ABC Mornings with Raf Epstein > Mitch Fifield, Liberal Senator for Victoria

CONTACT SENATOR FIFIELD

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42 Florence Street
MENTONE VIC 3194

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08-August-2017

774 ABC Melbourne
7 August 2017

8.30am

E & OE

RAF EPSTEIN:

There are a series of meetings as our politicians return to Canberra. The Liberal Party will meet on their own; Cabinet too will consider the issue of same-sex marriage. The Communications Minister is Senator Mitch Fifield. He's a Liberal Senator from the state of Victoria. Minister, good morning.

I thought we had the Communications Minister Mitch Fifield?

FIFIELD:

I'm here, good morning, Raf!

EPSTEIN:

And I can hear you. That's good. Things are going to plan so far. Can we start, though, with the issue raised by the Mornings program? Jon Faine and his producer Dan Ziffer put in an FOI request with a simple question, for any documents between your department and Fox Sports. So the further question is, was there any correspondence at all between the Government and Fox Sports, written communication before the decision was made?

FIFIELD:

The scope of the FOI request to my department, Raf, was a very narrow one. It only sought correspondence between my department and Foxtel about the formulation of the Budget measure. And, you're right, the department determined that there were no documents that met that description. But given this measure was developed as part of the last Budget, it's not unusual that there's no correspondence of that type.

EPSTEIN:

So, was their correspondence between the Government as a whole? Any part of the Government and Fox Sports before the decision was made to give them the money?

FIFIELD:

Well, Raf, the Budget process is a contained process. And due to that fact, there tend not to be letters flying all around the place in the preparation of Budget measures. We have a Budget process. We go through it. That was gone through in relation to this measure.

EPSTEIN:

Sorry, does that mean that you decided to spend $30 million without any paperwork going between Fox Sports and any part of the Government?

FIFIELD:

Well, Raf, the budget process has many inputs. The budget process is what's called 'Budget in confidence' so, obviously, there are papers which are prepared in the consideration of matters…

EPSTEIN:

No, I understand. So can I be really specific with my question? Forgive the interruption. I understand that there are Cabinet documents we don't get access to, that's fine. I'm just trying to establish, before you decided to give them $30 million, and you can do what you like, you're in charge. But before you made that decision, was there any paperwork between the company getting the money, Fox Sports, and the Government?

FIFIELD:

Raf. I can't really go further than I did before to say that there are a range of documents which go to Cabinet in consideration of Budget matters. The FOI request from the ABC to my department was a very narrow and a very specific one in relation to correspondence between my department and Foxtel.

EPSTEIN:

So, Minister, I don't understand why you can't tell me whether or not there was written communication before you made the decision?

FIFIELD:

Well, look, Raf, I'm not endeavouring to be difficult here…


EPSTEIN:

Perhaps I should ask you if you can't, or you won't? Is it that you won't answer?


FIFIELD:

Well, Raf, the first comment I made to you on this matter was that it is not unusual that in the context of the preparation of Budget measures, that there isn't correspondence between the Government and stakeholders.

EPSTEIN:

Why don't I ask who made the decision? Who made the decision to give the $30 million?

FIFIELD:

It was a decision of the Government. It was a decision of the Cabinet. This was something which was determined as part of the process for the last Budget. But let me put it in some context for you, Raf, if I may. The media reform package that we have was all about delivering two community dividends. The first was stronger Australian media organisations. And the way that we're seeking to give effect to that is through the abolition of TV and radio licence fees for free-to-airs and replacing those with a more modest spectrum charge. The other element of helping to create stronger Australian media voices is to remove some of the outdated media ownership laws that we have.

The second community dividend that we sought through the media reform package was the restriction on gambling advertising during live sport. And this is where it's important to look at the media reform package as a whole. In the context where part of the package was about significantly curtailing gambling advertising, and therefore TV revenues, as a Government, we recognised that the free-to-air TV operators have the opportunity to offset some revenue losses against the licence fee reduction part of the package. But we also recognise that subscription TV has a different operating environment. They don't pay licence fees, and therefore they don't have the same offset opportunity. And what we as a Government didn't want to see happen was that the effects of a decision in one part of the package, such as the gambling ad restrictions, would be to the detriment of women's sports coverage on subscription TV and recognising that the majority of women's sports coverage takes place on subscription TV. So, it's important to look at this as the entirety of the media package.

EPSTEIN:

So I hear that if you reduce gambling advertising, there are less ways that television stations can make money. And I hear you saying that Channel Seven, Nine, and Ten received a discount. Are you telling us that you gave Fox Sports $30 million because there was no licence fee to come?

FIFIELD:

Well, we recognised that they have a different operating environment. And we didn't want decisions in one part of our package to be to the detriment of the coverage of women's sport. And in fact, we wanted to see an enhancement of women's sport…

EPSTEIN:

Can I stop you there, Minister. Because you did say that. Are you telling us that because you gave the free-to-airs a discount, they paid less in a licence fee. You had to give Fox Sports money or they threatened to not cover women's sport?

