House debates

Monday, 20 August 2018

Private Members' Business

Privatising the ABC

4:45 pm

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) in the 2013 federal election, the then Leader of the Opposition, the Hon. Tony Abbott MP, promised no funding cuts to the ABC;

(b) since 2014 the Government has announced cuts of $338 million in funding from the ABC, comprised of:

(i) $254 million since 2014; and

(ii) $84 million over three years as announced in the 2018 budget;

(c) these funding cuts are privatising the ABC by stealth;

(d) many members of the Government are former staffers and/or members of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA);

(e) the IPA has advised the Government to privatise the ABC and has published Against Public Broadcasting: Why We Should Privatise the ABC and How to Do It;

(f) on 7 October 2008 Senator Fifield, now Minister for Communications, gave a speech entitled Fiscal Contraception:Erecting Barriers to Impulsive Spending in which he stated that 'Conservatives have often floated the prospect of privatising the ABC and Australia Post and there is merit in such proposals.';

(g) strong and independent Australian public broadcasting is important to Australian culture and the quality of our country's democracy;

(h) the Liberal Party of Australia's 2018 Federal Council voted overwhelmingly in favour of the 'full privatisation of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, except for services into regional areas'; and

(i) no Government ministers present at that Federal Council spoke against the motion during the debate; and

(2) calls on the Government to reverse the funding cuts it has imposed upon the ABC since 2014.

We are not talking about an idle rumour here. We are talking about a systemic campaign to slash the budget of the ABC, combined with sustained attacks from various sections of the political right to question the integrity of the ABC and to sell it off. Following a pledge at the 2013 election that there would be no cuts to the ABC and SBS, the 2014 budget saw $254 million in cuts, and now in 2018, under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the ABC faces a further cut of $84 million over the next three years.

We heard in Senate estimates that the ABC has shed more than a thousand jobs since 2014. That figure equates to nearly a quarter of the ABC's full-time equivalent workforce of over 4,100 employees, so the impact of these cuts is already quite apparent.

We also heard from the ABC that it has experienced a 28 per cent fall in funding in real terms since the mid-1980s. In addition to dealing with less income, management of the ABC have also had to face inquiries into its charter, the disclosure of salaries, its competitive neutrality and its delivery on rural services.

Even the commercial media is pointing the finger at the ABC as being a significant contributor to their falling bottom lines despite the arrival of Google, Facebook, Netflix and Amazon and their blindingly oblivious impact. They just don't see that it's got nothing to do with the ABC; it's actually about them. Blaming our national broadcaster for being true to its charter to serve its public interest by reaching audiences in new and innovative ways that the commercial media have been too risk-averse to attempt is the height of hypocrisy.

Then there was the Liberal Party's 2018 Federal Council—how could we forget that? They overwhelmingly voted for a full privatisation of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, except for services in regional Australia, and not one—not one—government minister even stood up and spoke against their motion.

Then, we have the Institute of Public Affairs' book: Against Public Broadcasting: Why We Should Privatise the ABC and How to Do It. As if the government doesn't already know! Who did the IPA think would read their book? I can only assume that it was made deliberately for the minister for communications who, back in 2008, gave a speech entitled, Physical Contraception: Erecting Barriers to Impulsive Spending. In that speech the senator stated:

Conservatives have often floated the prospect of privatising the ABC and Australia Post. There is merit in such proposals.

When you have a communications minister who sees merit in privatising the ABC, when you see a political think tank that has such close ties and calls for privatisation and you see the Liberal Party Federal Council calling for privatisation, I do not think it's unreasonable for the ABC, and for those who defend the ABC, to be alarmed.

The government could allay the fears by showing the country that it values the work of our public broadcaster and wants to fund them adequately. Australians who value the ABC are on notice. We believe that we must act, and I know that I, and my Centre Alliance colleagues, will do all we can to pressure government to restore funding to the pre-2014 levels. Last month, I received my ABC defender's badge in recognition of my support of our national broadcaster. I believe in a well-funded, independent ABC, and I believe it's crucial for our democracy.

The ABC has an annual budget of around $1 billion, of which $200 million is spent just in transmission costs. The ABC uses its $800 million to create high-quality innovative content—stuff that you can't find in the commercial sector. It's a training ground for young people—local talent, local productions—and ensures that it consistently exceeds quotas on Australian content. Australians trust the ABC. It tells our stories. And that trust is extended to public interest journalism in which the ABC has a long and proud history.

I would like to present at the end of my speech a non-conforming petition signed by 694 people in my electorate supporting my motion calling for the ABC's funding to be restored. Their names are just a snapshot of the deep concern in the Australian community that the Australian public broadcaster is being privatised by stealth. We must keep the ABC. We must fund the ABC. It is our national treasure. I seek leave to present the petition.

Leave granted.

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The document will be forwarded to the Standing Committee on Petitions for its consideration. It will be accepted subject to confirmation by the committee that it conforms to the standing orders. Is the motion seconded?

