TRANSCRIPT - National Press Club Address > Mitch Fifield, Liberal Senator for Victoria

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Senator The Hon Mitch Fifield

TRANSCRIPT - National Press Club Address

Q&As with Chris Uhlmann

16 March 2016

1.00pm

 

Subject: Media Reform, NBN, the Arts, ABC, SBS, the Senate

 

E & OE

UHLMANN:

Minister, we have questioners waiting from the media to grill you. But I might start if I may.

I know you alluded to the fact that your National Party colleagues have some concerns about the effect of this on the regions and local content. They probably have been through this many times before and aggregation held great promise for them, and they saw over time what started well ended badly. So, is there any way that you can ensure over time the local content is protected?

FIFIELD:

Thanks Chris. It’s entirely understandable that people who live in regional areas and regional Members of Parliament get a bit edgy, a bit nervous, when you talk about media reform. They fear that local newsrooms will close. They fear that businesses will seek to do what they can to improve their bottom line.

I guess the good news is that a lot of regional TV operations that are represented here today, recognise that providing good local news services is actually good business. So there are many media organisations who provide far in excess of their licence requirements when it comes to local news content. So that’s the first point. The second point is that numbers of regional TV operators say that if they can get scale, if they can configure themselves in ways that best suit them, then they will be in a better position to provide local content. So we’re happy to take them at their word, and that’s why we’re introducing a new higher baseline for local content.

UHLMANN:

Ok, our next question is from the Adelaide Advertiser.

GOTHE SNAPE:

Jackson Gothe-Snape from the Adelaide Advertiser. Minister thank you for the address. The analogy you used ‘the sinews and soul’ was particularly vivid. I’d like to start with the question about the soul.

Do you consider yourself an advocate for the Arts and can we therefore judge an advocate for the Arts on how much funding that advocate can secure?

And on ‘the sinew’ if a company like Telstra ultimately buys the NBN in a number of years, how will history judge this project, particularly given your government will, by then, have a very good opportunity to correct Labor’s so called ‘wrongs’?

FIFIELD:

Thank you, well yes, I do consider myself to be a strong advocate for the Arts. The Arts isn’t something that should be seen as a luxury. The Arts isn’t something that should be seen as an extra. The Arts are core to who we are as a nation. They are core to how we express ourselves and how we interpret our past and how we look to the future. So the Arts are core business for government. But it’s not just something for Government. Yes it’s appropriate that government provides funding to support the Arts across the genres, but it is also important that the Government money is used to leverage philanthropic, corporate and individual dollars into the sector. So I don’t think an Arts Minister or a government should be judged just on the quantum of money that government puts in. But we do put significant dollars into support for the Arts.

In relation to NBN you’re right, we inherited something that was extremely fraught, something of the order of only 15 per cent of the previous government’s rollout targets had been met. They spent about $6 billion reaching 2 per cent of the population. We’ve taken a different approach, a technology agnostic approach to use the mode that gets the NBN rolled out fasted and at lowest cost and the aim is to have that rolled out by 2020.

You raise issues of ownership, those matters can only be addressed once there are certain legislative processes that have gone through. What my focus is on, isn’t what ownership arrangements might be in the future. My focus is on getting the NBN rolled out as quickly as we possibly can and at lowest cost. And why that’s important is because some of the transforming economic effects of the NBN can only be realised if everyone has it. It’s not going to be terribly transformative if only a relatively small number of people have it. So that is why the focus is getting it rolled out as soon as possible.

UHLMANN:

The West Australian.

TILLETT:

Thanks for your speech Minister, Andrew Tillett from the West Australian. Can I ask you about anti-siphoning. It’s the part of the media reform package that was left off. You’ve said it’s something that might be revisited when there’s Parliamentary support and greater community understanding. Do you intent to revisit it in a second term of a Turnbull Government if you’re re-elected whenever the election is held? And with it, what sports would you like to see come off the list, do you have a personal opinion about that? I’m sure you’ll keep Hawthorn games on it. And can you tell me too, it seems as a sports fan, we have got a pretty good balance there already. We don’t want to end up with an English situation where you can’t watch Premier League Soccer or the Ashes for instance because that’s been snapped up by Pay-TV.

