This rule is one of the reasons I am not allowed an office cat at parliament house.
And that’s that for Paul Fletcher.
Daniel Hurst will have a story on that for you soon.
Back to Paul Fletcher for one last question:
Q: Just on some of the laws that the Right to Know campaign want to change. One of them is around defamation which was touch on earlier. I wondered in your opinion, there’s a lot of people in the sector who say that it is no longer fit for purpose. Do you still think that the defamation laws in this country are still acting as they’re intended to?
Defamation is a very complex area, and to be honest with you, I’m not going to venture an opinion on it.
The policy responsibility for the area primarily sits with the attorney general and the commonwealth government, and actual frankly, attorney generals, because the state laws to a material extent.
Clearly, I have an interest as communications minister in having a vigorous media sector. But beyond that, I’m not going to wade into what is a very complex area unless and until I’ve done the recognise which amount of study that mix me feel my opinions are worth expressing.
There have been, surprisingly, no arrests made yet at a protest against the federal government’s changes to higher education policy, held today at the University of Sydney.
Previously, dozens of students and staff have been arrested and fined at earlier protests held at the university, even as they stuck to groups smaller than 20.
Yesterday, staff spoke out against “undemocratic” behaviour from NSW police, saying it was suppressing freedom of speech to arrest protestors under Covid regulations, while letting other students have lunch, or even attend classes of 30 to 40 people.
Today, the protest has coincided with an outdoor teaching event, held by staff, who are delivering lectures on the importance of protest, the issues with university casualisation and other criticism of the higher ed changes.
There are over a hundred students and attendees sitting outdoors listening currently.
The student newspaper, Honi Soit, report that the university asked the police not to break this event up today.
Friends and readers in the arts, feel free to respond.
Q: So ministerial responsibility – could you explain what it actually means?
Let’s take the questions one at a time. So let’s come to your question about jobkeeper. The facts are clear, there’s been about $330m paid out through jobkeeper for people who are in what’s called the performing and creative arts subsector. That’s at Australian Bureau of Statistic’s terminology. There’s about 40,000 people in that subsector. About two third of them are getting jobkeeper. When you look at the job types of people in the sector, about 99% are eligible for jobkeeper.
So this line that jobkeeper is not well adapted to people in the arts sector is completely wrong.
It’s a Labor talking point.
It does not stack up with the evidence and over $330m has been paid out to people working in the performing and creative arts.
On the question of ministerial responsibility – the point that I would make is that the focus of the auditor general’s report, rightly, was that officials at a certain level within the department provided a misleading brief, an inadequate brief to the deputy secretary, who was the decision making minister. The deputy secretary made the decision – not the minister.
And it’s very clear from the auditor general’s own conclusions – not my conclusions but the auditor general, that what was provided to the deputy secretary and what went to the minister was seriously deficient.
Q: A simple yes, no and don’t know. Firstly in regard to a follow up from the question. Isn’t the doctrine of ministerial responsibility actually that you are responsible for what happens within your ministry? And haven’t you failed to actually follow that through by doing nothing about the auditor general’s report?
Secondly – in regard to Annika Smethurst’s issue – you have said how concerned you’ve been over the last 11 months about the raids on journalists, but the reality is that you have done absolutely nothing. Is that correct or not?
And thirdly – in regard to your other portfolio, which is arts – we know for example that ushers in cinemas receiving jobkeeper – isn’t it true that there has been no special support for the arts ministry, for those people who are actually producing content and contributing to the arts in Australia? You asked for a simple answer.
My answer to all three of these is no. I disagree on all three.
Q: What are you doing about phone scammers who are terrorising people, pretending to be from the Tax Office, threatening people with arrest and what not, if they don’t hand over money. It is actually a thing at the moment?
Yes, we do have a significant issue with scams. The ACCC leads project called Scam Watch and the ACMA, the Australian communications and media authority within my portfolio, is leading a major portfolio within the industry on how we can crack down on scams. One of the issues has been that a lot of scammers have been using so-called spoofing or over-stamping of the number from which the call appears to originate.
So Australians will get a phone call. It will look like it’s coming from a well recognised number that’s used by the Australian Tax Office or another well known organisation that advertises inbound numbers.
There’s been a number of things that the industry has done on that particular issue, including the use of software to identify a lot of these calls which originate from overseas. They’re very large scale criminal operations, so use of software to identify a particular source as these numbers come from.
Just in the last week, my colleague Stuart Robert, who has responsibility for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, where there’s also been some of these scams, announced some arrangements with Telstra to work on these.
So we are working. The industry is focused on this. Working with the regulator and we’re also working with some of the largest organisations whose name and brand are being used in the scams.
Q: I have a question about the code to force Facebook and to pay for the value of the Australian journalism that they distribute. Labor and the Greens have both suggested that in the interests of getting cross party consensus that absolute and SBS should be included in the code. Are you open to that? And secondly as a way to resolve disputes are you open to anything other than final offer arbitration?