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Denison, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

4:50 pm

Photo of Andrew BroadAndrew Broad (Mallee, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

When people buy a ute—and they should buy a good quality ute—in the electorate of Mallee they get the dealer of that ute to tune the radio to the ABC for them. One of the things I say when people criticise the bias of the ABC is that, when people take that ute in after they've been driving it around for 10 years and the windows don't wind up because they're full of Mallee dust, the radio is still tuned into the ABC. And do you know what? They vote National Party. Isn't that interesting. To those who say that the ABC is completely biased I say two things: one is that it is clearly not biased enough, because the voters who listen to it vote for the National Party; and the other is that you could draw the conclusion that the people in my patch are not easily swayed and they like to have a good old ding-dong argument with radio.

ABC radio, in particular, is very important. I would point out one great injustice here, and that is that in the township of Hopetoun you cannot get Triple J. There is a farmer who contacts me regularly, so incensed by the injustice. He wants to listen to Triple J but can't get it. That isn't a result of the ABC being cut; it's just never been broadcast there. That is something we need to do.

I've got a better one than the petition to save the ABC. We had a group of ladies who baked a cake in the shape of the ABC outside my office. If you want to protest to an MP, that's the way to do it, I've got to say. Don't worry about a placard; bake a cake. They came up to my office and we sat down and we had a conversation, and that's really how it works.

The ABC does play a very important role. The changes that have been made fairly recently are very important to rural MPs. It's essentially put video journalists in its country radio stations. In the past, it used to fly the helicopter out to the country—that was when it did have plenty of money—and often the stories wouldn't quite get told; whereas what's happening now is that our ABC radio journalists are doing video footage, and so the stories of regional Australia are increasingly being seen in the city. I think that's one of the things that is very important in a public broadcaster. A public broadcaster should be bringing people together, and bringing people together is telling the great stories of regional Australia in the cities. Something I would always advocate for but have not had any success with yet is the good old Country Hour. It is the longest-running radio program with the two most important things being its market report—I've just got to get that on the record—and the weather forecast. But Country Hour isn't broadcast in our capital cities. If we're to gain a greater understanding of the issues of regional Australia in our capital cities, wouldn't it be great to see Country Hour broadcast in our cities?

There is something unique about an Australian broadcaster. It was disappointing to me that, in one of the cuts that were made, the part of the ABC that broadcasts overseas was removed. I think that was a poor step. I've got to say there is a role in talking about what our community does and what our country does and sharing that with other parts of the world. It is true, though, that the very nature of the media is changing. The ABC does need to change. It does need always to look for new efficiencies. I'm reasonably comfortable with the new management and where they're heading, but there are a couple of things that are very important in growing a regional community. One is access to public transport. Another is that there are adequate jobs. There should be educational opportunities for children. The next one is adequate telecommunications. The other is doctors, which is something very important. But the other thing—and Saul Eslake did a study on this—is someone to tell the community's story. That can be a local newspaper, but in so many of our country towns it is our country broadcasters and the ABC. That talkback where people have a conversation and people get a sense of pride in their community is critical for the economic growth of those communities.

I would like to see more ABC staff in the regions; I would like to see fewer in the city. I would like to see more robust discussion perhaps on Q&Athose more regional based audiences when those programs are at their best. People on my patch are so happy with the ABC they're prepared to bake a cake and come to their MP and argue for it. That's the way to effect change.

4:55 pm

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Denison, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I think we're all in agreement that the ABC matters—the ABC matters a great deal. If only because a strong independent media is one of the very foundation stones of a strong democracy. But all around the country, especially in regional areas, especially in a place like Tasmania, it has always been a very important training ground for young men and women who have wanted to enter the media world. Many of them have joined the ABC as cadets or trainees—or whatever they're called. They've cut their teeth, come up through the ranks and gone out to fill really important roles throughout the media and throughout the country.

The ABC also—and this is unique to the ABC—fills a very important role when it comes to emergency broadcasting. I will just recount very briefly what happened in Tasmania, over five years ago now, with the terrible bushfires around Dunalley. At that time, the mobile phone network went down. There were many, many people right throughout that part of Tasmania who were relying on the ABC emergency broadcast, on their little portable radio or the radio in their car, simply to know what was going on and where to go. If we didn't have that ABC media footprint in that area at that time, perhaps people could have died.

We also need the ABC because it is just so accessible and trusted. Surveys show that something like 71 per cent of all Australians access the ABC in one form or another every week and 82 per cent of all Australians surveyed trust the ABC. They rate it as a far more trustworthy source of news than any other news channel.

Unfortunately, despite all of this, the ABC is under attack, and it is absolutely remarkable that, at the Liberal Party Federal Council a couple of months ago, the overwhelming majority of Liberal Party council members voted to sell off the ABC. I regret to say that my own Premier in Tasmania, Premier Will Hodgman, did not vote against that motion.

