Dr Chris Back - Liberal Senator for Western Australia

Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017, Commercial Broadcasting (Tax) Bill 2017

June 22, 2017

Thank you, Acting Deputy President Bernardi. The chamber will be delighted to learn that I am not attempting to emulate Dame Nellie in terms of her beautiful soprano voice! But I want to associate myself with the comments that have been made by everyone in this debate this evening on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017, particularly as it relates to community radio. I want to share with you an experience I had in the days when there was an inadequacy of community radio, especially for those of us who needed it in the field of agricultural extension. I know that Senator Siewert was very active in this space. I was invited down to the great southern town of Kojonup, where I was asked to give a speech this particular night to a group of interested farmers on artificial insemination in sheep. Kojonup is the middle of the sheep-production area of Western Australia. They assured me that they would utilise the local community radio to publicise the event.

I drove down on a winter's night, about this time of year, down from Muresk college at Northam to Kojonup. I got down there, and I thought I had the right night—through you, Acting Deputy President, to Senator Smith—but the CWA hall was in darkness. There was one other car there, so I went over to this person and said, 'Isn't tonight the night?' He said, 'Yes it is. I'm here for it.' We found our way into the hall and turned the lights on. We waited for some period of time, and I said to him, 'Look, do you mind if I get underway with my speech?' He said, 'No, that's okay.' I had 80 slides, and I presented my slides—eloquently, I thought—on the question of artificial insemination in sheep. I asked him if there were any questions, and he said, 'No, I don't have any questions.' I said, 'That's okay. If you have no questions, do you mind if I pack up and get underway, because it's a three-hour drive back to Northam and there are kangaroos, it's dark, it's cold, it's wet and it's miserable, so do you mind if I get underway?' And he said, 'Hang on, what about me? I've sat here and listened through your speech; what about me?' I said, 'What about you?' He said, 'I'm the other speaker'!

It goes to show the importance of community radio, particularly in agricultural communities. Obviously I join with the comments of Senator McCarthy, followed up by those of Senator Smith in this space. And in all seriousness, that story I just told was actually not a true story. I have to tell you: it wasn't Kojonup; it was Katanning. But anyhow I got that a bit wrong; it was further away from Northam.

Only the other day in fact did I approach Minister Fifield, because I had had an approach from people here in the eastern states who run a Saturday morning community radio station—some of them ex-military, others of them simply community-minded, all voluntary. As part of the engagement, they said to me, ‘Look, is there any way in which we can secure additional funding, because our community radio program is so popular?' I am sure each of us in our various positions have been approached by constituents, particularly ethnic and other communities, who rely so heavily on their access to community radio.

For once, having approached the minister and having received the information that I did from him, I was able to go straight back to them and say, ‘You wouldn't believe it: funds were actually included in the recent budget, extending funding for community radio.’ When I communicated back to them, of course, as you could imagine, I immediately took credit for this and said that it had been my intense lobbying through to the minister that had attracted this funding.

I applaud, as part of this process, the extension of funding and the importance of community radio, and there has not been anyone who has spoken this evening who has been at variance with that particular view. I would just like to pick up on a comment that was made by Senator Paterson in what I regarded as an excellent contribution in this debate. He was talking of the fact that media has moved on. He used the horse-and-cart analogy and made the point that, by the time they got to some legislation associated with the use of horses and carts, they were long out of the scene and the horseless carriage had in fact made its approach into the major cities of the Western world.

Only days after the British election, early morning-I must have been preparing for my valedictory speech because I heard an interview hosted by Geraldine Doogue, a fine Western Australian. She was interviewing two senior journalists from the UK—one from the Conservative side of the British media, the other from the Labour side. The two of them were making this point: that the election of 2017 in the UK was the first time in which the importance of the print media was subordinate to the electronic and social media. One of them, who was a correspondent for The Times, made the observation—he said, 'I have two children,19 and 21, and neither of them, even though their father has been part of this world all of their lives, would pick up any print media ever.' Of course they obtain their news, their inputs, their communication et cetera through electronic media sources, be it Facebook, Google or many of the others.

Further to that comment, the point they made was this: in general terms, the print media had supported the Prime Minister, Mrs May, and the electronic and social media had supported the Labour leader, Mr Jeremy Corbyn. What was the impact of that? Of course, as we know from the Brexit vote, most young people in the UK did not turn out to vote, although they were keen to stay within the European economic community. We know that voting is not compulsory in the UK. They were supportive of staying in Europe but they did not vote but, as a result of the electronic media, if you like, campaigns that were conducted in favour of Mr Corbyn, they turned out en masse with the result that Prime Minister May did not get a majority in the House of Commons.

We see evidence in support of Minister Fifield's legislation here and we see this as a straight indicator of the radical movement now in how people get their news. The older generations—even Senator Bushby is probably in that category; I bet he gets the Hobart Mercury on a daily basis; I noticed Senator Abetz gets it in a print form. One generation uses print media; another generation would not know what print media was.

What this speaks to is the irrelevance now of the two-in-three rule. I, like Senator Smith, believe that Senator Ludlam is one of the most knowledgeable people in this space.

Senator Dastyari: They really want your vote on this, Scott!

Senator BACK: I was told that I could stop at five o'clock tonight and I would be out of here, Senator Dastyari, and here it is, a quarter to midnight, and I am still going. So no, I do not need his vote, but he is a fine Western Australian, and he is very, very knowledgeable in this space.

Senator McKim: Hear, hear!

Senator BACK: Well, thank you very much, Senator McKim! But it is the case that the two-in-three rule is redundant; it is out, finished. It is like the man who fell out of the balloon and just is not in it anymore. Therefore, we have to move with the times. We have to accept that at any time, at any moment, any one of us now—in fact, people who have no interest in what I am saying may well be doing it—can pick up any media outlet anywhere in the world instantly, electronically, on their mobile telephone. Therefore, what is the point of trying to slavishly adhere to legislation that was relevant 30 years ago—it was probably appropriate 30 years ago—but today is of absolutely no relevance at all?

