Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2020

17 February 2021

Mr HUSIC (Chifley) (18:37): We've heard repeated references to the value of diversity of opinion in this debate in terms of democracy and the role of media in facilitating diversity of views. I have to say there hasn't been too much diversity of views in this debate. For me to express them, I have to confess to you, Deputy Speaker, I am either crazy-brave, or I am just the dumbest politician in Canberra to want to put a number of views that run contrary to the overwhelming commentary that we have had in the media about this. I think it is important to have some things—


An honourable member interjecting—


Mr HUSIC: I do not want to be associated for the member for Hughes in doing so, I might add! I would like to make this point: in saying these things, the easiest thing for me to do as a member of parliament is just to back the media on these reforms. That is easy. I'll get heaps of coverage. It will all be good for me and will be pretty much like I have seen a lot of Liberal backbenchers—some of whom profess to be major supporters of tech—do through the course of this debate. It would be just the sweetest ride. It would be so good.


But I'm sorry, I'm not built that way and I've never approached politics in that way. Because from my point of view, I think we need to call out everything in this. Before I do, I just want to acknowledge this: when it comes to technology, I absolutely get that there are a number of major issues that need to be dealt with. Tech has, in large part, impacted on the media. I get that too. Google, specifically, revolutionised the way that people could advertise on their platform—cheap, widespread access for people to see those ads. There has been a lot of work to recognise that the platform and the advertiser, being one and the same company, have a competitive advantage over others. I totally get it. I absolutely understand that, and that's had to be a reform from a competition perspective. There is a serious market power that has been accrued because of the way in which those platforms lever off the network effect. They bring a lot of consumers and producers together at once, and they just keep growing and growing and growing. This has generated massive amounts of data that, in this day and age, as people have described elsewhere, is the 'new oil' that is making businesses function. That data has fuelled a lot of growth in those companies, it has fuelled a concentration of market power, and it has made these big firms continue to grow bigger and bigger and bigger. With that data come massive privacy issues too. It's not just going to be on the tech side; there are a lot of businesses now that gather up data and use it in ways that, if the general public knew exactly how it was being used, they would be deeply concerned about. So privacy reform is another big issue.


In terms of competition law, from the point of view of big tech players swallowing up smaller firms that might be potential rivals, that's a big issue as well. The ACCC identified it in this landmark report, and there's a lot in that report. I said it was a landmark report when it was first released, and I still believe it is. There's also a challenge to competition law in an environment where tech actually has a deflationary impact, because a lot of the things that are provided by tech are provided for free. So there's a deflationary impact, and those firms don't necessarily immediately benefit from that, whereas competition law is about the impact: if there is a detrimental impact on a consumer, that's when competition law kicks in. So there's a longer-term reform of competition law that has to happen as well. There are the health impacts of tech addiction, too.


So there are a lot of things that we need to be able to deal with in the technology space. I get all that. But do you think for one minute that a conservative government would seriously tackle all those issues? No way. They would never reform competition law or undertake any of the things necessary. I challenge them, actually, if they're serious about privacy, to challenge the way in which the general public's data—in having a benefit for the general citizenry, not as a consumer but as a citizen—is used. I will wait a long time, and I suspect many members in this place will wait a long time, for that to happen, right? That's that, too.


The platforms themselves have opened up new ways to express yourself, and I certainly do value, as a parliamentarian, the ability to use social media to reach new audiences. But I've got genuine concerns about our



ability to have diverse views heard in one of the most concentrated media markets on the planet. We have one of the most concentrated media markets on the planet, and that does impact on the diversity of views, massively. If we are told in this debate that these reforms are important and that the tech players have an impact on democracy, on the diversity of views and on the ability of the media to operate in that environment, then I want a fair dinkum assessment, too, about the concentration of media in this country that prevents a diversity of views. That's never going to happen from that side of politics. Never, ever, is it going to happen from that side of politics. And not for one minute do I think that side of politics has got a new-found commitment to transparency and openness. FOI laws, freedom of information laws, have been run into the ground. Parliamentary question time has been run into a joke. The PM flicks more questions to other ministers than he answers himself, and he won't be accountable. At estimates processes, we have more questions taken on notice than answered, I reckon. Estimates, and the transparency that is provided by estimates, has been thwarted by this government. We still don't have a national integrity commission, two years after it was promised. So don't tell me for a minute that that side of politics has suddenly dressed itself up as the champion of democracy, wanting to see diverse views flourish in an open environment. Give me a break.


The biggest thing, and the thing I'm most deeply uncomfortable about, in this entire debate is the way in which big interests can use competition law in their own interests. It is the big interests that have driven competition law on this. The ACCC has never stepped in to deal with the concentration of media in this country. I don't see it. Have they forced any divestment? No. Any time there is a potential merger, the view is largely that it's going to be in the public interests because those media outlets might fall apart. This government certainly hasn't presided over media diversity—quite the contrary. Two hundred newspapers have closed, as the shadow minister for communications pointed out; hundreds of journalists' jobs have been lost; 21 local government areas are without coverage from a single local newspaper, print or online; and media diversity in regional or remote areas is already at or below the minimum number of voices in 68 per cent of licence areas. The government recently admitted signs of market failure in regional commercial television broadcasting and we've had regional media organisations launching campaigns, begotten by years of government inaction and neglect, as indicated by the shadow minister for communications. The ACCC hasn't stepped in to deal with concentration.


