2CC CANBERRA DRIVE
TUESDAY, 25 AUGUST 2020
SUBJECTS: Google; the importance of supporting local Australian journalism; multinational tax avoidance; JobSeeker and JobKeeper.
LEON DELANEY, HOST: Have you noticed that when you open up Google Chrome or when you use Google search, these little yellow triangles pop up with warning signs saying ‘warning, warning, Will Robinson, danger’? No, they say something like ‘warning, the Australian Government is about to impose rules that will dramatically impact upon Google's ability to provide you with services’ or something to that effect. So in order to shed some light on just what damn hell is going on there, I thought I should consult with that well-known technology guru, the Member for Fenner Andrew Leigh. Good afternoon.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good afternoon, Leon.
DELANEY: I never knew you were a technology guru. When did this happen?
LEIGH: [laughter] Like almost everyone, I appreciate Google and make good use of their products, but I think they might have overreached in this case. This is simply an ask for a trillion dollar company to make a small contribution to keeping the news media going. And as you know, Leon-
DELANEY: Okay. Let's start at the beginning of this. This is all about the efforts by the Australian Government to get big media companies like Google and Facebook to make payment to big media organisations like News Limited and Nine News and so forth for the content that they distribute and promote on their internet platforms. But for some reason, Google has decided that this is an attack on their business model and they're fighting back. So what's wrong with the Australian Government's plan?
LEIGH: The Australian Government’s plan isn't perfect. The exclusion of the ABC and SBS, as Michelle Rowland has pointed out, is odd. But it doesn't seem unreasonable that Australia asks Google to make some contribution to support the news media, which is under such pressure at the moment. We had a period from 2006 to 2016 in which Australia lost 9 per cent of its journalists. We’ve seen 100 local newspapers close. We’ve seen health reporting down 30 per cent, science reporting down 42 per cent. And the Coalition's cutting the ABC is at the same time, just making the problem worse. What the Government's doing is on its face sensible, asking for a negotiate-arbitrate model with a four week consultation period. I think it'd be better if Google was working constructively with the regulator, rather than running these sorts of scare campaigns which are in some respects misleading.
DELANEY: Okay. So Google is a private business, which is in business in order to make money. So if there's a Government regulation being proposed, which is going to cost them money, it’s not unusual to see them oppose it, isn't it?
LEIGH: It's not, and it's certainly within their rights to continue these sorts of public campaigns. But I think we're all better off if these public campaigns are grounded in facts rather than fiction. It's important that anyone making claims in the public debate is doing so truthfully.
DELANEY: Alright, so what are the claims being made by Google? And are those claims in any way accurate or inaccurate?
LEIGH: One of the things the competition watchdog has done is it's seen the way in which Google acted in Spain when similar model was proposed. The ACCC said if there is going to be a down-ranking of a particular news provider, then 28 days’ notice needs to be provided of that. Google's claimed instead that that would give others an unfair advantage. But I see a big distinction between giving one person an unfair advantage and giving someone else a bit of notice that you're about to down-rank them on the site.
DELANEY: I'm not even sure most of us understand what that means. Why would Nine News for example, get down ranked by Google - whatever that means - and what would be the impact of that if they were?
LEIGH: It would be in response to a requirement to make some sort of micro-payment for the news that's being created. I think it's really important to recognise, Leon, that news plays such a critical role in our democracy and yet the funding streams that they used to rely on - the classified ads - have been separated apart from the newspapers. So we've seen huge financial pressure being placed on newspapers and their online equivalents at a time in which we really need the scrutiny of those outlets. We're seen just this week investigative reporters uncovering extraordinary wrongdoing in the Victorian Liberal Party, which has already led to resignations. We've had royal commissions in recent years over aged care, over banking, which have been sparked in part by investigatory journalism. So we need as a nation to have this high-quality investigative journalism, and I think what the Government's doing here is one way of achieving it. I don't think it's perfect, but I don't support the scare campaigns being run against it.
DELANEY: Sure. Now obviously, I think it's fairly easy to see the benefits of high-quality journalism and investigative journalism, and obviously those benefits can speak for themselves. But at the same time, traditional media is experiencing a difficult period. Some would suggest that traditional media is dying platform, and that this effort is simply some sort of doomed attempt to prop up a dying medium in the face of the competition that's being presented by the internet platforms. And of course, those internet platforms don't necessarily support quality journalism, but that might be just an unfortunate by-product of changing public tastes.
LEIGH: Outlets are certainly dying. There's now dozens of local government areas across Australia that lack a local or regional newspaper. And that means they don't get the benefits of being able to have those community stories being told, have their local councils held to account. It's really vital that we have a strong local media. We’ve seen the pressure that the Canberra Times has been placed under in our local area, the pressure that the Chronicle’s been placed under. The Chronicle used to have a whole lot more journalists than it does at the moment. Now all of that means that we don't get as rich a public conversation, and the substitutes for this - if you're just thinking that somebody tweeting away can be a substitute, I don’t think that holds true. There are sites like the RiotACT that I think do play an important role, that are doing the sorts of investigatory journalism we need, but there's incredible pressure being placed on the industry as a whole. It's really important that we're all looking creatively at how we can sustain a strong news media, because that's a fundamental part of democracy.
DELANEY: I'm not sure I disagree with any of that, but I'm also not sure that it actually answers the question about whether or not public taste is just changing, and this is an unfortunate by-product of that.