A comment has been made this evening about the ABC and SBS. You could ask, 'Well, how does this relate to broadcasting legislation amendment?' Well, it is the case that, like it or not, the ABC and to a lesser extent SBS are in fact competing with the commercial media outlets. I have argued with the previous managing directors of both the ABC and SBS as to why they could not be brought together as one publicly funded broadcasting organisation. Mr Scott agreed with me; obviously the gentleman who ran SBS did not agree with me.

At that time—and I made the point then—if you remember, Australia was hosting the Asian soccer championships, and we had the ludicrous position in which only two entities competed with each other for the broadcasting rights. One was SBS, which, instead of using taxpayers' funds was going to actually go out and get sponsorship. And its competitor, who swamped it in terms of the quotient of the bid, was the publicly funded ABC, using taxpayers' money. You would have to ask the question: what was the validity of the ABC using taxpayers' money to beat the other publicly funded broadcaster, the SBS? Not only is that an organisation that would have used sponsorship money to do the broadcasting but, as we all know, it is SBS that is the home of soccer in this nation. When the World Cup is on, and other major events overseas, that is SBS's real thing. It goes to the point of just why we have the two publicly funded broadcasting organisations.

Again, it is the case that the ABC has to make its mind up about what space it wants to be in. In fact, as it moves into the digital age, to what extent, being publicly funded, should it have an advantage over commercial organisations? Fairfax has been mentioned here this evening. Journalists are being put off in their droves by that particular organisation. In the case of Fairfax Rural, for example, its resources to enable it to report rural news are very much more limited than those of the ABC.

Now, it would be easy for me, in my final contribution in this place, to reflect on my attitude towards the integrity of some of the productions of the ABC. But I am not going to do that at any length, except to place on record, for the last time, my absolute dismay and disgust at the duplicitous and false reporting by the Four Corners program, Ms Sarah Ferguson, of that horrific case that led to the ban on the exporting of live cattle from Australia. It is the case that she lied to me six times under oath in the Senate inquiry we had in the instance in which she named a particular cattle station in the north of Western Australia in connection with animals that had come from that station and been processed in an abattoir in Indonesia.

She wrongly reported the behaviour of those animals as in some way being fear related, when all they had was a metabolic condition called transit tetany. Worse than that, that family had hate mail for a long period of time. Six times I gave her the opportunity to confirm what I was telling her, and that was that she named that cattle station. I do not intend naming it this evening. Six times she denied it. She also denied to me that she did not, in fact, have it in her possession at the time she interviewed Mr Ken Warriner from Newcastle Waters, the then head of the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association, and Mr Luke Bowen, the chief executive of the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association. Both of those gentlemen believe she had not seen the footage supplied to her by activists when, indeed, she kept saying she had seen that footage. I certainly have evidence to confirm that she did not. That, I think, was a reprehensible circumstance and, as I said to the senior management of the publicly funded ABC, 'Is it not the case that you have got a responsibility in terms of assisting or at least commenting upon our relations with Indonesia?'

The other event which was very regrettable recently were the matters that led to the reporting of matters pertaining that became the royal commission into the activities of institutions in Darwin, in Don Dale, and the way in which that was reported. Against that, of course, over time that particular program, Four Corners, has been a highly reputable program, so I only say, as part of that contribution, I urge the ABC to be aware of its corporate and social responsibility.

I strongly support the move that is being made to ensure that there is a limit on the capacity of broadcasting of live gambling associated with live sporting activities in the presence of children. The reforms demonstrate, as it says here: 'The government is listening to the community on gambling advertising and will protect children while at the same time fostering a vibrant, competitive and sustainable media industry.' Nobody has enjoyed sport more than me. Nobody has enjoyed sport associated with having a bet more than me. But I think the community generally was disgusted when it got to the stage that in prime time, during live broadcasts of sport, we saw a burgeoning of advertising encouraging people to gamble, and we all know very well that children had that opportunity to be involved.

A question has been asked about these reforms that Minister Fifield wants to bring into place. Senator Ludlam quite rightly raised this issue when he asked: where is the increased high-quality Australian content going to be as a result of the move in this bill to remove, I think, the $60 million of licence fees? That is a perfectly reasonable question, and I have no doubt at all that the minister will be able to respond to those.

Abolition of broadcasting licence fees for television and radio—again, I remind those who might be interested in this debate to think about this: at any time you can grab information out of New York, you can grab it out of Al Jazeera, you can grab BBC World, you can grab 'chicken noodle news'—I mean CNN. You can get any of those instantly. You can get them here in the chamber tonight so long as your device is on quiet—through you to Senator Dastyari, Mr Acting Deputy President. So while the concept of wanting to charge this ridiculously high licence fee is spurious, at the same time I concur with Senator Ludlam. If that licence fee, which is revenue for the Australian taxpayer ultimately, is to be forgiven then where do we see the benefit that flows through to it? I simply say the two-in-three rule today is irrelevant. Print media will probably be a thing of the past within that five-year timescale that Senator Ludlam mentioned. The future of print media, I believe, is obviously very questionable. It was Senator Paterson who, I think, put the point quite eloquently: if you were investing or advising in that print media space, what would you be doing? I simply say that I commend this bill to the Senate. I certainly would be looking forward to the debate, but I will be visiting it from afar—hopefully at a place where they do not charge too many licence fees, Minister Fifield—and it is with regret that I will not be able to ask if I can seek leave to continue my remarks.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Bernardi ): I sincerely thank you, Senator Back.

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