Shadow Minister for Communications, Transcript – 2GB with Mark Levy – Labor’s Misinformation Bill

Subject: Labor’s Misinformation Bill

E&OE…

Mark Levy: Now, the Communications Minister has tried to pull the wool over our eyes. Labor’s planned Misinformation laws are set to give Michelle Rowland some extraordinary powers. But their powers, that up until now haven’t been spoken about. Documents obtained under Freedom of Information, show the Minister wrote to the Prime Minister with a request on June 1. She’s basically requesting to have direct power over what gets investigated under these Misinformation laws. In a letter to the Prime Minister, Minister Rowland says, ‘I would have the ability as the Minister to direct the Australian Communications and Media Authority to commence investigations’. The Minister for Communications is able to request ACMA to investigate matters. The ministerial direction may specify the terms of reference by ACMA, including its scope and the timeframe for completion and any other particulars. It’s sparked free speech concern from lawyers, tech giants and the Coalition. Shadow Communications Minister David Coleman has blasted the plan. He says this previously secret letter is a smoking gun and Michelle Rowland is holding it with both hands. David Coleman, the Shadow Communications Minister, joins me on the line. David, good morning to you.

David Coleman: Good morning, Mark.

Mark Levy: Well, these new laws will give the Minister extraordinary power. She’ll be able to personally order Misinformation investigations, but to date, the public has heard nothing about it.

David Coleman: That’s 100% right, Mark. I got this document from Freedom of Information. As you say, it’s never been released before. The Government put out 38 pages of notes about the Misinformation Bill when they released it and this power was not mentioned anywhere. And it’s an extraordinary power because what it’s saying is, a politician is going to be able to order investigations into misinformation effectively on anything that they want. And in a democracy, that obviously creates huge issues because there would be nothing to stop a Minister using this power to investigate opinions that they didn’t like or things that were on digital platforms that they thought shouldn’t have been there. And it’s just extraordinary.

Mark Levy: And that’s the thing, isn’t it, David? I mean, we all know how politics works. If there’s something that the Labor Government disagrees with the Coalition on, well, what’s stopping the Communications Minister from saying, well, I’m directing the Australian Communications and Media Authority to investigate what’s being said?

David Coleman: Absolutely nothing. I mean, it is an incredibly broad power, and it has effectively no constraint on how it’s exercised. All the Minister would have to say is that I want the digital platform to be looked into because it hasn’t dealt properly with this alleged misinformation. And the document itself actually says it could be in response to referrals from the public or the media. And if you think back to a time like when we were debating the Voice recently Mark, obviously there was a lot of discussion and allegations of misinformation and so on. But a lot of the time when people were talking about alleged misinformation, it was really just stuff that they didn’t agree with. And to have the bureaucrats being able to investigate misinformation is one thing. But to have an elected politician ordering a misinformation investigation, it is just incredible. And the fact that this has not been disclosed by the Government is very disturbing. It is clearly extremely relevant to this Bill. How could you give a Minister this sort of personal power and then neglect to mention it in not only the documents about the Bill, but any interviews or any statements? It has not been mentioned by the Minister, and it raises very, very serious questions.

Mark Levy: I think we know why now, David. Obviously, they were trying to hide what has now come out under these Freedom of Information documents. I mean, this is just an attack on free speech, is it not?

David Coleman: Yeah, it is, Mark. And the Prime Minister is brought into this as well, because this letter is to the Prime Minister. And so he’s fully aware of it. Either he didn’t read the letter, which is damning, or he read it and approved it and presumably it’s the latter. So the Prime Minister of Australia is saying that he thinks it’s appropriate for a Minister to be able to personally order investigations into misinformation. And that just flies in the face of what we believe in a democracy. In a democracy you shouldn’t have one political party, regardless of who they are; Labor, Liberal, whoever, ordering investigations into misinformation that could effectively sweep up anyone who has views that disagree with the Government.

Mark Levy: Can you do anything to stop it?

David Coleman: Well, we’ll keep fighting it, Mark. The Minister’s already backed down somewhat and said that she’s going to take out the absurd ability under this law to potentially say that religious views were misinformation. So that’s one thing that she’s already done. It was supposed to come into law this year. They kicked it down to next year because of all the backlash against it. And we’re going to go full steam ahead because this is a very disturbing piece of legislation. It was disturbing before we got these documents. But now that we’ve got these documents, it’s even worse. And it should be put in the bin. It should be ripped up into little pieces and it should absolutely not become law.

Mark Levy: Just finally and just quickly, David, if you were to put the shoe on the other foot here for a second. Imagine you in Opposition, write to the Communications Minister asking for something that a Labor politician, a Government Minister, has said. And you’d like some clarity, or you’d want it investigated by the Communications and Media Authority. Can you imagine the Minister says no. I mean, what sort of drama is that going to cause down the track?

David Coleman: Oh yeah, exactly. I mean, it basically gives the Minister carte blanche to investigate virtually anything that where there’s a dispute about who’s right and who’s wrong. To say, well look, this looks like it could be misinformation. It looks like the digital platform hasn’t handled this issue as well as it should have. I want an investigation into it and by the way, here are the terms of reference from the Minister, which specify in detail how the investigation should be conducted, the sort of information that needs to be gathered, the issues that the Minister is concerned about. So there’s no constraint on that at all. So it could be incredibly broad and sweep up a lot of people.

Mark Levy: Well, David, the next time you’re in the parliament. I’d love for you to put it this question of the Opposition, to put this question to the Minister. Minister, could you please define what is ‘Misinformation’? I’d love to know the answer from Michelle Rowland as to what she determines as ‘Misinformation’. David, I’ll leave it with you. I think we’re treading in a very, very dangerous territory. This is an attack on free speech. It cannot possibly go through. Good on you mate. Lovely to catch up on and Merry Christmas.

David Coleman: Thanks, Mark.

Mark Levy: That’s David Coleman, the Shadow Communications Minister. Dear oh dear. Wow, can you imagine? Can you imagine the power of the Communications Minister to determine what is ‘Misinformation’? I mean, come on. If that’s not an attack on free speech, I’m not sitting here.