Shadow Minister for Communications, Transcript – Sky News Credlin with James Morrow

Subject: Labor’s Misinformation Bill

E&OE…

James Morrow: David, thanks so much for joining me this evening. Tell me about these documents. It sounds to me like the Minister of the day, whoever that is, could sic a massive communications bureaucracy on their political opponents based on a charge of misinformation.

David Coleman: That’s right, James, they could. This is the horror scenario laid out very clearly in the letter to the Prime Minister. So what it says is the Minister will be able to direct ACMA to conduct investigations into misinformation. The Minister can specify the terms of reference, the time frame, and it says any other particulars about that investigation. So imagine the scenario where the Minister in this case, Michelle Rowland, doesn’t like something that’s been said online, says, well look, that seems like misinformation to me. We need to investigate that digital platform that has published that so-called misinformation and then directs, forces the bureaucrats to conduct that investigation on the terms she specifies. Now, that is the exact thing that people worry about when they think about these misinformation laws. And what this letter says is that’s what’s going to happen if these laws come into being.

James Morrow: Well, and when you put that in the context of two things that are in the draft legislation, one, that the Government itself could never be guilty of misinformation -and of course, anybody who lived through the last several years knows that the Government never, ever spreads misinformation. But also, that ACMA can determine the when, the where, that somebody has to report and they can be fined for every single day they don’t report. Isn’t that right?

David Coleman: It’s exactly right. So the scenario would be the Minister says, ACMA you need to investigate this. And relevant to that investigation are the following issues, which presumably would involve the following posts and the following people. ACMA can then direct that person to show up as part of the investigation. If the person does not attend at a time specified by ACMA, they can be fined $9,000 per day. It’s in the legislation. It’s in black and white. And it’s an extraordinary that in one of the world’s very greatest democracies, Australia, that its Government would put forward a Bill like this.

James Morrow: David tell me, it all seems very loose, this idea of what misinformation is. I mean, first of all, it seems like you’re almost criminalising being wrong, which can happen in a democracy where you have free speech and ideas get tested back and forth. But really, is it misinformation now, whatever the government of the day, be they the Coalition, be they Labor, be they whomever, just decides they don’t like it.

David Coleman: Yeah well, all the legislation says, James, is that it’s an unintentionally misleading statement. Now think about that, every day Australians would make thousands of statements which are unintentionally misleading, and secondly, that it causes so-called serious harm. But serious harm is so broadly defined as to include things like harm to the environment or harm to the economy or a section of the economy. So you’re right. I mean, it’s effectively whatever the Government of the day says it is. And we now know that it’s not just the bureaucrats, it’s the Minister, the elected politician who can dictate the terms of those investigations. It’s very troubling and a really important point here, James, – now, we found out about this through a Freedom of Information application. The Government released more than 30 pages of documents describing the Misinformation Bill when it came out. And this issue, the Minister’s power to direct investigations is mentioned nowhere at all. So not only do we have the power that we have unearthed, but we also have the Government failing to mention it for the past six months.

James Morrow: Yeah and I think we can put some numbers around this too, the real sort of threat here, because when the Voice was being debated, we heard the term misinformation thrown around an awful lot. I was accused of it for saying that the Uluru Statement was 26 pages and, hey presto, it turned out to be 26 pages. But we had a recent IPA report that found that the fact checkers published 187 fact checking articles related to the Voice and of those assessments, 91% of them, or 170 of them, targeted the no case. So doesn’t this just show how when the Government, even without this sort of misinformation law, is pushing something from the left, there’s a whole group of people out there who come falling behind it to try and shut down anything that’s contradicting their narrative.

David Coleman: Yes, I think that’s exactly right, James. The Voice is a good example to raise, because if the Voice debate had occurred after these laws had come in, we now know that the Minister can direct an investigation at any time into misinformation issues. So would those laws have been used against people arguing the no case in the Voice campaign? Absolutely they would have. Absolutely they would have. And so that’s very chilling when you think about future political debates in Australia and granting these extraordinary powers to the Minister.

James Morrow: And David, just before I let you go, this Bill, when it went up for an exposure draft period in consultation on the Communications department website, it received thousands and thousands of submissions, including from human rights groups and other bodies, legal outfits saying we’re pretty uncomfortable with this. Do you think that the Government is going to resile from this at all, or are they going to push it through in its current form next year?

David Coleman: Well, the Minister had to get rid of her time frame of getting the legislation through this year because of the backlash and because of how appalling it is. The Government is still saying they’re going to press on and if they press on with a Bill that gives the Minister the power to order misinformation investigations into basically anything they want, a Bill that exempts the Government but not critics of the Government, a Bill that exempts comedians and academics, but not everyday Australians, well, they’re going to have a massive fight on their hands, James, because this is absolutely wrong for this country. This Bill, it should never have been put forward and we will fight it every step of the way.

James Morrow: David Coleman, Shadow Communications Minister, thank you so much for your time this evening.

David Coleman: Thanks, James.