Interview on Bay FM 99.9 with Dione Green

DIONE GREEN, HOST: I'm joined in the studio by Federal Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland and Justine Elliot. Good morning ladies. It's really lovely to have you both in the studio today.

MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: It's great to be here. My first time in Byron Bay, Justine can’t believe it!

GREEN: I'm honoured to be one of the people that you are visiting while you're here.

ROWLAND: You are my first radio station in Byron Bay that I am visiting. 

GREEN: We are the only radio station in Byron Shire. We call ourselves in most easterly station in the nation. We've been going for 34 years now, almost entirely run by volunteers. I’m not quite sure how we're keeping the lights on. Actually, in some cases, we're not keeping the lights on - this is the emergency light on in the studio. Our light bulbs have stopped working and we haven't yet got an electrician in to attend to that. 

But anyway Michelle, I won't take up too much of your time with those sorts of matters. I understand that you began your career as a lawyer, specialising in telecommunications and media law, which is quite apt now that you're the Communications Minister. What inspired you to go from the law to politics?

ROWLAND: I really saw this as an opportunity to do something different. I was always interested, when I was young, in media and current affairs. I had served as a Councillor on my local council as well. I'd always been interested in politics. Paul Keating once said: the train only comes in once every twenty years. My life was on a different trajectory at the time, I was thinking about what my next move would be in the corporate and legal world. 

I'm glad I made the decision to come onboard in 2010. I'm on fourteen years in the Parliament now, and this is my first term as a Minister. It's just so great to be amongst people like Justine Elliot, whom I've known for a very long time. I really get inspired by people like Justine who is so connected to her community. Being a Member of Parliament, irrespective of being a Minister, which is a really great honour. And Justine, of course, is an Assistant Minister. I think that being a local MP is one of the best jobs that you can have. It keeps you grounded, it makes you work hard for other people. It’s also really encourages a sense of empathy to understand different people and I think that, in those fourteen years, I have grown as a person. I'm a better person than I was previously, Justine might feel similarly. But Justine has been a real inspiration to a lot of people right across the Parliament - the way she loves and serves her community. To be inspired like that, you only get it in a really unique workplace like the Parliament.

GREEN: You’ve got some information for us today that is very important to share. Last week your office issued a press release regarding a new industry code to improve safety for Australians who use online dating apps. What can you tell me about that?

ROWLAND: That's right. Justine will also know as having part of her portfolio around the prevention of violence and violence against women. Some surveys were done by the Australian Institute of Criminology that found three in four people who use dating apps – and dating apps are actually the most popular way to meet a partner in Australia these days – had actually experienced some form of abuse, tech-facilitated abuse. 

Last year, I brought together representatives from industry, law enforcement agencies and regulators, to say to the dating app sector: you’re an unregulated sector, this is unacceptable and the Government intends to intervene if you can't lift your game and lift the standards of the industry. I'm pleased that they took that onboard. They actually developed, within the timeframe that I'd set them, an Industry Code of Practice that covers around 75% of the sector. Bear in mind: most of these are multinationals, they're not based in Australia at all, but they cover the biggest names that people will know from the dating app sector.

GREEN: As in Tinder, Bumble, eHarmony?

ROWLAND: Indeed. The industry has not only agreed to this new set of standards, they've also agreed to have their own oversight of it, and also to have it reviewed by the eSafety Commissioner. Some of the key features include complaints handling: if someone gets kicked-off an app for inappropriate behavior, they get kicked off all the apps that are controlled by that company, and some of these companies control multiple ones. 

It also requires the app providers to be more proactive in detecting behaviors that are unacceptable. This is really sound policy, because it says to the industry: you lift your game, or we're going to intervene more. They've already lifted their game in the absence of regulation, not just by the Code, but those of your listeners who are familiar with these apps will see that there's actually quite a few new safety features. That’s incentivised them to do more. Also, there's sort of a certification too. So, if you're compliant with the Code, if you've agreed to sign up to it, consumers can see, they can make informed judgments about what apps they're using. 

