Interview with Andrew Clennell, Sky News, Sunday Agenda

ANDREW CLENNELL, HOST: During the Federal Budget, the Government announced $6 million for a trial of age verification technology for internet use. News Corp newspapers have launched a campaign for social media use to be banned for under 16 and the Government is also flagging legislation to crack down on scams run through social media sites. 

It seems a great time to get Communications Minister Michelle Rowland on, and she joins me live in the studio this morning. Michelle Rowland - thanks so much. Let's start then with this trial of technology announced in the Budget to attempt to control what age people can get onto social media or view pornography. What technology is involved, how would it work and are you looking to legislate age restrictions here?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: I think the starting point here is that this is a trial of what we call age assurance. There's a number of methods that have developed actually quite rapidly over the past few months, and governments and regulators around the world are looking at this issue about how do we ensure that children are not exposed to age inappropriate material - no Australian would want that. That ranges from pornography to age inappropriate content in games for example, and also use cases to do with social media. 

How this would work is we see it as twofold: as examining the technologies that are currently available for their efficacy, how they interact with other security concerns and privacy requirements, but also how they can be integrated within the existing systems of particular platforms. So, how do they actually work and how are they functioning within existing systems? 

We are working closely with eSafety on this. This is one that really does underpin a number of the issues that you've just been discussing and that are very topical at the moment, about is age gating appropriate, and at what age is age gating appropriate? How do we ensure that not only do we have an age limit or a minimum age, but also look at it from the other end of the telescope: how is that content being fed and what can be done in order to address what is often harmful content and age inappropriate content from reaching those consumers?

CLENNELL: Do you believe kids shouldn't be on social media until 16?

ROWLAND: I think there should be age limits on social media. Whether 16 is the correct age or not is something that is the subject of live debate at the moment –

CLENNELL: Do you have a personal view on what's an appropriate age?

ROWLAND: I have a personal view that minors are very susceptible. I know from my own experience that as their brains are developing at those ages, there's no clear guidance. Kids are different, people are different, but we know that the ages 13 to 16 are vulnerable ages for development. As a parent, I'm concerned about what my twelve-year-old’s access is. I am heartened by the fact that my seven-year-old came home the other day and pointed to her face and said “this is the face of a smart digital citizen” because she is learning about it at school. 

This is a topic that I'm very glad the media has highlighted. I think it has started a conversation and it's one that the Government has been pursuing for some time. Right across Government when it comes to, for example, children's privacy - which the Attorney-General is working on at the moment - to consent issues - as my colleague Amanda Rishworth's working on at the moment. It really is a collective effort and it’s one where we need to be evidence-based, not looking for headlines, but looking for evidence. It's clear that around the world and around Australia, people are very concerned about what is happening to kids from exposure from social media.

CLENNELL: Has the horse already bolted here? I mean, you've probably got every under 16-year-old on social media - how do you turn that around?

ROWLAND: We are in probably the second generation of digital natives. But Andrew, the counterfactual is to do nothing and this Government is determined to make the internet safer, to make social media safer. We know that this is part of the embedded life of these young people. We used to talk about an online world and an offline world: there's one world. And social media does have many benefits for not only people in society at large, but also for a number of children who mightn't be capable of fitting in in certain circumstances. They find a voice through social media, they find a voice through gaming, for example. I think the consensus is it does have positives and negatives. The key issue for Government is to ensure that we strike that right balance, that it is evidence-based and that it is effective. 

CLENNELL: You spoke about doing it through the platforms, in which case you'd need the cooperation of the media companies. What we've seen with this case with X or Twitter, when it came to this footage of the stabbing at the church in Western Sydney - the temporary injunction was lifted by the courts. It tells us it's just not easy to police this stuff, doesn't it?

ROWLAND: It is complex and there is no jurisdiction that has gotten this right yet. In Australia we are fortunate on a number of fronts. We have our own standalone regulator in the eSafety Commissioner and we quadrupled base funding so that those tasks can continue to be undertaken effectively. 

We have an Online Safety Act which we are reviewing at the moment. It only came into force in the beginning of 2022. But at that time, generative AI wasn't even known as a common term and so many new harms have emerged [since]. In Australia, we are fortunate, we do have those regulatory frameworks, but you are absolutely right - we are up against these giant companies, multinationals, who have more power, money and global influence than some standalone nations. They have deep pockets, they are highly litigious - but that is no reason why they should not be subject to Australian law and we should seek to enforce Australian law.

