Several public policy issues will be vigorously debated when Australians vote in this year’s Federal Election. But the one policy area where a vast majority of Australians can agree is that our national public broadcaster- the A B C- must be protected. More than 80 per cent of Australians trust the ABC above all other media and value its services to the community.
In recent years the ABC has been under continuous attack by politicians and media competitors. Successive governments have slashed funding, so in real terms the ABC has 28 per cent worse off than thirty years ago. Increasing examples of political interference have compromised the public broadcaster’s independence with manipulation of the ABC Board appointments process while senior ministers seem unable to distinguish between an independent national institution and a government department.
Leading the charge against the ABC is the Institute of Public Affairs, which advocates a full or partial sale of parts of the ABC. In July 2018 the Federal Liberal Council debated and adopted a policy of privatisation, but the government itself denies that any such policy is being considered. However, a considerable number of Liberal parliamentarians, including the Minister for Communications Senator Fifield are members of the Institute of Public Affairs, so denials are unconvincing.
Conservative critics repeatedly argue that the ABC has a left-wing bias yet more ABC staff have worked for the Liberal Party than the Labor Party. Since 2008 the ABC Board has commissioned 19 independent Quality Assurance Reviews into its impartiality and accuracy, but none of these found any serious breaches of the ABC Charter.
Recent government announcements of funding for the commercial broadcast sector suggest that the ideologues within the Federal Parliament have no understanding or respect for public broadcasting. The fear that the ABC could be destroyed is real and many people are rallying to defend it. In an era of complex media disruption and fake news, the importance of public broadcasting has never been greater so many Australians recognise that the ABC must be protected.
In 2017, ABC Friends launched on social media an ABC Defenders Campaign featuring well known Australians like Fiona Stanley, Tim Fischer, Julian Burnside and Marcia Langton. Over subsequent months all Australians have been invited to become ABC Defenders and we believe this message has assisted in highlighting public broadcasting policy as an issue of concern to voters.
At a recent planning meeting ABC Friends National approved its national communications and marginal seats strategy for this year’s Federal Election. It is based on several successful by-election campaigns run in 2018 when voters were asked to “Vote for the Candidate You Trust with Your ABC”. This message will be repeated as part of the ABC Friends National goal to get public broadcasting commitments from political parties and from candidates themselves.
It is hard to compliment the current government for any strong advocacy in favour of public broadcasting, yet many Liberal Party voters are avid ABC listeners and viewers. Similarly, National Party voters rely on the ABC for a range of information and services that are not provided by the commercial sector. The Labor Party has acknowledged that in government it must restore lost funding and rebuild capacity. The Greens and independents have been supportive voices in the Senate Estimates and Committee Enquiries.
ABC Friends National aims to get pre-election guarantees from all political parties that in the next parliamentary term they will value and support the ABC as a strong independent public broadcaster and if in government will develop new policies to strengthen the ABC.
ABC Friends in all states plan to survey political candidates in marginal seats so they can indicate their personal level of support for the ABC. Results will be made available and how to vote cards printed to rate candidates according to their level of support. The current parliament has over fifty members of the ABC Friends Parliamentary Group and we aim to increase that number after this election.
On 3 March in Brisbane ABC Friends Queensland will launch its Federal Election Campaign featuring well known broadcaster and author, Kerry O Brien and international journalist Peter Greste setting the agenda about the importance of independent news and investigative reporting. In coming months Australians can expect to hear more about why we need our ABC and why voting to support candidates who value public broadcasting is essential to Australian democracy.
Margaret Reynolds is the National President of the ABC Friends National