RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly
ABC Radio National
8 August 2017
E & OE
Mitch Fifield is the Communications
Minister, he joins us from our Parliament House studios. It's a busy place this
morning. Minister, welcome to breakfast.
Good morning, Fran.
It's crunch time for you and this
media bill. You're in talks with Pauline Hanson, the Greens, and Nick Xenophon.
How close are you to a deal to pass the media reforms?
Well, I'm having very good
discussions with those three parties. They've shown a real willingness to
engage constructively. And that's been our experience with the Senate crossbench
in this Parliament. That they've been willing to entertain good propositions
and we've had good success in getting their support for a number of those. I
always have a policy of not commenting on the specifics of those negotiations.
But they're ongoing. I guess the great disappointment for me in this is that
the Labor Party have completely absented themselves. They voted against the
entire package in the House of Representatives. They have no interest in
ensuring that we have strong Australian media voices.
Labor is opposed to the
two-out-of-three ownership rule. Many people have concerns with that. That's
the rule that prevents one entity from owning a TV station, a radio network,
and a newspaper in the same market. Crossbenchers have been worried about it
too until now, worried about a lack of diversity. What concessions can you
signal, or have you made, or could be offered to get them across the line on
this and reassure them about this lack of diversity they're concerned about?
I think the first point is that the
greatest threat to media diversity in Australia would be the failure of an
Australian media organisation which is why this package is all about giving
them more options. Getting rid the 75% audience reach rule and the two-out-of-three
rule is about giving more options to media organisations as to how they
configure themselves to support their viability. But we will still have
important diversity protections. We're not going to get rid of the
two-to-a-market-rule, the one-to-a-market-rule or something called the 5-4 of
voices rule which says that you've got to have five independent media voices in
metro areas and four independent voices in rural areas. And that is…
Is the fate of Channel Ten one of
your trump cards here when you're talking to the crossbench because the
two-out-of-three rule would clear the way for Channel Ten's major shareholders
Lachlan Murdoch and Bruce Gordon to take over the network. Murdoch and Gordon
have already taken their proposed bid to the ACCC for clearance. Though some
media analysts say that they should be investigated by ACMA about whether they
effectively force the board into administration.
I don't comment on regulatory
matters. But Channel 10 have been at the forefront of arguing for the abolition
of the two-out-of-three and the abolition of reach. And the reason being that
they want to have the option of more dance partners. We can't pretend that the
media landscape is the same as it was when these media laws were designed. They
were designed in an era before the internet existed. Australian media
organisations - print, radio, TV - are facing unprecedented competition from
online platforms. What we want to do is provide a shot in the arm for
Australian media organisations. And I'm very pleased that the Senate crossbench
recognises that this is a real issue and that they're prepared to work
constructively with the Government.
Just on that, I mean social media
giants Facebook and Google hoover up around $3 billion in advertising revenue
by as Nick Xenophon puts it “cannibalising the content of Australian media
organisations” and he wants a review of the way in which Facebook and Google
distribute original content produced by third parties. And into the effect
they're having on genuine news publishers. Is this a good idea, would that be
timely, a review into this?
There's no doubt that these platforms
are providing huge competition. These aggregators of media and there are a
Well, in fact, it's almost not
competitive, they're so huge now, that’s the point being made by Nick Xenophon,
the Greens, and others.
And there a number of propositions
that are raised when we're talking about this. Some people raise issues of
copyright law. Some people raise issues of taxation. Others will look at this
from the point of view of competition policy. So, these are areas where some of
my crossbench colleagues are keen to talk. And I'm willing to do that.
So you could consider a review?
Well, we're having propositions put
to us by crossbench colleagues. And I always consider the propositions that
they put forward.
Nick Xenophon's also proposing a 40%
tax break for smaller publishers to encourage them to employ more journalists.
The argument is quality journalism is being squeezed out by the new media
landscape. Would it be in everyone's interest to encourage employers to expand
rather than shrink their newsrooms? Is there a role for Government or tax
policy in this?
