Shadow Minister for Communications, Transcript – Melbourne Mornings with Rafael Epstein

Subjects: Misinformation Bill, Middle-East deployment, ABC



Rafael Epstein: A health warning. That’s kind of how it’s being sold, right? Something pops up in your Google search, in the email, on your socials. The Government says their moves are less about censoring and more about regulating, that you need something like a health warning on the content of social media and that their new legislation is a way to get the social media companies and other big tech to do that. It’s the Federal Government that’s put out this Misinformation Bill, legislation for everyone to think about. The other day we chatted to the Labor MP, Michelle Ananda-Rajah. Here she is,

[Michelle Ananda-Rajah (Audio Extract): Right now the Coalition are opposing it, citing, I think, false questions around free speech. That’s not what this is about. This Misinformation Bill is designed to protect Australians.]

Rafael Epstein: Are they false questions? What are the Opposition’s concerns? David Coleman is the Shadow Minister for Communications. He is part of Peter Dutton’s Federal Opposition. Good morning.

David Coleman: Good morning, Raf.

Rafael Epstein: Are your questions false questions about free speech?

David Coleman: No, not at all Raf. This Bill is an absolute shocker and I’m not sure if Michelle has been through the provisions of the Bill but really it is quite extraordinary. Basically, what it does is say that government officials will decide if digital companies are doing enough to tackle misinformation. And if the government officials say, no, they’re not doing enough, they can be fined literally into the billions of dollars, 5% of global revenue. So if you’re one of those digital companies, what are you going to do? You’re going to make sure you don’t get those fines. And the way you do that is by deleting a whole lot of material. Because what the Bill says, is that the offending material includes unintentionally misleading statements. And you think about that, I mean, there are thousands of things people say every day that you could argue were unintentionally misleading and things that cause serious harm. But harm includes things like harm to the economy, a section of the economy or harm to the environment. It is incredibly broad definitions. So what will basically happen is, the digital platforms who frankly don’t care about free speech in Australia, they care about their profits. So they’re going to make sure they don’t get fined and the best way to do that, delete a whole lot of the free speech of Australians. And I think that’s why this Bill has just been frankly, slammed by everyone from the various civil liberties councils around Australia, to the Human Rights Commission, to Professor Anne Twomey and so many others, because it’s just a shocker of a Bill.

Rafael Epstein: There are broad concerns. Do you support the idea? I mean, Scott Morrison spoke about this a lot. He never acted on it. But you guys went to the last election promising something like this. Is your problem with the principle, the idea of some sort of, you know, flagging bad content? Or is your problem just with this particular piece of legislation?

David Coleman: Well, just to be clear Raf, you mentioned about flagging bad content and you mentioned that in your intro and that’s not what this Bill does.

Rafael Epstein: I understand. I’m just asking if your concerns are broad or specific.

David Coleman: Well, look, I think the obvious thing that’s in front of us immediately is this Bill, because the Government of Australia has put it out. And you don’t put out a Bill because you think it’s a really bad idea. You put it out because you think it’s a really good idea. And this Bill, as I said, goes to the actual, effectively the volume of removal of content and we will well in advance of the next election put forward our policies in this area. But I can tell you right now, we would never, ever support anything like this Bill. Another point Raf, that I think is important for people to understand. Under this Bill, ACMA can require any Australian to appear before it to answer allegations related to misinformation. And if you don’t appear before ACMA, the regulator, you can be fined $9,000, per day. Now, that’s a power that exceeds the power that the police generally have in criminal law matters.

Rafael Epstein: Yeah, I understand David Coleman. And you’re right to point out people like Anne Twomey and others, I think the Federal Human Rights Commission as well have some concerns. I’m just very curious to know from you, you’re the Shadow Communications Minister. You tell me if I’ve got this wrong. With the last election, the Coalition promised to give ACMA new regulatory powers to hold big tech companies to account for harmful content. Is that something you still want to do? That was an election promise. Has your policy changed or are you still interested in that?

David Coleman: Well look Raf, we didn’t ever introduce a Bill. The Government has done that. And as I said, we’ve never introduced anything like this. And we’ll announce our policy well in advance of the next election. Your program, with all due respect, is not the time to announce our policy for the next election.

Rafael Epstein: But that policy, that policy that you took to the last election is no longer policy.

David Coleman: Well Raf, as I said, our policy for the next election will be announced well in advance of the next election. The fact that there is a Bill on the table clearly is the key issue for now because we’re not in Government.

Rafael Epstein: So just an issue of principle then. And David Coleman there’s no right or wrong answer to this question. A lot of people feel instinctively, I just want to know that that content’s dodgy. As the Shadow Communications Minister, can you envisage a way of getting social media companies to flag the content problematic? Can you see a way to doing that or not?