FIFIELD:

Thank you. I guess firstly there are a number of misconceptions about the anti-siphoning list. There’s probably a general view that the anti-siphoning list almost mandates free-to-airs must acquire particular events. It doesn’t. There is probably a view abroad that if free-to-airs purchase particular events, that they are mandated to screen them, They’re not. There’s probably also not an appreciation of the fact that there is nothing to stop the free-to-airs from purchasing events and then just on-selling them to subscription TV. So recognising that, I do acknowledge that the anti-siphoning list does provide a degree of comfort to the community that the events they love will be available. Free-to-air, to some extent for some of the sports, it’s a bit of an academic exercise at the moment because NRL and ARL are locked up until the early 2020’s.

The approach I take to media law in the broad is that it’s under constant review. I think that’s got to be true of all media law. But I’ve made the point before that I don’t think there’s a particularly good community understanding of the anti-siphoning list at the moment. I think for there to be significant change there would need to be a better appreciation of what it does do and what it doesn’t do. And there would also need to be broad parliamentary support for change and I don’t think those circumstances are presently there.

UHLMANN:

You don’t want roll yourself on the hand grenade of nominating sports that should or shouldn’t be on the list?

FIFIELD:

Well each to their own.

UHLMANN:

OK, Radio 2CC.

SHAW:

Minister Tim Shaw from 2CC Canberra. I note your remarks regarding strong and viable media organisations very, very important and also you’re proprietor agnostic. Can I just take you through some figures here? Foxtel has a 15 per cent stake in TEN, NEWS last year acquired 15 per cent in APN and there is talk of NEWS Corp buying Sky News. Now one happy billionaire, referring to angry billionaires before he’s heading back from his honeymoon today, are you personally comfortable with the steady expansion of the Murdoch Family interests in the Australian Media? And particularly in the traditional Australian media arguably a level of dominance not seen in any other western democracy, I’d like your personal view on that? Secondly your colleague Ewan Jones, in an Arts Ministry question, celebrated Australian music up at the Parliamentary Friends. And I believe you were in a Cabinet Meeting so you were pretty busy. But Jimmy Barnes from Cold Chisel made this remark. He said that musicians struggled for most of their careers. In fact it’s a $15 billion Australian music industry, but you know more than the bulk of those songwriters are earning less than $10,000 a year. Do you support Ewan Jones’ call for Arts and Music or Music to be moved into the Small Business portfolio and the innovation’s portfolio to be able to help them develop their business? Arts is big business, your comments on that as well?

FIFIELD:

Sure, thank you. Well when it comes to particular families who have been engaged in the media industry, whether they be the Murdochs or the Packers, in times gone by, or the Stokes I think they’ve been forces for good. They’ve run good organisations. When it comes to the particular configurations of media organisations in the country, as I say I’m fairly agnostic. But we do, even after getting rid of ‘reach’, even after getting rid of ‘2 out of 3’, we still do have a number of protections. As I said, we’ve got the ‘2 to a market’ rule in relation to radio. We’ve got the ‘1 to a market’ rule in relation to TV and we’ve got the ‘5/4 voices’ rule, 5 voices for metro areas, 4 for regional areas. In addition to that, there is still the protections of the ACCC so I’m fairly relaxed, I guess, is the point.

When it comes to Australian music, I’d love to keep it in my portfolio. I was very annoyed last night that Cabinet was scheduled for the time that Jimmy Barnes and Suze DeMarchi were playing in the courtyard. The last time I saw Jimmy Barnes play was at Cold Chisel’s “Last Stand Tour” in about 1984 at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. I was overdue for my Barnsie fix, so I was very annoyed. But look, Ewan Jones makes a good point. We’ve got to see the Arts, we’ve got to see Australian Culture not just as something that is of inherent value, which the Arts are, they have value in and of themselves. But that’s not inconsistent with recognising that they are also an important part of the creative industries. So we need to look broadly to see what we can do to help them be competitive. I’m delighted to work with the Small Business Minister Kelly O’Dwyer. And I’ll just make this point, when the innovation statement was released some people said to me, why isn’t the Arts mentioned there. And the answer to that is, well the Innovation Statement was the first word not the last word on innovation and to be a truly innovative society, you’ve got to recognise that the Arts are at the heart of helping create a culture that is broad thinking. That supports and fosters creativity. That sort of creativity feeds into a culture of innovation.

UHLMANN:

Just on that, there was tax breaks given last year for some very big American movies that are coming into the Gold Coast and that is a great thing any thought toward doing the same thing for regionally based productions? Locally? And full disclosure here I have been involved in one.

