“That’s why we have quotas!”

Labor blasts a proposal to create a level playing field by dropping Foxtel's obligations to Australian drama.

Parliament yesterday debated a proposal to reduce Foxtel’s investment in Australian drama.

Tony Burke, Manager of Opposition Business in the House and former Minister of the Arts, delivered a passionate defence of maintaining Australian quotas.

Commending Foxtel’s history of local drama, he said the way to achieve a level playing field was to add quotas to Streaming platforms, not to diminish obligations on Subscription and Free to Air Television.

“What’s the government’s solution when they say, ‘Oh, well, Foxtel is now at a competitive disadvantage to the free-to-airs, where we cut their drama quotas’? The solution is, ‘Oh, well, let’s keep the race to the bottom going and let’s make the cuts apply to Foxtel as well,'” Burke said.

What sort of government attacks workers in the middle of a pandemic? Because what’s in front of us now is nothing more than an attack on people who work in creative industries. Let’s not gloss it over. This is not like what we were dealing with when we were arguing they needed to redesign JobKeeper to make sure people who were actors and creatives got access to it.

Mr Burke (Watson—Manager of Opposition Business)

This is not negligence on the government’s part. What’s in front of us right now is a direct attack to halve the contribution to Australian drama from Foxtel. That’s what’s in front of us.

If you’re working in television, if you’re working in scripted drama, whether you’re an actor, whether you’re a scriptwriter, whether you’re a producer, whether you hold the camera, whether you’re a make-up artist, whether you’re one of the many people employed in this area, have a think about the number of attacks that are on from this government right now. First of all, you’ve got the lack of protection in terms of support during the pandemic itself, and we’ve canvassed that many times in this chamber. But then you have direct attacks from this government. They chose now to reduce the obligation on free-to-air television for scripted drama. Now! During a pandemic, when people are already out of work, when people are already struggling to make a living, they decide now is a really good time to say to free-to-air TV, ‘Oh, you don’t have to do as much scripted drama as you used to.’ Of all the times!—they wait until an industry is on its knees and then say, ‘Oh, now’s a good time to attack them.’ They do that for free-to-air TV, they do that in cuts to the ABC and then they use the fact that these cuts have been made to say: ‘Oh, now Foxtel is at a competitive disadvantage. We need to reduce their obligation.’

“Foxtel has been a good citizen when it comes to Australian drama”

I’ve got to say our opposition to this bill is not a criticism of Foxtel in any way, shape or form, because I will say Foxtel has been a good citizen when it comes to Australian drama, for their whole history. Productions like Love My Way, starring Claudia Karvan, Asher Keddie and Dan Wyllie, really show Australians doing the kind of complex long-form drama which the Americans pioneered with shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. The Kettering Incident is an unsettling, brilliant, horror drama set in Tasmania. Wentworth is a gritty Australian drama inside a women’s prison, with actors like Pamela Rabe, Danielle Cormack, Susie Porter and, this year, Marta Dusseldorp joining the cast. It’s good drama coming from Foxtel.

“What’s the government’s response? ‘We’ll cut it in half.'”

What’s the government’s response? ‘We’ll cut it in half.’ You think that doesn’t mean jobs? You think that doesn’t make a difference to all the small businesses that proliferate in this industry? And there’s all of this in the context of a change that needed to be made that the government has refused to make, because there is a competitive disadvantage that Foxtel is in at the moment.

There is, in fact a competitive disadvantage that free-to-air TV is in as well at the moment, and it’s a competitive disadvantage that should have been fixed eight long years ago. It’s this: the streaming companies have come through with absolutely no requirement for Australian content—and Australian content is more expensive.

We get that. But it will always be so for a very simple reason. We are a population where, predominantly, English is the first language of most of the country. That means that when you produce drama in this country you are competing for stories with all the other English-speaking countries of the world, many of whom have a population base way in excess of ours.

“That’s why the Foxtel scripted drama rule was put in place.”

