Freedom of Speech, Media Diversity and the NBN: Address in Reply Speech

March 3, 2014

Mr TURNBULL (Wentworth—Minister for Communications) (15:37): I thank Her Excellency the Governor-General for outlining the direction and priorities of our new government: cutting taxes, reducing regulation, redefining the role of government and investing in 21st century broadband, roads and hospitals. If there is a single philosophical thread weaving all of these reforms together, surely it is this: that we are on our side of politics believe that the role of government is to enable citizens to do their best, whereas our opponents on the Labor side believe that government's role is to tell citizens what is best. The stark difference that we see again and again through every policy area bears out the importance and the significance of this distinction and the failures of the 'government knows best' approach which were so apparent in the last six years of Labor government. A touchstone of all of that is freedom, a belief in the individual, a belief that citizens, individuals, private businesses, are best able to chart their own destiny.

We see this very clearly in my own portfolio of communications. The rise of the Internet, which became commercial, I suppose, 20 years ago and has gathered more and more momentum and more and more coverage, has revolutionised the communications world and the media world. Our laws and regulations and assumptions were all based around a series of platforms: newspapers, magazines, licensed broadcasters in radio and television, subscription television whether on cable or satellite. These great platforms were the only means by which people could communicate to the mass market. They were the gatekeepers and they posed huge barriers to competition. Then the Internet came along and devastated all of that. It provided a very cost-effective platform for advertising and so undermined significantly, materially, the business model of newspapers, particularly those like the big metropolitan broadsheets of yesteryear, which depended on classified advertising. It takes on subscription television. People now can buy the programs, download the programs they want to watch when they want to watch them from the Internet. They do not have to buy a bundled package. Netflix arises to take on all of the cable TV companies in the United States and it has many imitators around the world. So these are revolutionary times.

We have all been very concerned especially about the damage to the newspaper business, not because any of us I hope are so naive as to be filled with a particular affection for newspapers or journalists as a group or proprietors as a group or shareholders of newspapers—all businesses have to deal with the travails of the world and adapt to them. But newspapers and journalists have a very fundamental role to play in our democracy, or I should say journalism does. The work that journalists do in a free media is just as important as any work that we do here in this chamber or in the other place as legislators or that the judiciary do or that the Public Service do in running the country. We cannot be a democracy without a free media. So the concern naturally was that as the resources were drained away from those newspapers which had been the big foundations of journalism so the quality of our democracy would diminish as the quality of journalism and the number of journalists, the resources available to journalism, were diminished too. That has been a matter of very real concern.

What we have also seen with the arrival of the Internet is an opening up of competition on a scale that would have previously been unimaginable. If you think back 20 or 30 years, the idea of there being new newspapers to compete with the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, the Daily Telegraph or the Melbourne Herald Sun was fanciful. Every now and then some rich person would try and start their own newspaper to take on one of the established ones but it was generally a very unsuccessful effort. I am thinking of Lang Hancock in Perth and Robert Holmes a Court for a period. But what the Internet has done is lowered the cost of entry into the media market. So the same time as we have been lamenting the demise of the great beasts of the media jungle we have seen more competition than ever. We have seen The Guardian Online, we have seen The Mail Online. We have seen the paper I launched on Friday, Morry Schwartz's Saturday Paper, and so many others—a host of them, too many to name. We have never had more competition and more diversity in our media world than we have today. Yet it is remarkable that under the previous government their obsession was with the technological constructs of the past. They said, 'Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation has the majority share of metropolitan daily newspaper circulation.' So it has had, for nearly 30 years since a Labor government enabled Mr Murdoch to buy the Herald and Weekly Times group. But that share of the total media and information pie represented by newspapers is getting smaller and smaller as more and more competitors come onto the scene.

Yet it was precisely at that time—when a media landscape that had been frozen for decades suddenly started to thaw and was open to so much competition—that the Labor government wanted to constrain freedom and regulate the media in a way it had never been regulated before in peacetime.

So there is a fundamental difference between the way I am approaching this portfolio of communications and, indeed, the way the government is approaching this area and its Labor predecessor. Labor believed that the arrival of the Internet required more regulation and less freedom. We say that the arrival of the Internet enables much more competition and therefore more freedom and that therefore there is a need for less regulation not more. You could not have a starker difference between our government and its predecessor, and the difference is that we believe in freedom.

I note in passing that some commentators on the Conservative or the right wing side of political debate have criticised me for launching Morry Schwartz's new paper The Saturday Paper on Friday. They apparently would like me to be—just as Senator Conroy was the minister for left wing communications or the minister for communications that agree with the Labor Party—the minister for right-wing communications or communications that agree with the Liberal Party. And that is not the case. I am the Minister for Communications. I am the minister that seeks to ensure that we have the freest and most diverse media we can possibly manage. I am the minister that wants to take away the barriers to competition wherever I can so that as many voices can speak out as possible, and whether they are left or right is of no concern to me in my capacity as the Minister for Communications. As the member for Wentworth seeking re-election I may be disappointed if the anti-Liberal forces in the media urge that I should not to be re-elected, fair enough—that will be distressing at election time. But in my ministerial capacity and in my role as the custodian of this vital portfolio in the government, my job is to stand up for freedom. Those who think that this Liberal minister should be like Senator Conroy and seek to persecute or suborn or bully those who do not agree with him have got it completely wrong—they are wrong in principle and they are wrong in practice. Everybody has a vested interest in freedom—everybody. Whether you are on the right or on the left you have a vital, vested interest in freedom. As I said in one brief comment on the weekend to one of these critics, mangling Bill Clinton: 'It's the democracy, stupid!' It's the democracy—that's what we are committed to.

