Mornings with Steve Austin > Mitch Fifield, Liberal Senator for Victoria

CONTACT SENATOR FIFIELD

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Electorate Office
42 Florence Street
MENTONE VIC 3194

Phone: 03 9584 2455
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Parliament House Office
Parliament House
CANBERRA ACT 2600
Phone: 02 6277 7480




11-July-2017

 

Mornings with Steve Austin
612 ABC Brisbane
11 November 2017

8:30AM

 

E & OE

 

AUSTIN:

The National Broadband is rolling out around the country and as you know the Australian taxpayer will save millions of dollars and years of construction, according to the Government, by using the existing HFC network or that coaxial cable network to deliver NBN instead of digging up many streets out in front of more than 2 million homes. So at the time when we’re at the halfway mark Federal Communications Minister Mitch Fifield is in Brisbane and he joins me in the studio, it’s good to see you again Senator. Thanks for coming in.

FIFIELD:

Good to see you, Steve.

AUSTIN:

I want to ask you about Malcolm Turnbull’s comments in London overnight. When he gave the Disraeli lecture. The policy exchange public policy forum. He says the Liberal Party has quote never been a conservative party unquote. Do you agree?

FIFIELD:

I think what Malcolm did was give an orthodox articulation of the philosophical foundation of the Liberal Party. He’s right. The Liberal Party was not founded as a conservative party in the way that the United Kingdom Conservative Party was. The Liberal Party was established to be the custodian of two great traditions - the liberal tradition and the conservative tradition. And Malcolm made what I thought was the very good point that where you want to be in Australian politics is in the centre. And that’s where the Liberal Party of Australia is.

AUSTIN:

He said that Robert Menzies, Jeparit born in your State, I think not far from where you may have lived at one point. Was a moderate progressive leader that seemed to reflect Malcolm Turnbull’s own style. Was Menzies a moderate progressive leader?

FIFIELD:

I think he was certainly both those things in his time. He was someone who wanted to preserve that which was best, but looked to the future and looked to modernise. So I think that’s a very fair description.

AUSTIN:

He talks about being a centrist or at the centre of, sort of, policy debate in Australia. Where is the centre when the body politic has apparently moved to the left of the spectrum? Particularly in Canberra? Where is the centre today in Australia?

FIFIELD:

Canberra as an electorate is probably always a little bit to the left of the rest of the nation.

AUSTIN:

Its where all the bureaucrats live. All the public policy makers are, its where everyone meets. Where the Parliament meets. That’s why its quite often bashed by the states in Australia isn’t it?

FIFIELD:

But the great thing is that Australia’s politicians don’t live in Canberra. Unlike the United States where Members of Congress and Senators many are essentially based in the national capital, in Australia all of us go home to our electorates at the end of the sitting week. So I think we’re really lucky that Australian politicians are ingrained into their communities.

AUSTIN:

So are you a conservative or a liberal in the Federal Liberal Party?

FIFIELD:

I’ve always described myself as a centrist or as a Victorian Liberal. Tony Abbott when he was Prime Minister spoke about the importance of the sensible centre. And I like to think that’s where I am.

AUSTIN:

So what is a conservative in today’s Liberal party?

FIFIELD:

Look I don’t seek to apply labels to myself. I don’t seek to apply labels to my colleagues. I leave it to them to describe where it is that they line up philosophically. But the terrific thing about the Liberal Party is that we cover a broad cross section of the community. We do represent both the liberal and the conservative traditions.

AUSTIN:

I ask that because here in Queensland we are unique. Where you have a merged party. We’re the Liberal National Party here in Queensland. Elsewhere it’s the Liberal Party and the National’s. But here we’re the Liberal National Party. And this very issue causes that very same sort of friction here in Queensland that now appears to be bubbling to the surface in the rest of the country. So I want to ask you again. To define what conservatism is. Because is it more than just the Nationals joining the Liberals who are sort of the right of the Liberals or is it something else?

