2 March 1996. Journalist:
The commitment to maintain (ABC) funding in real terms … does that stand?Senator Alston (on behalf of incoming Prime Minister John Howard): Absolutely.
6 September 2013. Incoming Prime Minister Tony Abbott:
.. and no cuts to the ABC and SBS.
These reassuring public commitments were soon exposed as lies.
In the Howard government’s first budget, Mr Howard’s 1996 public commitment to support the national broadcaster was dishonoured. As you can see in the graph at P146 Vol II ABC annual report 2017-18, even with heavily constrained operational base funding, the ABC has been doing much more with much less since the mid-1980s, now including multi-channelling and online:
“Comparative Revenue from Government – the 2018–19 operational revenue from Government of $865 million represents a decrease in real funding … of 29% since 1985–86”.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s lie was exposed in 2014 with the first Joe Hockey budget promulgating a substantial cut ($254m over four years) to ABC funding resulting in immediate board decisions to axe radio and TV and online programs including Lateline and state based current affairs, close program production centres outside Sydney and retrench 1000 staff. The ABC cut all operational costs and, as a consequence, is now, regrettably, Sydney-centric, with technical maintenance depleted leading to more frequent transmission faults.
Also in 2014 then Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, unilaterally terminated the ABC’s Australia Network contract at the persistent insistence of News Corp. The result was Australia’s disengagement with our Asia Pacific neighbours and the retrenchment of the great PNG foreign correspondent Sean Dorney and 80 international broadcasters including almost all in situ correspondents.
In his budget of May 2018 then Treasurer Scott Morrison, advised by the Communications Minister, Senator Mitch Fifield, announced what was called an “indexation pause” which amounted to a further $83.7m cut to base funding from July 1 2019. If this proceeds the ABC’s new chair, Ita Buttrose, ABC management and the ABC board will have to cut further into programming and retrench up to 400 staff. While the 2019 budget has continued with tied funding ($40m) in what was called the Enhanced News Gathering Program, there has been no end to the current government’s hostility to the ABC.
Minister Fifield is still sitting on yet another “efficiency” review of the ABC and multicultural broadcaster SBS. It is believed to have found $120m in recurrent “savings” but if “operationalised” would substantially curtail the output of both broadcasters.
On June 18 2018 the federal council of the Liberal Party meeting in Sydney voted overwhelmingly to carry a resolution calling for the privatisation of the ABC “with the exception of regional services”.
Although the current Prime Minister Scott Morrison and current Communications Minister Fifield have indicated that the parliamentary Liberal party room is not bound by this resolution, neither they nor any other prominent organisational official of the Liberal Party of Australia has sought to have the resolution rescinded. That resolution remains on the party’s organisational minutes.
Last September the ABC board sacked its managing director Michelle Guthrie, claiming sub-optimal performance. What followed were leaks to the media of claims of political interference in which the then chairman Justin Milne was alleged to have demanded the removal of journalists who had displeased the ABC’s “shareholder”, the then Turnbull government. A subsequent Senate inquiry determined that any political interference was the result of unacceptable government-imposed funding pressure on what should be an independent ABC. By majority, senators recommended longer term funding and legislative amendments to ensure future board appointments were transparent, merit-based and at arms length from government.
Since the 2018 and 2019 budgets the Opposition leader Bill Shorten has indicated that if elected, his government would not proceed with the “indexation pause” ($83.7m) and would secure some $10m – $15m for regional short wave broadcasting.
But even now with the prospect of Commonwealth revenues returning the budget to surplus, the ALP has yet to indicate it will restore all the funding lost from Tony Abbott’s now infamous “no cuts to the ABC” commitment of 2013. And there has been no mention at this stage that Labor in government would assist the ABC with additional funding to help restore its Charter obligation for international broadcasting. With the vacuum created by Australia’s neglect of the Pacific, China has moved in through its exponential use of Facebook and debt financing of many island infrastructure projects. It will now be up to the Ita Buttrose ABC Board to put the strongest case it can for re-investment in the ABC for all its Charter objectives. The independent ABC board has a duty to spell out its position to the next government.
