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ABC RN Drive with Patricia Karvelas

KARVELAS: Be agile and embrace disruptive technology – that's what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull keeps telling us. But we're still waiting to see the Government's plans for Australia's media laws, which even it says, are past their use by date.

Mitch Fifield is the Communications Minister, and he joins us now. Hi Minister.

FIFIELD: Hi Patricia.

KARVELAS: Now, just a short time ago, Peter Dutton announced that the Somali asylum seeker known as Abyan will return to Australia from Nauru to consult doctors and mental health workers about having an abortion. Was Cabinet consulted about this decision? What brought it about?

FIFIELD: Oh, Patricia, I never comment on Cabinet decisions as to what may or may not be discussed there. Clearly, this is a very delicate and sensitive matter and I think the best thing is for there to be one person from the Government speaking about it, that being Minister Peter Dutton.

KARVELAS: Alright, well we have his comments on the record. I'll move to something I know you know quite a bit about, on media laws. Liberal backbenchers this morning publicly called for you to abolish the reach rule, which says a network can reach more then 75 per cent of Australian TV screens. Here's Angus Taylor on AM.


TAYLOR: The regional networks are getting close to being unviable businesses now. I think it's happening faster than most people had expected. The streaming of live content from the metropolitan stations into regional areas is just another example of how quickly this is unfolding.

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KARVELAS: He's referring to Channels 7 and 9 streaming their content online 24/7. How much longer can you put off this reform?

FIFIELD: Patricia, look, we're not putting off reform. Practically on day one as Minister I said that the existing media laws were being challenged on a daily basis – challenged by technology, challenged by consumers who are seeking to access their media in new ways that technology facilitates.

So, bit by bit, our existing media laws are being rendered redundant, and over time, consumers and technology will render them completely redundant. So what I'm doing at the moment is getting around, talking to all the key stakeholders, getting their views on the existing media laws, and hoping that we can find a general consensus to reform our media laws so that they really reflect the sort of world that we live in today.

KARVELAS: But this reach rule is over?

FIFIELD: Well, we haven't made any decisions as a Government – we want to follow a good process, a good Cabinet Government process, as you would expect.

But it's also important as an incoming minister that I spend the time talking to each of the stakeholders, and there are a range of views among stakeholders, but it does seem clear to me that there is a broad view that the media laws that we have are not fit for purpose. And the two that are most often cited are the 75 per cent audience reach rule and also the two out of three rule, the cross media ownership rule, which doesn't allow mergers to involve more than two of three regulated media platforms - they being TV, radio and newspapers. So they're the sorts of issues that are being raised with me and that I'm looking at.

KARVELAS: How do you ensure that without the reach rule there would still be local content in regional programming? Because that's really at the heart of this.

FIFIELD: Yeah, absolutely, and that's one of the reasons why regional broadcasters are pushing this, because they want to be able to configure their businesses in the way that they want to enhance their viability so that they can continue to provide good local content. But there are some existing protections – the license conditions of TV stations do have local content requirements. So even if there were changes to media law, we would not be touching or upsetting those existing license conditions.

But I think if we're looking at the area of media reform, there will also be a strong desire to see the existing local content protected. And what I mean by that is, most regional TV providers actually provide local content in excess of that which is required by their license conditions. So I think there would be a strong view and a strong desire in the community to protect that.

KARVELAS: You've said your media reforms don't need unanimous support from media organisations, just a consensus. So do you think you have that consensus now?

FIFIELD: Look, there's a large degree of commonality amongst the various operators that I've spoken to. I have to continue to talk a little more to not only the media operators themselves, but also to my colleagues in the parliament. It's important to be a minister who's consultative but, look,I'm not someone who wants to let the grass grow on this issue.

KARVELAS: On RN Drive, my guest is Mitch Fifield, the Federal Arts and Communications Minister. Our number here is 0418 226 576. What do you think of the reach rule? Should it be gone and what implications are there for regional media within that? 0418 226 576.

Now, Minister, last time we spoke- if I can- if you can sort of move your hats around and put your Arts Minister hat on. When we spoke last month you wouldn't commit to the future of George Brandis's National Program for Excellence in the Arts. That is- this is the proposed funding body that took $26 million out of the Australia Council budget. Can you say now whether it's going ahead, or if so, what it would look like?

FIFIELD: Yeah, again, I think it's important when you come into a portfolio to take the time to talk to stakeholders. And as we've spoken about before, there are some very strong views amongst stakeholders about some of the proposed changes to arts funding. And what I'm seeking to balance is, on the one hand, the desire of people in the sector to have the chance to have their say to me, as a new Minister. Seeking to balance that, on the other hand, with the understandable desire of the sector to have certainty as soon as possible. So I've got a bit more consultation to do with the arts sector and then I'm keen to make a decision. And, look, we're talking about a matter of weeks rather than months.

KARVELAS: Okay. Overwhelmingly, though, the feedback you're getting is saying that this decision by the previous minister was the wrong decision – that's overwhelmingly what you're hearing, isn't it?

FIFIELD: Well, I always hesitate when you look at submissions that come into Senate inquiries or even that come into consultations through portfolios, to form a judgement on the basis of the balance of the submissions that you receive.They don't necessarily represent the full spread of opinions. So that's what I'm seeking to get. But, Patricia, I don't deny for a second that there's not some unhappiness about.

KARVELAS: Strong unhappiness. Would you call it that?

FIFIELD: There's unhappiness and a desire for me to take a look to see if we can make some adjustments to what's proposed.

KARVELAS: So could it be that the $26 million is returned to the Australia Council budget?

FIFIELD: Well look, I don't think that there's much argument about moving the festivals and the vision funding from the Australia Council to the Ministry of the Arts. That's where it previously rested. So that particular element I think people are pretty relaxed about. What is in discussion is the $20 million transferred from the Australia Council to the Ministry of the Arts for the Excellence Program. So what I'm looking at is that particular element, and there will be some adjustments but the exact nature of those – I still want to chat a little bit more to the key stakeholders.

KARVELAS: I know. I know you're not ready to make announcement, but what I want to get from you is is there a scenario on the table that the Australia Council gets that 20 million, that back?

FIFIELD: Well I'm not announcing anything today, Patricia, I've still got some more discussions to have.

KARVELAS: You're also the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Government. Today, Health Minister Sussan Ley announced a trial of the myHealth record. What will that involve?

FIFIELD: Well, it's a trial in the Western Sydney area and North Queensland involving about a million people. And it's looking at those e-health records, how they can be better deployed. So that's a project that Sussan has carriage of. But she, like all of us who are Ministers in the Government, are keen to do whatever we can to make the interactions that people have with government and with government services as painless as possible – no pun intended for the health portfolio. But every Minister is charged by the Prime Minister with seeking to make the community interface with government as seamless as possible. Far, far, far too many government transactions are still conducted by telephone or face to face, and often that's not because people wouldn't prefer to do them online or in a digital fashion, it's just that they can't do them in that way. So what we want to do is give people the opportunity to do their transactions with government in a way that suits them. Because what government has done for too long when working out its systems and processes is to work out what suits government rather than what suits the individual.

KARVELAS: And just finally, did you hear or read about Tony Abbott's speech?

FIFIELD: I heard a few grabs of it on radio earlier in the day.

KARVELAS: Is it distracting from the work of the Government? I mean, do you wish he wasn't out on the speaking circuit and still sitting in Parliament? Is it appropriate? He has dominated the media today. Pretty much he's one of the top stories.

FIFIELD: Well I think there is an appropriate role for former Prime Ministers to contribute to public debate, and I for a second wouldn't seek to deny someone who has served the country extremely well the opportunity to share their views.

KARVELAS: Is Tony Abbott qualified to tell Europe's leaders how to solve their refugee migration crisis?

FIFIELD: It's a matter for Mr Abbott. He had an invitation to speak at a forum and to share his views and that's what he's done.

KARVELAS: Do you think that those- giving advice to Europe, is it something you'd do? Give European leaders advice on how to turn back boats?

FIFIELD: Well I'm not a former Prime Minister Patricia.

KARVELAS: There's still time.

FIFIELD: Well no, I'm in the Senate so we're not possessed of those particular dreams.

KARVELAS: Alright. Very diplomatic of you there Senator. Thanks for joining me.FIFIELD:

Terrific. Good to join you.

KARVELAS: And that's the Victorian Senator Mitch Fifield, he's the Minister for Communications as well, and the Arts, and the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Digital Government. Giving a little hint there, I've got to say, that that very controversial decision by George Brandis to take money away from the Australia Council budget and move it into the National Program for Excellence is- well it's under review, but overwhelmingly the Minister did say that a lot of people are unhappy, and a very strong review going on there to try and maybe reposition that decision.


Media contact:

Justine Sywak | 0448 448 487 | Justine.Sywak [at] communications.gov.au