CLENNELL: You have always got an issue with holding people like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk to account - they're in another country.

ROWLAND: As Francis Haugen - the Facebook whistleblower - has said, these giant platforms, fear one thing: accountability. That's one of the reasons why we have established this Joint Parliamentary Committee to get some accountability and transparency on some of the very opaque practices that they have - that's important. 

I want to be clear here: there's no magic pill. This issue is being addressed from a number of areas, including media literacy through the $6 million that we committed to the Alannah and Madeleine Foundation for every school to have access to these media literacy tools. We've also got the eSafety Commissioner having a quadrupling of its base funding – so it is a collective effort. 

I'm reviewing the Basic Online Safety Expectations at the moment that go to a number of issues that go to a requirement for the platforms to act in the best interests of the child. So, we're addressing this from a number of fronts. It is a collective responsibility, and this Government takes the view that doing nothing is not an option in this area.

CLENNELL: It seems like you've just got a swathe of legislation you're about to put in relation to this. The Online Safety Act - you're changing that. You announced you're going to introduce legislation to crack down on scammers on social media - that's a massive problem, isn't it? Now, the misinformation bill, where is all of that up to?

ROWLAND: Well, in terms of the misinformation bill, we have been undertaking consultation since the draft was issued last year. We were very heartened by the amount of engagement that has happened, particularly with some of the key, very respected authorities who have responded and provided their views. So, we're going through that process at the moment. I want to make it clear that this is an area that the Chief of the Defense Force, the chief of our spy agencies and our top cop have all said [that] this is an area in which action needs to be taken. 

To be clear, this is a requirement on the digital platforms. They currently have a voluntary code that goes to requirements for them to detect and take certain action in relation to mis- and disinformation. It's been concluded independently before we came to Government that that was not operating effectively and that should be codified; so much so Andrew, that the Morrison Government announced prior to the last election that they would do exactly the same thing in relation to legislating on mis- and disinformation and holding the platforms to account. Yet all we have seen from Peter Dutton here is negativity. He switches over for five minutes and says that he supports action in the wake of the Wakeley stabbing. Sussan Ley does similar, and then we don't know where they stand on this issue. 

We have been undertaking solid engagement on this. This is a novel piece of legislation and we weren't going to just rush this into the Parliament as a Bill. We've had a draft that's been out there. 

CLENNELL: Let me just ask you about Peter Dutton though as he did indicate he might support it. Have you had any further discussions with the Opposition since then? 

ROWLAND: No. The Opposition have basically ruled themselves out of this issue and that's despite the fact that if you go to the Liberal Party website, even today, they have a whole section there called Fighting Fake News. 

They don't know where they stand on this issue. They're at odds with our top cop, our top spy, our top defence force personnel. The harms that are caused by misinformation – including in relation to bad actors and rogue states and their ability to interfere in democratic processes – is a real threat to Australia.

CLENNELL: Now, Mark Dreyfus was in the papers this morning, the Attorney-General, saying he's going to introduce a hate speech Bill with criminal penalties. Why does the Government believe this is necessary now, and aren't there already civil penalties not currently being used?

ROWLAND: There has been long engagement on this to identify gaps and unfortunately – as we have seen on your program this morning – the breakdown in social cohesion is one [issue] that this Government takes very seriously. That we identify those gaps and make sure that we fill them, that we have appropriate penalties in place and we make it clear that as a Government – we will not tolerate the kind of hatred and abuse on the basis of people's race or religion. 

You had some footage on earlier in some of the program of Saint Scopus. I had a call from my best friend whose child goes to Saint Scopus. I've never had someone on the phone, a friend like that, so distressed about what's happening. She said, my grandparents and my husband's grandparents fled the Holocaust and now we are here in Australia seeing this. It is completely unacceptable. 

Again, the counterfactual is for Governments to do nothing. We are determined to operate not only within the AG's portfolio - but there has been strong engagement across the comms sector as well. I talked about the review of the Basic Online Safety Expectations: they also go to hate speech. Your viewers can be very assured that we are operating as a proper, functioning Cabinet Government where Ministers work collaboratively with one another. We identify gaps based on evidence. We identify where there needs to be further penalties in place and where they need to be strengthened, and we're determined to do that. This should be above politics.

