TRANSCRIPT - Melbourne Press Club Address Q&As with Mark Baker > Mitch Fifield, Liberal Senator for Victoria

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Senator The Hon Mitch Fifield

TRANSCRIPT - Melbourne Press Club Address Q&As with Mark Baker

30 March 2016

1.35 pm


Subjects: ABCC, Telstra, nbn, media laws, tax reform, Fairfax, ABC, Senate

 

E & OE

BAKER:

The Minister has agreed to take questions. Our custom at the Press Club is that working journalists come first. I’d ask everybody who poses a question to make it a question not a statement and please identify yourself by name and organisation, thank you.

BUTLER:

Ben Butler from The Australian. Sadly I heard what you said about wanting to forget about being Manger of Parliamentary Business in the Senate, but sadly I have a question about that.

You are at the moment of course looking at the ABCC Bill in the Senate. There’s some talk about negotiations with the crossbench to do that. Today a couple of them have popped up and said, actually government isn’t talking to us and basically throwing into question the bonne fides of any such negotiations. How do you respond to that? Have you been talking to them and what’s actually happening there?

FIFIELD:

Thanks for that. Michaela Cash is the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations and has been talking to the crossbench for a long time on this issue. So yes, the Government is talking to the crossbench.

As Manager of Government Business in the Senate, I’m a legislative optimist. You have to be. Good things can happen in the Senate, and have, during the time that we have been in government.

The Australian Building and Construction Commission legislation is something that we were very upfront about going into the last election. We made our case which was that this is important for productivity in the building industry. It’s important to have the rule of law on building sites. It’s important to have a cop on the beat. So we’ve been very upfront. This is not an area of reform that has been a secret.

Now one of our frustrations has been that the Opposition have been filibustering a lot of Bills in the Senate over a long period of time and their intention was to deny the Senate the opportunity to address the ABCC legislation. So the Prime Minister has recommended to the Governor General that the Parliament be recalled so that the Senate can make a call on this legislation.

Now we are negotiating with the Crossbench in good faith. But for the Government to consider a proposition in the form of an amendment by a crossbencher would require that the crossbencher can evidence that they have the support of five of their colleagues. It’s not worth considering if they can’t give that undertaking.

Also any amendment can’t seek to weaken the intent of the legislation, nor can it seek to go substantially beyond what the purpose of the ABCC is. So Michaela Cash is negotiating in good faith. We would much prefer to have this legislation pass through the Senate. But if it’s not, if we do find ourselves at an impasse, then we have a constitutional mechanism to resolve that deadlock which we will use.

SWAN:

David Swan from The Australian, technology reporter. I just have a couple of technology questions, Minister.

It’s on the recent outages Telstra has been facing. I was wondering if the Government has a view on that? And it’s meant to be looking at the review Telstra is putting into its network.

Second Question is an nbn question around why the Government remains wedded to fibre to the node, give that remediation and maintenance cost pop up?

FIFIELD:

Sure and thanks for that. You’re right, Telstra have had some issues of late and Andy Penn has been very upfront that Telstra is undertaking a review as to what are the common elements, if any, in relation to those areas of disruption that they’ve had. So they are going to be looking at that exhaustively. Telstra are keeping us updated on their work. But ultimately it is a matter for Telstra.

In relation to nbn, you ask why is it that we’re sticking to fibre to the node. We’re sticking to a rage of technologies. Our predecessors in the form of Stephen Conroy, took what I describe as a theological approach to the nbn rather than a technology approach. We are technology agnostic when it comes to what are the modalities that can see the nbn rolled out fastest and at lowest cost. So we’re pursing what’s called a multi-technology mix. Whatever is the technology that would see the nbn rolled out fastest and at lowest cost is what nbn will pursue.

So we’ve got fibre to the node. We’ve got fibre to the premise. We’ve got fixed wireless. We’ve got satellite. Whatever gets the nbn out fastest and at lowest cost, that’s the mandate for the nbn. And that approach will see the nbn rolled out six to eight years sooner than would be the alternative and at about $30 billion dollars less cost.

Now you mentioned copper, the issue of copper remediation. Copper is used in two parts. One is for the last connection to an individual premise, the other is copper to go from the node to the pillar in the street. Now in terms of the last bit to go toward someone’s house, my advice to date from nbn is there haven’t been issues with the copper network and that hasn’t had to be replaced. But there does need to be a copper link between the node and the pillar in the street.

But using the copper that is currently there, is one of the reasons why we can roll out the nbn much faster because there is a great reduction in the amount of civil works which are required.

Our opponents of late have been saying that the nbn is off track. It’s not. The nbn has met all of its targets over the last six quarters. We’ve got about 1.8 million premises ready for service. There are about 900,000 people who are connected to the nbn at the moment and we’re aiming to have it finished by 2020. So the story of the nbn is a good one. 

MIDDLETON:

Jim Middleton from Sky News. Senator. Just heard your comments about the ABCC, saying that you’re opposed to any amendments which either weaken or broaden its scope.

