GREG BAILEY. The IPA and the Survival of the ABC.

Two prominent members of the IPA have just edited a book calling for the privatization of the ABC. This has long been a desire of this group, but with Minister Mitch Fifield, an IPA member, now taking the role of the LNP government’s attack dog against the ABC, is privatization a possibility?

The Institute of Public Affairs seems as dominant as ever in its influence on LNP politics, with at least three of its members–Mitch Fifield, Tim Wilson and James Paterson–all holding seats, and the possibility of one of its former employees, Georgina Downer, having a real possibility of becoming the fourth if she wins the seat of Mayo at a forthcoming by-election. Prominent members of the LNP have long sought to neuter or rid themselves entirely of the ABC, but this desire has seemingly become much more strident now, even where the ABC is much less critical of the government than it has hitherto been.

As usual, the IPA provides the theoretical background which can be drawn upon for the LNP, even if statements made by them in the public sphere will focus on perceived bias, lack of financial efficiency and the presence of other electronic sources of the services the ABC currently provides. This background is in the form of a book by Chris Berg and Sinclair Davidson, with the alluring title of End Public Broadcasting: Why We Should Privatise The ABC And How To Do It. Whilst I have not read the book–it has only just been published–the publicity spiel on the IPA website tells us the general drift of its argument.  Chris Berg is cited as saying, “ABC has a distorting effect on the media and political landscape. While the ABC produces much high-quality content, our view is that it should be exposed to the market and be more responsive to the demands of media consumers,” And whilst they reject political bias as a reason for privatising it, “Good reasons for privatising the ABC include meeting consumer satisfaction, eliminating taxpayer subsidies, and to ensure competitive neutrality in media markets.” They propose it should be given to past and existing staff.

None of these arguments are new. They were all rehearsed by James Paterson in an article published online on 29/10/2010 by the ABC itself, at a time when he was still not a senator. He also adds, in defence of the commercial stations, “But these commercial networks do not operate in a vacuum. They compete with the ABC, and up against a publicly funded broadcaster with no profit-motive, they would be mad to try to compete with the ABC in its key areas of strength, specifically public affairs coverage and analysis.” On this basis he assumes the ABC would continue to be viable as a commercialized entity. But ultimately the argument for him is: “The true test of whether a government-run organisation should be privatised is whether that service could be wholly or at least partly delivered by the private sector.”

Similar arguments had been put even earlier by Rudi Michelson published in The Australian, 16/10/2006.  He concludes, “The ABC is becoming less relevant and less credible. It started out with roughly 50 per cent market share of Australian media in 1932; today its total media market share must be 5 per cent or less. The Government has a clear role to regulate media, but there is no compelling reason why it should own and operate an entertainment business.” I do not know whether he is a member of the IPA, but his argument is much in sympathy with its members.

Whilst the majority of criticism of the ABC is that it is a hotbed of left-wingers, the arguments from the IPA are less emotive than this, but retain their abiding belief that government ownership of potentially commercial assets is bad. Obviously, such a belief is an assumption that can easily be countered in many ways, as many contributions to P and I have successfully done.

But the ABC has been severely weakened over the past few years with serious cuts to its budgets and an MD whose sympathies with the organization are less than those of past MDs. That is has been attacked six times in as many months by the Minister of Communications, backed up by the PM himself, must raise serious doubts about the government’s willingness to maintain a public broadcasting function. Many government MPs will likely read the new publication, or summaries of it, of the IPA and it will give further grist to opinions they already hold.  One does not even need to mention the influence of News Corporation in all of this, but the IPA continues its task not only of transforming Australia’s economic governance, but also of shaping its mode of transmission of culture as well.

The appearance of this book may not seem so important now, though it is part of an ongoing campaign by the IPA.  But if the LNP is returned at the next federal election, privatization or dismantling of the ABC is a distinctly possible scenario. Justifications could be that it simply replicates what the commercial providers and digital technology already does, the need to save money because of budgetary pressures and a need to fund likely tax cuts. Though there would be opposition, this would be resisted by an emotive appeal to the needs of ordinary Australians versus the elites, and the claim that what the ABC covers is already available on digital media. Its destruction would be a major setback for the country in so many ways. And, paradoxically, even the IPA would suffer as its ongoing claims for the greatness of Western Civilization is only likely to be taken up by the ABC, critically or otherwise.

