maintain your focus. But what we saw tonight was despite Labor's protestations that they want to cooperate, despite their protestations that they want this Parliament to work, they took an opportunity to pull a stunt. Pure and simple.

MATT WORDSWORTH:

We saw the Government Whip there, George Christensen, saying the MPs didn't turn up; but who did mess up? Was it the MPs? Was it the Whips?

MITCH FIFIELD:

As the Manager of Government Business in the Senate, I have my hands full running the Senate Chamber without looking across to the other side of the building. But there's a collective responsibility on all of us to make sure that we keep our wits about us, and that we maintain our focus for the entirety of the period that our respective Chamber is live.

MATT WORDSWORTH:

Did the image of a stable, working majority come unstuck tonight?

MITCH FIFIELD:

I don't think so. There was nothing at stake this evening. There was no legislation in question. There were some procedural stunts. Stunts of the sort that you see in the Australian Senate every day of the week including today. And I could bore you and your viewers rigid with the stunts Labor pulled in the Senate today. But I won't. We do have a majority in the House of Representatives. It is a working majority. Unlike Labor, we're keen to get on with the business of budget repair. We didn't hear anything from the Australian Labor Party tonight on that subject.

MATT WORDSWORTH:

Now you introduced some pretty important legislation on media reform today. The big changes are removing the restrictions on radio, TV and newspaper companies merging. That's leading to speculation that we could see a Fairfax—Nine merger or Channel Ten-NewsCorp. Is that the kind of thing you're envisaging with these changes?

MITCH FIFIELD:

You've always got to be wary as the Minister for Communications, to make predictions as to what the future configurations of media organisations might be. That's for the individual businesses. What we want to do is to bring our media laws into the 21st Century. To have them actually reflect the world we live in. The media laws that we have were crafted in the 80s, in the analog era, when Kylie Minogue was still living on Ramsay Street. The internet basically wasn't in consideration when those laws were drafted. So what we want to do is to free-up Australian media businesses, so that they can configure themselves in the way that makes them the most competitive.

MATT WORDSWORTH:

Yeah they really need to compete against your Apples, your Googles, your Facebooks, which are streaming into Australian markets like never before, when these laws were certainly first on the books. But you need the Senate to pass it. Nick Xenophon's saying he wants to tax Google and Facebook, and cut the licence fee for the TV stations; will you do that?

MITCH FIFIELD:

Well look, licence fees is a separate issue. We cut licence fees by 25 per cent in the last Budget. We indicated that we're prepared to look at further licence fee reductions, in parallel with issues such as broadcast spectrum pricing. What we want to do is something that should be pretty straightforward for the Australian Labor Party to support. That's getting rid of the 75 per cent audience reach rule; which is rendered redundant by the fact that the networks themselves can stream now to a 100 per cent of the nation. And also we want to get rid of the two-out-of-three rule that restricts, in a market, any organisation from having more than two of the three of the traditional media platforms of print, radio and TV. Those rules don't apply to the internet. The internet exists. It's real. It provides incredible media diversity. So these laws—which were crafted for an era of essentially radio, print and TV, with the idea of ensuring diversity, by limiting concentration of ownership—they're being rendered redundant by technology, by the choices that that opens up for consumers, and by the decisions of consumers themselves as to how they want to consume their media. Labor are saying that they want to have another inquiry. We don't need another inquiry. We've just got to get on with the business of removing these laws, and freeing-up our media businesses.

MATT WORDSWORTH:

I just want to touch on another major change the Prime Minister announced, and this is do with our Defence Forces, and their war against terrorism in the Middle East. He wants to change the law in Australia, so that it's legal for them to not only kill those Islamic State fighters that are directly in combat, but those indirectly in combat. He calls it logistics and support; but what does that mean? Does that mean financiers, recruiters, propagandists?

MITCH FIFIELD:

It's really intended to bring our domestic laws into line with international norms when you're taking on opponents. Now the rules of war are pretty straightforward, in a sense, when it comes to nation-states and their armies.

It's a little more ambiguous when you're talking about non-state actors such as ISIS, this really—

MATT WORDSWORTH:

But this is a major change because it's not the people on the front lines with the guns; it's the people who might be recruiting those guys, or making the videos that get disseminated around the world. Is that a major change that you've got any concerns about?

MITCH FIFIELD:

Look, it will make legitimate, as targets, those people who are engaged in activities, which if they were part of a regular army of a nation-state would be subject to attack. So we're really just trying to regularise the arrangements when you're combatting a foe such as ISIS, so that it's similar ground rules when you're actually taking on an army of a nation-state.

MATT WORDSWORTH:

And just on changes that might be to come: political donation laws, the Sam Dastyari situation. Where we found him now contradicting Labor Government policy at a media conference with a Chinese donor who paid for a legal bill. You've got the ASIO Chief saying he's warning the Chiefs of the Liberal, Labor and National Parties, that there are security risks posed by foreign linked donations. Is it time to outlaw foreign donors?

MITCH FIFIELD:

I think we've got to separate two issues here. One is donations. And obviously any donation made by business should comply with Australian electoral law. And all political parties should comply with Australian electoral law. But there's a separate—

MATT WORDSWORTH:

But given that the head of ASIO has concerns about it, do you think it's time to revisit these rules on political donations?

MITCH FIFIELD:

Well the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters after every election conducts an inquiry into the conduct of that election, and any other matters relevant to the running of Australian electoral law. They'll have public hearings, a range of issues will be canvassed, and submissions will be made.

But I've got to come back to the fact that we've seen the Australian Labor Party run two separate issues together. The issue of donations, and the issue of Sam Dastyari. Sam Dastyari did not receive a political donation. Sam Dastyari received a personal and direct benefit from a businessman. And the situation here—and this is from Sam Dastyari's own mouth—is that he had a debt to the Commonwealth, which had been caused by his overspending his travel entitlement. Now picture this situation. You have a debt to the Commonwealth. I assume Sam Dastyari had an invoice to the Department of Finance. And we're meant to believe that Sam Dastyari was sitting at his computer doing some online banking, and just as he was about to pay the Department of Finance invoice, he gets a phone call from a businessman who says: 'Hey Sam, look I know this is a longshot, but I don't suppose you need to have a debt to the Commonwealth paid?'. And Sam says: 'Gee, what a coincidence!' I mean seriously. This is weird.

MATT WORDSWORTH:

Alright Senator Fifield these are actually questions I'd like to ask Senator Dastyari, but unfortunately we are out of time, but thank you for joining Lateline.

MITCH FIFIELD:

Thanks Matt.

[Ends]