FIFIELD:

The National Party has a conservative stream throughout it. The Liberal Party has a conservative stream as well. In Queensland you have the unique creation of the LNP that brings within its structure that which we have in the Coalition Party Room. Of Liberals and Nationals together.

AUSTIN:

I don’t think you’re really answering my question.

FIFIELD:

Well look conservatism is in the eye of the beholder. Some people will describe conservatism in terms of their attitudes to social issues. Others will describe conservatism in terms of their attitudes towards budget management. Everyone describes themselves in their own way. For my part, I’m a centrist.

AUSTIN:

I’ll move on. You’re Communications Minister and Arts Minister for Australia. How does the Australian Government regard Google and Facebook? Do you have any concerns about their size and their diverse disruptive reach. That appears to be wiping out. Not wiping out, I’m sorry that’s an overstatement. Radically undermining the revenue streams of traditional media forms leading to unemployment and you having to suspend licence fees?

FIFIELD:

There’s no doubt that Google and Facebook are significant disruptors to the media environment. Ten, fifteen years ago the traditional platforms of print, radio and TV were realitively unchallenged. We now see significant shifts of revenue from those traditional media platforms to the online providers.

AUSTIN:

Are they media outlets?

FIFIELD:

Look they do perform media functions. People access information and access media through those platforms. So yes they do have a media aspect to them.

AUSTIN:

And they take the traditional media’s news and republish it as their own.

FIFIELD:

They do. And that can be both a cost and a benefit to traditional media organisations. And one of the things that I want to do, as you would know, to help traditional media platforms is to get our media reform package through the Parliament. You mention that there are tax cuts there, by way of licence fee reductions for broadcast radio and TV. We also want to get rid of some of our restrictive media ownership laws, to give Australian media organisations the capacity to reconfigure themselves in ways that will support their viability.

AUSTIN:

Most of the focus on the laws of Australia have been on the issue of ownership, prior to the arrival of the internet. But Facebook runs a TV, essentially. It’s Facebook Live, which we’re broadcasting you on Facebook Live now on the ABC Radio Brisbane Facebook Page. Apple is a TV station now. They have Apple TV specifically for the purpose of that. Amazon has a streaming service that is on Prime from memory. These are global reach broadcasters. Who are unregulated and normally a Government would try and have some sort of influence or control over what they do.

FIFIELD:

Well they’re a new platform. They’re a new medium. They don’t require licences as radio and TV do, to undertake the activities that they do.

AUSTIN:

Would you try and licence them if you could?

FIFIELD:

I’m not sure how you would seek to licence them because our licences are based on the use of spectrum. These operations such as Facebook and Google don’t use spectrum. So that would be a challenge. But one of the issue which is raised often with me by media of long standing are issues of copyright. That’s an area where there is great debate as to the relative strengths of rights holders, of content creators and those who use that material. So that is an ongoing debate and it's something that we’re looking at.

AUSTIN:

Do you have any concerns about the massive amounts of personal data that Google and Facebook compile on people that use their database?

FIFIELD:

There is the aggregation of personal data in a way that probably previously hasn’t happened in our history. It raises a range of privacy issues. These organisations have privacy policies and we want to make sure that they observe those.

AUSTIN:

It sounds like to me like that you don’t know what to do about it. Because, you know, they compile data, they use other people’s information. They spread fake news. And there is a Senate Inquiry into that very thing at the moment here in Australia. Which is interesting. But you don’t know how to regulate them. If this was a commercial or a traditional media. I mean the ABC has extraordinary restrictions and controls on what it presents, when it presents and how it presents it, how it answers public complaints. So does commercial media. But it’s like you just don’t know how to do it. or can’t do it to these global, multi-national mega wealthy companies that avoid paying tax.

FIFIELD:

One of the things that we’ve recognised is that these organisations need to pay tax where they undertake their economic activity. Which is why Scott Morrison has introduced the diverted profits tax. To make sure that if they seek to avoid tax that they should be paying in our jurisdiction then they will be hit. So that’s come into effect on the first of July. So that’s an important thing to do. We want to make sure that these sorts of outfits pay the tax that is due and that is liable.

AUSTIN:

So there is no regulation of content. While these is on ownership of traditional media in Australia?

FIFIELD:

There’s restriction on traditional media in Australia by way of ownership. There are content requirements as well. And part of what my media reform package seeks to do is to free up our Australian media organisations. Get rid of something called the two out of three rule. Which is something that was conceived in the late 1980’s what Kylie Minogue was still singing the Locomotion. It only recognises that there’s print, radio and TV. It doesn’t recognise that the internet exists. There aren’t media ownership restrictions on the internet. So I think part of the solution is to free up the ownership restrictions on traditional media.

AUSTIN:

So you don’t regard Google or Facebook or any of those guys as media outlets?

FIFIELD:

They are media outlets. And my point is that the media laws that we have at the moment don’t recognise that the internet even exists. So I’m approaching it from the other end. Rather than seeking to impose new media ownership restrictions I want to loosen those media ownership restrictions. So that print, radio, TV in Australia has the capacity to configure itself in ways to better support their viability. Because what I want to see are strong Australian media voices.

AUSTIN:

I’m asking you thing because Malcolm Turnbull went to the G20 and one of the things he wants is the encryptions key. That the Liberal Party the party of supposed freedom, actually wants to do what totalitarian governments do and say you must have no private communications. How can you be a Liberal Party and demand the encryption key for Google and Facebook and the like?

FIFIELD:

Well Steve that’s a completely wrong characterisation. At the moment, and in the pre-internet world, law enforcement agencies in Australia have had the capacity to seek warrants to tap phone communications. What we seek to do…

AUSTIN:

They had to go to a judge and show reasonable suspicion.

FIFIELD:

Correct, and all we’re seeking to do is to have that same approach apply to some of these encrypted forms of communication. That we shouldn’t have ungoverned spaces. It’s the same principle. Just because the technology changes it doesn’t mean that our law enforcement agencies shouldn’t have the same range of options to track down, to get evidence on and to convict those who are doing wrong.

AUSTIN:

Doesn’t it mean that Australian’s can’t have private communications?

FIFIELD:

No not at all. All that we’re seeking to do is to have the same sort of regime. The same sort of legal access. With warrants to the encrypted environment that there is to telephone communications. It’s exactly the same.

AUSTIN:

Alright I want to get to the NBN in just a moment but before I do that at a time when Senate Select Committee is examining public interest journalism in Australia and fake news. And that enquiry is underway. Are you concerned about this organisation, the ABC’s cut in local production? There’s a cut back in local produced content, material, particularly for TV a recent cut in religious broadcasting in a time when discussion about religious ideas are absolutely front and centre around the world. And this organisation is so desperate to try and find money and save money that it’s having to cut these core areas. Are you concerned about that?

FIFIELD:

Well the ABC shouldn’t have to cut its local production. The ABC gets the best part of a billion dollars each year. Yes there were savings...

AUSTIN:

And runs six radio stations, three televisions stations, one of the worlds most acclaimed internet websites.

FIFIELD:

All that is true. There were modest budget reductions when we first came into Government. But the ABC by any measure is still very well supported by the taxpayer. The ABC as with any organisation has to determine what its priorities are. I think one of the really encouraging things is the new content fund that the Managing Director of the ABC has sought to establish. I think that’s a good sign.

AUSTIN:

Very exciting. But my question was are you concerned about the cut in local production and the cut in religious broadcasting in the ABC?

FIFIELD:

Well from what I understand, the ABC isn’t cutting its religious broadcasting; it’s changing its internal management arrangements. But I always want to see more local content. One of the reasons why taxpayers so generously support the ABC is to have good, strong local content. I want to see that continue. The ABC is well resourced. There’s no reason why it can’t do that.

AUSTIN:

Stay with me if you would, I want to check the roads and I want to ask you about the National Broadband Network. My guest is Communciations Minister, Senator Mitch Fifield.

[NEWS BULLETIN]

AUSTIN:

Rosemary, lives in the suburb of Kenmore, Senator. The NBN was connected to her house three weeks ago, and since then everything has gone wrong. Here’s what she told me earlier this morning.

CALLER:

Since then, Telstra who are our service provider and NBNco numerous times. During that time, there’s a lot of finger pointing, kind of either way. We got to the point where we contacted the Communications Ombudsman, and also our local state MP. So about ten days ago we got a call from Telstra saying our case had been escalated, due to the intervention of our state MP and anyway, we haven’t really heard anything since. That gentleman actually phoned us yesterday after numerous emails and messages being left. We’re just very frustrated. We’ve got a son studying at university at the moment, and I myself am legally blind, so like a lot of people I rely on the internet for communication. We’re just not sure where to go from here.

AUSTIN:

That’s Rosemary, and her story is a common story. You have made much of the fact that it’s rolled out, that we’re at the halfway mark, but that in this city, for some reason, happens all the time. If I opened the phone lines up now, you’d be here all day. What’s going wrong with the NBN and their quality control?

FIFIELD:

I guess to start with, the scale of this rollout of this project, we’re essentially seeking to do over the best part of 6 to 8 years what took PMG, Telecom and Telstra the best part of 100 years to do. That is to rollout a network to connect the whole nation. NBN, say that they get things right the first time on about nine out of ten occasions. Now obviously, if you’re one of the one out of ten who has an experience that isn’t all that it should be, that's immensely frustrating. And I don’t want to diminish the adverse experience that any individual or any business has had. The experience that Rosemary has outlined is one that shouldn’t happen. People should have a seamless transition from their existing service to the NBN service. And I’d be happy if your producers could give us the details of Rosemary so that we can track down that particular case. I recognise that in a project of this scale, there will be things that go wrong. NBN is learning. The Retail Service Providers are learning. They are getting better. And we want to hear fewer and fewer cases like Rosemary’s.

AUSTIN:

In her case, the moment the NBN was connected she lost her broadband and lost her home phone. And three weeks down the track, still can’t hasn’t got it. She’s had to use her mobile phone, and she’s legally blind, a son at university, and a husband who works. Telstra blame the NBN, NBN blame Telstra. It goes to the Ombudsman, the Ombudsman says I can’t fix it. I could do one of those stories every single day. I’ve nearly done that. I’m sure you get the media sheets. I’ve nearly done that. There is a real frustration that seems to be no universal service obligation on the NBN. Is there? There is on Telstra for a phone provision. Is there a USO for broadband provision?

FIFIELD:

The mandate from the Government is to provide broadband to every premise in Australia. That’s their mandate. That's what they’re expected to do. They provide the wholesale network. And then the Retail Service Providers have the interaction with the customers and sell the customers the product. If someone has an issue, their first port of call should be their Retail Service Provider. Just as it is on the pre NBN network. On the pre NBN network people don’t call Telstra wholesale, they call Telstra retail, or they call the retailer that they have their service with. So it’s essentially the same model. The Retail Service Providers talk to NBN. If there’s a problem with the NBN network, then the Retail Service Provides are meant to be the point of contact for the consumer. But, clearly there are occasions where things go wrong. We want to know what those are. And we want to help Rosemary.

AUSTIN:

But there’s no Universal Service Obligation.

FIFIELD:

There is a universal obligation on the NBN to ensure that there is broadband available to every premise in Australia. Their objective is to provide a network to 11 million premises around the nation.

AUSTIN:

For broadband access.

FIFIELD:

For broadband access. That’s right.

AUSTIN:

Is the USO just applied to Telstra, or does it apply to all retail telecommunications providers that operate in Australia.

FIFIELD:

The Universal Service Obligation as it stands at the moment is something that was negotiated by Stephen Conroy and previous communications ministers. It was designed to provide fixed line voice services to people’s residences, and also to ensure that there were pay phones. That is, in the technical sense, what Universal Service Obligation is. We have an extra obligation, which we have given to the National Broadband Network to provide broadband nationwide. There hasn’t previously been a USO that relates to broadband. Something that might be of interest to you and your listeners is that…

AUSTIN:

Just to clarify. The USO is legislated for phone lines. But, is it the same thing for broadband access?

