Politics 2021 – a year of parliamentary brawling

After constant campaigning, Australian screen industry politics 2021 will be remembered as the year of the surprise punch.
Kangaroo in boxing gloves next to defeated opponent

It’s been a tough year of constant combat, but the SPAtans and their Guild allies endured two cliffhangers in Parliament to win at the last heart-stopping moment. Well, sort of win.

2020 had already been a nightmare, what with COVID-19 and Minister Fletcher determined to solve the intractable mess of a screen sector clinging to its food sources in a stampede of streamers.

Read: 2020 year in policy

Late last year, the industry was faced with a horrifying set of proposals by the federal government which argued that 

  1. The current 40% feature film and 20% television tax rebates should be ‘harmonised’ to 30:30
  2. A raft of smaller provisions would cut the value of the rebates.
  3. The commercial TV stations would be given more flexible sub-quotas so they could easily get round their drama requirements
  4. Children’s television would no longer be covered, and 
  5. Foxtel’s expenditure requirements went from 10% to 5% of revenue 

Government lays out terms of combat

The government struck quickly in the delayed budget of October 2020, with this bland announcement about ‘reforming’ both the commercial and children’s provisions. It claimed in their special dialect:

The Australian Government is supporting Australian screen content by simplifying regulations and injecting $53 million into the development and production of local film and television as part of the 2020-21 Federal Budget. 

The commercial networks were free to satisfy their drama requirements with very little production. Meanwhile, the children’s television requirements they detested would disappear altogether. That $53 million was bandaid money to get through the changes and deal with COVID.

These changes were a mix of amendments to the law and changes in administrative regulations. The broadcast television quotas belong to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), which was instructed to run a final period of consultation across November 2020. It was all about the details.

Read: TV quotas – the government pretends to listen one last time

However, the ACMA was effectively enquiring into its own plan, so it agreed with the government and the changes came into force on Jan 1, 2021. It was all over Red Rover for commercial broadcaster quotas, although the shell remains in place.

First round to feds – but industry gathers its strength

What about the Foxtel changes and the Tax rebates? They needed two different pieces of legislation, both of which would play out on the floor of the Senate.

In February the organisations mounted a mega-charm attack on parliamentarians, climaxing with an amiable audience between Scott Morrison and actor Bryan Brown. It was a famous moment. 

Read: Forty percent feature film rebate saved by industry lobbying

The government agreed to keep the feature flim rebate at 40% and raise the TV figure to 30%. That was a solid victory, but those obnoxious changes to thresholds etc still remained. The low budget feature and documentary feature areas were in trouble, while the producers would earn even less money from production.

Read: The doco makers fight back

Industry draws next round

Meanwhile, the government pressed on with its plans to ‘relieve the burden’ on Foxtel. It put the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (2021 Measures No.1) Bill to the House of Reps, which would halve its obligations to make Australian shows. It also contained a provision to boot Community TV off the spectrum.

The commercial networks purred like old tabbies, but the creators desperately lobbied and argued until the Senate referred the legislation to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee. The meat and potatoes of the changes covered a variety of details, but Foxtel was the fly in the ointment for the Nationals. They are averse to making profits easier for companies that don’t grow stuff or make holes in the ground.  

Read: Foxtel in for the kill in the debate over Australian content quotas

In the calculus of parliamentary procedure, the government in the Senate accepted that the Foxtel deal had to go, even though the dry teeth of old man Murdoch chattered at them from some palace in New York. But at the very last moment – literally the 11th hour – the Senate also removed the attack on Community TV. Grumpily the government put the amended legislation to the Reps, and it was passed. 

Industry on points

By the end of June, we could score the combat as government:2 for the commercial TV quotas, industry:1 for protecting the Foxtel provision with an extra half for saving Community TV which is sentimentally important but not economically valuable.

Still on the agenda was the rest of the taxation provisions, with those detailed clauses which hacked into budgets and company revenue. Most important was the plan to raise the minimum budgets on the film side from $500,000 to $1 million. The politics was tricky because the government could spit the dummy and never actually deliver the promised 30% in TV rebate, or stick to the original plan for 30:30. None of this had gone through Parliament.

The government’s ‘reforms’ were locked into the Treasury Laws Amendment (2021 Measures No. 5) Bill 2021, which was finally passed in the House of Representatives by August 10. Then it went to the Senate. Any hope of fixing it lay in that Chamber.

Industry circles for sneak attack

On August 5, even before the Reps had finished scratching around, the Upper House happily referred it to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, in a carbon copy repeat of the Foxtel provisions. This time the Nationals didn’t care, but the Greens and the Labor Party certainly did. The completion date was delayed twice across August, and was finally revealed at the very end of the month. The 40:30% deal still held, there were a couple more concessions, but the essential brutality was confirmed.

Read: Senate committee gives and takes away

It split on party lines. Nothing happened, and the lobbyists became nervous. What if Parliament closed for the year, and we had an election before the Bill was put? There was a time problem here – the legislation dated the change from 20 to 30% at July 1 2021, which had already passed. Expecting the extra money, producers had been borrowing it, and were eager to have the issue settled. Worse, if the government held an election, the whole rigmarole would start again with a new Parliament.

Brawling in the stands

Meanwhile, the Senate became increasingly frisky. On November 11, it agreed to run an enquiry into the ABC’s complaints procedure which brought the wrath of ABC Chairperson and Sydney’s primest A List fighter Ita Buttrose, until the ALP, the Greens and the cross-benches combined to exploit some kind of brainfart in the mind of Senator Gerard Rennick who didn’t vote. On November 23, the Senate delayed its own enquiry, possibly until it disappears forever. Looking like a plague of hiccups in a kindergarten, the upper house was ripe for an upset.

Read: Senate rebels against its own inquiry

Facing defeat, government stays out of the ring

On December 1, the second last day of Parliament for the year, the Greens and the ALP moved an amendment to get rid of all those destructive clauses, leaving nothing but the 40:30% tax deal. As we reported happily, the government was so chaotic it was accepted by the Libs without a vote because they feared losing it. The Bill went back to the House of Representatives where it was accepted again for the same reason.

Read: Industry wins on screen legislation

‘the 4.5 to the industry is actually a hollow victory, because the Screen Australia Drama Report shows that the commercial broadcasters are walking away from drama, and the children’s sector is totally reliant on the ABC. Which the government still pretends does not exist in any fiscal sense.’

And there it lies. Government:2, industry:1.5 plus 1 for the tax deal, 1 for protecting the $500,000 threshold and another for the internal details like the Gallipoli clause. But the 4.5 to the industry is actually a hollow victory, because the Screen Australia Drama Report shows that the commercial broadcasters are walking away from drama, and the children’s sector is totally reliant on the ABC. Which the government still pretends does not exist in any fiscal sense.

Read: Annual drama figures – wear the mask, count the money, bet on change

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.