MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE;Australian Broadcasting Corporation – 24 Nov 2014

Over the course of last weekend thousands of people turned up to rallies across Australia, including 3,000 people at Sydney’s town hall and another 2,000 at Federation Square in Melbourne. Rallies were also held in several other cities, including Newcastle and Adelaide, where, funnily enough, the member for Sturt, Mr Pyne, was conspicuously absent.

In my home state of Tasmania, 200 people turned up to a rally outside the ABC studios in Hobart, which was addressed by my colleague from the other place, Julie Collins, the Labor member for Franklin. I want to point out how the ABC cuts are going to hit Tasmania, just having mentioned that Ms Collins was there addressing the group. I am sure I heard Senator Abetz in question time say that nobody had lost their job. I presume he was maybe being a bit smart with words and forgot to add the word ‘yet’. But it has been acknowledged that the budget cuts are likely to reduce ABC Tasmania’s headcount by eight or nine staff and it is very likely that a small number of ABC News positions will be made redundant but that managerial and back office staff are expected to bear most of the pain.

In fact, ABC managing director, Mr Mark Scott, has already confirmed that the Tasmanian director’s position held by Andrew Fisher will be made redundant. With local ABC radio bulletins being replaced after 8 pm by national bulletins and the Friday edition of 7.30 Tasmania being replaced by a national program, I do not think all augurs well for the ABC in Tasmania. The 2012 closure of ABC’s Hobart TV production unit which was responsible for such great shows as Gardening Australia and Collectors had already removed all but one of Tasmania’s TV production positions and that had cost 17 jobs. So now we know it is likely another eight or nine are going. Mr Scott did announce earlier that the ABC would lose 400 positions nationally, about 10 per cent of staff, in response to the $254 million cut imposed by the federal government. So for Senator Abetz to stand up and say that no jobs will be lost, I really hope he has done his homework and checked up on what is happening there.

Tomorrow there will be another rally on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra. The message of these rallies is really simple: the Abbott government needs to keep its unequivocal election promise—and that was, ‘no cuts to the ABC or SBS’. It is absolutely astounding that this government can deliver cuts of more than half a billion dollars to the ABC and SBS, and then claim that they continue to stand by the commitments they made before the election. Those opposite really must take the Australian people for mugs. They cannot seriously think that Australians will believe this government have not lied and blatantly broken their pre-election commitments.

But, whatever weasel words the Abbott government uses to justify their broken promises, the fact remains: a cut is a cut is a cut. I know some conservative commentators, and even senators in this place, who question the purpose of having a publicly funded broadcaster competing with commercial providers. That might be a valid argument if the ABC was seeking commercial revenue or competing on a level playing field, but it is not. The line of argument that the for-profit commercial broadcasters would love to have a billion dollars a year subsidy is completely disingenuous, and ignores the reason for having an ABC and the important public service it provides. It ignores the point that a for-profit broadcaster could not fulfil the role that the ABC do because their commercial imperative is completely at odds with the ABC’s responsibilities.

Yes, commercial broadcasters would love to be subsidised by the government, but they exist for a completely different purpose to the ABC—that is, to make a profit from advertising revenue. They do not have the restrictions that the ABC has placed on it. The ABC exists to deliver on its charter, a charter which includes providing educational programming, reflecting Australia’s cultural diversity, promoting Australian culture and Australian performing arts, and providing independent news and current affairs. These functions may not be commercially lucrative, but they are certainly of value to the public interest. For example, the ABC’s news and current affairs function serves an important role in Australia’s democracy. Casting an informed vote relies on independent, unbiased information about the important issues that are shaping public policy. You see, producing news and current affairs can be used to inform the public, but it can also be used as an instrument to shape and influence public opinion.

There are three reasons why commercial news and current affairs cannot be trusted to be free of bias, why it is compromised by the profit motive. Firstly, commercial news needs to suit the interests of its advertisers. If a business is unhappy with the way their business is being reported, or the report is in conflict with some other commercial interest, it will not provide advertising revenue. Commercial news providers also like to present a view of policy issues that suits their own commercial interests, not just those of their advertisers. And, finally, some of the lengthy, intensive journalistic investigations that the ABC often engages in are just too costly to turn a profit—yet they are of great value to the public interest.

Having an entirely commercial broadcasting market would mean we would lose a number of Australia’s most popular and highly successful TV dramas. Sea Change, for example, an iconic Australian drama, was rejected by every commercial network before it appeared on the ABC. You see, commercial TV networks cannot innovate in the way the ABC does because it creates too much commercial risk.

Not only do Australians believe strongly in having a publicly funded, fiercely independent national broadcaster, but they overwhelmingly believe that our ABC does a good job at fulfilling this role. The ABC commissions an appreciation survey each year, which consistently shows, year on year, that Australians think their ABC performs a valuable role in return for the 10c a day they pay for it. In the latest survey, 85 per cent of Australians said that the ABC performs a valuable role, with almost half agreeing that it provided a ‘very valuable’ role. Seventy-eight per cent of Australians believe the quality of programming on ABC television is good, compared with 44 per cent for commercial television. Sixty-four per cent believe the quality of programming on ABC radio is good, compared with only 51 per cent for commercial radio.

It is interesting to note that, according to a recent survey of Tasmanian radio listeners, 936 ABC Hobart has the highest audience share of any of the radio stations in the south of the state. The station’s highest rating shows include Ryk Goddard’s Breakfast show, Mornings with Leon Compton and Evenings with Helen Shield. And 80 per cent of Australians think the ABC is doing a good job of covering events happening in country and regional Australia, compared with only 45 per cent for commercial television, radio and websites.

While the Liberal member for Sturt, Mr Pyne, obviously recognises the value of the ABC to his constituents, I am utterly amazed at the hypocrisy of his online petition. When the ABC decided to cut production staff in Adelaide as a result of the government’s savage cuts, Mr Pyne started a petition against the closure, which garnered 2,000 signatures—but I must admit that none of the signatories were very complimentary. Given the fact he is a member of the cabinet that cut hundreds of millions from the ABC, you have to ask yourself: who is he trying to fool? Mr Pyne described the ABC’s decision as ‘an act of political vandalism’, but the true vandalism is the savage cuts that the government is making to the ABC.

Of course, the sheer irony of Mr Pyne’s campaigning against the consequences of his government’s cuts is not lost on those on this side of the chamber or to the people of Adelaide. Mr Pyne’s argument that Adelaide’s TV production unit should be quarantined from the Abbott government’s savage cuts is the height of self-interest and he should be absolutely ashamed of himself. Nevertheless, I would encourage anyone who opposes Mr Abbott’s cuts to the ABC to have a look at Mr Pyne’s petition and use it as an opportunity to tell Mr Pyne what you think of the government’s broken promise, like so many other people have.

It is a good thing for the ABC that it is not only popular but also held in high esteem by Australians. We know that having independent reporting is inconvenient to the coalition, who are generally treated more favourably by the commercial media. We know that the coalition would like to get rid of the ABC but they cannot, because it is an institution loved by Australians—a cultural icon, a valued public service and a part of our lives which many Australians wake up to every morning or go to bed to every night.

These cuts are part of an ongoing war the conservative side of politics has been waging against the ABC for decades. It is a war the Howard government waged when they appointed their mates such as Michael Kroger, Janet Albrechtson and Keith Windschuttle to the ABC board, when they removed the position of staff-elected director from the board and when they initiated an efficiency review into the ABC in 1996 and then cut its funding, contrary to pre-election promises. Ah, that sounds familiar.