TRANSCRIPT - Sky News Viewpoint > Mitch Fifield, Liberal Senator for Victoria

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Senator The Hon Mitch Fifield

TRANSCRIPT - Sky News Viewpoint

Sky News Viewpoint
with Chris Kenny

27 September 2015
8:30pm

E & OE

Subjects: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Media laws, ABC

KENNY:
 
Joining me live from Melbourne is the new Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield. Thanks for joining us Mitch.

FIFIELD:
 
Good to be with you Chris.

KENNY:
 
Congrats on the new portfolio. It’s my dream job, Minister for the ABC!

FIFIELD:
 
*Laughs* Well Chris I can share with the viewers I think your application may be in already to be the next MD of the ABC, but fortunately that’s a matter for the Board but not for me.

KENNY:
 
Put in a good word for me if you can. I’ll come back to the ABC in a moment. But let’s start off with the great convulsion we’ve seen in the government. The great convulsion in national affairs. The change from Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull. You were one of the critical MPs in this because you were an MP who supported Tony Abbott and switched to Malcolm Turnbull. Why was that necessary? Why was it necessary to depose Tony Abbott and what has changed under Malcolm Turnbull?

FIFIELD:
 
Well, Chris, as you know, about two weeks ago me, and my colleagues in the Party Room, voted for change. Now, along with the rest of the Cabinet, I'm not looking in the rearview mirror, I have my eyes fairly and squarely on the task that I have before me as the Minister for Communications and the Minister for the Arts. And not to forget, Manager of Government Business in the Senate. So, there is a positive agenda. A positive vision that Malcolm has for the nation and all of his team want to play their part in seeing that realised

KENNY:
 
Sure, but you are in a conversation with the electorate and you are going to want them to return. Do you have to explain to them why you had to do this and what the benefit is, can you do that for us?

FIFIELD:
 
Well, Chris, it is tempting, obviously to be a commentator, to talk about the events of the last fortnight but I don't want to do you out of a job. I want to see you have the maximum capacity to cast your ruler over what has happened. And, ultimately, it is the voting public that will cast a judgement on the new government and the performance of each of the ministers. So what I am going to set about is making sure that we roll out the NBN in full by 2020, I want to make sure that we address the mobile phone blackspots, I want to make sure that we can ensure that through the digital transformation office that government delivers services much better to the people that interact with it.

KENNY:
 
Well, let's look at it this way then. You were one of the key players back in 2009 when Tony Abbott took over the Liberal leadership from Malcolm Turnbull. That was driven by climate policy. It was all about having the Liberals not sign up to an emissions trading scheme and you were a part of that push. And here we are six years later and you are going back to Malcolm Turnbull. Can you just help explain that journey?

FIFIELD:
 
Well, Chris…

KENNY:
 
There is no policy imperative this time, is there? Last time, when you were a part of that Tony Abbott putsch against Malcolm Turnbull, it was driven by climate policy, what drove this?

FIFIELD:
 
Well, Chris, I gave a couple of interviews in the period immediately after the change in the party room a fortnight ago and I canvassed some of the issues and provided some context, I'm not intending to go back over that. What I want to do is focus on the job that is before me.

KENNY:
 
Okay now, I want to focus then on climate policy because there is a lot of people, particularly, I suppose you would say left of centre, people in this country who haven't liked the Abbott government, they have seen the change to Malcolm Turnbull, they know where he has been on climate policy and they see the opportunity for a change in climate policy, especially with these grandiose plans announced by China that it is going to pretend to have an ETS in two years’ time or some such. Given your history, part of that putsch against an emissions trading scheme in 2009, and I know you have got many other colleagues who have been on that same transition as well in terms of switching back to Malcolm Turnbull, presumably then, climate policy is one area where there will be no change, where the party room has made it clear they will broach no change in policy under Malcolm Turnbull?

FIFIELD:
 
Well, we do have a settled position in relation to climate policy. The Direct Action Plan has been a constant for many years. Not just in the two years that we have been in government but for two elections before that. It is something that the Party Room as a whole embraces. Greg Hunt is doing a good job in implementing that and the Direct Action Plan is something which everyone can embrace. Because they are things which are in and of themselves good for the environment regardless of what anyone's perspective may be on the subject of climate change as such. So, I don't think you will be seeing any change here.