You see another example of the Labor Party's big government obsession in their approach to broadband. The fundamental failure and mistake of the previous government—and it was a fundamental one and one that is impossible to reverse at this juncture—was to be genuinely mad enough to imagine that the government was the right agency to build a new telecommunications network. It was back to the days of the Postmaster General. Every other comparable country in the world in approaching the challenge of getting broadband services upgraded has done this: they have encouraged the private sector to do the job. They have provided judicious subsidies to ensure that people in remote or regional areas have their services upgraded where it otherwise would not be commercial to do so. And the virtue of that is that it ensures that the government was up for a certain amount of money, a sum certain. And all of the execution and construction risk, and the business risk, was left with the private sector. An excellent example of that—you do not have to look very far—is what John Key did in New Zealand, or, indeed, what the British Government has has done in the UK. There is a very long list.
So the craziness of the previous government's policy was right from the jump, having the hubris, in defiance of experience both in Australia and everywhere else, to imagine that the government was the best party to do the job. So, in Australia, in the socialist paradise of Senator Conroy and Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd , we had a situation where the execution and business risk of this vast project was entirely vested in the government, in the taxpayer, in other words, and the only people who got the cheque and have the certainty were in fact the telephone companies, Telstra and Optus, who sold their assets to the government—an extraordinary failure.

So it is no surprise that the project has run late. It has run over budget. Indeed, as Ziggy Switkowski observed, just last week, so far the NBN Co. has invested $6.4 billion of taxpayers' money and in its fibre rollout passed less than two per cent of the country.

The challenge that we have is that we are not in a position to turn back the clock. We are not in a position to undo all of the mistakes the Labor Party has made. So what we have to do is to mitigate the madness and to try to complete the project as quickly and cheaply and hence as affordably as possible. As I said in question time, one of the consequences of the Labor Party's approach of course would have been, had it been persevered with, that broadband prices would have been up to 80 per cent higher. There is no magic in that; there is nothing unusual in that: if you have a massively expensive, overcapitalised government monopoly, with no competition to keep it honest, you are going to get very high prices. You do not get cheap prices by overcapitalising a business, especially one that is a monopoly.

I noticed earlier, the member for McEwen speaking about his electorate and saying that people have been moving away because of lack of broadband.

He should really raise that with his colleagues, because in six years of Labor virtually nothing was done. There was the best part of two million premises without access to broadband in 2007, and there has only been a tiny chip into that in the intervening six years.

And then, I might say, with a chutzpah that is quite epic, he went on to complain that there were mobile phone black spots in his electorate. No doubt there are, and that is one of the reasons why the coalition government, the Abbott government, has allocated $100 million to address them—or to address as many as we can with that sum of money. But it is worth noting that in six years of the Labor government not one cent was spent to fix mobile black spots.

It is the same point about regional and remote broadband subsidies, in areas where there is no mobile phone reception. As we all know, this is by far the biggest complaint—as you would know in particular, Deputy Speaker, from your electorate of Maranoa—and by far the biggest telecommunications concern in rural and regional Australia. In those areas, of course, because of the small population, it is not necessarily economic for the telcos to make the investment, so there is a role for government, but in six years not one cent was spent by Labor on upgrading or addressing mobile phone black spots. But, to date, $6.4 billion has been invested by the NBN  in passing less than two per cent of premises in Australia.

I have spoken earlier about the other critical issue, but it bears repeating. It is this issue of affordability. It is no good having the best broadband technology in the world, which enables a household of six to engage in simultaneous high-definition interactive cybergaming across the world—there is no point having that—if battlers cannot afford it.

Mr Husic interjecting—

Mr TURNBULL: The member for Chifley is interjecting away there because he does not like to know the truth. The truth is that there are many people in his electorate who cannot afford broadband today, and he in his hubris has turned his back on them and supported a broadband policy that will make broadband less affordable than it is today. Forty-one per cent of the least well off households, the lowest income households, the households with the lowest 20 per cent of income in Australia, do not have access to the Internet at home. Four per cent of the top 20 per cent do. What do you reckon the difference is? I think it is all about affordability, don't you? You do not have to be a rocket scientist to work that out. And yet, there was Labor—in a manner calculated, inevitably—determined to make broadband less affordable than it already is. That was the inevitable consequence, as night follows day. If you overcapitalise a business and you render it immune from competition, that will result in higher prices. There is no alternative.

And that is the critical objective of our government when it comes to the NBN: to get this project finished, to ensure that people everywhere have access to very fast broadband, using the mix of technologies—in common with all of the other major developed countries: the United States, the UK, Germany, Belgium, France; take your pick—that will ensure that we have a broadband network that is built nearly four years sooner and $32 billion less expensively and, above all, to make it more affordable.

Labor's arrogant indifference to the position of the people that they claim to represent, the least well off Australians, is truly chilling. It really is truly chilling. Labor's policy would result in average broadband prices increasing by $43 a month, increasing by up to 80 per cent a month. That is the fact. They can run around, wave their arms and talk about gigabits and gigabytes. They can do all of that. They can talk about all these things, which most of them do not understand. And yet the bottom line is this, and we all know it, whether we are in big business or little business: you give the Labor Party a project like this to manage and they will make a hash of it. You overcapitalise a government monopoly and you will get higher prices, and the consequence is that a vital service which has been unaffordable for many to date will become unaffordable to many more in the future.

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