Why as a matter of principal would you be opposed to broadening the scope of any commission if it achieved your primary target which is to deal with corruption within the building industry? And given also that we’ve seen some stark examples in recent times but the building industry is far from the only sector of the economy which is affected by serious examples of corruption?

FIFIELD:

Thanks Jim. Obviously anything that would weaken the ABCC its self-evident why we would oppose amendment that proposed to do that. In terms of extending the ABCC beyond its current scope, I guess what I’m referring to is some of the propositions to establish a broader anti-corruption body.

Now it’s perfectly reasonable for colleagues to argue that there should be new law enforcement bodies or new anti-corruption bodies for particular sectors. But that really is a separate issue. The bill that is before us is related to Australia’s building industry. So that’s the proposition that’s before the Senate. That’s the proposition that the Senate should address.

If colleagues have views about other sectors and other bodies and other law enforcement agencies then that really is a separate argument.

OSBORNE:

Mike Osborne from AAP. I was wondering if you could expand a little bit on the timing around when the media laws might actually take effect and the inevitability of media merges post that time. And what’s the plan to ensure that there really remains a range of media voices and we don’t end up with two or three media organisations that are ruling the roost?

FIFIELD:

Sure. Well the legislation has been referred by the Senate to the Senate Communications Committee for enquiry. That enquiry reports back on 12 May. Senate rules dictate that legislation that is before a Senate Committee cannot be brought on for debate before the committee reports.

I’m keen obviously to see this legislation passed as soon as possible, but I need the numbers to do that and I am continuing discussions with my counterpart across the aisle, Jason Clare. He does have an open mind on ‘2 out of 3’. ‘75% reach’ they’re on board with. But I want to see this go forward as a package and I would urge the Labor Party to come on board and to treat it as a package. If the Australian Parliament can’t address these two rules together then there is a failure to appreciate the world that we’re currently living in today.

In terms of potential merger activity after the passage of this legislation. I’m someone who is ownership agnostic. As long as people are playing by the rules, then it’s a matter for individual media organisations to determine what is the best way for them to configure themselves and with whom, for their particular business models.

When it comes to diversity, I’m pretty relaxed because as I say, we’re not proposing the abolition of the ‘5/4 rule’ which mandates that there are five independent media voices in metropolitan areas, four in regional areas. We’re not proposing to get rid of the ‘one to a market rule’ which only allows one holder of a TV licence in a particular market, or the ‘two to a market rule’ which restricts an outfit to having no more than two radio licences in a particular market.

Add to that, the fact that we’ve still got the ACCC and their various requirements. And then to add on to that, we have the issue of FIRB requirements as well. So taking all of that into account, I’m relaxed on the issue of diversity. But I guess I come back to trying to explain that to someone below the age of 30 or 25 or 20 that there are concerns about issues of diversity in how people access the media. They access what they want, when they want and how they want. 

KARVELAS:

Patricia Karvelas, I’m the presenter of RN Drive at the ABC and also at Sky News on the weekend so breaking that ‘2 out of 3’, I’m four out of ten, I’m everywhere.

I’ve got a question on tax. Now I’ve known you a long time Mitch Fifield from when you were in the ginger group, the backbench ginger group on tax reform in the Howard Government.

FIFIELD:

You’re taking me back.

KARVELAS:

I am, because it’s a question on tax, on this proposal that’s been floated, the States being able to raise their own income taxes which is quite a radical proposal, something we haven’t seen really for many, many years.

What do you make of the claim that I know the Labor Party plans to prosecute, that you’re basically hitting people twice, double tax that you’re meant to be conservatives cutting back taxes but effectively people will face higher taxes under a scheme like this?

What will be your response given I’ve heard everyone on the public record today effectively prosecuting this quite radical proposal?

FIFIELD:

Well I’d say Bill Shorten is wrong. That this is not double taxation. This would be the Commonwealth creating space for income tax which would go to the States. The Australian Tax Office would still be the collection agency for both levels of government. So I would say that Bill Shorten is wrong. Don’t start your scare campaign Bill, people will see through it.

What the Prime Minister has done is put a proposition to the States and Territories that seeks to more directly align the level of government that spends a dollar having a responsibility for raising the dollar and therefore, for making the case to the community about why that tax dollar is needed. I don’t think anyone would pretend that our Federation is a perfect creation. It’s not. It’s groaning under the strain of lack of accountability between the level of government that spends a dollar and the level of government that raises a dollar.

The PM has put this on the table for discussion. A number of First Ministers have indicated that they’re open to the discussion. First Ministers in the jurisdictions have been briefed on the proposition before the Government has spoken about it publically. Let’s see where Friday’s Premiers Conference leads.

SCHETZER:

Hi, Alana Schetzer from The Age. I just wanted to ask you regarding the climate in the media industry, obviously my job is on the line along with my colleagues, the recent announcement from Fairfax to cut jobs and I wanted to ask what the role of government could be in the industry?

Obviously Fairfax isn’t alone in job cuts and it effects our ability to do what I think many consider to be a public service, is there a role for government, you know tax cuts for new Start-ups, media new voices can you just give us money like you gave to the car industry for years?