So we have a competitive disadvantage when it comes to scripted drama, and quotas are the only way you can make sure that Australian stories will be told. That’s why we have quotas. That’s why the Foxtel scripted drama rule was put in place. That’s why we need to have a system put in place for the streaming services. Every year of inaction makes it harder to do this. Why is it getting harder now? It’s because, in the face of complete inaction from the government, some of the free-to-airs have now got their own streaming services. Now they’re in both camps, which means there will be a level of resistance that would not have been there eight years ago if action had been taken at the start. But the inaction from this government is the reason we are in this mess now. What’s the government’s solution to an inequity? What’s the government’s solution when they say, ‘Oh, well, Foxtel is now at a competitive disadvantage to the free-to-airs, where we cut their drama quotas’? The solution is, ‘Oh, well, let’s keep the race to the bottom going and let’s make the cuts apply to Foxtel as well.’

“What we see today will be the beginning of a continued process of taking away obligations on free-to-air TV and taking away obligations on Foxtel”

When we started with a situation where Foxtel had good obligations and free-to-air had good obligations but there were no obligations for scripted drama on the streaming services, the government’s approach, instead of having the guts and the policy and the intellect to do something about raising streaming services’ obligations to provide Australian content, was, ‘Well, let’s just lower everything else.’ What’s in front of us now? Let’s not pretend that this will be the end of the story, because as long as there is no obligation for Australian drama on the streaming services the objective of this government will be to lower and lower and lower the obligations. What we see today will be the beginning of a continued process of taking away obligations on free-to-air TV and taking away obligations on Foxtel, and the outcome will be simple—

(Mr Fletcher interjecting)

Mr Burke:

I hear the minister say, ‘Oh, that’s a small blessing.’ I hear the minister refer to the fact that his colleague gets to leave and he’s stuck here. It’s about time he listened to what is happening in the sector, because in a moment he’s going to vote to cut the contribution to Australian drama in half. Do you reckon that doesn’t affect half the jobs? Do you reckon that doesn’t affect half the businesses? Of course it does. But let’s not pretend that the government sort of stumbled into this. This is eyes wide open. This is a deliberate strategy of not caring about Australian stories being told.

“Australians should be able to watch stories that are set in their own country”

As I said, we don’t criticise Foxtel. Foxtel has been a good player. But there is a way of delivering a fair playing field here. It’s to look at the section which has no obligations and put obligations in that area—and to get back to the first principles of it all. Why do we have quotas in the first place? We have them because there is a belief that seeing our stories on screen matters, that Australians should be able to watch stories that are set in their own country, that they should be able to watch stories where the accents and the voices and the language that they hear from the screen are the same as what they hear in their community.

Not every one of these productions is going to be commercial without quotas or funding obligations. That’s okay, because the alternative is that we end up in a situation where we only judge success in scripted drama by whether it ends up being a big profit-making activity. I don’t want us to continue to be in the world that we were in 20 years ago, where you could have a show like The Man From Snowy River but Kirk Douglas had to be one of the main actors in it, where the only way you could tell an Australian story was if you got the foreign buy-in, because then you could legitimise it and turn the thing into a commercial success overseas.

If a show only talks to our own people, it is still a story worth telling. Most people here would have watched Secret City, set in this building. It was a partnership with Foxtel. The people who got work from that weren’t just the actors on the screen. There was the soundtrack for that show, with music by David Bridie. Some of you would know him from My Friend the Chocolate Cake. He’s a serious composer. The work of a whole lot of creatives is delivered by quotas. That’s where it comes from. The Devil’s Playground, one of the iconic Australian stories, had a complete long-form drama on Foxtel. The actor Simon Burke —not related to me— played the child in the original movie and then played the same character years later in a new Australian story, speaking so directly to a whole lot of the stories of abuse that came out of the royal commission. These stories don’t get told because they’re automatically commercially viable. They get told because there is a guarantee of investment.