All this really is designed to make these apps safer. They are very popular. We want people to have positive experiences online. This is a really unique, world-leading development. For some of these companies, it's the first time they had ever interacted with Australian governments and regulators. We'll keep monitoring this because we want to make sure that people who use them use them in a safe way, and that companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users.

GREEN: Does it include Facebook dating? Because that's a new thing that I see people talking about a lot. I haven't really explored it myself. I'm actually not 100% sure if it's available in Australia, but a lot of friends of mine are using it now.

ROWLAND: It's a really good point, because new technologies and new apps will always be emerging. We will continue to monitor who's agreed to sign-up to it and who is compliant with it. But again, the thing about technology and innovation is that it has positive results, but it also has the risk of harms. That's what we're trying to address. We're not trying to limit choice; we want people to have choice in these services. They're very popular, as I said, people want to use them. We're not about oppressing people's rights. We're about making things safer. 

GREEN: Now, let's talk about 3G. I understand that 3G is ending by 1 September. Telstra and Optus will no longer operate through the 3G network. Obviously, that'll affect people who still have 3G phones, but also some people with 4G phones.

ROWLAND: That's right. The switchover from 3G is something that the Government supports because it means that radio communication spectrum can be used in a more efficient way. It means a more positive consumer experience, better services, better quality, but it needs to be done in a safer way. 

You mentioned 3G devices. On the day of the switchover, when 3G ceases to operate, people will know that their device doesn't work, and they know now if they have a 3G device. But there's a subclass of devices that work perfectly fine on the 4G network, but the manufacturer has configured them to use a 3G network to make calls to Triple Zero. That's an area of great concern to the Government. We found out that there were some 740,000 devices out there in the community - some of them had come from imports, people brought them in from overseas. But again, this is because the manufacturer has configured them this way. I brought together the industry to say: we need to work together to make sure all that people understand this. They've been advertising this a lot more, communicating with customers. 

My public service announcement: your listeners can text the numeral ‘3’ to the number ‘3498’ and they will be able to get an instant message to say whether or not their device is compliant.

Why I'm really interested in speaking to your listeners right now, to notify them about this, is because we know that often it's older people who don't update their devices very much, or people who live in regional areas who might not have great access to some of this information. I hope that people who are listening, or know someone –- particularly if they have an elderly relative – you should check now, because we don't want people on the day they need Triple Zero making a call and not being able to get through.

On a positive point, that number of 740,000 known devices has come down to around 205,000 since this Working Group was established, so it is having an impact. But more needs to be done. I actually have additional powers that I can use as Minister if I’m concerned that this isn't being done in the safest way possible. That's all subject to consultation and number of limits within the law. I'm reserving the right to exercise those powers because the top priority of Government is to keep Australians safe. We want everyone to have confidence in Triple Zero.

GREEN: Speaking of 5G, I’d feel like I’d be remiss if I didn't mention that Byron Shire has a quite a long history of protesting against 5G, and before that 4G. People are worried about electromagnetic frequencies, things like that. A lot of those people live in the Hills deliberately to not be near to too many cell towers or Wi-Fi or that sort of thing. And they possibly, most likely, have 3G or 4G phones. How would you address the concerns of those people? Is there any foundation to worry about 5G?

ROWLAND:  I would say very directly and unequivocally that 5G is an evolution of 2G, 3G, 4G. The utilisation of that radio communication spectrum is subject to international standards is subject to monitoring within Australia for electromagnetic radiation: these levels are absolutely safe. We do have an industry that reports and part of their job is to continue reporting to make sure that we're in line with all those international standards. This is less than the amount of radiation that would be emitted from something like a speed camera, for example, or low-dose X-Rays that people have. They are perfectly safe amounts. 

I would also say that people rely on mobile communications these days; it's not a nice to have, it's not a novelty. I think it's very important to be unequivocal in the safety of our networks in Australia. Our standards are the best in the world. Australia has always been world leading when it comes to the infrastructure and technology rollouts. We are absolutely the standard when it comes to monitoring electromagnetic radiation as well. And those standards are well within acceptable guidelines. So, I would be absolutely unequivocal around the safety.