FIFIELD:

Thank you. Well the car industry is perhaps not a good analogy because we did cease that particular activity in the not too distant past. But I take your point. It’s an unsettling time to be a journalist, as media organisations are changing the way that they deliver.

I’ve made reference to Greg Hywood’s opinion piece from last week and Greg has had a bit to say over recent times on the challenges that are facing Fairfax. But Fairfax is not unique in addressing it. Changes in technology. Changes in the habits of consumers.

Is there a role for government? Well, yes I think there is a role for government and the role for government is to create a policy environment that gives the greatest freedom to media organisations to configure themselves in ways that will help them be viable. And that’s what the package of reforms that I’ve put in the Parliament is about. It’s about giving greater freedom to media organisations. Just to take regional broadcasters. Regional TV broadcasters, as an example, they’ve been strong advocates of the reforms that we’re putting forward because they say give us the freedom to combine in ways that will enhance our viability. So there is a role for Government. I don’t think it’s by way of direct support.

But I’m optimistic about journalism. There will always be a market for quality journalism. There will always be a market for what it is that people who are good investigators and good writers do. So I’m optimistic.

MCDONALD:

Minister, my name is Ranald MacDonald I’m a friend of the ABC, or ABC Friends as they call themselves. It’s difficult to follow Greg Hywood’s comments about how less reporters makes for more quality, but I would like to comment and then ask you a question.

The brief comment, your initial remarks your heart-rendering or heart-warming comments about nearly peeling paint at Bendigo Street and the IKEA for Sky, as I thought possibly directed against the ABC and triennial funding, and your suggestion about giving adequate funds with something like 25% in real terms reduction, with a number of reports including KPMG that said any further cuts, under the Howard Government would restrict quality programing. What further cuts are you going to bring in with the triennial funding in real terms or are we looking for a better future for the ABC? And it’s providing services to all of Australians?

FIFIELD:

Thanks Ranald. And I think probably everyone in this room would be happy to class themselves as a friend of the ABC. The ABC is an important national institution and Australians have a great deal of affection for it.

My references to Sky and the old Bendigo Street studios were more really to make a point about commercial broadcasters rather than to be a reflection on the ABC. But given the inevitability of it being seen as a reflection on the ABC, I thought I would hasten to add that the ABC will be resourced to a degree that Tony Jones won’t need to take to the tools just yet.

The ABC does receive significant funding from the public. And I think the public are pretty relaxed about that. We are in the lead up at the moment to the next triennium is something determined in the context of the budget. So I can’t give you today what the dollar figure is that the ABC would be receiving. But rest assured, the ABC will be well resourced. And it will be able to do the important work that it does.

FORWOOD:

Bill Forwood is my name, I’m a former journalist with the Herald newspaper. In your capacity as Leader of Government Business in the Senate, you deal closely with the independent Senators. I wondered if you’d care to tell us what that’s like and give us a free character assessment?

FIFIELD:

Thank you William and you failed to mention your distinguished service in the Victorian Parliament previously. Look it’s a joy being the Manager of Government Business in the Senate. And for the record, all of my Senate colleagues, Liberal, National, Labor, crossbench are handsome, intelligent and wise.

But in all seriousness, yes we have, as you know, changed the law in relation to the voting system for the Senate, because we want the votes of individual citizens to achieve the result that they were actually intending when they cast their ballot in the ballot box. Now that’s not a reflection on the Senators who are there. They were elected according to the rules as they were. So they won their seats according to the rules. So that’s a statement of fact.

My dealings with the crossbench on the whole have been pretty professional and pretty cordial. But ultimately I think in this business you’ve got to start by not dealing with someone where you want them to be. You’ve got to start by dealing with them where they are and then work back from there. And by doing that, we’ve achieved some good legislative outcomes in the current parliament. But that hasn’t been the case with the ABCC. As I say, I’ve put some of the blame on the Labor Party for continually filibustering and using procedural tactics to deny the Senate the opportunity to actually get to a vote on occasion. But the ABCC legislation is important and we will continue to negotiate with the crossbench in good faith. And I hope that six, at least six of the eight crossbenchers, will agree to support the ABCC legislation.

BAKER:

Minister, thank you very much for a thought provoking address and your practice in answering questions. These issues are of critical importance to all of us and the future of our industry. So, I wish you well in your endeavours. As a small token of our appreciation I’d like to give you this very substantial gift you probably needed to declare it.

The Melbourne Press Club’s contribution to our industry, one of them has been the establishment of the Australian Media Hall of Fame. This book which we published about a year ago profiles the 81 foundation inductees from Victoria. Later this year we’ll move interstate and around the country to make it a truly National Hall of Fame. The purpose of this exercise, absolutely, is about highlighting the importance of good journalism, great journalism, quality journalism and our past, in our present and in our future, so with our compliments, thank you.

[ends]

 

Media contact: Justine Sywak | 0448 448 487 | Justine.Sywak@communications.gov.au