Transcript - Sky News, Sunday Agenda

ANDREW CLENNELL, HOST: Well, joining me now is the Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland. Michelle Rowland, thanks so much for your time. Let's start with this incident involving Perin Davey in the Parliament. It's after Barnaby Joyce passed out on the pavement. What do you make of it?
MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Well, firstly, I would endorse every word the Prime Minister said in his answer in Question Time. I think there's two things here. The first is: individuals in the Parliament are all responsible for their own actions and I don't seek to lecture anyone or add to any commentary about how people live their lives or how they behave within the law. I know Perin Davey has made a statement there. That was actually my Department's Committee where she was appearing, and we saw that on the night. We did not say anything about it. From my point of view, people choose to live their lives as they do. We are judged by a different set of standards [as politicians] and I think that's the reality. We're judged by the electorate. We have our jobs under the Constitution because people vote to put us there.
But I would say, Andrew, there's a second point here and it's around the structures, especially in light of Jenkins and what's been happening in terms of some changes there. I think it is fair to say that whilst there's a lot further to go, a lot has been done. We have functions that go on in Parliament House now that start earlier and finish earlier. There is certainly a reticence to have even Christmas parties that go late into the night for staff. A lot of these are done off site now, and even big events like the Midwinter Ball have changed arrangements for how alcohol is served. I think those structural changes are producing positive results.
And I've got enough self awareness to say one of the other aspects that has changed in light of Jenkins is the support that is provided to staff, but also to MPs. I've availed myself of that. I've never done this job before. It's stressful. I'm balancing a family and many other things, but I've found that very useful. And having come from a corporate environment where a lot of this support was taken for granted, I have found it unusual over the past 14 years to see that that hasn't been readily offered. Now that it has been offered, I've taken it up and I consider that it has helped me learn a lot of techniques. It has helped in my resilience and I think it's made me a better performer. So, on one hand, of course, as I said, with regards to individuals, I don't seek to impose judgement or my own commentary there. There's plenty of other people to do that, but I do note the structures are improving. They've got a long way to go, but we should all avail ourselves of the support that's on offer.
CLENNELL: Just briefly on that, and I'm a bit taken aback by your honesty in relation to this. You're saying you've availed yourself to some sort of counselling, is that what you're saying? That’s available for dealing with stress basically.
ROWLAND: It's readily available. You can speak to people, and these are experts about different techniques that you can use. We used to do this in the private sector, and I'm sure many of you viewers would be doing this in their jobs. You would regularly have check-ins from senior management and have either retreats or days where you would learn how to become better at your job. That isn't something that's been there in the Parliament. So, I encourage colleagues to avail them. It helped me. Different things help me. You know that I have a focus on fitness and nutrition and other things as well, but I found it helped me, and that's a structural change that I think is positive.
CLENNELL: Just back to this Perin Davey thing. You just said that you were aware of it on the night, or you saw it on the night, or your staff.
ROWLAND: It was there being broadcast right across the Parliament.
CLENNELL: I mean, frankly, she looks drunk to me. Is that how you perceived it?
ROWLAND: I'm not going to judge. I'm not going to judge.
CLENNELL: Okay, well, let's look at this principle, though, of would you go to a Parliamentary Committee after even two glasses of wine?
ROWLAND: My own view is I would not put myself in that position. But again, she has made a statement. I'm not going to argue with it. She's made her position clear.
CLENNELL: Right. Zali Steggall, I know you just said, I agree with the PM, so I suspect I know the answer to this one, but I'll ask anyway. What do you think of Zali Steggall’s call for RBT?
ROWLAND: Look, I think it comes from a good place. She has genuine concerns. She's someone who's got a legal background and she can see the risks, for example, that the Parliament may be exposed to. But again, Parliamentarians are unique and we are responsible to our electorates. We're responsible to ourselves, to our staff, to our parties, and I think this is certainly a salient reminder to all of us of that.
CLENNELL: All right, I want to move on to your portfolio area. You're headed to the UK and Europe tomorrow, one of the focuses there will be online safety, you're also conducting a review of the Online Safety Act. Take us through all that.
ROWLAND: Well, with new and emerging harms that are arising in the online environment, Andrew, it's imperative that we are not seen as a standalone regulatory environment. We are world leading in terms of the eSafety Commissioner, but these are global problems dealing with Big Tech. The revenues for some of these companies exceed those of many nations. So, it's important to have a coordinated international approach. We certainly have regulators around the world who are dealing with a number of vexed issues that come with the emergence of harms, everything from deepfakes to AI, and it's imperative that we act in a way that's cooperative with likeminded countries like the UK, that we learn what we can and share our learnings about matters such as safety by design, how do we build in requirements for industry to have safer platforms, for example.
This will be a key area in which we'll be exploring a number of issues that are being examined. At the moment. The Online Safety Act in Australia only came in 2021, and yet in that time we have seen so many changes. Whilst we have the adult cyber abuse scheme and the children's bullying scheme that is dealt with, the new harms that are emerging firstly require a diligent review of that, and that's what we've undertaken. We've actually brought the review forward so it's completed in this term of the Parliament because it has moved so quickly. But also, I think by engaging with these international regulators on a deep scale, it also demonstrates the importance of collaboration with the industry and across government. So, for example, we have the Online Harms Ministers working group, which includes people like myself, the Attorney-General, Education [Minister], Mental Health [Minister], and the women's agenda. All of this, I think, is really important to have a coordinated approach to these issues because so many new harms keep emerging. We've seen doxxing in recent weeks and how we deal with that, not only as a country but consistently across jurisdictions, is imperative.