Well, what I’d say is that we’re going through a process right now in relation to the draft code that the ACCC prepared, the draft of the mandatory code it prepared as asked to by government which was publicly released by the treasurer and by me on 31 July. August was available to stakeholders to provide their comments and submissions. Certainly Facebook and Google have done that as have many other stakeholders. The ACCC is now working through all that. It will give its final advice to government and that advice will look at the issues that have been raised including – both ABC and SBS have put in submissions arguing unsurprisingly that they ought to be – they ought to have the benefit of the remuneration provisions of the code. It’s clear they’ll have the benefit of the other provisions but the remuneration provisions. And quite a number of submissions have been made about the mechanism, the arbitration mechanism and so on. We’ll weigh all of that up in the mix. That’s the whole purpose of putting out a draft and getting comment on it. The ACCC will give its final advice to government. We’ll develop the legislation, formally introduce it to the parliament. We aim to do that before the end of the year. So we’ll weigh up all of these issues as part of that process.
Q: I take your point the advice will come up the chain but would you say you’re open minded to those sorts of proposals?
What I’d say is in the broad we’ll weigh up on the merits all of the feedback that’s been received before making final decisions. So all of the issues you’ve raised are things that will will weigh up and make a final decision.
Q: Lastly, do you have some sort of ideological position against the ABC and SBS receiving the benefit of this code?
Not at all. The policy logic for the position we’ve taken is that it is Facebook and Google’s very strong position in the advertising market which has greatly eroded the advertising revenues that privately owned media businesses depend upon to in turn be able to pay for journalism which as we all know is expensive. By contrast, ABC and SBS to a large extent have – their revenue comes from government. So the underlying policy problem which exists – the challenge which exists in terms of the privately owned businesses does not exist in terms of the national broadcasters. That’s the policy logic for the position we have taken.
Paul Fletcher will not say if anyone should lose their job over the Western Sydney airport land purchase.
That too, is a matter for the department.
Q: Finally on the NBN Australia is ranked 62nd in the world in terms of broadband speed, is the announcement on the upgrade today a concession that our system, our networks not up to scratch for 2020?
Not at all. What it is is the logical next step in the development of the NBN. We put in place a plan in 2013 which we have consistently executed which said we need to get this network rolled out as quickly as possible.
I remind you of the filling I cited earlier. When we came to government after six years there were 51,000 premises connected to the NBN. Why was the number so hopeless? Why has the previous government done such a terrible job?
One of the reasons was the network architecture they chose takes a very long time to rollout. And our judgement was that one of the several advantages of having a significant element of fibre to the node in the mix of technologies we used was it would allow a more rapid rollout as well as being more capital effective because the cost of a fibre to the premises connection is about $4,500, cost of fibre to the node is less than half that, and I make the Labor’s design strategy, deeply flawed in our assessment was that fibre to the premises could be connected to every home whether the customer had any interest in broadband at all let alone the ultra fast speeds that need fibre. Our approach consistently has been different. More careful with capital, and we’re maintaining that in this next phase by saying we’ll only build the fibre lead in if the customer orders a service.
It is quite amazing how little ministers seem to be responsible for, these days.
This is not the only example and it won’t be the last.
Q: We are in a Westminster system, you’re the minister responsible. Wasn’t it a failure on your part not to be across that brief?
Ultimately ministers make their decisions based upon briefs that are provided to them by their department. The auditor general has said two things that are of critical relevance in answering the question you just posed. One, the decision wasn’t taken by me, it was taken by a senior official of the department. And, two, the brief that the department provided was manifestly inadequate.
And yet the questions raised in the auditor general’s report into sports rorts still remain unanswered.
Q: In the brief that went to you, were there figures in that brief?
The report itself – the auditor general’s report itself says there were not, and it says that there was an expression of opinion by the department that what was being paid was reasonable. Let me clarify that.
It used some formula about $30m less than amount to be received in exchange for another parcel of land.
But what the report is very clear about is this. The decision was made by the deputy secretary of the department, not the minister of the day.
The information that went to the deputy secretary of the department from lower level officials in the department, the same information that was provided to the minister was deficient, did not lay out properly the basis for the valuation and contained an expression of opinion by departmental officials that the price being paid was reasonable and an expression of opinion that the auditor general has strongly contested based upon the work done in that report looking at other [instances].
Q: You were the minister at the time. Do you concede that you might lose some skin over this, ‘cause it’s not a good look.
Well, I think if you look at the auditor general’s report itself and identify what it said, what it said was, in essence, junior officials or mid-level officials in the department produced a highly inadequate brief that went to a senior official in the department, the deputy secretary, and went to the minister. So, it’s very clear that there was not adequate information provided and that’s what the auditor general concludes.
So I think – you know, what’s more important than my view is what the auditor general says. It’s very clear from the report that the concerns the auditor general expresses go to the conduct of departmental officials not the minister of the day.
Q: If you could answer the first question, you wouldn’t have allowed the acquisition to go ahead if you had been across all the facts.
Look, I’m not in a position to answer a hypothetical question but clearly what’s on the face of the auditor general’s report when it compares what was paid and other valuations the auditor general has cited at the very least it raises very significant questions so if I had had that information in front of me and if I was the decision maker and I make the point I did not have information in front of me and I was not the decision maker, would it certainly have raised further questions? I’m sure it would have done.
