Federal Member For Banks
Shadow Minister for Communications

Shadow Minister for Communications, Transcript – ABC News Afternoon Briefing with Greg Jennett – Scott Morrison, Auditor-General’s Inquiry into the Mobile Black Spot Program, Labor’s Misinformation Bill

Subject: Scott Morrison, Auditor-General’s Inquiry into the Mobile Black Spot Program, Labor’s Misinformation Bill

E&OE…

Greg Jennett: Okay, well we’re going to bring in now Shadow Communications Minister, David Coleman, joining us to discuss matters that he keeps an eye on in shadow communications. But since we’ve been discussing Scott Morrison, we might start there. Welcome, David. The Greens are asking that the Speaker consider an examination of Scott Morrison’s statements in two previous capacities, Prime Minister and social services. Have they made the case for a mislead or even a contempt of Parliament?

David Coleman: No Greg. I mean, look the Prime Minister, the former Prime Minister has every right to defend himself and to respond to the report of the Royal Commission. And like any Australian, if he feels that it hasn’t appropriately reflected on him, he’s got every right to say so. And obviously the Robodebt Royal Commissioners raised a number of important issues and there are obviously lessons to be learned there. But it’s entirely reasonable for Mr. Morrison to put his view on those matters.

Greg Jennett: And would that opportunity present for him and perhaps even for yourself and others, I think it’s tomorrow when that Bill Shorten motion, calling for an apology by the Parliament, comes forward. Would you be speaking on that? Are you clear on how the Coalition will be voting?

David Coleman: I’m not up to speed on Mr Shorten’s latest machinations on that, Greg, but as I said, I think Mr Morrison has every right to put forward his view as any Member of Parliament does. Or indeed, any Australian should be able to defend themselves and put their view of events.

Greg Jennett: Alright, well most of that plays out tomorrow as far as we can tell. So let’s move on. Black spots, mobile phone towers, you’ve spoken on this program and elsewhere over many months, seeking some attention. You have now cleared one hurdle at least, with the Audit Office. What is it going to examine and how far will it go?

David Coleman: Yeah, so it’s about Round Six of the Mobile Black Spot Program, where Michelle Rowland the Minister, hand-picked every single location. And surprise, surprise, 100% of the locations in New South Wales and Victoria were in Labor electorates, 74% across the country. So this is just an open and shut, shocking case of pork-barrelling. So the Auditor-General is going to look into that. He’s going to do that over some time. The investigation will go through until May of next year. And the Minister is going to have to explain to the Auditor-General her conduct, her behaviour and how on earth can she possibly justify that. Because what Australian would say 100% of the need for Mobile Black Spot funding was in Labor seats?

Greg Jennett: Why can’t governments and why shouldn’t governments be able to make commitments and then deliver on them? That is, in essence, what Michelle Rowland said she did in this particular round.

David Coleman: Well, Prime Minister Albanese when he was the Opposition Leader, he said Australians deserve to not have their funding allocated on the basis of marginal seats. So he was black and white on that. And as we’re finding with the Prime Minister, there are things that he said before the election that he doesn’t particularly like to talk about now. But he said it. It’s in the newspaper. And that is exactly what has occurred here. It is indefensible and the Auditor-General, he’s going to look at this very forensically. The Information Commissioner is also investigating Minister Rowland at the moment. Minister Rowland failed to provide any documents about the Mobile Black Spot Program in response to a Freedom of Information request. So the Information Commissioner is also looking into this.

Greg Jennett: That’s not unusual though, to have documents blocked.

David Coleman: I think it’s unusual for a Minister to say there is not one single document about the Mobile Black Spot Program that is available, when we know there must be a large number of documents. So, the walls are closing in here on the Government and these inquiries will go on for some time. But this is an absolute shocker and a real indictment on the Albanese Government.

Greg Jennett: All right well, we won’t wait until May to get you back, we will have you back to discuss that program. Now I know separately, David Coleman, you’ve cast your eyes somewhat critically over what we might describe as a draft and initial version of a Misinformation Bill that the Government has put out for consultation. What’s wrong with it?

David Coleman: Oh, it is an absolute shocker Greg. I would encourage anyone who has 10 or 15 minutes to read this thing. I can’t recall a worse piece of legislation in the 10 years I’ve been in Parliament. It would significantly suppress the free speech of ordinary Australians. The threshold for something being misinformation under this bill includes an unintentionally misleading statement. Now think how many unintentionally misleading statements people make. And the structure of the Bill is, that ACMA can go into the digital companies and basically say they’re not doing enough and give them huge fines. And so what they will do is proactively censor the statements of Australians and lead into a significant restriction in free speech in this country.

Greg Jennett: Let’s break it down. As a first principle, do you accept the need for greater leverage over the social media platform companies in particular, to better regulate this stuff?

David Coleman: Well, we have done an enormous amount in Government, in terms of regulating social media and digital platforms, generally, the Online Safety Act and many other initiatives. So, we have a world leading record in this area, but you’ve got to actually look at what the Government is proposing here. So here’s an example Greg, anything an academic says cannot be misinformation. But if someone is in an argument with an academic, that can be misinformation. Anything the Albanese Government authorises cannot be misinformation. But if someone disagrees with the Albanese Government, that can be misinformation.

Greg Jennett: Surely not people of the political class, including yourself.

David Coleman: No, it does. So there are limited exceptions for politicians during what’s called authorised electoral statements around election time and referendums. But no, a statement made by a politician at say, a community forum or on somebody’s website or in a podcast, would absolutely be captured, unless of course, it’s authorised information by the Government, in which case, it’s fine.

Greg Jennett: Alright, well the whole purpose of putting this out for consultation is to try to improve it, one imagines. Can it be improved and relatively simply.

David Coleman: It is very hard to see how this can be salvaged. I mean, the Victorian Bar Association came out a few days ago and were just, I don’t want to put words in their mouth, but really just quite stunned by some of the provisions of this Bill. So, the question for the Minister is, why would you put out a Bill like this? Either you have read it and you’ve decided it’s a good idea to put it out, or you haven’t fully appreciated what’s actually in it. Either of which are very concerning, because this is an absolute shocker of a Bill. And I’m sure that there’ll be many negative submissions about it.

Greg Jennett: What about in an electoral context? I know in the context of electoral law reform in this country, and quite recently, through one of the committees here, they’ve heavily examined truth in advertising and the regulation of misinformation. Isn’t it useful to have these sorts of bills out there to guide those processes as well? Which inevitably, this Parliament will probably move on to.

David Coleman: Well, I just think this Bill is so bad that it’s difficult to conclude it’s useful at all. It has some extraordinary things. Another example Greg, professional news content, so mainstream media for want of a better term, is exempted, but not something a journalist says on their own Facebook page. And if a member of the public takes issue with something that appears on professional news content, that can be misinformation, but not what was said on that news content. And ACMA has the power to require any Australian to appear before it, to answer questions about misinformation, and if they don’t, fine them $8,000 per day. So there’s some quite extraordinary stuff in here.

Greg Jennett: So are you lodging some sort of written submission on this yourself?

David Coleman: Well, I think we’re making our position very, very clear.

Greg Jennett: David Coleman, thanks for doing so.