The indicia of hostility towards the ABC comes from the current Liberal Party’s actions in government, urged on by the influential think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, which is bankrolled by magnate Gina Rinehart and News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch, among other vested interests. The IPA wants the ABC effectively destroyed through privatisation. It argued last month on Sky News that the internet has made the ABC redundant, with consumers now having infinite global choice of news and current affairs and many more programs available to them on their digital devices, smart TVs or at the click of a mouse.
This ignores the fact that the ABC is a creature of an Act of the Parliament of Australia with a Charter to inform, educate and entertain and “to enhance a sense of national identity” – “you are, we are … we are Australian”. With Radio National’s specialist programs, including science, education, health and religion, emergency broadcasting in natural disasters, audience engagement through six metropolitan and more than 50 local talk radio stations, weekly facilitation of the clash of ideas through conversation and news on radio, online and TV current affairs, ABCMe, the only dedicated children’s channel, Classic FM for music lovers, Triple J for rockers *, ABC News Radio for mobile populations in their cars, vans, trucks and tractors, the ABC has become a cornerstone of Australia’s democratic and cultural engagement. Its (now minuscule) TV drama budget is still vital to show Australia’s story being shaped from our country’s time and place in history, in the region and the world. Its satire and comedy is both therapeutic and a pressure relief valve in our often distressing times. Its sport, documentary and arts coverage provides a cultural connection to build understanding, acceptance, tolerance, a decent, peaceful and conservative inclination within the accepted meanings of the word “conservative” *. Its rural programs on radio, TV and online are a lifeline for regional and remote communities. Commercial media often has other fish to fry. On each state and national election night Australians, by audience majority, tune in to the ABC to see its psephologist Antony Green, himself a national institution, objectively declare the democratic will of the Australian people. The IPA never acknowledges that what makes Australia’s ABC unique and distinctive from other content makers here and around the world is its legislated Charter. The ABC treats its audiences as citizens in a democracy … and not as consumers to be aggregated and delivered up to advertisers. Its editorial policies require reporting without fear or favour, to be ethically fair, impartial and to work to the accepted standard of objective journalism. The ABC is not “left wing”. The ABC is not “right wing”. Unlike its media rivals it takes no editorial position. It is held to account by internal disciplines and external oversight by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
So called “media reform” in Australia has made the survival of the ABC more important now then ever before. “Media reform” resulted in 2018 in the termination of Fairfax Media as a governance entity for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian Financial Review and more than 100 ex-Fairfax regional and rural mastheads, including The Canberra Times, the Illawarra Mercury and the Newcastle Herald. Now taken over by Nine Entertainment these regional mastheads are being sold off to private equity investors and face an uncertain future. Only the ABC provides constancy and cohesion for peoples across our vast continent and outlying islands.
As Google and Facebook and other global digital platforms have disrupted Australia’s mainstream media by vacuuming up their once lucrative advertising revenues, it has been estimated that more than 3000 private media journalists’ jobs have evaporated.
In this context, why would any government claiming to be guardians of the national interest set out to undermine or destroy the ABC – an institution which has helped to build this robust, dynamic, resilient and now polyglot Australia since 1932?
I have come to the concluded view that in its current frame of mind, the Liberal Party of Australia cannot be trusted. This is based on the weight of evidence I have now outlined.
Let it be clear: the Liberal Party has no mandate from the Australian people to privatise and destroy the ABC.
When it comes to saving the ABC as a cornerstone of our democracy and to enhance the diversity of Australia’s media, I respectfully and sincerely ask all electors: In this federal election …on May 18th 2019 … don’t vote Liberal.
Quentin Dempster AM is a former ABC director, broadcaster, political and investigative journalist. His book Death Struggle – How political malice and boardroom powerplays are killing the ABC (Allen and Unwin) was published in 2000. Quentin was made a Member of the Order of Australia (1992) for “services to the media, particularly in the fields of journalism and current affairs”. In 2002 he received a Walkley Award for “most outstanding contribution to journalism”. He has been working with GetUp! during the election campaign to voice a TV and cinema ad in a campaign to save the ABC.
* rocker – a person or thing that rocks.
* conservative – averse to rapid change (of views, taste etc); tending to conserve. – The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary.