BILLS - Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2021 - Second Reading

The Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2021 is, effectively, amongst some very important and historic laws and regulations that are going through this parliament, and I support it. In fact, this is historic, because I think Australia will perhaps be the first nation, or at least one of the very first nations, in the world to effectively establish a new right for people in the profession of journalism, those who do the hard work and write our news, that ensures that they get fair payment for their hard work.

I note that there are some from my own team with whom I've discussed this, and there are certainly those who support the Liberal and National parties, who are a little cautious about establishing a new right like this, because I suppose the government is, in a way, creating a new market here. It's establishing some new property rights. Normally, on our side of politics, we think that rights and property are best left to individuals to work out. But it's at times like this that we must reflect that there is a level of government involvement in all markets and in the establishment of all property rights. At some point in the past, there had to be rules established around who owned certain land, who had the right to develop areas of real estate and who had the right to build buildings and do other things that created economic activity. While we have forgotten how a lot of those rights were established at different times in our history—they have become natural—almost invariably there was some degree of involvement with government agencies, whether that be through the judiciary in a common-law process or, sometimes, through a legislative process in the parliament. So what's happening here, while historic, is not unique.

Those are things that were done in the past, involving other types of rights and intellectual property. This is just updating those rights for the modern age, because prior to the last 10 years or so this wasn't really an issue. It has been very, very recent. I don't know when I got on Facebook, but it was probably sometime in only the last 10 or 15 years. There was a certain framework established so journalists could be compensated through advertising and charging for newspapers and what have you, but a completely different information model has cropped up in the last decade or so. Rights have to evolve. Rights have to change.

When you think about what we're establishing here through a news media and digital platforms code, it's very similar to other types of intellectual property in a way, because, in the end, what journalists create is intellectual property. We have traditionally consumed that intellectual property in a physical version—a newspaper or a magazine or something we can see and touch. But it's not really the paper that has the value; it's the words that are written on the paper that create the value that makes you want to pay $3 for a newspaper or 10 bucks for a magazine at the newsagent. It's the intellectual effort of writing those words and putting them together in a certain way that creates value.

Other types of intellectual property are protected and regulated to ensure that the creators of the property get a certain fair level of compensation. Every time you switch on your radio or, increasingly these days, open up Spotify and play a song, the artist who created that intellectual property will get a payment. You cannot just set up a radio station and start broadcasting whatever music you like for free. There are rules, regulations and laws around the fact that the creator of the song has that intellectual property right, and they deserve a royalty payment every time their song is broadcast over the airwaves or, now, over the interwebs through our phone.

This is very similar to this code. We now have a situation where people's intellectual property, the articles they write, can be shared through social media—extracts of them, parts of them, can be shared through Facebook or Google. I think those people deserve to have some compensation. I was talking to a friend the other day who bemoaned the implementation of this new media code because their way of accessing one particular newspaper in this country has been stopped. Previously, they could just google an article and a link would let them bring up the full article and read it without any need to subscribe, without any need to pay compensation to get through the paywall. Apparently, in just the last few weeks, that particular method of accessing intellectual property created through news has been blocked. I realise that people would love to continue to get their news and media for free, but that model is not sustainable. If journalists are not given fair pay for the work they do, we will have fewer journalists and fewer newspapers, and we will all be the poorer for it. We can all see that. It is happening before our eyes. Journalism is a tough industry right now and, unfortunately, many journalists have lost their jobs in the last decade or two. Nothing in this code will guarantee or protect all of those jobs. The industry is going through an enormous transition which will seemingly continue for some time yet. We've had the printed versions of some newspapers cease. In my area, in regional Queensland, The Morning Bulletin, a great paper for over 100 years, is no longer in print. That is a great shame and a tragedy. Unfortunately, the historic changes we are making here are unlikely to bring it back. But I don't want to lose more. I don't want to see the online version of The Morning Bulletin shut, I don't want to see more newsrooms close their doors and I don't want to see more journalists lose their jobs if we can avoid it.

This code will provide a lifeline to an essential industry in this country that deserves to get fair compensation for its work. We are in effect setting up a royalty payment for news articles, for news content, for news media—and for TV as well. All that content can now get a revenue stream from those who wish to share that content through the internet. There is no doubt that this code will not be perfect on day one. As I said, we are doing something here that is globally unique. I don't think it's unique in the world of intellectual property, but it is the first time any country is doing this and it is a very complicated area. So I support the code, but I recognise that some degree of adjustment will need to be made over time as we learn and develop how this code works in practice.