We want to see strong media
organisations. And part of that is strong newsrooms continuing to employ
journalists. That's part of the basis of our media reform package, that you've
got media organisations that are more viable, that can configure themselves in
ways that support their viability. In the case of free-to-air broadcasters
we're looking to get rid of those licence fees that they pay and put a more
modest spectrum charge in place. This is all about helping their viability, making
sure that they're in a better position to conduct their business. And part of
that is employing journalists to continue to hold us all to account.
Would the Government consider something
like a tax break for smaller publishers if they're hiring more journalists?
Well as I say, I'm not in the
business of providing a commentary on discussions that I'm having with the
crossbench. But Nick Xenophon has been public about some of the things that
he's putting to us.
Let me try one more. One Nation is
apparently pushing for funding cuts to the ABC and SBS with the money to be
used to better service remote and regional radio services. Are you inclined to
agree to a spending review of the public broadcasters in return for
One Nation votes?
We haven't entered any agreements
with any parties. We did lay out in the Budget before last the ABC's triennial funding.
That wasn't altered in the last Budget. That's the fact. But I think it's
important to acknowledge the work that Michelle Guthrie has done within the ABC
where she’s created a new content fund and part of the purpose of that is to
employ more regional journalists. And I think that's great.
You're listening to RM Breakfast. Our
guest is the federal Communications Minister Mitch Fifield. Minister, can I
turn to the ongoing debate and fury, really, around the National Broadband
Network. Last week you asked ACMA to try to get to the bottom of the speed
issues and the dropouts that customers are complaining about long and loud at
the moment. Once that research is done, what happens then? Who's going to step
in to resolve these issues?
There's no one solution to the range
of issues that have been raised about the NBN. What we've asked ACMA to do is
to get more information from the retailers and more information from consumers
about what the experiences have been in terms of connections, what the
experiences have been in terms of fault resolution. We want to have maximum
transparency. When you've got maximum transparency that means it's easier to
see where responsibility lies. When NBN needs to lift its game and when retail
service providers need to lift their game.
Some people think it's very clear
where the responsibility arrives because a lot of the trouble seems to stem
from the fact that the retailers, according to the NBN aren't buying enough
bandwidth to service their customers and keep them happy. Retailers say that's
because the fees are too high. And the fees are high. The connectivity virtual
circuit, the CVC fees are high by international standards and they're high
because the NBN has to pay back the Government its $49 billion investment in
the network. So, that would suggest the Government's to blame?
Well, I think when you look at the
finances of the NBN the internal rate of return that the NBN is aiming for
between 3.2% and 3.7% is a very modest return. It's about 1% above the
long-term inflation rate. And, we definitely want NBN to be in a position where
it can cover its costs. We definitely want NBN to be in a position where in the
medium to long term, they've got the capacity to pursue upgrade paths. Because
technology doesn't stand still. You've got to always be prepared to make
provision for that. But Fran, we also need to take a step back and recognise
that there will always be debate between wholesalers and retailers. There have
never been retailers who’ve said that the price charged by a wholesaler is
No, that's true but it's pretty easy
to see that our costs for data are higher than international costs and the
reason is because of the CVC charge. I mean, if the NBN can't cover
its costs and the end result of that is that consumers without the consumers
paying a lot more money for the speeds they have been getting, let along faster
speeds. Would the Government consider dropping or changing the requirement for
the NBN to make a commercial return?
Well, Fran, we should recognise that
what's known as the CVC charge which is what's in discussion, isn't set in
stone. It started off at about $20. It's come down to $14. NBN have revised it
a number of times with a new retail discount model that NBN introduced in the
middle of the year, that CVC charge can be as low as $8. That charge is not set
in stone. NBN have it under constant review. They're reviewing it at the
moment. So, this is something that’ll work through.
Mitch Fifield, thank you very much
for joining us.
Good to be with you, Fran.