Federal Member For Banks
Shadow Minister for Communications

Shadow Minister for Communications – Speech – CommsDay Summit, Sydney

SPEECH

COMMSDAY SUMMIT

SYDNEY

 

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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 want to recognise the many key industry leaders here today.

In particular, the Minister for Communications, and the CEO of the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, Louise Hyland, who will both be speaking, following my address.

I also want to thank Grahame and his team from CommsDay for organising this great event. You often hear the term “industry bible” to describe publications that aren’t really industry bibles. But CommsDay actually is, and that is reflected in the breadth of its distribution and how many people attend this event each year.

Introduction

A year ago, in my first speech to this event – I recounted how Communications was a critical portfolio area – it captures how we live and how we do business. And it is about the future.

I was fortunate to spend pretty much my whole career in and around the technology and communications sector prior to entering Parliament. As Director of Digital and Strategy for Nine Entertainment Co I saw the immense benefits and opportunities of digital technology – whether as Chair of ninemsn, as a director of Sky News, or in helping to establish what ultimately became Stan.

Age verification for social media

And while the impact of technology on society is overwhelmingly positive, like everything, we have to be conscious of the downsides, and act to limit risks, particularly to children.

If 99% of communications technology has a positive impact on our society, we also have to be brutally honest about the 1% that does not. We can’t divert our eyes from things that are hard to talk about, but that we know to be true.

And top of that list is the unacceptable and disturbing impact of social media on children.

The recent terrible events in Sydney have focused the nation’s mind on the dangerous impacts of social media.

The material that has been distributed online is distressing for anyone – but consider the effect on children.

Last month, Florida moved to ban social media for children under 16, or 14 if parental consent can be shown. They are not alone. The UK, France and several US states have taken strong moves to introduce age verification laws in recent months.

Around the world, legislators are taking action to protect children from the clear dangers of products like Instagram and TikTok.

It’s easy to understand why so much is happening in this area.

Imagine if we went back to the 1990s and said:

“Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to create a new product where kids can form relationships with basically anyone on earth. Those kids will be exposed to whatever content anyone wants to share with them. There will be no supervision and it will be up to the kids to deal with this on their own.”

Had somebody suggested this back then, we would of course have said “well we definitely can’t do that.”

But that is what has happened. Without society ever agreeing to it, products that are clearly dangerous for children have become ubiquitous among children.

Think about the comparison with the classification system. We still classify movies and TV shows based on their content. We do that because there are certain things that we know our children shouldn’t see.

Nobody is suggesting that R-rated movies should be available to 10-year-olds. And yet on social media, children see far worse every day.

The major social media companies argue that they do all they can to remove kids from their platforms.

But research in the United States in 2021 showed that 38% of 8 to 12-year-olds had used social media, and 18% used it every day. Similar numbers would no doubt apply here.

Of course, if the companies received $5,000 every time they removed a child from their sites they would get very good at it.

But removing users means less advertising revenue, so there is no commercial incentive for the companies to take strong action.

In recent years, there have been large increases in the rate of mental health issues amongst children and young people. As a 2022 independent report on self-harm, commissioned by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Association noted, there has been “very large increases in all intentional self-poisonings in older children/adolescents (ages ~10 to 19) worldwide over the recent decade.”

This is starkly demonstrated by data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. It shows a 275% increase in the rate of self-harm hospitalisations involving girls under 14 between 2008/9 and 2021/22. For girls and young women aged 15-19, the rate of self-harm hospitalisations has risen by 71% in the same period.

These are hard things to talk about. But talk about them we must. And few parents would be surprised by the data.

Of course, some will argue that the impact of social media is overstated, and that there isn’t enough research to show a causal link. That argument says that the correlation in the rise of social media use by children and worsening mental health outcomes is merely a coincidence. I don’t buy it at all.

Ten years from now, we will look back on the period of widespread social media use by children with retrospective alarm.

As with products like tobacco, we will shake our heads at what was allowed to occur with social media.

We will reflect on the damaging mental health impacts on children – especially girls – and regret that it took so long for nations to take decisive action.