Then we get to the purchase of land for the western Sydney runway. (Which the auditor general found the government paid 10 times the $3m valuation. The owner was a Liberal party donor.)
Q: You say you were briefed on the acquisition but you didn’t have all the facts in front of you because of the department. If you did have all the facts in front of you, if you had known that the federal government was paying 22 times as much as the New South Wales government, they had requested a quote from one supplier, there was potential conflict of interest problems, that there were coffee shop meetings with the landowner without properly recorded records of those conversations, would you have allowed the acquisition to go ahead?
You’ve rightly referenced quite a number of things that are set out in the auditor general’s report about in question of the price that was paid by the Commonwealth for a piece of land and now forming part of Western Sydney airport.
The auditor general’s report makes it very plain that officials within the department provided briefing material to a deputy secretary of the department who made the decision to proceed with the transaction.
So it was made by a deputy secretary, not by a minister. And the auditor general makes it plain that in his assessment, and I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment, information that should have been provided to the decision maker was not provided. He also makes it plain or the report also makes it plain that that information was not provided to the minister.
So, it was a decision taken by the deputy secretary of the department. The provision of information, as to the land valuation and its methodology, the auditor general finds was inadequate and he describes the report uses the language unethical. Certainly as I have looked at the auditor general’s report I have absolutely learned things that I did not know before, and I think the auditor general is right to have made the recommendations that he has. I welcome the fact that the department of infrastructure has said that it accepts those recommendations and will implement them and obviously that’s with a view to making sure that something like this doesn’t happen again.
Q: I’m going to jump in there. You said this morning you talked about ethics and lack of due diligence. Could you – when you talk about ethics, what do you mean there? Do you worry that this is potentially corrupt?
What I mean is that the auditor general, in its report, described what occurred as being “unethical”, and specifically I read that as a reference to the fact that in the briefing material that went to the deputy secretary of the department who made the decision and in addition what went to me that key pieces of information were not disclosed including information that would help make an assessment of whether the valuation – whether what was being paid was reasonable.
And in particular what the brief did say, this is from the Auditor-General’s report, what the brief said was the price that is proposed to be paid is reasonable.
Now, the auditor general has – his conclusion is that this process amongst other things was unethical. What I would say is I welcome the fact that the auditor general has made these recommendations, that the department has said it’s going to follow them, and this is exactly what an auditor general is there to do.
If processes to deal with public money raise questions or are deficient, then the auditor general is there to look at that. He’s identified that and he’s made recommendations to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Q: At the National Press Club we are the home of free speech here. Do you worrying about the chilling implications of that?
As communications minister, there’s a lot that concerns me about free speech and the vibrancy of our media. A free and rigorous media is critical to the functioning of our democracy. Amongst the issues which need to be considered there are the economic sustainability of large parts of our media sector. We have seen the business model that underpins media organisations other than the ABC and to a substantial extent the SBS come under great challenge. We’re obviously working through that issue when it comes to the mandatory code that the ACCC has been charged with developing. So I think governments in a democracy and certainly the communications minister of the day as well as many other ministers absolutely are concerned about the importance of a free press, the importance of a vigorous media and the importance of the press doing its job in a democracy.
It’s been 16 months since the raid on the ABC and on my (Annika Smethurst’s) house and at the time you said our government very strongly supports press freedom, it really is a bedrock principle and you went on to say it had understandably caused a lot of anxiety among journalists.
I wondered 16 months on do you think your government’s done anything to ease that anxiety and what’s to stop it happening again?
(And again, a reminder that the story in question, written by Annika, was proven right, despite the repeated denials.)
Well, of course, we are working through a range of processes in response to what occurred, including the PJCIS, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security reviewing these issues and making recommendations.
And of course what we have also seen is some of those legal processes play out, and it is important to be clear that actions by the Federal Police as mean by any other organisation or entity in our society are subject to the rule of law and are subject to court challenge. So we’ll continue to work through these issues. We’ve made it clear that nobody’s above the law, the law has to apply to everybody. But there are a set of issues that have been raised and we’ll continue to engage on those issues.
Q: Dan Oaks (ABC) has this hovering over his head, Annika had this hovering over her head for such a long time. Do you understand the anxiety that they lived through?
Of course the impact of this personally has been very challenging and fronting for the individuals affected, and, of course, it’s been a subject of great interest from journalists. That is understandable. As a government, we obviously have to weigh up a whole range of considerations and make sure they’re all properly balanced in our legal and regulatory framework. We have provisions for example in the Crimes Act to talk to one of the provisions that was I guess the root cause of one of these police actions which deal with conduct on the part of the public servant in relation to confidential Commonwealth information. So, what’s important is that the democratically elected Parliament work through these issues, strike the right balance. I have made the point before that the relevant provision of the Crimes Act has been there for a hundred years, so these issues are not necessarily novel. But there’s been a range of specific suggestions that have been made. The attorney general, I, others, have indicated that we’ve got processes to consider those suggestions including through the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.
Read the original article at The Guardian