I think it is right that the government has sought to focus the code initially on the very large digital platforms. I believe just Facebook and Google search are those identified. I don't think it would be right to try to extend it to the many different digital platforms at this stage, particularly in its early years. Google and Facebook are very large companies with the means to navigate this process. Google reported revenue in Australia of over $1 billion in 2018-19 and Facebook reported revenue of $582 million. That is just in Australia. So I think they have the means to navigate what no doubt are difficult regulations for them to get their heads around given that, as I said, they are unique.

I think it's important to make the point, though, that Google and Facebook don't pay a lot of tax on that revenue they generate in Australia. I recognise that the figures I've quoted are revenue, not profit, but revenue is kind of a fact and profit is the fiction of the accounting world. There are lots of different ways of getting a profit from your revenue lines. Apparently, Google made $1 billion in revenue in Australia but only $200 million of taxable income. That might be true, but they probably made a lot more revenue than $1.1 billion, I reckon. Some of that would be hidden overseas. They paid just $50 million in tax on that. Facebook, of that $580 million in revenue I mentioned, declared taxable income of just $50 million and paid just $15 million in tax. I think Google and Facebook are probably making higher profits than that from their dominance of the advertising market in Australia. I'm not accusing them of doing anything illegal. I'm sure they're legally seeking to minimise their profit, as most taxpayers would seek to do. But I do think there's probably some ability for those two very large companies to make contributions to the news content that is shared or hosted on their websites.

I think it's positive that Google themselves have reached a voluntary agreement with news media organisations. That's what this code was seeking to encourage and it's positive that that's occurred. It's unfortunate that Facebook chose a different course of action, but it's not terminal. I think we're right to push ahead with this, despite Facebook's actions last week, which were the biggest own goal in politics for some time, given they themselves couldn't restrict their prohibitions to the news media industry. As has been well documented, they caught up emergency services, health services, coronavirus information in their news media net. For an organisation that says that it can't get rid of child pornography from their website to overban news is a bit galling for all of us here in Australia. The bullyboy tactics of Facebook last week deserve to be called out. I don't think they were fighting this code; I think Facebook were trying to make an example of us to try to stop other countries from doing the same. Their actions were not so much about Australia. Apparently, Facebook only paid $15 million in tax and only made a $50 million profit in Australia. They're one of the biggest companies in the world. Do you reckon they would threaten their whole business for 50 million bucks? I don't think so. I think that they were trying to make an example of poor little Australia to the rest of the world.

But I'm heartened that we stood up to them last week. I'm heartened that the government has not decided to back down as a result of these sorts of tactics and I'm also heartened by the support we have received from around the world. I read over the weekend that Canada is seeking to progress laws similar to those we're discussing here today, and it seems like Facebook's tactics and actions have only redoubled the commitment of the Canadian government to continue down that path. If we were to buckle to these kinds of tactics from Facebook, we would be outsourcing the political decisions of our country to a US based company. I love America. It is a great friend of this country. But I believe that an American based company should not decide what laws are passed here in this country. They should certainly not have the control to regulate our speech and our political discourse in this nation.

While I support this code and its protection of news media, there is a larger agenda here that we need to focus on about how we protect the free speech of everyday Australians. It is right and proper for us to be protecting the free speech and the rights and the property rights of Australian news media companies to make sure we continue to have Australian content. But I think it's also right and proper that we seek to protect the free speech of everyday Australians so they don't have their thoughts and ideas banned by a company based in America. That would be particularly unfair.

I also believe that, after this law is passed—and I think we have widespread support for it—we need to turn our attention to appropriate restrictions on overseas based companies involving themselves in our media landscape. We have, I think, well established and principled restrictions on foreign ownership of our domestic media entities—our newspapers and our TV stations. They are longstanding arrangements in our laws, but there are no such restrictions on foreign ownership of social media. A foreigner can have 100 per cent of a particular social media platform. Indeed, I would suggest basically 100 per cent of our social media footprint in this country is owned by foreigners—almost 100 per cent. I have been contacted in the last week by a few Australian based social media companies, and I wish them well. I think it is about time we seek to support them, because I would like to see Australian social media companies have a footprint. Australians use Australian IT businesses to discuss issues, to share things with friends and to make sure that we continue to be sovereign and independent of other countries when it comes to the protection of our rights and our speech.

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