FIFIELD:

Well that’s something that is often raised, the alignment of domestic supports and those for foreign films. We do have some good supports for the domestic industry. We’ve got some good supports for foreign ventures as well. And look that is an area that I’d like to look at as a whole, as part of seeing what we can do to foster a culture of innovation in the Arts.

UHLMANN:

Fairfax.

KNOTT:

Thanks for the speech Minister. Matthew Knott from the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. You’ve talked today about getting rid of outdated media restrictions. Well a long bugbear in the Press Gallery has been that photographers can take a photo of you here eating pork belly or at the Australian Open eating an ice cream but they can’t take a photograph in the Senate of anything but people speaking. They can’t take a photo of divisions of very important laws being passed, would you support change to that and does the Government have any plans to amend that? And secondly we saw another leak from the NBN overnight about the skinny fast technology which could potentially replace fibre-to-the-node in some areas. Now fibre-to-the-node has been a big part of the Government’s plan. Would you support seeing that potentially be replaced if that’s what the NBN sees as the best value for the long term?

FIFIELD:

Sure, well to the first point in relation to photography in the Senate chamber. I’m with you brother. President Meares has lobbied me relentlessly. It’s ultimately a matter for the Senate chamber to determine, which means each of the Party Rooms of the Coalition in the Senate and of the Opposition form a view. So my voice is just one among the colleagues in the Senate Party Rooms. But I want the change because I’m sick and tired of the House of Reps getting the front page pics of Members of the House at historic moments doing interesting things! There is just not that opportunity for us, so I think purely in the self-interest of Senators that should change.

In terms of the NBN, I mentioned in answer to an earlier question that we very much have taken a technology agnostic approach to the NBN. Rolling out the technology in a particular area that can see the NBN rolled out fastest and cheapest. And as a result, that’s why we have fibre-to-the-node. It’s why we have HFC. It’s why we have fixed wireless. It’s why we have satellite and there is still some fibre-to-the-premises which was instigated by our predecessors. We think that’s the right approach. The alternative is to see the NBN rolled out over a period six to eight years longer and at a $30 billion extra cost. So we want it out faster and cheaper. In relation to skinny fibre, there has been a trial of what’s known as skinny fibre in a couple of locations. Skinny fibre in those particular areas has resulted in about a 10 per cent reduction in cost of fibre to the premise so that’s about $400 less. It costs about $4,500 per premise for fibre-to-the-premises. Fibre-to-the-node is still about half that price in terms of cost. Now skinny fibre could reduce the civil works cost in some circumstances, so we’re not against skinny fibre. That’s why NBN is looking at it. It’s not been a secret trial, as has been reported. In fact, it was referred to by NBN in their half year results, so secret it is. So skinny fibre could have application but not just to fibre-to-the-prem but could also have application in parts for HFC and fibre-to-the-node. So we’re not averse to doing things that will see lower cost. But for the Opposition to pretend that somehow skinny fibre represents their dream of a low cost fibre to the prem is not the case. The approach we’re taking is still the best way to roll it out fast and cheaper. But if there is a good role for skinny fibre, hey we’re all for it.

UHLMANN:

AAP, I’m sorry 2SM.

MOUSSALLI:

Isabel Moussalli from 2SM. As Arts Minister are you concerned by lockout laws in New South Wales and Queensland given musicians say they’re struggling to make money and it could result in live music venues closing?

FIFIELD:

Thank you, fortunately I don’t have responsibility for liquor licencing laws but I’m someone who tends towards freedom, who tends towards liberty. So that tends to be my disposition. I do have some sympathy for the musicians.

UHLMANN:

Keating media.

LYU:

Minister, thanks for the speech. Jethro Lyu from Inside Canberra. You mentioned a couple of times about social media digital economic and our transitioning economy. However in my opinion, it could be combined into one huge topic and I actually think Australia is a little bit behind. In fact our social media and digital economic actually relies on other countries applications - Facebook, eBay and Alibaba and what is your view about it? And if you are re-elected this year would you and the Government try to help this situation, to actually have our own social media and digital strategy as a national policy?

FIFIELD:

I would love for there to be Australian equivalents of Facebook who can grow, who can employ people, that we can use them as consumers. I think that would be fabulous. No doubt there are many businesses in their early stages who are aspiring to be just that. Just because it hasn’t happened on that sort of scale as a Facebook, doesn’t mean that just around the corner there is not a very bright Australian with an idea, with a good plan, with particularly a funky title for their business. Nothing to say that’s not around the corner and I hope it’s the case.

