In a wide-ranging keynote address to the Communications and Media Law Association in Sydney this week, Federal Communications Minister, the Hon Michelle Rowland MP, outlined the media policy priorities of the Albanese Government.

Ms Rowland introduced the media policy challenges facing the Albanese Government by saying:

"We have a lot of work to do just to catch-up: to move Australia's policy settings and regulatory framework into the 21St century. A policy pile-up and backlog of issues that could have been resolved by now".

Commenting on the media policy work of the Morrison Coalition Government, which preceded Labor in office, Ms Rowland said:

"The previous administration didn't heed the advice of past inquiries and reviews. Or where they did, the efforts at reform were half baked or underwhelming. And, more fundamentally, the regulatory framework wasn't modernised and remained stuck in the analog era."

The principal legislation which regulates broadcasting in Australia, including television and radio services and some aspects of online services, is the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. This legislation reflects the policy thinking of the 1980's – an era when digital services including the internet did not exist, and television and radio services in Australia were provided by terrestrial transmission at no charge to the consumer. Obviously, much has changed in the subsequent 30 years, and most of today's media and communications platforms and services bear little resemblance to the pre-internet/digital era.

Key Objectives

Minister Rowland outlined some of the key objectives which will guide the Albanese Government's media reform program, as follows:

  • A level playing field in which media outlets can thrive while maintaining Australia's reputation as a desirable place to invest and grow new businesses.
  • All Australians to have equitable access to media services and content, regardless of their financial means or location.
  • Consistent regulation of services to respect community standards and reflect our cultural identity while providing the flexibility to accommodate new and emerging services and technologies.
  • All Australians to have access to a vibrant and diverse range of news media, including local media, where no one voice dominates political or social debates.

Immediate Priorities

In the immediate term the Albanese Government will focus on three areas to be implemented in 2023:

  1. Prominence. The implementation of a legislative framework to support the prominence of local television services on smart TVs. This will ensure that local TV services can easily be found on connected TV platforms. 'Prominence' refers to how easy it is to find particular services within the interface of a smart TV.
  2. Anti-siphoning. Review of the anti-siphoning scheme and list of sporting events, and the implementation of necessary reforms. The Government is committed to equity, and recognises the need for events of national importance and cultural significance to remain free of charge and accessible to the Australian public.
  3. Australian content on streaming services. Consideration of Australian content requirements for streaming services as part of the development of a new National Cultural Policy. Streaming services are one of the most popular ways Australians consume screen content. However, unlike free-to-air commercial television and subscription television, streaming services have no requirements to invest in, or make Australian content available.

The Government will also develop as a priority a News Media Assistance Program or 'News MAP', a program of work that will lay the foundations for "principled, targeted and evidence-based intervention to support the news media sector".

National Cultural Policy

The Albanese Government is developing a National Cultural Policy which will be a "broad, comprehensive roadmap for Australia's art and culture that touches all areas of government".

It will be relevant to communications policy to modernise media regulation and update analog-era broadcasting legislation for the digital age. As mentioned above, the issue of Australian content on streaming platforms will be an important aspect of the Policy.

Minister Rowland is a former media lawyer who has held the communications portfolio for Labor for more than 6 years. In delivering her address to CAMLA this week she appeared very comfortable with the complex regulatory and policy issues which are at the core of her portfolio. There are grounds for optimism that long overdue reform may be in sight.

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