I have not seen an Australia so bereft of trust in its politicians, so cynical of their motives and their promises as it is today

May 18, 2022
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I cannot think of another institution more scrutinised than the ABC, short of the parliament itself. Image: Wikimedia Commons

A strong, independent public broadcaster, with its governing board appointed at arms-length from executive government, and funded by and accountable to a healthily functioning parliament, is a gift to democracy.

When Australia achieved nationhood in 1901 it had already become a land of newspapers and has retained a ubiquitous mainstream presence ever since. But for all our boasts of having a free press and freedom of speech, the inarguable fact is that most of this country’s mainstream media proprietors have traditionally had the profit motive and political influence as their primary driving imperatives, and Australia has the most egregious concentration of ownership in the democratic world.

Public broadcasting as exemplified in countries like Britain, Canada, Australia and for a time, New Zealand, evolved as a trusted source of news with a rich vein of cultural exposure, complementing and enhancing commercial media coverage, and reflecting a nation honestly to itself. The ABC has particularly been a vital source of news into Australia from the rest of the world, interpreted through Australian eyes, and an important conduit for the flow of information between the bush and our cities.

So where do we find ourselves today? Our parliament is failing us. Both our major parties in a two-party system have strayed from their roots and appear to have lost their way. Political leadership is in drought. Our mainstream commercial media is struggling under the impact of digital disruption and a deliberately manipulated onslaught of false information across social media. Our public broadcaster is under sustained attack. And our democracy is in trouble.

I have spent the bulk of my life reporting on this country and have had the opportunity and privilege to report on many other countries and political systems as well, both democratic and authoritarian. I have seen the outcomes of both. I have always understood that to respect democracy is to respect the outcomes of elections, whether my vote was on the winning side or not, and that has also governed my work.

But, to borrow from Shakespeare, there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. I have never seen Australian politics closer to a state of moral decay. I have never seen Australia so rudderless, or with less capacity or commitment to meet the challenge of crucial policies that are politically difficult and require courage and moral fibre to implement.

I have not seen an Australia before whose capacity for public service has been so hollowed out across the board.

I have never before seen such a concentration of royal commissions reflecting manifest failures at the very heart of our society; royal commissions forced on reluctant governments—mostly by superb and courageous ABC investigations—to expose inconvenient truths about the exploitation of vulnerable customers by greedy financial institutions, or the appalling treatment of our vulnerable aged, or the equally appalling injustice and racism reflected in our juvenile justice system, or the callous neglect and abuse of the disabled.

I have not seen an Australia so bereft of trust in its politicians, so cynical of their motives and their promises as it is today.

And I have not seen an Australia before whose cherished public broadcaster has been so devalued and subjected to such sustained attack from those who would seek to neuter it, or worse, destroy it. And yet, in these complex, challenging times, the ABC has never been more important in my lifetime.

I’ve often wondered, as I ‘ve watched America—the world’s once-great bastion of democracy, lurch further and further away from the spirit of its constitution, and further down the treacherous road of greater inequity and division towards authoritarianism, how different America’s story might be today if it had had a strong public broadcasting culture to reflect and enhance and inspire its beating heart.

The Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole, one of the most erudite commentators on the state of the democratic world today, has a very clear idea of where we’re headed. He says: Fascism doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are well done, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and recalibrate. This is what is happening now and we would be fools not to see it.”

One of the trial runs in America O’Toole refers to, is reflected in the boast four years ago by former Donald Trump adviser and arch conservative, Steve Bannon, that the way to nobble the mainstream media is to: “flood the zone with shit”; to unleash so much misinformation, so much fake news across the internet and its social media platforms so that the reputable voices of journalism like the New York Times, the Washington Post and others would drown in a sea of misinformation and fake news, leaving the public disoriented and confused as to where the truth stops and the lie begins.

In Australia we would be fools not to see the fraying edges of our own democracy.

To me, it is reasonable conjecture that when Clive Palmer, a single individual who made a fortune from fossil fuel, spends a massively obscene amount of money in this election campaign—as he did in the last–he is looking to orchestrate an outcome that will facilitate his efforts to maintain and build his fortune further from fossil fuel. Regardless of his motive, the notion that a single individual could influence the outcome of a national election by sheer weight of money is fundamentally anti-democratic.