Dr Greg Bailey is an Honorary Researcher, College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University.


Greg Bailey is Honorary Research Fellow in Asian Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University.

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11 Responses to GREG BAILEY. The IPA and the Survival of the ABC.

  1. Avatar Jerry Cartwright says:

    it’s obvious to anyone whos brain hasn’t been destroyed by cooking, dating, renovation shows that the only reason to destroy the ABC is to deceive us even more than they do now. Without the ABC investigating and exposing they will be free to say or do whatever they like. The ABC already has their hands tied, don’t cripple them completely,we need, and love, the ABC.

  2. Avatar Peter Laver says:

    Look forward to yet another cooking, talent, home renovation, dating or other cheap reality show on our privatised ABC.
    I am mystified by the arrogance of the critics. What are they worried about? They seem to avidly listen and watch and remain critics but everyone else will be subverted by the lack of any conservative presenter, producer etc. on any of the mainstream programs.

  3. Avatar John O'Callaghan says:

    You forgot to mention that the main reason the IPA,which dont forget was the brainchild of Keith Murdoch and Menzies and other RWNJs,wants to abolish[ and yes they want to abolish it,lets get real here ] is to give even more power and influence to Murdoch and his evil empire,but of course you failed to mention this fact!

    • Greg Bailey Greg Bailey says:

      Hi, John. Yes, I am fully aware of this and deprecate it. I was more concerned in exposing the tactics of the IPA and their persistence in pushing their line without any rational grounds.

      • Avatar Alan Beasley says:

        Dr Bailey – do you think, given John Roskam’s association with the Mont Pelerin Society, that the MPS exerts influence over the IPA’s policy prescriptions as well as the IPA’s ideological position?

  4. Avatar Richard Ure says:

    The government claims the threat of privatising Medicare at the last election almost cost them government. I don’t doubt the ABC’s general popularity. Would the Libs risk to loss of more seats if they were to hand a suicidal policy to a party with even better chances of victory than at the last encounter?

  5. Avatar Colin Cook says:

    Can someone please explain to me the public benefit of ‘competitive neutrality’? It is the basis for the Hanson demanded inquiry into the ABC and, as above, one of the IPA anti-ABC platforms.

    By way of background, Competitive Neutrality is explained by the Productivity Commission on their website thus:
    Competitive neutrality policies aim to promote efficient competition between public and private businesses. Specifically they seek to ensure that Government businesses do not enjoy competitive advantages over their private sector competitors simply by virtue of their public sector ownership.

    The second sentence says, in effect, that if a Government entity can do it better – something must be done about it and the public denied the advantages that would ensue from the Government ( i.e. publicly owned) enterprise. The second sentence should surely read, ‘…..promote inefficient competition……’

    Policing Competitive Neutrality is one of the core functions of the Productivity Commission so their definition does carry weight.

  6. Avatar Laurie Mills says:

    The ABC is estimated to cost us ordinary Australians 14 cents a day. I would be enormously grateful to a Government that invests 20 cents a day per citizen so we can continue to be informed by, and enjoy, programs such as 4 Corners, Q&A, The Drum, Saturday Extra and Breakfast. And of course, Playschool – the most cost-effective childminding service ever invented – and celebrating its spritely 52 birthday on 18 July.

    Sir Humphrey would advise Minister Fifield that he ‘would have to be a very, very courageous Minister’ if he proposes to interfere with the Australian people’s ABC.

  7. Avatar Judith Hill says:

    I think you have forgotten the execrable Richard Alston and his MD appointment, Jonathon Shier. 2001 was also full of dark days for the ABC. For a party that is always blathering about free speech, the Liberals seem to think that Australian society should be condemned to media mediated only through the biases and crap which in the main comprises the Murdoch press.

  8. Avatar Evan Hadkins says:

    If the audience is consulted, this wouldn’t be a thing.

    The people hostile to the ABC seem to be mostly confined to rightwing think (sic) tanks.

    This is a symptom of politics being held hostage (willingly?) by lobby groups and the Murdoch rags.

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