They've certainly never stepped in to help small business get a better deal out of the big media players on advertising. We've talked a lot about advertising in this debate and the impact on media. When has the ACCC ever stood in for the small players? In regional markets, they absolutely can get onto regional TV networks and in regional papers, but not in the cities, because they're squeezed out. They're either squeezed out through a combination of sweetheart deals or the pricing is driven so high that a small business can't get in. I've never seen the ACCC deal with that—never—and we've never seen the government do it.


Does anyone really believe that the government did this for anything other than big interests in the media? As much as we talk about big tech, let's talk about big media. This conservative government did not do this process on behalf of The Guardian or The New Daily or Schwartz Media and The Saturday Paper. They never did it for them. Let's say it: they did it for the bigger interests in media. They did it for News Corp, they did it for Fairfax, they did it for the big commercial free-to-airs. That's what they did it for.


So I absolutely support that journalists should get paid for their content. I totally do. But in many instances, these jokers—sorry, the government—wouldn't know what they're talking about. If this content is on a subscription basis, you'll either get a limited number of free views, in some cases, or you'll hit a paywall. I remember pleading with News Corp when they operated local newspapers in my area, 'Please do not put local papers behind a paywall.' The local community never paid for those papers. The papers were delivered to homes less, but they didn't pay for them. If it's behind a paywall, you're never going to see local information. But they put everything behind a paywall, so you paid for content or you had a limited number of views and then you had to get a subscription.


What we are talking about here is the two-way value proposition. Google, as a big search engine, does absolutely get commercial benefit when they lob up a reputable newspaper in response to one of your search queries. They absolutely get commercial value, but so does the newspaper. So does the media outlet if they are prioritised because of their reputation. So the two-way value proposition is what it's all about. Unfortunately, in terms of Google News Showcase—many people may be unaware of what it looks like; Google will hate me saying this, but it looks like Apple News—it's the curation. The news outlets will get paid the licensing fees and the curation costs. It's a good deal for the news outlets and a good deal for Google. It's also a good deal for all of them to sidestep the complex horror of this code that would have been a legal nightmare. It is in their interests, from



the media perspective, to sidestep all of those costs, and it is also in the interests of Google not to have to go through that.


My good friend the member for Lyons raised this. I've known him for many years and I respect a lot of the things he has raised, but I think it's important to say this. Richard Holden, who's the professor of economics at UNSW Business School—and don't think he's a Labor-friendly person; he's stuck it to us and them, so he's pretty impartial—said in the Fin Review:


Consulting firm AlphaBeta showed that between 2002 and 2018, newspaper revenue fell from $4.4 billion per year to $3.0 billion. That is indeed a very substantial decline. But the overwhelming majority of this came from the loss of classified advertising, which fell from $1.5 billion in 2002 to just $0.2 billion in 2018.


Did the revenue go to the tech companies? No, it went to the online players. Bear in mind that there's not much acknowledgement by the media companies that they shunted off a lot of their classified advertising into or They made those decisions. They make the decisions as to which audiences they chase, how big that audience will be and whether or not it will sustain them. They make them. As Holden says:


The bottom line is that newspapers used to have their own monopoly—on classified advertising. And a technological innovation—the internet—destroyed that monopoly.


But the big tech companies were not the winners, because it didn't all flow to the Googles and Facebooks; it went elsewhere. That's the big thing that needs to be recognised.


So there's a lot in there. But here's the thing: out of all this effort and all this money that's being sloshed around right now, we're told that in one year's time it's going to be review. Yeah, right! I'm sure that the government, going into an election year, is going to do a review on this that's contrary to the media. I'm sure that's going to happen! It's not, by the way. What I want to be absolutely certain about is this: Does this code lead to more journalists? Does this code lead to better-paid journalists, meaning we're getting quality coming in and we're holding onto the quality that's there? Will it just mean that there is a transfer of wealth, out of the tech firms and into the shareholders, and we never seen the benefit out of it? Because if that's what happens then this whole process is a joke. If we do not see more journalism, more independent outlets, more avenues, more diversity and more strengthening of the role of media in this democracy, if it all goes to shareholders, this process will have been an utter joke. If that happens it should be called out. I don't think we're going to find that out in a year's time, because judging by the government's performance on this—they were so slow to bring this to the table—I doubt very much they're going to bring that in. But I tell you what: there are some of us that are watching, and we will see if this genuinely leads to more and better journalism. I am all in favour of those revenues going towards that, but I'm not in favour of a transfer of wealth. (Time expired)