And when two former prime ministers acknowledge publicly that in government they lived in fear of the power and muscle of another individual—Rupert Murdoch—and when the media organs of that individual have the scope to shut down or subvert valid and important public debate, we should also recognise that level of media ownership and that kind of power as fundamentally anti-democratic, as a point of principle as well as in practice.

For instance, what chance is there of a genuinely fair election in Queensland against the accumulated influence of two men, Rupert Murdoch and Clive Palmer.

When I was in the chair at 7.30 in the Howard years, John Howard’s office used to refer to the ABC’s relationship with regional and rural Australia as “Our enemy talking to our friends”. Maybe by that they meant that the ABC was poisoning conservative voters in the bush with its mythical left-wing slant on news. What I suspect it really reflected was a frustration that the ABC was harder to manipulate than much of the rest of the media and was less inclined to be compliant, in its coverage to the bush and everywhere else.

I also think it goes some way to understanding the mentality within conservative ranks that has driven the sense of hostility and desire to punish, reflected in the Howard years, and over this last nine years of the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments. The recurring pattern is bizarre. The big black and white pre-election promise not to cut the ABC’s money, followed closely and shamelessly in the immediate post-election budget by a significant cut to the ABC’s budget. Howard did it. Abbott did it. Turnbull and Morrison continued it.

Since Abbott the ABC has lost 10.6 percent of its budget in real terms. That is hundreds of millions of dollars. And now, in the shadow of another election, suddenly the Minister for the ABC, who declined the Friends’ invitation to front you here today, scrambles to undo the freeze imposed by the Turnbull government on the automatic annual adjustments for inflation which effectively amounted to cutting another $40 million a year. For a start the government’s formula for indexation does not reflect the true measure of inflation, but even if it did, why would we trust this promise, given the track record of broken promises in the past.

The ABC has so far resisted both the public attacks and the depleted budgets but anyone who has followed dear old Auntie for any length of time knows that damage has been done. Damage that is hard to define and hard to measure, but real, engrained damage to the psyche of the place as well as its programs that will be hard to undo.

Dare I say it, Labor Governments have shown their frustrations, even outright anger with ABC coverage that has stung them too, but at least Labor has had a long-term philosophical commitment to the principle of public broadcasting. But if Labor does win this election it has serious ground to make up to demonstrate its adherence to that principle and restore the ABC to a state of reasonable health. That means going beyond what it’s committed to so far.

I don’t claim some hallowed status for the ABC. It’s had its stumbles and its imperfections too. And, given the level of trust invested in it by its audience, and given the investment of public funds as well, it should never resent a strong, sensible, justifiable level of public scrutiny—but I have to say from my decades of experience in the place, I cannot think of another institution more scrutinised than the ABC, short of the parliament itself. And the irony there, of course, is that the workings of government in Australia are becoming more and more opaque, more and more resistant to scrutiny—another symptom of our fraying democracy.

So, for all the concerns I’ve outlined, I have been accepting invitations on behalf of ABC Alumni, from independent candidates in various electorates—taking the opportunity to air the same concerns I’ve been expressing today—not to endorse any individual candidate, and certainly not to try to instruct people how to vote, but to challenge them to think carefully about how precious their vote is, and how they can make it speak for their values and their most important needs.

But I have to say I couldn’t help but be impressed, not just by the quality of the candidates themselves but the small armies of highly motivated, highly articulate volunteers who have emerged from within their communities determined to have their voices heard, protesting what they clearly see as a decline in the quality of their traditional representation.

I could not believe it when I heard John Howard referring to these women so disparagingly as anti-Liberal groupies. Unusually clumsy for one of the wiliest politicians in Australia’s post-war era. I checked the Oxford Dictionary definition of a groupie: It’s “a young woman who regularly follows a pop group or other celebrity, especially in the hope of having a sexual relationship with them.”

What an appallingly sexist putdown to the Zoe Daniels, the Zali Steggalls, the Allegra Spenders, the Monique Ryans, the Kate Hooks and all the other fiercely intelligent and independent women who have stood up to be counted because their communities are losing faith in mainstream politics.

I’d like to finish with a message to all Australians as they cast their vote. To think. To think about your vote and why you have it. To think about how you can really make it count. I’ve had so many, many people over the years, people frustrated over something that’s just not right in the way the system has let them down, or over the breakdown of civil society in their community, who have said to me, “What can I do?”

Well this is what you can do. Use your vote to speak for you. Really speak for you. Our vote is one of the most precious things we have. And so is our ABC.

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