KENNY:
 
Well, what other policy areas that you do expect to change under Malcolm Turnbull?

FIFIELD:
 
Well, we do inherit a set of policies from the previous government and there were some good and sound policy settings. But you will see over time ministers in their portfolios bringing their own perspectives to bear. No one comes into a portfolio with the intention of just being someone who keeps things ticking over. We have got a Cabinet of very talented people who are going to bring their own perspectives, their own views who are going to put propositions to the Cabinet and they want those propositions to be tested. This is going to be a good Cabinet government, where we test each other's propositions. Probe other's propositions. Because that is how you deliver good policy. That is how you deliver good outcomes.

KENNY:
 
Well, what about your predecessor in Communications of course was Malcolm Turnbull and we are waiting to see what was going to happen from this government when it comes to media reform, so that is, media ownership reform. So, this is going to be an area that obviously is high on your list of priorities. What is your inclination in this area? Isn't it ridiculous and antiquated in this age of convergence that we have these ownership rules limiting ownership between television, newspapers and radio when in the online and digital age, all these forms of media actually operate virtually in all three realms anyway. And also, the rules about television ownership right across the entire reach of the nation, 100 per cent reach of the nation, how can that be justified in this modern age where there is so much access to so much information, so many news sources both within this country and around the world?

FIFIELD:
 
Well, Chris, you are right, it is a bit like debating railway gauges while planes are starting to fly overhead. I mean, the Communications portfolio really is where the real economy meets and interfaces with technology. Now, technology is providing the capacity for the speed limits on growth and the economy to be raised. It is providing a capacity for us to be more productive and we want to make sure that the laws and the rules and regulations that we have, whether it be in broadcasting, telecommunications or more broadly in the portfolio, that those laws don't act as a speed limiter on the development of the Australian economy. That they don't inadvertently make the viability of some media operations more difficult. Now, I think what is ultimately going to drive things in this area is consumer choice. Consumers ultimately will be the people who determine which are the businesses that succeed. Which are the platforms that are successful. At the moment our media laws are a little bit like the the boy with his finger in the hole in the dyke. And you do have to ask yourself at what point that becomes unsustainable. So it is entirely appropriate that we do examine media laws to make sure that they are fit because technology…

KENNY:
 
This means effectively deregulating or lowering the amount of regulation over media because as you know newspapers find it tough in the current climate, free to air television is finding it increasingly difficult. So, all these restrictions in the end only going to affect their availability.

FIFIELD:
 
And, you know, it is consumers who will ultimately decide what it is they want to consume and how they want to consume it. Consumers will ultimately dictate the environment that operators are in so, I have a natural tilt towards consumers, it would be fair to say, but we also have to make sure that the rules of the game are well understood by all the players. It is difficult to have certainty in this environment but the players want to have the certainty of knowing what the ground rules are and that is entirely reasonable. So what I want to do is spend time talking to the various players to get a good understanding of what they really think. You can make assumptions what a particular proprietors wants, what particular providers think. But there is no substitute for actually sitting down and talking to them. I would dearly love, ultimately, to move forward here on the basis of consensus. But certainly, I think what a communications minister should endeavour to achieve is to get as many people onto the same page as possible.

KENNY:

Alright, well we will watch that space but I can't wait any longer, we have got to get onto the ABC and political bias. Now, you are in a good position now because the ABC had been very very kind to the incoming Turnbull regime. But well, if we are talking about consumers when all taxpayers fund the ABC how can we put up a situation where you know we have the likes of Fran Kelly, Philip Adams, Jon Faine, Tony Jones, Virginia Trioli, Barrie Cassidy. I mean, we can go on with a long list of them, all fine broadcasters but all of the left. All of progressive disposition. Why don't taxpayers deserve to actually see some plurality on ABC screens. A plurality of views and perspectives when it comes to the national political debate?

FIFIELD:

Well, Chris, I take it you are saying you are available to be on the couch on Insiders, I am sure that would be warmly received.

