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.

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

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