David Coleman: Well, there’s some recommendations actually from the Senate Committee on Foreign Interference right now around disinformation from foreign powers, that are bipartisan recommendations, that do actually go more to that issue of flagging content and flagging the source of content, the actions that digital platforms have taken, what they’ve removed and so on. And we’re waiting on the government’s response on those.

Rafael Epstein: Can you explain how they might work? Like, do you have a good understanding of how they would differ from what the Government’s proposed?

David Coleman: They differ immensely because they focus on transparency about the actions of the digital platforms. So for instance, if the digital platforms remove a particular piece of content, they would be required to say so. If the digital media companies are distributing content that is from state-based actors, they would be required to say so and so on. And as I say, that bipartisan recommendations and the issue of disinformation by states online is a very serious issue.

Rafael Epstein: Although that also ends up with, on Twitter that became X, the ABC got labelled as state sponsored content because we get taxpayer funds, but we’re independent of Government. I mean, that can be problematic as well, can’t it?

David Coleman: Well look Raf, no one’s suggesting that there aren’t issues around disinformation in particular, but Government is about what you actually do. It’s not simply about a general discussion of matters. We’ve got a Bill on the table now. I mean, Anne Twomey said, it is hard to believe that anyone has seriously thought through how it would operate in practice and the likely consequences. And that’s Anne Twomey, who’s a member of the Government’s referendum advisory committee, highly respected and very balanced person. And people should be worried about this Bill, whether they’re conservative, whether they’re left wing, whether they’re somewhere in between, because this will have a massive impact on Australians’ rights just to participate in everyday conversation. And it really can’t be allowed to proceed.

Rafael Epstein: Just a few other matters, David Coleman, it looks like we’re sending more soldiers and resources to the Middle East, just in case Australians need to get out of a place like Lebanon. How do you feel about hearing that news?

David Coleman: I think that’s good news. I think it’s absolutely appropriate and we fully support it. Obviously, it’s a very volatile situation in the Middle East and we should be doing everything we can as a country to plan for contingencies, to support Australians to get out of the area if they need to. So yes, we fully support that.

Rafael Epstein: David Coleman if you win the next election, you’ll be my boss because you’ll be the Communications Minister. In a manner of speaking, I know that’s a bit cheeky. But your colleague, the Liberal Senator Holly Hughes, has alleged that the ABC’s Middle East coverage attracts anti-Semites. What do you think she means by that? And is the Coalition accusing the ABC of, I don’t know, of stoking anti-Semitism?

David Coleman: Well, look, I think you’d have to ask Holly for her direct comments there. And I haven’t actually seen precisely what was discussed at Senate estimates yesterday. I mean, look, the obligation on the ABC is to be balanced and to make sure that the matters are considered in a fair and reasonable way. And the reality is Raf, that doesn’t always happen. The ABC is not above criticism and it’s entirely appropriate for members of the Opposition or for frankly, any Australian to seek to hold the ABC to account. And that’s what should happen in a democracy.

Rafael Epstein: I know, I don’t disagree with any of that. I’m just curious. Holly Hughes is accusing the ABC of stoking or attracting anti-Semites. That seems, from what I heard of that hearing, to be judging the ABC by the contents of its comments section. Do you think that’s a good way to judge a media outlet, by the content in the comments?

David Coleman: Well again Raf, I haven’t seen that issue…

Rafael Epstein: Tell me what you think about that issue.

David Coleman: Well, I’m not going to comment on that Raf because I’m not entirely clear on what has been said and what was said in the comment section and so on. But what I will say is that the ABC needs to be a fair and balanced organisation and that does not always happen. And when it doesn’t, it’s entirely reasonable for it to be held to account.

Rafael Epstein: And our coverage of the conflict. What do you think personally as Shadow Communications Minister?

David Coleman: Look, I haven’t seen any particular issues in relation to the ABC, other than the interview with the Hamas leader. I did not think that was appropriate. I think it was wrong of the ABC to do that. But look, I haven’t watched every minute of the ABC coverage, but I was concerned about that interview.

Rafael Epstein: I appreciate your time. Thank you.

David Coleman: Okay, thanks Raf.

Rafael Epstein: David Coleman there, Shadow Communications Minister, mainly talking about that legislation. He is out there. He is right to point to examples like Anne Twomey and human rights organisations are also concerned with that legislation. The interview he spoke about there, is an interview Sarah Ferguson conducted on 7.30 with a Hamas representative from memory. That person was in Qatar, if that’s relevant to you or not.