KENNY:

Can't do it, I'm afraid I am under, but, we are talking here about hosts and presenters and producers and you know we could list for ever and they are all progressives. They are all very good at their job but the ABC is bound under its charter to give us plurality. It actually says objectivity as well but we can't pretend we're going to slot everyone and say they are all centrists. So how about a bit of variety?

FIFIELD:

Variety is a good thing. You want to have a variety of voices, a variety of perspectives and the ABC have made some steps towards that over recent years

KENNY:

What have they done? Who is there conservative mainstream host or presenter?

FIFIELD:

Well, Amanda Vanstone has a slot.

KENNY:

An ex politician tucked away on Radio National.

FIFIELD:

Gerard Henderson on the panel on Insiders.

KENNY:

We spend $1 billion a year on this to give Gerard Henderson half an hour a month and Amanda Vanstone half an hour a week?

FIFIELD:

Well, Chris, look, I'm not here to defend the ABC. I am just making the point that there is a little more variety than there was perhaps five years ago. I mean, look I think my experience of the ABC, similar to yours and I think probably similar to the Australian public is a bit like that of a long-term relationship. You know, sometimes you just can't stand it. You don't want to be in the same room. Other times it drives you to distraction. Sometimes you can't get enough. But ultimately, you keep coming back because you want some more. That's the ABC.

KENNY:

Speaking of long-term relationships with the ABC then, let's speak about the relationship the ABC has had with Tony Abbott and the Coalition Government until this point, we have seen interview after interview with people like Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey and Scott Morrison weather has been interruptions and hissing and curled lips and frowning and all sorts of controversy as the ABC has gone very much on the attack. Well, Malcolm Turnbull turned up for his first interview with 730 as prime minister last week and we saw a slightly different perspective from the ABC. Have a look:

Prime Minister: … Consultative, and because, you know something, there are very few propositions or ideas that are not improved by engaging with others

Leigh Sales: I'm sorry [inaudible], you are not at the dispatch box and you are not at the bar so I have got to sneak in one more question before we run out of time

Prime Minister: one more question, sorry, sorry, sorry

Leigh Sales: I'm sorry to be rude like that too

Prime Minister: you are not being rude at all, quite understandable

Leigh Sales: no no no, I did cut you directly off

Prime Minister: that's fine

Leigh Sales: One quick question before we go, where do you intend to live in Sydney, in your residence or it Kirribilli?

KENNY:

Mitch Fifield, that gives the game away, doesn't it? Why the change?

FIFIELD:

Oh well, I guess the charm of interview subjects is a variable in any interview context. I remember I was chatting to Patricia Karvelas a little while back when Scott Morrison was the Social Services Minister. And Patricia said surely he won't have any chance of getting some of his pension budget measures through the Senate. And I said, you shouldn't underestimate the charm of Scott Morrison. And Patricia was a little surprised by that. But my own explanation is that a number of my colleagues have some charm that hasn't previously been appreciated.

KENNY:

Malcolm is indeed a charming man and a good media performer but you don't think he is more in sync perhaps, with his views on climate change and gay marriage, with the ABC corporate view?

FIFIELD:

No, look, I think Malcolm is one of those people you want to be very careful about trying to pigeonhole. He is someone with a broad range of interests. He is someone who has, I guess, a view of the economy which is orthodox, which is…

KENNY:

Indeed.

FIFIELD:

And I don't think the ABC would be necessarily always on the same page as him in those matters.

KENNY:

Indeed, we will wait and see how the ABC shaped up as the government beds down, but that was quite an illuminating interview. Just very briefly, before we go though, because of this new, new era I suppose and this new relationship between the ABC and the government there have been suggestions that the budget cuts sleighted over the next four years, I think it is for the ABC, might disappear, that you might find more money for them. Surely that's not the case, surely those budget cuts which are now in your portfolio will go ahead?

FIFIELD:

Well, the budget arrangements for the ABC were laid out in previous budgets. And they will continue. We will be having discussions with the ABC shortly about triennial funding arrangements. But look, I don't have any plans to change the funding for the ABC that has previously been announced.

KENNY:

Great, thanks very much your time, Mitch Fifield. I have really enjoyed the chat.

FIFIELD:

It has been good, Chris