FIFIELD:

Well, we don't have a Universal Service Obligation for broadband in the way that there is a Universal Service Obligation for...

AUSTIN:

So the answer's no. Why not? Why don't we have that?

FIFIELD:

Well, we do in practice have one. It's called the NBN. We're spending $49 billion establishing it. NBN have a mandate from the Government to provide broadband to everyone. That is the practical reality.

AUSTIN:

But the mandate; is that the same thing as a legislated legal obligation that has enforceable provisions?

FIFIELD:

Well, NBN as a company has been set up, by law, with the purpose of providing fast broadband to every premise in Australia. Now, I was just about to mention. In parallel, we have commissioned the Productivity Commission to undertake a review of the historical, formal, Universal Service Obligation which was crafted in an era when broadband didn't have the penetration that it does now, and when mobile didn't exist. And the Productivity Commision, the report that we commissioned, has said that it is not fit for purpose. That we need to recraft that. And that's something that we're going to do.

AUSTIN:

People were very surprised that there was a fair response on this radio station when it was suggested by the Productivity Commission that we scrap the Universal Service Obligation. Mount Isa MP, so state MP Rob Katter has pointed out that people at his massive electorate in regional Queensland were, currently rely on fixed landline and live in a satellite footprint with no mobile phone coverage. They'll be forced onto a substandard, unreliable satellite voice service, and that service is regularly compromised by poor weather conditions, mains powers outages, and latency issues. In other words, by dropping the Universal Service Obligation, you'll be disadvantaging people in regional Queensland significantly?

FIFIELD:

No. We're not talking about dropping the Universal Service Obligation. What we're talking about is reshaping the Universal Service Obligation to reflect the world that we live in today. Now, one of the issues with the Telstra Universal Service Obligation, where about $300M a year goes to Telstra, is Stephen Conroy, when he was the Minister, negotiated that contract to go through to 2032. So, what we want to do is to renegotiate that. There is the opportunity for an early renegotiation of the contract. We have the body of work of the Productivity Commission. So, this is something that needs to be recrafted.

AUSTIN:

I'm asking you this because in Queensland we have significant cyclones and significant weather events and when the power goes out if you have a landline or a service provided by the NBN, you lose it. It has significant emergency knock-on implications. You might have one of those cordless home phones, but that only lasts for 20 minutes if it's got batteries in it. If it doesn't, you actually lose the ability to contact emergency services or someone in times of a significant weather event or cyclone. Once you lose the power supply, you actually lose the means of communications. What's being done about that?

FIFIELD:

Well, it doesn't matter if you're talking about the NBN network or the pre-NBN network. There's no guarantee that in times of power outage or natural disaster that either of those networks would operate. Now, I think what you're referring to is in the pre-NBN network, there's something that's known as a fortuitous benefit. And that is, that you could previously plug your analogue phone directly into the socket, and even if there was a power blackout in your home, you would be able to access the phone. Increasingly, even on the pre-NBN network most people have phones that require power. Where they plug into the wall. So, even on the pre-NBN network many many people's phones and devices would not work if there was a power blackout in their home.

AUSTIN:

Those old Telstra nodes had their own independent power supply that they often kept running for a couple of hours?

FIFIELD:

But, the phone devices that people have in their houses increasingly are ones that plug into mains power, so even on the pre-NBN network, many many many people's phones would not work.

AUSTIN:

So you don't think there are any concerns about this in times of emergency in Queensland?

FIFIELD:

Well, my message is that there is no communications network that is fail-safe in a time of natural disaster. You don't want to rely on any single form of communications or of informing yourself. So, it's important to have a charged mobile phone. It's important to make sure that you've got a transistor radio that you can flick on AM and listen to what's happening. The objective should be to get communications which get knocked out during natural disaster back online as soon as possible. But the message is, you shouldn't rely on any one mode.

AUSTIN:

I appreciate you giving me so much of your time this morning. We’ll pass onto your people Rosemary of Kenmore’s phone.

FIFIELD:

Appreciate that. Good to chat.

[ENDS]