But – hopefully – we will look back with some satisfaction that eventually we did get it right.

The US Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy – the top doctor in the United States – discussed this issue with striking clarity in March:

“What’s happening in social media is the equivalent of having children in cars that have no safety features and driving on roads with no speed limits. No traffic lights and no rules whatsoever. And we’re telling them: ‘you know what, do your best – figure out how to manage it.’ It is insane if you think about it.”

He’s right. It is insane, if you think about it. So – let’s stop it.

Just last week, at the National Press Club, we heard ASIO director general Mark Burgess agree that age verification would, quote: “help my job – I think it would help with the problem.”

And the Executive Director of the group, Eating Disorders Families Australia, Jane Rowan, said their survey had found that more than 82 per cent of carers believed that social media had contributed to their loved ones’ disorder.

Ms Rowan said:

“Social media not only exacerbates body image issues, but there’s online bullying and self-harm rife among the age groups on this platforms and anxiety rates are soaring.”

There is a clear pathway to tackle this issue in Australia – all we need to do is follow it.

In 2021, the Coalition Government asked the eSafety Commissioner to look into the issue of online age verification.

We wanted the Commissioner to examine the feasibility of introducing an age verification system to protect children from dangerous content online.

Last year the eSafety Commissioner recommended a mandated trial of (a similar) age assurance technology.

The trial would have been focused on pornography, and as the Commissioner stated in the report, it could also have included social media.

This would have given us a clear roadmap towards getting kids off the social media sites that are so damaging for them.

We must get moving on age verification for social media. This is a totemic immense issue for Australian families, and we must act now to protect our kids.

Misinformation

I also want to talk today about the Government’s proposed Misinformation Bill.

Last year, the Government released a draft of this Bill. It was widely criticised by groups including the Human Rights Commission, civil liberties bodies, the Australian Law Council, and religious institutions.

In addition, more than 23,000 submissions and comments were received on the draft Bill – with the overwhelming majority flat-out opposed to the Bill.

The main criticism of the Bill was that it would have had a significant and unacceptable impact on the exercise of free speech in Australia. For this reason, the Coalition strongly opposed the Bill.

The eSafety Commissioner already has strong powers to take down extreme content, under the Online Safety Act, that was introduced by the Coalition in Government.

I note the Minister’s comments, yesterday, that the laws “may be world-leading … they are not set-and-forget.”

Consultation has now opened on a review of the Act – and we welcome that.

The Coalition will be constructive on strengthening the Online Safety Act to take account of new events and new evidence.

We will also carefully review any revised Misinformation Bill, once it is presented.

But we will not agree to a Bill which compromises legitimate political speech. This is a fundamental issue for our democracy.

Mobile Black Spot Program

Like the flawed Misinformation Bill, you’ve heard me talk a lot about appropriate funding for delivering mobile telecommunications – particularly in regional areas.

On that score, I’ve welcomed the announcement from TPG and Optus on efforts to strengthen coverage in the regions. More competition and coverage in rural and regional Australia can only be a good thing, and we look forward to the ACCC’s independent review of the proposal.

As you may have heard, the Auditor-General caught up with the Government’s plan to allocate Mobile Black Spot Program funding to favoured seats.

I won’t spend long on this. But you’ll recall this was the round where every single project in NSW and Victoria went to ALP seats. 74% of all the projects went to Labor candidates.

Since I spoke here last, we’ve seen that almost a quarter of the projects announced in Round 6 of the Program did not proceed, after consideration by the department.

12 out of the 54 promises of Mobile Black Spot funding did not proceed – and I think that speaks for itself.

In August last year, the Auditor General announced he would carry out an investigation into the Round 6 funding – and we look forward to his report, which is due in May.

This will be a very important examination of the use of taxpayer money in Round 6 of the Mobile Black Spot Program.

3G shutdown

While on the topic of mobile connectivity, I want to discuss the 3G shutdown.

The closure of the networks of course provides significant new opportunities for positive re-use of the spectrum – and that is a good thing.