GREEN: During my research about the 3G closure I found that there are some other devices aside from phones and tablets that will also be affected. That also use 3G, such as medical alarms, security cameras and farming equipment. So, what about those people? Some of those things are quite costly. Is there any help for those people? 

ROWLAND: You're absolutely right. This has been planned for some years – since 2019 – this switchover. It’s well understood that on the day that 3G switches over, they will cease to be working. Within the industry, around medical devices, there are some that can continue to work, there's others that, depending on whether they're back-to-base, if you like, may have challenges. 

Industry has been communicating this and within the medical devices industry, this has been well known. EFTPOS machines, for example, some models will be affected, the banking sector has known this for some time. 

What we, as a Government, are particularly concerned about is access to Triple Zero from those handsets that consumers use. A medical device, for example, is known that it will stop working on a certain date, so people can take action on it. You actually won't know when you've got one of these handsets that’s impacted. You'll be using it perfectly fine for your voice calls and everything else until you actually dial Triple Zero.

GREEN: You can text the numeral ‘3’ to ‘3498’. We'll leave that at the front desk in case you are driving and have a memory like mine and forget by the time you get home. Now, speaking of radio, by FM, and of course the ABC and other non-commercial radios play a really vital role in helping people stay connected and informed, especially during natural disasters that affect those people we're talking about in the Hills. Like the floods and the bushfires that we've had over the last few years. What are your personal thoughts about community radio?

ROWLAND: Community radio does the heavy lifting in Australia when it comes to diversity, and when it comes to inclusion. I have long been associated with community radio. It's why the first Bill that I presented to the Parliament as Minister was concerning community broadcasting. My first visit as a Minister was to a community radio station in Braidwood in New South Wales, which stood the brunt of some of the terrible fires that we had. And they continued broadcasting around the clock when everything else went down, providing emergency information.

I consider community broadcasting, and community radio in particular, to be absolutely essential to strong communities. That’s why in our first Budget we substantially increased funding for community radio. We've currently got out for consultation options to look at the sustainability of the sector. We know that it's run primarily by so many volunteers, we need to make sure that volunteers aren't a limitless pool, that people are incentivised to continue supporting community radio.

I see community radio as one of the fundamental elements of the media ecosystem. People thought radio, as one of the oldest forms of media, would be one of the first to die. Particularly with the advent of digital and so many competing platforms. Radio has succeeded for two key reasons: firstly, its localism, and secondly, its two-way nature. It's the personalities. It's the connections that people form with presenters, that interactivity that you don't get on any other platform. I look forward to radio continuing to do what it does, keeping communities connected. I thank Bay 99.9 FM for everything that you do, I'm sure all your listeners appreciate it as well.

GREEN: What about the future? What is the future of community radio do you think? Do you think it will continue to get stronger? Or do you think eventually it will be replaced by some of those platforms you mentioned.

ROWLAND: I believe, fundamentally, in the broadcasting medium. It's stable, it's free and it's ubiquitous. While we’ve had a big repair job rolling out the National Broadband Network after ten years of being in Opposition and seeing what happened there – we are pushing fibre and better technologies deeper into the network and right around Australia – but we will always need the broadcasting platform because there are some communities that simply can't be reached. It is supported by people continuing to tune in, whether it be in their cars, whether it be at home, whether it be through apps as well. Radio has been so adaptive, so innovative. I think that all the decisions that have been made in the past really mean that it continues to be a medium that is very strong. Under the Albanese Government, we will continue to support community broadcasting and community radio. We've maintained our election commitment to keep the remaining community broadcasting television stations on air. So, we delivered on that as well. We have delivered on our election commitments when it comes to supporting community radio and we'll always do that.

GREEN: Fantastic. Michelle, thank you so much for giving us your time today and for supporting the sector. 

ROWLAND: Absolute pleasure.