Governments on the run can't be trusted to make sound policy. The Gillard government, which for some time has been the somnambulist of Australian politics, careers away to the edge of oblivion in a bumbling way, hoping to make its mark. On route, it hopes to pass as many reactionary policies as possible, garnering a populist vote in a bid to stay alive. These are acts, not of governance, but of electioneering, the last rites of a dying force.
The latest dim scheme to come out of the hat of policy issues forth from Stephen Conroy's portfolio. The Communications Minister (ironically notorious for poor communication) is nursing regulatory fantasies, as he normally does. Six bills have been proposed in the name of "media reform", including one establishing a public interest test on ownership and a government appointed media auditor, the Public Interest Media Advocate. Other changes include increasing Australian content in exchange for reduced license fees for broadcasters.
It would be silly to call this raft of measures a form of fascism, as the chairman of the Hoyts Group and New Zealand online classified advertising company Trade Me has deemed it. "Fascism is of the left and the right. It's the use of state apparatus to control information going to citizens and their activities." David Kirk's knowledge of political economy is patchy – fascism implies a certain imaginative paranoia, a flavour, an instinct that someone like Conroy could never come close to. What the communications minister seems to show is a certain shopkeeper's insensibility, pinched, narrow and unrefined.
Nor is press freedom in Australia "absolute," as the apoplectic Piers Akerman has claimed (The Telegraph, Mar 18). "You either have a free press or you do not." Well, then the answer is palpably that we don't. There are self-regulations, attempts at self-censorship, and self-moderation. And when certain columnists get out of line with ill-judged, Google-fed commentary, they tend to run foul of such statutes as the Racial Discrimination Act. In a country without a formalised free speech provision, such things are bound to happen.
Certainly, the bills are weakened even before they are debated. For one thing, beefing up Australian content on a multichannel system is deceptive. Networks can simply run such content on other channels where audience numbers will be lower. The Greens are concerned that such measures will actually erode home grown productions.
The possibility has even been entertained that the existing Australian Press Council will be undermined by the proliferation of "multiple press councils," if the Conroy reforms get passed. That remains a key concern of Green's communications spokesman Senator Scott Ludlam, wondering whether this self-regulatory nonsense will end up undermining the very premise of the legislation. "For us the issue of having multiple press councils competing in a self-regulatory race to the bottom… would end up effectively, I think fragmenting the Press Council as it is" (Sydney Morning Herald, Mar 17).
The better point to make here is that regulations enacted do not tend to be regulations undone. Bureaucracy reproduces and multiples. It becomes it own rationale. Conroy risks introducing a mess into an already untidy media landscape.
Government control over media is always problematic – at least in countries considered nominally democratic. The efforts by officialdom to control what Australians read and see has been a fixture of the country since penal days. An unelected body of the Office of Film and Literature Classification, an antidemocratic entity if ever there was one, dictates what films and items of literature can enter the Australian market place. A few individuals, hardly in the league of Plato's wise men, determine what smut and violence is good, or in some cases not good, for us. Few protests, if any, are ever registered against such appointees. Conroy is banking on the fact that Australians don't mind their staple diet of regulations, provided its framed in their name.
Conroy, and the Prime Minister, have shown no willingness to consider watering down the bills, though they may have no choice in the end. Conroy's rich assertion is that, "If you want to protect media diversity in this country and what you want the Press Council to uphold standards, you vote for the bills." This is a hard argument to make. When "standards" of the press issue from Canberra's dictates, be it in terms of determining diversity or standards in media, we must surely be worried. Nor is Conroy speaking about something that exists to begin with. Where is this abundant diversity he wishes to protect? Australia's mediascape – and here, we are speaking not of the independent outlets but traditional print and paper forms – is notoriously stunted and parochial.
Attacking non-existent bogeymen with legislation is something Conroy is very enthusiastic about. His attempts to impose an internet filter proved both daft and, had it been implemented, misguided authoritarianism. Websites not dedicated to hosting porn would have been "netted". Again, you could not call that a measure of fascism but moronic paternalism. One can't trust the public to do what's best for them. Canberra's functionaries, in their comically misguided way, can.