It’s progress – and should actually help to boost connectivity on the newer networks.

This transition is important. And we need to get it right. The Telcos, together with AMTA, are working hard to ensure the public has enough confidence for the changes to proceed.

We need leadership, organisation and support to get through this, not finger-pointing and a lack of preparation from Government.

The Minister said she was not aware of the issue related to 4G phones that will not work once 3G is switched off, until March of this year. Given this issue had been the subject of submissions directly to the Minister, from at least the middle of 2023, it is very difficult to understand how that was the case.

It’s crucial for the switchover process to be managed effectively, to minimise disruption and ensure that Australians can continue to make crucial Triple Zero calls.

NBN

On NBN, there remain significant questions for the Government about the performance of the taxpayer-funded telco.

We’re seeing a decline in connections to existing Brownfields sites – down 64,000 since June 2022.

This is a very significant decline, as Brownfields is the NBN’s flagship product.

For the Government and taxpayers, it is very difficult to see how the loss of customers in the NBN’s largest product category can be anything other than a troubling sign.

As 5G becomes more and more competitive in providing Internet services, it’s clear that some customers are walking away from the more expensive NBN products.

We are also seeing a significant acceleration in negative cashflow, with the December 2023 half showing an outflow of more than $1B, up by more than $400M on the corresponding period in 2022.

Also – and I suspect a number of people in this room will be puzzled by this – having gone through an enormous Special Access Undertaking process – why has the Government effectively ridden roughshod over that process, and completely changed the terms on which the NBN contracts with RSPs?

It does nothing to instil confidence in the SAU process – and leaves RSPs having to scramble to deal with the new regime, as the ink from the SAU approval was barely dry.

And the argument that consumers will access the faster speeds for free is, to be frank, just silly, as experts have pointed out.

Most relevant for consumers is that the prices of the lowest cost plans have gone up significantly, and will continue to go up.

This is particularly troubling during a cost of living crisis, as households on the lowest cost plans will generally be the households with the least ability to absorb price rises.

Presumably this is a significant factor in the ongoing declines in the NBN’s Brownfields customer numbers.

Given declining customer numbers in its core product, and deteriorating cash flows, there are many questions for the Government to answer about the NBN.

Scams

Finally, I want to share some thoughts on the issue of scams.

Last year, I highlighted the need for action to deal with scams on digital platforms.

It was an issue flagged by the ACCC’s Digital Platforms inquiry in late 2022.

About a year later, the Government released a consultation paper.

So what now? The clock is ticking, but people are being hit hard by scams on the social media platforms.

As many of you will have seen, the latest Targeting Scams report for 2023 was published yesterday.

It found that social media scams resulted in the second highest in reported losses, increasing by 16.5% to $93.5 million.

The report also found that reports about scams on social media rose by more than 30%.

The National Scam Centre’s Quarterly Update for October to December 2023, also included disturbing statistics on social media scams.

It found that older Australians were at greatest risk.

To quote the report:

“Of social media scams, people over 65 experience the highest losses of any age group with 30% of all losses for social media being attributable to people over 65. This is a 57% increase compared to the previous quarter for this age group.”

So I make these four points:

  1. The issue of scams on digital media was highlighted in late 2022.
  2. In 2024, the data shows the problems of scams on social media is bad and getting worse.
  3. It’s older Australians that are being hit hard.
  4. We’re still waiting for action from the Government to deal with scams on social media.

We will of course be supportive of action, but we need to see it.

Such is the scale of these scams, it’s clear there is not a day to waste in tackling them.

Conclusion

Ladies and gentleman, thank you for listening to my presentation.

Communications is a vital industry for all Australians. It has an overwhelmingly positive impact on our nation.

You do great work. What you do matters in so many ways in our homes, our businesses, and our education system.

We need to celebrate those successes, and build upon them. But we also need to be honest about the troubling impacts of some communications platforms on our children – especially social media.

It is a great honour to work with this industry – and I look forward to seeing you all again next year.

Thank you.

[Ends.]