Federal Member For Banks
Shadow Minister for Communications

Shadow Minister for Communications, Speech – Commsday Summit 2023, Sydney

E & OE…

I first want to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.

I particularly want to thank Grahame Lynch and his team from Communications Day for organising this terrific event.

Early days in digital media

Before politics, much of my career was focused in the media and technology sectors, so it’s good to be able to work in this area again.

Back in the late 1990s I joined an Australian search engine called Looksmart, which some of you would be familiar with. Looksmart was one of the world’s top search engines pre-Google, and it was a great opportunity to work with the company in a business development role. From there I helped start an early online retailer called dstore, and then had my own consulting business for a few years.

From 2005 until l was elected to parliament in 2013, I worked for the PBL / Nine Entertainment group. I had a variety of roles with the company, with the last one being Director of Strategy and Digital.

As an incumbent media company, we were dealing with the massive changes brought about by digital. Some of those changes created opportunities for us. I was Chairman of ninemsn, our joint venture with Microsoft, which was a very successful business and allowed Nine to use its traditional media assets to build a completely new enterprise. We also had a successful investment in Carsales, and a much smaller but also successful digital investment in 3P Learning, the owner of the Mathletics site.

But we had big challenges too. Some of those challenges brought about by technology were too big to overcome. The best example of that is the magazine business. We tried many ways to both defend the magazine business and to extend it into digital, but the truth is those attempts didn’t really work.

In an enterprise value sense, the Australian magazine industry today is worth less than 5% of what it was 20 years ago. And that’s entirely because of the changes of digital. So, threats and opportunities.

The last thing I did before getting into politics was to commence work on what became Stan – we called it Streamco back then. Streaming is a much bigger as a sector than any of us thought it would be then – demonstrating again the immense opportunities that technology creates.

And that promise of opportunity is at the heart of the technology and communications sector. It brings about change, every day. That change can be disruptive, and it doesn’t always create winners in every circumstance.

But overwhelmingly, the change that technology brings is very positive for our economy, and our nation.

It helps us to do things in a faster, smarter way. It enables families to stay in touch in ways never possible before in human history. It generates huge opportunities for high-skilled, high-wage jobs.

There are always big questions on the horizon. I remember when I started at PBL in 2005, one of the issues we used to think about was – who controls the TV when broadcasting and the Internet converge? It was theoretical then, but is very real now.

The whole idea of “convergence” between the internet, telecommunications and media is kind of passe now, it’s just how things are. But that process has created – and is continuing to create – untold opportunities.

It’s a sector where something is always happening.

And we’re just entering into what I believe will be the biggest tech revolution since the creation of the internet itself, in the form of artificial intelligence. I’ll come back to that later, but my central view on artificial intelligence is that the hype is underdone. Radical change is coming, and there’s an important role for Government to play.

Shadow Communications portfolio

Since February I have taken on the role of Shadow Minister for Communications in the Coalition’s Shadow Cabinet.

There are two parts to this job.

The first – is to hold the Government to account.

The second – is to develop a strong set of polices for the Coalition, in advance of the next election.

Both are important functions in a democracy.

So let me turn to each.

Holding the Government to account

There’s a number of issues where I have concerns about the course that the Government is currently on.

Firstly, on the Mobile Black Spot Program.

This was one of the great success stories of the Coalition Government. Many of you would be very familiar with it.

The scheme provides support to telcos to encourage them to expand mobile coverage in areas that are under-served.

The program has generated a total investment of more than $875 million, both public and private, to deliver more than 1,270 mobile base stations across Australia.

It’s been great for businesses and commerce in country towns, from where I have just come.

Last week, I spent two days in regional Victoria – including the Otways region, areas south of Shepparton, and in the Dandenong Ranges.

And in the country, as the locals passionately told me, bad mobile coverage can kill a business.

It can happen if EFTPOS machines don’t work, or they can’t even send an order online from the counter to the kitchen.

They recounted tales of tourists driving lost because they couldn’t get Google maps on their phones.

And speaking with volunteer firefighters and emergency services personnel was confronting.

They told of being in the midst of a bushfire, storm or flood crises, and not being able to get phones to work properly to warn locals of dangers, or to get urgent help.

In recent weeks, some of you will have heard me talk about the merits of having a Minister hand-picking sites for new mobile coverage investment.

Unfortunately in Round 6 of the Mobile Black Spot program, we saw the Minister hand-picking all 54 sites. In New South Wales and Victoria, 100% of the 30 sites that the Minister chose were in Labor electorates. Plainly 100% of the need for improved mobile coverage in those states is not just in Labor electorates.

I’ve asked the Auditor-General to look into this process, and he wrote to me last week to say that he sees merit in a potential audit of the program. There will be much more to say on this issue as we work through the details of everything that has gone on here.

Another issue which I am looking closely at is Government action on the NBN.

It’s evident that growth numbers are stagnating. We can see that in the weekly NBN Rollout Data where the total premises activated is tapering off, and falling quite clearly in satellite.

There are some big strategic issues facing the company, and the Government.

I’m concerned by the push to artificially force families from the 50Mbs plan to the 100Mbs plan. Fast speeds are good of course, but price increases shouldn’t be used as a weapon to force households off plans that are actually working well for them. The Government’s support for NBN’s large proposed price increase on the 50Mbs plan doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

As the ACCC noted in its decision yesterday, the proposal to have uncapped CVC charges on the 50Mbps plan could actually mean some people pay more on the 50Mmbps plan than the 100Mbs plan. Plainly this would be an absurd outcome, and it’s good that the ACCC rejected it.

In an environment where families are facing huge cost of living pressures, the last thing Australians need is a big increase in the price of the most popular NBN plan.

Scams

We’ve heard the Government talking about how it’s really focused on targeting scams. And that’s good. Measures to reduce the risk of scams and target scammers are very welcome.

But there’s a big gap here. All of the Government’s scam measures target the telco environment, but not digital platforms. Scams on digital platforms like social media can of course be just as bad or worse as scams through telco platforms.

Last November, the ACCC – in their 5th Digital Platform Services Inquiry interim report – recommend additional targeted measures to protect users of digital platforms.

ACCC Chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb said the expansion of digital platform services had “created risks and harms that our current consumer and competition laws are not always able to address.”

The ACCC identified what they called “concerning consumer and competition harms across a range of digital platform services that are widespread, entrenched, and systemic.”

And the latest report in this series, released last Friday, again recommended an independent external Digital Ombudsman Scheme.

In late March we saw the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman also make a pitch for the role of Digital Platforms Ombudsman.

It cited the lack of an independent umpire as a “significant gap in the consumer protection.”

So it’s fair to ask, given these recent comments and recommendations, what is the Government going to do about tackling scams on digital platforms?

We have both the ACCC and the TIO now calling for action on digital scams. But nothing has happened.

So – it’s well past time for the Government to do something.

Key priorities

Now I’d like to turn to some of my key priorities.

Artificial intelligence

Normally when a subject is talked about a lot in the tech sector it’s a bit overdone. We can all think of things that were going to revolutionise the world but ultimately didn’t amount to much more than some good press releases.

AI is different. With AI, the hype is underdone. In my view it is the most significant development since the web browser. The first time I used ChatGPT, I had a similar feeling to the first time I used Netscape (for those under 40 it was the first mainstream web browser). My reaction to both Netscape and ChatGPT was simply – wow.

Now, we can’t predict exactly how AI’s impact will play out across the economy. But let’s start with a few areas where it’s easy to foresee the impact:

Graphic design. Law. Finance. Software Development. Music. Engineering. Architecture. Manufacturing. Agriculture. It’s actually harder to think of things that AI won’t revolutionise than it is to think of things it will revolutionise.

Now most of this plays out in the commercial world, and Government shouldn’t supress the innovation that is about to roll across the world.

But that’s not to say Government should do nothing.

A decade from now we will look back on 2023 and 2024 as having been absolutely critical in the development of AI. Not just the technological advances, but how we responded as a society.

While we don’t want to step on the benefits of AI through over-regulation, it’s clear that Government can’t vacate the field. This is just too big, and too transformational, for Government to play no role.

AI raises some really fundamental questions. At what point does society say – “that’s not OK” – and impose some rules around how AI can function? How are those rules enforced? Given the inherently global nature of the technology, how do individual nations respond?

It seems inevitable to me that ACMA will need to be given new powers, as it is the most logical entity through which to regulate AI.

But I don’t get the sense that the Government is on top of this.

I can see the Minister for Industry and Science is getting some advice, but this is so much bigger than industry policy.

One obvious area where government needs to act is in intellectual property. It can’t be the case that AI models can draw on the media industry’s IP without ever compensating the industry. The owners of AI models will obviously benefit financially from them. Part of that financial benefit will be derived from the use of the media’s intellectual property. It’s self-evident that compensation should be provided to organisations that provide the underlying IP that AI models train on. To argue otherwise would be to say that intellectual property should be free in an AI world – and that makes no sense.

The Government is hastening very slowly on AI. The Minister for Communications does not appear to have made any substantive policy comments about the impact of AI on the sectors for which she is the Minister. For such a crucial issue, this is a genuine concern.

Childrens’ safety on social media

Boosting support for online protection – especially for children – was a very high priority in our last term of office. And it’s an area which I feel very strongly about.

It was the Coalition which introduced The Online Safety Act and established and funded the eSafety Commissioner, to name a couple of key areas.

But we know there is more to do.

As I said at the outset, I am a great supporter of the technology industry and have spent most of my career working in it. But we have to acknowledge the downsides of technology too.

One of those is the risk of social media to kids.

It’s something I spent a lot of time working on in my role as Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.

You only have to look at the evidence of whistle-blower, Francis Haugen, about the risks children are confronted by on Instagram.

There is an action the Government can take which can help in this area. It should urgently adopt the provision in the 2021 Online Privacy Bill that would create an obligation on social media companies to act in a way which is fair and reasonable – and – with the best interests of the child being the primary consideration.

I was very involved in the drafting of this Bill. We released an exposure draft for consultation in late 2021. The work is done. There is no reason why the Government couldn’t adopt this provision.

In simple terms, it would require social media companies to demonstrate that they were acting in the best interests of children. This would have a profound and positive impact on the conduct of these companies. There are many things which kids are exposed to on social media that are plainly not in their best interests. Some of the most egregious examples include material related to self-harm, and eating disorders.

There should no tolerance of any kind for social media companies that fail to act to protect children from this kind of content. A best interests duty – backed by meaningful fines for breach – would have a major impact.

Of all the things we can do to further improve the safety of kids on social media, this is the single most significant action to be taken up, in my view.

I am pleased this issue was considered in positive terms in some detail in a Review of the Privacy Act, that was published in February this year. I encourage the Government to take it up and will strongly support it if it does so.

NBN

The NBN is one of the most important assets held by the Government on behalf of taxpayers and consumers.

The role of Government can’t just be the occasional photo op at an NBN greenfields site. As a country we need to be smarter and better than that.

NBN faces increasing competition from satellite, fixed wireless and 5G. And although we don’t know the timeframe, 6G will come and pose further threats. So the NBN’s quasi-monopoly is likely to get weaker and weaker over time.

Satellite provides the template here. After having been available across the whole nation for less than a year, Starlink has already overtaken the NBN. There is no monopoly in space, and there is no monopoly in the airwaves. As space and the airwaves get better and better at providing broadband services, there are big questions for the NBN.

The response can’t simply be to raise prices. As I mentioned before, that hurts families. And it does nothing to address the very serious underlying issues that are confronting the NBN.

In this tough environment, the NBN’s management and customers need a government which understands the business and does more than pose in fluorescent vests.

Spectrum planning

Another priority area in the Communications portfolio is spectrum planning. It’s complex of course, and hugely valuable.

I was heavily involved in the analogue switch-off process when I was at Nine.

That change created a digital dividend which was of great value to the country. It raised $3.5B for taxpayers and allowed for mobile broadband services to be provided across the country in the spectrum that was freed up.

Spectrum planning is highly complex of course and inevitably involves disputes about what can and can’t fit into the space.

Governments need to be smart enough and strong enough to drive this process.

When spectrum is used for its highest and best purposes, the whole country benefits through productivity gains.

This is an important area, and one to watch.

Conclusion

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank you for listening to what is my first major speech as the new Shadow Minister for Communications.

I hope that more of you now have a greater sense of my background in this space, on my priorities in holding the Government to account, and on some of my key areas for policy focus.

Communications is such a critical portfolio area. It captures how we live and how we do business. And it is about the future.

Its impact on society is overwhelmingly positive. But like everything, we have to be conscious of the downsides, and act as a society to limit risks, particularly to children.

With the beginning of the AI era we are at a particularly important point in history.

Our Government needs to be strong enough, smart enough, and switched-on enough to help guide our nation through these important times.

I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to talk to you all today, and look forward to continuing to work with the sector in the months and years ahead.

Thank you very much,

The Hon. David Coleman MP
Shadow Minister for Communications
Federal Member for Banks