Senator Alan Eggleston


Last week the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, announced legislation from the government which I think is no more than an attempt by this government to limit free speech. Freedom of speech is the most fundamental right in a democracy and it is one that we must all work to preserve at all costs. Of course, Senator Conroy is no stranger to controversial legislation. He is the minister who brought us—or, rather, some of us—the NBN, the botched Australia Network tender and, in a similar vein to this legislation, the dodgy internet filter.

Under this legislation Labor is proposing wide-ranging so-called 'reforms' that will regulate the media in Australia in a manner never before seen in this country. There are two key parts to this oppressive approach to government regulation. The first is a new public interest test to determine the future of proposed media mergers. Australia already has laws to protect diversity of voices, promote competition and prevent market concentration. These laws were passed in 2002 and protect diversity of ownership and diversity of content and preserve diversity of reach.

Obviously, technology has changed since 2002 with the growth of online services, so it is effectively impossible to limit the reach of online news services as provided under the cross-media ownership rules. But of course, on the net, diversity is just a mere click away as the user can access an endless number of news services from all over the world and so is guaranteed a diversity of opinion.

The existing cross-media ownership laws provide that the percentage of the market which can be reached by any one company in various combinations of delivery platform is 75 per cent of the population, thus providing diversity of ownership in various mediums around the country. However, as I said, freedom of speech remains the key public interest test of any kind of legislation to do with the media. Licensing introduces a factor of potentially undesirable government control, which might mean that if the editorial policy of the media concerned was not considered favourable in various degrees by the government of the day, revision of content might be required. Another word for that is censorship. So why is a new opportunity for political interference in media ownership needed? And what additional protections will this legislation provide? Senator Conroy will not even provide the form of words he plans to use to explain this, much less any rational arguments for this proposal.

The second part of this government attack on free speech is a new bureaucracy, the Public Interest Media Advocate, who would be appointed by the government of the day to oversight of the Press Council. You have to ask: why is this necessary? The Press Council is doing a very good job. The government seems to have taken a particularly warped view of the recommendations of the Finkelstein review, one of which was to create a news media council.

The bills that we are considering were referred to a committee last Thursday. Although the reporting date for the committee's findings is not until June, Senator Conroy is insisting that the legislation be passed by the end of this week. It is a move that reportedly has shocked some of his fellow Labor members who apparently want a full and open debate on this legislation—surprise, surprise!

Senator Jacinta Collins: Don't believe everything you read in the press!

Senator EGGLESTON: Well, I do hope they do, because as representatives of the Australian people we are here to discuss all the implications of any legislation, and having it pushed through without debate is something this government has a very bad reputation for doing. So, as I said, how can this haste be considered an appropriate way to consider significant and far-reaching public policy changes? The answer is that it cannot.

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—

Senator EGGLESTON: I beg your pardon?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Ignore the interjection.

Senator EGGLESTON: While it may not be embodied in a bill of rights, freedom of speech is the foundation upon which the many liberties we enjoy in this country are based. Freedom of association, freedom of religion and freedom of speech are all the hallmarks of a true democracy. Sadly, as I have said, freedom of speech is the very ideal this piece of legislation seeks to inhibit by threatening to impose a mechanism for government control of content on the historically free Australian media.

We can all cite examples of countries where freedom of the press and, therefore, freedom of speech is not afforded. We generally associate such societies with at least some degree of oppression where the state has undue influence and unfairly impedes the lives of its citizens. In this regard I read with interest the front-page article in the Weekend Australian last weekend. It quoted journalist Joseph Fernandez, who was the editor in chief of Malaysia's Daily Express for 14 years until 1992. Alarmingly, Mr Fernandez said that a reading of this legislation had him recalling his days as a journalist in Malaysia, where he lived under the threat of arrest and newspapers had to apply annually to have their licences renewed. Now the head of journalism at Curtin University, Mr Fernandez was quite clear in his views of these proposals, saying:

This legislation represents a raft of regulations with very serious consequences for the free exchange of ideas …

He added that parts of the legislation:

… potentially limit basic human rights to freedom of expression.

It is interesting to reflect on the fact that Australia is the only one of the five old Commonwealth countries which does not have some sort of formal legislated protection of basic freedoms including freedom of expression. The UK has the protection of the European Convention on Human Rights and the US has constitutional protection of freedom of expression, which in Canada and New Zealand is protected by a charter of rights. So, when we are faced with an attack on freedom of speech by an elected government in the form of legislation such as that which we are considering now, one has to wonder whether or not this legislation would even be up for discussion if Australia and the media had some sort of legal protection of freedom of speech, because this legislation would have run foul of that legal protection long ago.

The Gillard government has been threatening retaliation against its critics in the media for several years now. One has the feeling that perhaps this legislation might be renamed the 'News control legislation'—with a little bit of a reference to News Ltd, whose views on the Gillard government are perhaps not appreciated by the government but which are the views of cold, realistic analysis of the programs this government has sought to implement and the failure of its many policies.

In conclusion, any attempt to further regulate or circumscribe the media must be viewed with the greatest of suspicion. To paraphrase Seven West Media owner Kerry Stokes, we are sending free speech to the vet to be castrated. This legislation must be defeated or withdrawn in the interests of protecting the freedom of the press in Australia. 

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