UHLMANN:

Sarah Martin.

MARTIN:

Minister, Sarah Martin from the Australian. I wanted to ask you about how your negotiations are going with Crossbench and with Labor on the ‘2 out of 3 rule’. You mentioned that you wanted to reform package passed in its entirety. If you can’t get support for the ‘2 out of 3’ why not push ahead with the reach rule and try your luck with the new Senate for the ‘2 out of 3’ rule?

FIFIELD:

Well discussions are going well. Firstly starting with the Opposition, with Jason Clare, as you know he supports the removal of the reach rule. He has an open mind when it comes to ‘2 out of 3’ and he would like to benefit from the Senate Inquiry process to help inform his and the Caucus’ views. So I remain an optimist. When you’re the Manager of Government Business in the Senate, you’ve always got to be an optimist otherwise you go crazy. With the Crossbench, in my discussions they recognise the need for change and again they have an open mind and an open disposition when it comes to ‘2 out of 3’. So I’m never one who wants to speak on behalf of Crossbenchers or do a tally of their number on their behalf. But look, really if we can’t as a Parliament agree that both ‘reach’ and ‘2 out of 3’ are redundant, then I just don’t think as a Parliament we’re really recognising the world that we live in. So I’m going to plough ahead and endeavour to get rid of both ‘reach’ and ‘2 out of 3’ together.

UHLMANN:

Tony Melville.

MELVILLE:

Minister, Tony Melville Director of the National Press Club. Mark Scott put up some interesting arguments about the ABC and SBS just here a few weeks ago and about how they could basically merge. And some of the issues around the ABC having to compete for sports and having to compete for the same news time with ABC and SBS. Just wondering what your views are with that? And just on the NBN and business, with Free Trade Agreements we often hear we have these great Free Trade Agreements but nobody is making any use of it because they don’t understand it or they don’t know how to use it. With the NBN is there sort of a parallel there are you looking at how businesses can maybe be helped down the track of making these great leaps that they will get when they get the NBN?

FIFIELD:

Thank you. On ABC and SBS, I think SBS has a very distinct role, and I think one of the reasons why have such a good bedrock of tolerance in Australia is because of the work that SBS has done over the years. It’s been a subtle injection of diversity and difference into the community, so I think it has an important role to play. That’s not to say that there aren’t ways that SBS and ABC could cooperate better. But SBS still has an important role.

In terms of NBN, I think you’re right. Whenever we talk about NBN we tend to talk about the means rather than the end. As though the means, the mechanics of the NBN is a thing in and of itself. The NBN only has meaning and purpose in so far as it can be of assistance to business. That it can better connect individuals. That’s what we should be focusing on. And one of my criticisms of Stephen Conroy in this portfolio is he was completely obsessed by the thing itself, rather than what it could do. He really took a theological approach to the NBN. I think there was a whole theology that he developed around the NBN which, in a sense, was all very charming, but the NBN is all about what it can do for businesses and what it can do for individuals. 

UHLMANN:

Peter Phillips.

PHILLIPS:

Minister, Peter Phillips one of the Directors of the National Press Club. It’s great to welcome you back here. I think it would be sort of almost remise of us not to use the opportunity of your presence here and particularly not to use the opportunity of your being a very, very Senior Minister and also you’re having yet another hat relating to the Management of Government Business in your chamber. It would be remise of us in those circumstances not to ask you whether you might be able to give us some sort of insight into just sort of what’s going on. And very particularly what’s likely to be going on, on or around the 3rd of May or 10th of May. And in asking that question, I won’t put on the public record that I’m sort of struggling a bit at the moment finalising bookings with some of the local hotels with whom we normally have very good relations. In relation to planned visits to Canberra by very senior people who have invitations to attend budget night functions, can you give us an insight?

FIFIELD:

Sure, sure. Well one of the reasons why people really don’t know what’s happening in the Senate is because we’re too often neglected in the Senate. We’re treated very much as being “Off Broadway”. It’s a little bit different this week. We do, at other times, our best to make the Senate and its processes as Medieval as possible to keep people guessing.

Well I guess the simple story of what’s happening this week, is we want once and for all, Senate reform legislation through the Senate. We would have already achieved that had Labor not filibustered both this week and the in the previous sitting week. It also remains a priority for us to have the ABCC legislation debated. Again that would have already been debated had Labor not kicked it off to a Senate Committee and if Labor had not filibustered earlier the electoral matters bill. So that’s where things are at today. In terms of the Budget.10th of May.   