There is no way of looking at this bill other than to say that, for one of the good corporate citizens, Foxtel, that obligation gets cut in half. When you move from 10 per cent to five per cent, that’s half. There is no other way of looking at this. This is an appalling decision, and it’s no wonder they took the word ‘arts’ out of the name of the department. It’s no wonder that for eight years we’ve been without a cultural policy in Australia. George Brandis —a lot of criticisms of him, but at least he wanted the portfolio. Since then we’ve had people who just get it because it’s lumped in with something else. There’s been no commitment to making sure that our stories are told.

This bill is part of the race to the bottom. Let’s not pretend that what was done to free-to-air TV, under the cover of the pandemic, will be the last thing that this government does with respect to Australian content quotas.

“Does this hit scripted drama? Yes. It cuts it in half.”

As to what they’ve already done, does that hit scripted drama? You bet it does. And does this hit scripted drama? Yes. It cuts it in half. It cuts in half the obligation on Foxtel, and, all the while, a government that seems very happy to be asleep at the wheel does nothing on streaming services. I want Foxtel to be on a level playing field, and the way to do that is for the streaming services to have an obligation as well. It is a ridiculous situation at the moment. If you use a smart TV and you go through Binge or one of the Foxtel apps, or through Foxtel itself on a cable connection, there is an Australian content obligation, but, if on the same TV you shift your remote control to a different icon, suddenly there’s no Australian obligation.

The reason that we have quotas is not that we’re obsessed with the measure of bandwidth and how something comes to our home, whether it’s via Foxtel cable or whether it comes through the sky. We don’t care if it comes through an internet connection. It’s because we care about our stories going from the screen to whoever is sitting on the lounge. If the government believes that those stories should be cut in half, it should have the guts to explain why. Front the small businesses that rely on these quotas and tell them that you think they should have only half the profit or that only half the company should be there. This government understands jobs in film when it’s a Hollywood production.

“Australian stories create jobs too”

This government understands that you get a whole lot of extra businesses involved if it’s a Hollywood story being told on the Gold Coast or at Fox Studios. And we have supported those processes and those policies because of the jobs that they create. But Australian stories create jobs too.

How on earth does a government get it into its head that it will put taxpayers’ dollars behind the jobs that come from the telling of American stories and, in the same year, during the same pandemic, at the same time the sector’s being smashed, decide it’s time to cut the obligations for Australian stories being told? Maybe they just like it, when they go to a Hollywood set, that they get photographed with people who are more famous around the globe and that makes a better Instagram pic. I don’t know. But, I tell you what, it means nothing to people who want to see their stories being told. It means nothing to people who, when they turn on the television in Australia, want there to be a decent chance of the story being an Australian story. And, please, never come back with some jingoistic pride in the country, when as a government you have made deliberate decisions to cut the telling of Australian stories in half.

Mr Fletcher (Bradfield—Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts):

I would like to thank the members who have contributed to the debate on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (2021 Measures No. 1) Bill 2021. This bill will make amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and the Radiocommunications Act 1992 to reduce regulatory burdens, reform outdated regulations and assist Australia’s media industry to keep providing content valued by Australians.

“Subscription broadcasters have been significantly impacted by digital disruption”

The amendments to the drama expenditure obligations on subscription broadcasters and their channel providers are an important part of the government’s broader reforms to the regulation of Australian content. Subscription broadcasters have been significantly impacted by digital disruption and the shift of audiences to other, unregulated services. With falling revenues and audiences, it is important to recalibrate the regulatory burden on this sector and create a level playing field in terms of the obligations imposed on traditional and new media. These amendments continue the government’s efforts to simplify regulations, provide effective support for the production industry and enable Australians to have access to Australian content across a range of media.

Source: Parliament of Australia .

2 Responses

  1. The only way you can have Australian fiction except in books, radio, webisodes, computer games, film and dramas and comedies on public broadcasters.

    As far as jobs goes TV production has been growing and the subsidies have been increased. Universal has moved a few productions to Australia because our costs are lower, especially with regards to Covid (though SA and Vic. are trying to rectify that). Stan, Netflix and Amazon have all increased production.

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