CLENNELL: All right, so that incident outside the Opera House where people are yelling at Jews, would that be subject to this sort of charge? 

ROWLAND: Potentially, if that satisfied the criteria for hate speech, then this could operate in any scenario.

CLENNELL: Okay and what sort of penalties are being looked at for that?

ROWLAND: I can't reveal those at the moment - these [penalties] are under active discussion as we finalise these laws.

CLENNELL: Jail, is it?

ROWLAND: I cannot reveal that because we're under active discussion at the moment, but I will say that the area of penalties is one that is being examined very closely in terms of ensuring that these laws are effective.

CLENNELL: The PM copped a bit of flak over the week – as I've just showed – over the  International Criminal Court issue around Benjamin Netanyahu. Peter Dutton says we should consider pulling out of being a signatory to the court. What's your reaction on that?

ROWLAND: Australia signed up to this under John Howard, and we know what the ICC has decided recently. This is an independent decision of the Court. Australia has been a signatory since that time for many years, and I actually want to reflect what the Prime Minister said. 

There's been a number of hypotheticals asked here, but the key issue is that they make their decisions, they do that independently, and we're not here to give running hypotheticals on what may or may not happen. If Peter Dutton wants to take forward a policy to the next election to pull out of the ICC, he should take that forward.

CLENNELL: I won’t ask you the question about Benjamin Netanyahu coming here, given that's a hypothetical. Now, we had news during the week of 2,800 Telstra employees being shown the door. Were these job losses avoidable and does this show the economy is softening?

ROWLAND: It is a very difficult time and I want to acknowledge those workers from the start. This is a highly competitive sector, and in particular, where those particular workers are located is one of the more competitive parts of the telco sector. Every sector, unfortunately, in this area, is under dynamic strain at the moment – not only through technological advances and AI as has been reported –- but also the need for companies to restructure and set themselves up for the future. It's not the first for Telstra. We know that under the previous CEO, there was a series of unfortunate large redundancies at that time, as well as they worked towards their new strategy. 

Telstra is a private company. There was a decision to privatise them well before my time, but it is very clear that these are real people with real jobs. This is a sector that is dynamic – it is under constant change – its margins are getting tighter and tighter, and so it's one that we continue as a Government and myself, as Communications Minister, to monitor very closely. Again, every single job is a real person who's been impacted.

CLENNELL: Let me ask about this audit office report. You copped some flak from the Opposition over this $40 million Mobile Black Spot Program. [The ANAO] backed the way you administered it, but the criticism remains from the Opposition that more than 70% of the grants went to Labor electorates. Just briefly, what's your view on the Opposition?

ROWLAND: Well, continuing on from Opposition, we went to the election promising to fix mobile coverage issues in a number of key areas, including the South Coast that had been ravaged by bushfires, the Blue Mountains and in the Eden Monaro region – just to name a few. 

These are areas that had been ignored. We promised that from Opposition, we delivered that in our first Budget – in terms of the funding – and the ANAO has concluded that me as Minister and my Department followed all the guidelines. This is a massive embarrassment to David Coleman, who has been out there saying that the guidelines had not been followed – and the ANO concluded the exact opposite.

CLENNELL: There’s been some controversy in media circles concerning the alleged behaviour of former Channel Nine news boss Darren Wick and the allegation his behaviour was swept under the carpet and he was paid out. Do you have any concerns about the reports of the way Channel Nine's leadership handled this scandal?

ROWLAND: I would think that all workplaces need to adhere to their policies in relation to how these matters are handled. I would say this: the media sector has been highlighted in recent years as an area that needs improvement, and I say that as someone who works in a profession where standards need to be lifted as well. 

I think that it is incumbent on all institutions, on all companies, including the one in question, to do better, to be transparent in the way that it conducts its investigations. We want to see a diverse media, and that includes diversity when it comes to public interest journalism. We want good people to be entering the sector, to be supporting the Fourth Estate, which is an important pillar of our democracy and I would hope that the appropriate processes are adhered to in this case.

CLENNELL: Communications Minister Michelle Rowland, thanks so much for your time.