UHLMANN:

So is there any prospect that the ABCC bill could be debated again this week?

FIFIELD:

The Senate Reform Legislation will take all of the regular time this week and also the additional hours that the Senate has agreed to. If I had to hazzard a guess I’d say that the Senate Reform Legislation would probably come to a vote maybe sometime around 3am Friday morning. But that’s all dependent on our colleagues and how many of them wish to make a contribution. So I’d anticipate that the ABCC bill will be addressed in budget week. 

UHLMANN:

Jackson Goth-Snape.   

GOTH SNAPE:

Minister back on the media reforms in South Australia. The regional commercial television stations, if there was a trigger event would have to meet local content requirements for the first time, that requirement is as little as 20 minutes of local news per week. Those stations already provide about 10 minutes per week in partnership with local newspapers, meaning that this requirement is very minimal and unlikely to produce any local journalism jobs. Could you comment about those requirements? There has been some criticisms about those reforms suggesting that really it’s only the local members who are going to walk to these TV stations and give them a chance to get their head on TV. Is that the case?

FIFIELD:

No, no I’m sure that’s not the case. Local communities really do value the news that’s produced locally. They also value the local ads. It gives a sense of community. It reinforces a sense of locality. So I don’t think we should underestimate the importance of local news services to the communities that they serve. You’re right, part of the package that we’re putting forward is that for the first time in major population centres in non-aggregated markets, there will be a baseline requirements of 360 points over a 6 week period. Points are in effect a proxy for minutes of content. Now you’re right in some of those non-aggregated major population centres there are broadcasters who do provide some local content, but there would be nothing to stop that local content being removed. What we’re proposing is that after a trigger event that new baseline would come into place and that is a protection to ensure that there does remain some local content in those areas. But recognising that there are some broadcasters who already provide local content.

UHLMANN:

Andrew Tillett.

TILLETT:

Just picking up from Peter’s question. Can you just tell us what your understanding is of the Senates power to come back early May 3 if the House does that for the Budget? And secondly if we are to have a Double Dissolution election for July 2, obviously you’re familiar that it would need to be called on May 11. Is it reasonable that, is it appropriate that the appropriations bills get dealt with in one day of debate?

FIFIELD:

Well Andrew I’m going to disappoint you because to address some of your questions I’d have to accept the hypothesis on which they’re based. And I’m won’t do that because as Manager of Government Business in the Senate I’ve always taken the approach to take things one day at a time.

UHLMANN:

Just one question on that. It is not necessary to recall the Senate in order to have a budget in the Lower House is it?

FIFIELD:

Well I can’t argue with you that the Budget is introduced into the House.

UHLMANN:

Tim Shaw.

SHAW:

Minister Canberrans love our national institutions. The National Library, Old Parliament House and yet we’re seeing funding cut backs on National Library. Are we getting to a point where all Australians need to take responsibility for the national institutions here in Canberra and start paying as you go? So much of it is free. We love that here in Canberra but what are your thoughts on visitors kicking in, kicking the tin, your thoughts?

FIFIELD:

Well, when there are particular exhibitions at some of the national collecting institutions there is already a charge for those particular events. I think it’s important that general admission, if you like, to the institutions remains as it is.

SHAW:

Parking though, in the Parliamentary Triangle. That money goes into consolidated revenue. Can you imagine anywhere else in Australia where someone who represented Brisbane or Townsville. Would allow that money to go off to the rest of the country without being perhaps dedicated back to those national institutions?

FIFIELD:

Does it go into the Commonwealth’s consolidated revenue or the ACT Governments consolidated revenue?

SHAW:

Inside the Parliamentary Triangle it’s the National Capital Authority.

FIFIELD:

Right, well we don’t want to let the Presiding Officers know about that, they might want to get their hands on it.

UHLMANN:

Can you please thank the Minister. Just looking around the room today, you’ve achieved something at least as I notice that News Corp and the ABC are sitting at the same table. So the lion has laid down with the lamb. We can’t let you go without giving you another membership of the National Press Club of Australia, hope that you will return soon. Hey in 1987 we used to call this a book. This one has been written by Steve Lewis. It’s on some of the great speeches given over the last 50 years given at the National Press Club, thank you very much.

FIFIELD:

Thank you Chris.

[ends]