CLENNELL: Can I just say that having children, et cetera, knowing other children, et cetera, and just even as working as a journalist, it just feels like to me it's impossible to police the online world. I mean, we're talking about an Online Safety Act here, but it just seems to me that in recent years, the level of abuse that's involved, et cetera, you can't actually police. You can't police it in the same fashion as if someone came up to you in the street and tried to hit you or started screaming in your face or something, is it just too big to get a handle on?
ROWLAND: Well, the issue here as a parent as well, I recently went to the parent information night where this was discussed, and it brings it home to you as well. I think there's two things. Firstly, it's the pervasive nature of it. It's always on. In terms of bullying in the playground. Back in the day, it would end when you left –
ROWLAND: So, there's that. But secondly, the power of these platforms, the market power, the dominance that they have, not only in terms of their reach, but the lack of transparency and accountability when it comes to their algorithms, the fact that there's often very little recourse. You've got X, for example, that is letting previously banned accounts back on their platform. These accounts that are known for their anti-Semitic conduct, and they are monetizing that. So, the ability for these platforms, with their market power, in the absence of regulation, to operate with impunity, is something that we should address. But just to end here, it's a collective responsibility. That's the approach that this Government takes, and I think that every regulator around the world ascribes to as well. It's about governments doing what they can, having the best regulations in place, making industry accountable, also having education. It is a collective responsibility. I understand the frustration, I'm there as a parent, but doing nothing, as far as this government's concerned is not an option.
CLENNELL: Well, just on that, though, the misinformation reforms, you've spoken a bit about them, you've had a draft out on them, but do you think you can get support for those in the Senate or it might be one of those things that's just too hard to do?
ROWLAND: We will never say it's too hard, and with 70% of Australians concerned about the harmful effects of mis and disinformation, when you have senior security personnel warning that what is happening on these platforms is a threat to our democracy and can actually undermine electoral integrity, that's a problem. When you have serious harms being manifested, that's a problem, and we know that this has been a problem ever since it was identified by the ACCC in 2019 in its Digital Platforms report. It's why nearly two years ago, the then Morrison Government announced that they would be doing something about it. We are following exactly their framework and again, this is novel legislation. It'll be a topic of conversation in these jurisdictions that I'm going to, but again, doing nothing is not an option.
CLENNELL: Last time you're on the show, you said you didn't think it would impact traditional media. Do you still hold to that?
ROWLAND: That is right, because we actually recognise that media is held to its own standards. You, as a journalist and this organisation is held to standards. These platforms are not.
CLENNELL: You're also the Minister in charge of Australia Post and you're involved in reform there, and part of that's less letter delivery. How do you think Australians will react to less days they're receiving letters?
ROWLAND: Well, firstly, we have undertaken extensive public consultation on this. We also had a very collaborative effort between Australia Post workforce, [Australia] Post itself and the Gqovernment, and the figures don't lie. Letters are on an unstoppable decline. However, we recognise the importance of Australia Post as a valued institution, particularly in rural and regional areas. And in some cases, they provide the only banking service in town as well.
So, we have been looking at long overdue reforms to address the fact that parcels are on the rise, letters are on the decline, but how do we ensure that people can still avail themselves of these letters, but also have their expectations met when it comes to their parcels? So, having conducted for quite some time some trial sites around how this new delivery model will work, we're now in a position where we've had draft exposure regulations out for comment, and that will mean that people will be getting letters every second day instead of every day. There'll be a longer timeframe for those deliveries as a result. But importantly, we are not changing the number of post offices that must be required across Australia and in regional areas that is contained in the regulations. We aren't changing that under this regulation, but we are recognising that consumer expectations that small business standards have changed.
CLENNELL: But is this about cost cutting as well?
ROWLAND: This is about productivity. It is about also ensuring that we arrest the losses that Australia Post has incurred, some $200 million. And we know that around the world, government-sponsored postal services are in decline. Have a look at the Royal Mail sacking so many staff, incurring incredible losses. There are some government sponsored postal services that have fallen over. We won't let that happen to Australia Post. So, it's not like the e-commerce trend just happened overnight, but we are doing something about it now as a government, in collaboration with [Australia] Post and its workers, and also having consulted consumers and businesses and other stakeholders. So, what we've arrived at here is a sensible set of regulations to address those immediate needs. But again, this is about productivity as.
CLENNELL: I wanted to ask you about the appointment of Kim Williams as Chair of the ABC. Was this a captain's call, was this Albanese's call?
ROWLAND: This went through the nomination panel process that's set out in the Act and this was properly advertised. It went through that panel process and we followed that to the letter.
CLENNELL: So, was he on the shortlist?
ROWLAND: He was.
CLENNELL: Okay, now, I wanted to ask about the arrival of this asylum seeker boat on Friday. Peter Dutton's been talking about this. He's been saying that the people smugglers are taking advantage of a weak PM. What do you make of that and what can you tell us about this arrival?
ROWLAND: Well, I would be very cautionary in terms of Mr Dutton and his comments. As leading people in the Australian Border Force have said, any suggestion of alternative narratives is actually harmful. But I will say that Operation Sovereign Borders has been operating in exactly the same way since it was introduced under the previous [Coalition] Government. Consistent with successive governments, we don't make specific comments on these operations. But again, I would just caution, as the ABF heads have said, alternative narratives are harmful.
CLENNELL: And just finally, a big moment this week in terms of this surface fleet review. What can we expect from that? Will we be getting less Hunter class frigates, perhaps?
ROWLAND: Well, I think the Defence Minister has made it very clear that over time we've had successive Ministers, a revolving door of Defence Ministers under the previous Government. It's time to actually have a proper look at our surface fleet and our capabilities, and as a reflection of that, that is what we are going to see in this announcement.
CLENNELL: Michelle Rowland, thanks so much for your time.
ROWLAND: Pleasure.