Ms SHEED (Shepparton) (12:27): I rise to speak on the Regulatory Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2021. At the outset I would like to say that I do have some concerns in relation in particular to that aspect of the bill that seeks to amend the Interpretation of Legislation Act 1994. I will come to the reasons for that shortly, but to commence with I would like to move a reasoned amendment. I will do that now in the following terms. I move:
That all the words after ‘That’ be omitted and replaced with the words ‘this house refuses to read this bill a second time until the government conducts further consultation on the impact on regional newspapers of ceasing to publish notices in print newspapers’.
This is an omnibus bill, and it seeks to amend numerous other acts of Parliament, some of them quite significantly, but today I will mainly concentrate on the issue that arises because of this amendment that seeks to remove that requirement to publish notices in print media.
Just briefly, I will refer to a number of other amendments which are encompassed in the bill. During the pandemic temporary allowances were made for parliamentary committees, local councils and libraries to meet virtually, and this is now a process that will become permanent as a result of this legislation when it is passed. Another important element of this bill is giving regulators permission to offer fee relief in times of crisis. We have seen many instances of that during COVID, but often with a need to have particular legislation to do it. This will create a facility to enable organisations to step in more quickly and have some flexibility in that regard.
The problem that I have with this bill is really one that I have spoken about many times in this Parliament, and it is about the future viability of regional newsprint. It is an issue that is continually being brought to our attention in regional areas as more and more media outlets withdraw or close their doors. The changes in this legislation remove the requirement for Victorian government public notices to be published in newspapers—just to be published online. So the scheme is really one where currently statutory authorities and all sorts of bodies, including local government and the Victorian state government, publish these notices in the print newspapers.
There is now an intention to set up a single website and everything will go there and there will no longer be the need for the print to occur. It has been removed from the legislation. It is not even going to be a regulation that occurs. The very best that will come out of this is there may be a guideline set up by the minister wherein there can be certain circumstances where it goes in the print media also. It is virtually discretionary as far as my reading of the bill goes, and I think that is not good enough. Accessibility for our communities to this sort of information is extremely important, and I just draw on one instance as a situation that would give people an idea of how important it is. Just before Christmas Greater Shepparton City Council agreed to the situation where they would look at selling the airspace above a car park in the CBD. Now, there are a whole lot of people who are not happy with that and a residents association has been set up. This is only because our local newspapers were able to see a notice that was published, to write a story on it and to bring it to the attention of the public in a way that has allowed everyone in the community now to make submissions to local government, for and against, and to really create an atmosphere of people feeling that they have some say in government at that level, and indeed every level.
It really is important also because it takes away just some of the base income that regional newspapers have. In regional areas politicians advertise regularly in their local newspapers. I know they rely on that as well. It is part of our way of sharing with the community what we have been doing, what we are saying and what we are involved in on their behalf as their representatives. But more importantly, all those government notices that go out and into the newspapers that we see all the time, whether they be planning, whether they be applications for tenders, all sorts of things, that are really important—we are now looking at a situation where they go onto one internet site, and I think it is a really big mistake to think that everybody will have access to that site.
I draw attention to the fact that recently the Victorian government set up a power saving energy grant of $250, available to everyone. That was widely published—it was in newspapers, it was online and it has been extended now to 30 June, but there are so many people in our community who cannot go online and do what needs to be done to access that. So we have got our Mooroopna Education and Activity Centre in Mooroopna busy all the time asking people to come in and helping them fill out forms online to do these things, and quite a few of our community agencies are now engaged on behalf of these disadvantaged or elderly people who are not able to access the computers and the internet in a way that so many are. I do not think that is just a regional issue. I mean, if you do not use a computer on a regular basis, on a daily basis, then it can become difficult, it become hard to navigate, and there are many people in our community—not just the elderly—who are in that situation. But let me tell you that it is often the older, retired people who are really watching for those notices. They are on the ball, they are active community members and they want to know what is going on, and if they cannot access it in the local newspaper, then how will they?
Regional newspapers have suffered greatly in the past decade due to the increasing presence of online media and the decline in print newspapers across our regional areas. We have seen many of them close down. We have seen television stations removing their cameramen from our areas; the ABC used have a cameraman in Shepparton. We have seen WIN TV go to a weekly, whole-of-Victoria regional news bulletin; no longer does our area have its own. We are losing our stories. People are not telling our stories anymore and we are finding it really hard to share them, and this is something that has a really significant impact on every aspect of community life. WIN News also pulled out of Wagga Wagga, Orange, Albury, Bundaberg. We are seeing Sky News being streamed in. It is not local news. There is no capacity for them to do local news in the way that our smaller organisations have. So the impacts of just a simple few paragraphs in this omnibus bill can be devastating, and I am here to say that on behalf of regional communities something absolutely must be done about it.
Studies out of the UK and other countries indicate that where there is a loss of local media communities suffer a commensurate rise in corruption, political disengagement and heightened distrust in public institutions. Where newspapers stop reporting on what happens at their local council meetings, people become disengaged. Councils are not accountable. Councillors are not accountable. Council staff are no longer being held to account. For much of what happens it is really important that the light is shone on government at every level, and the removal of this simple aspect of bringing things to the forefront in people’s minds, of letting them know what is happening, what the government is advertising, what they are intending is, in my view, a major encroachment on people’s capacity to participate in society and really in a democracy.
So I have moved this reasoned amendment. I would think that any member in this place who represents a regional area would feel the same way I do. I think they know how important our regional news media at every level is, how much we have lost, what an impact it is having, and with the stroke of a pen we are being faced with a loss of security that was in the legislation and now will end up in some guideline.