LEIGH: I think there's some shift in public tastes. But I don't think this is all about consumer demand. I think it's also about the supply of quality journalism. I think there is a taste for high quality journalism now, and I think there's a public need for high quality journalism. We know that corruption continues unchecked more easily in places that don't have a good news media to keep it under account. You need journalists who have the time to follow through a story, who are able to spend not just a couple of hours on an issue but a whole week trying to chase down a particular story. That's really important for us as a nation.
DELANEY: There's already been plenty of criticism of the internet giants like Google and Facebook for paying very little if any tax in the jurisdictions where they derive their revenue, including Australia. Obviously, some might suggest that this is just another way of trying to extract something from those companies.
LEIGH: It's important that those companies pay their fair share of tax, and they've been brought to do a little bit better on the tax front over recent years. They've also realised that minimising your tax using all sorts of double-Dutch sandwiches and the like just wasn't a good public relations move - that that got users annoyed as they shifted to tax havens, rubbing shoulders with the drug runners and extortionists that occupy tax havens. So the tech giants have been brought to the table on multinational tax avoidance. They could do better, but they're doing better than they were in the past. I hope that on this issue of making some contribution towards the news media, that the tech giants are able to step up. You'll notice, Leon, that Facebook isn't running this sort of scare campaign at the moment. I think that's probably a better approach on their part.
DELANEY: Yep. And obviously, the argument is that say Facebook, for example, benefits from being able to link to material which was originally created by traditional media outlets, and therefore it's only reasonable that they should make some sort of payment for that benefit because it's a commercial arrangement - or it should be a commercial arrangement. It's not a hard argument to understand on that front. What seems to be a little bit more difficult to come to terms with is Google's response, suggesting that the free services are at risk because of this new regulation. I'm not quite sure why they're at risk. They'd only be at risk of Google spat the dummy and said ‘well, we're not going to provide those services anymore’. Is that about right?
LEIGH: Yeah, that's right. You hit the nail on the head. And what's at stake for Google isn't just Australian revenues - it's the potential that other countries will then follow suit and put in place the same sort of negotiate-arbitrate model that Australia is moving towards. And so the tech firms are quite keen to ensure that Australia doesn't become a test case for doing this. It’s the same as we saw with GST on low-value parcels, and the way in which Amazon and eBay initially said that they didn't want to pay GST on their imports into Australia. Eventually they accepted, once they'd been given enough time for their IT systems to adapt, that they did need to play ball on that. Now GST is paid on small value items which are shipped into the country by Amazon and eBay.
DELANEY: That’s why I have to pay more for my books now, you [laughter]-
LEIGH: We now have a level playing field between a local Canberra business that’s selling you a book and someone that’s importing books from overseas. I think everyone accepted that it was fair to do. But it was interesting on that one, to see the tech giants fight it tooth and nail at the outset and then ultimately say ‘yeah, okay, fair enough – we can cop this’.
DELANEY: Onto other matters, and it looks very much like JobKeeper will be extended as the Government has planned. And along with that comes the reduction in the rate of payment for JobKeeper, and along with that the suggestion that the flexibility arrangements can be extended for businesses that no longer qualify for JobKeeper – but just in the last day or so, there has been some movement on that front, there will be a criteria or a set of criteria that businesses will still need to meet in order to access those flexibility arrangements. Now, the reason people are worried about these flexibility arrangements is because it could very easily be misused to disadvantage workers, and so there's natural cause for alarm there. Are you satisfied that this new set of criteria for businesses to be able to still exercise those flexible arrangements are sufficient to protect the rights of workers?
LEIGH: Not completely, Leon. We're still working our way through the detail of legislation and making sure that it's not going disadvantage workers. We know this legislation gives a lot of discretion to the Treasurer, it doesn't specify the rate, and so he's able to make a range of changes if he wants to. And we know too that the labour market’s in bad shape. We had the announcement today that we've seen over half a million jobs lost since the beginning of this pandemic - 520,000 payroll jobs lost since March. And we know in the ACT we've lost more jobs than average, 5.5 percent of payroll jobs have gone between 14th of March and the 8th of August. So here in the ACT, we're feeling the impact of a whole lot of jobs lost, often in sectors where the Government's deliberately excluded people from receiving JobKeeper - the arts sector, hospitality have been excluded. So people are doing it very tough out there. Another 2500 job losses out of Qantas just today, on top of the 6000 that had gone before that. So these are hard times, and we would like JobKeeper to be tailored to economic circumstances, not simply stopped in the interest of ideology.
DELANEY: Is it a mistake for the Government to press ahead with its reduction in the rate of pay for both JobKeeper and JobSeeker, given that we are not in the position that we were hoping to be in with regard to containing the virus?
LEIGH: We know more Australians are joining the job queues, and we know that longer the stand-downs go on, the more likely it is that firms will fold and employers will shift to technology and make workers redundant. I’d really like a plan not only for JobKeeper, but also for creating jobs in the long run, Leon. We've got opportunities to create jobs in renewables, we’ve got opportunities to create jobs in closing the test score gap between disadvantaged and advantaged kids. We’ve got opportunities to create jobs in building green infrastructure, cycle paths, public transport infrastructure. All of those ought to be on the table as the Government looks to deal with what is the number one economic issue in Australia today: job creation.
DELANEY: Marvellous. Thanks very much for your time today.
LEIGH: Thank you, Leon.
DELANEY: Andrew Leigh, the federal Member for Fenner and of course Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and Shadow Assistant Minister for Charities.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.