FIFIELD:

No. What I was saying is that you've got to look at this package as a whole. We had two objectives. We wanted to deliver two community dividends. The first was stronger Australian media voices. And the second was a further restriction on gambling advertising during live sports. Now, we recognise that free-to-air and subscription TV both have different operating environments. And what we didn't want to see is that there was any detriment to the coverage of women's sport. And in fact, we wanted to see this as an opportunity to help improve the coverage of women's sport.


EPSTEIN:

So if you wanted improve the coverage of women's sport, did you offer any other broadcaster the chance to access that money?

FIFIELD:

Well, the decision that we took was that we would enter a funding deed with Fox Sports…

EPSTEIN:

Can I get an answer to that question though? Did you, did any other broadcaster- your clear, intention to me this morning is that you're either wanting to maintain or improve the coverage of women's sport. Did you offer that opportunity to any other broadcaster?

FIFIELD:

Well, the offer is to Fox Sport. That was a decision that was taken in the Budget. I know some people will reference the ABC. The ABC gets in excess of a billion dollars every year. What we're talking about here, in relation to Fox Sport, is $7.5 million a year for four years, terminating. Now, it's important to recognise that Fox Sport, at the moment, covers 70% of all women's sport. Something of the order of 80% or women's tennis. Almost all of women's golf…

EPSTEIN:

And most Australians can't watch it 'cause it's on pay TV.

FIFIELD:

65% of women's basketball. So the bulk of women's sports coverage takes place on Fox Sports. We wanted to take this opportunity to further enhance the coverage of women's sport.

EPSTEIN:

So it does sound like that we as taxpayers are handing them money so they can charge us to watch women's sport.

FIFIELD:

There are a range of platforms which cover sport. There are a range of platforms which cover women's sport.


EPSTEIN:

But you just told us that most of the women's sport is on pay TV. The obvious- I mean that is what's happening. We're paying them so they can charge us to watch women's sport.

FIFIELD:

Raf, if you'll let me continue. There are women's sports on a range of media platforms. But, Fox Sport is in a good position to further enhance the coverage of women's sport. They've got four dedicated sports channels. They've got a good track record of providing access to lower profile sports that get little or no coverage on free-to-air.

EPSTEIN:

Mitch Fifield is the Minister for Communications. Delighting in the pleasures of his portfolio on ABC Radio Melbourne. Minister, we'll get to people's calls. 1300 222 774. You've got a series of meetings this afternoon. Is there any chance of a free vote outcome from this series of meetings?

FIFIELD:

Today's meeting is an opportunity for my colleagues to have their say on this issue. The Party Room is the appropriate forum for colleagues to put their views. Now, first and foremost, Raf, we are a Government that is about keeping its election commitments. We told the Australian people that they would get the opportunity to have their say and we remain committed to that happening. But a number of colleagues have said that they would like the opportunity to put forward a proposition for an alternative pathway. We respect the views of our colleagues and they're being provided the opportunity to put their view.

EPSTEIN:

I just wonder if there is a chance because it looks like we'll have to pay as taxpayers again to resolve your party's internal disputes.

FIFIELD:

Well, we took to the election, Raf, a very clear commitment that we would have a plebiscite. That the Australian people would be given the chance to have their say. We put that proposition to the people. We were elected. We put that proposition to the Parliament and Bill Shorten sought to deny us, as the elected Government, the opportunity to give effect to that election commitment. We still think that it's appropriate that when you're talking about an institution that has been in place for a very long time, that there be a higher threshold of community engagement when it comes to taking a decision in relation to that. Bill Shorten is the person who is stopping us from giving effect to that election commitment. I still think that he should change his mind. I still think that he should allow that plebiscite to happen. He hasn't done that. But it does weigh very heavily on us, the commitment that we made at the election.

EPSTEIN:

Can I just put the counter-argument to you? The polls show this is not a priority issue for most voters. In fact, the Prime Minister said last week in Perth only about 1 in 100 people ask him about it. But you want taxpayers to pay $100 million for a plebiscite and you're also having an extra party room meeting to deal with something that you say is a low priority issue. I mean the counter-argument is that you're tying yourselves in knots and spending our money to resolve your internal differences. What do you say to that?

FIFIELD:

What I say very simply is that elections are about parties putting propositions to the people. We put a proposition to the people for a plebiscite. The Australian people endorsed that proposition at the election it would be passing strange if we didn't take our election commitments seriously. And it would be passing strange if we didn't seek to give effect to our election commitments. That is what we sought to do. We put legislation into the Parliament. It passed the House of Representatives, Bill Shorten thwarted it in the Australian Senate, seeking to deny us the chance to give effect to our election commitment. Now, election commitments are serious things. They weigh heavily upon us. It is our view that the Australian people should have their chance to have their say. As I've mentioned, and as you know, there are colleagues that want to put a different pathway forward. And the great tradition of the Liberal Party is that our Party Room is a robust forum where any colleague can raise ideas that they want to. And the Prime Minister is giving his colleagues the opportunity to do that, to have a respectful debate. But it does weigh heavily upon us the commitment that we did make at the election.

EPSTEIN

I hope you enjoy the meeting this afternoon, thanks for joining us.

FIFIELD:

Thanks, Raf.

 

[ends]