And then of course we've got the funding cuts—another way in which the ABC is under attack. Perhaps the government thinks: if we can't sell off the ABC, let's at least cripple it. In fact funding cuts from 2014 that'll run out to 2021 now gross up to $338 million, $254 million of which is in the 2014 budget and then another $84 million effectively cut over three years in the 2018 budget going out to 2021.

I think there's no better way to illustrate the decline of the ABC than perhaps these two measures. One is that 30 years ago they used to say the ABC was costing us 8c a day. It's now on a per capita basis costing us 4c a day. In other words—

Ms McGowan interjecting

that's right, Member for Indi—over 30 years real spending on the ABC on a per capita basis has halved. The other way to illustrate my point is just to recount what's happened at the ABC headquarters building in Hobart. Some of you might have seen it down there near the roundabout where the old railway station was. It wasn't that many years ago that this fairly big building was full of ABC staff and ABC capabilities. But if you go down there now, the minority of the building is filled by the ABC and its staff and the majority of the building has been leased out to the College of GPs, to the University of Tasmania, and—perhaps most ironically—to WIN TV. I think that says a lot about what has happened to the ABC in recent years and the trend is on for the future. It is under attack at every turn.

We need to make the point again that the majority of members on the Liberal Party national federal council want to sell it off. If they can't sell it off, they're going to reduce the funding until it is a shadow of itself. If that trend continues, if one day we lose the ABC as a strong, genuinely independent broadcaster, we're going to ask ourselves: how on earth did we get here? Because you know what? It might cost us 4c per person per day to keep it but, when it's gone, it will be gone for good and we'll miss it.

5:00 pm

Photo of Cathy McGowanCathy McGowan (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I am delighted to join my colleagues the member for Mayo, the member for Denison and the member for Mallee in this really important debate. We've had lots of good reasons why we should support the ABC, but today I want to talk about the impact of the ABC on economic development, particularly in the regions. I'm going to focus particularly on the impact the show Back Roadshas had. Right across Australia, ABC does the work that we have been hearing about. I had the enormous pleasure on the weekend of attending the annual general meeting and conference of Australian Women in Agriculture in the beautiful city of Shepparton. One of the many talented guest speakers was Heather Ewart. She spoke about the background to Back Roads and gave stories about how it's working. I want to share with you today not only some of what Heather said, but some of my own knowledge about that program—why it is so important, and why, as a product of the ABC, it epitomises the importance of this motion.

We have had five programs of Back Roadscity-centric, if you want—but the masters that be have committed to another series. Good decision, Sydney! Back Roads bridges the city-country divide. It is a really popular program at a prime viewing spot. It has positive, humorous, real stories of real people in rural and regional Australian. There is no spin. There are real people, real places, real stories, and so much local pride. As for the ratings, 1.3 million viewers tuned in to hear the Ceduna program alone, which is hugely significant. And many of the other programs regularly get a million viewers. No other TV network, no commercial station, would ever have backed a project like Back Roadsbecause whoever would have thought that a quirky program about country towns would have had the impact it has? What is it that I really appreciate about Back Roads? I love its sense of connectedness. The member for Mallee talked about how important it is we have someone telling our story. It is a genuine look at people's lives. And who doesn't like a really good story of someone else and their lives and how they live it?

Let me do a huge shout-out to Heather, the presenter. Heather really gets rural and regional communities. She knows how to relate. She knows how to engage, and there is such a genuine connection that you actually see these communities through her eyes. She doesn't patronise. She doesn't look down. She is not at all sarcastic and doesn't deal in gotcha moments; she lets the story tell itself. Heather is herself as well. One of the things the I love about Heather is she is a very good country woman. What's the quality of a good country woman? They have got a sense of humour, they have got a really good sense of commitment to relationships, they have got dedication and persistence, and they have a wonderful eye for detail. They are not show-offs, they are not smarty pantses but, my word, you get the sense of humour and the connectedness with it. In acknowledging Back Roads, I want to thank Heather, Bridget, Ron and Jon; editor Tony; the researchers and producers Lou, Kerri, Gerri, Damien, Kathy, Frith. You do a fantastic job.

I just want to quickly talk about my little town of Yackandandah. Back Roads came and did a story about Yack, as it's affectionately known. The next day, the town's Facebook page went berserk. I'm not sure if it crashed, but the gossip was that it was going to crash. There was huge interest. I can walk down High Street in Yack, go to get the paper on the weekend, meet somebody and chat in my role as a member of parliament and they'll tell me: 'I saw it on Back Roads. What a beautiful community. Yes, it's just like it was.'

It's not enough just to say that. My constituents asked me to get up here today and talk about this. To Jenny, who's really tired of the attacks on the ABC, I bring your voice to parliament—also to Pam, who's very concerned about cuts, and to Jacqueline, who's horrified to learn about these cuts. Right across my electorate, people are really personally affected by the thought of what the cuts will mean to quality programs and by the thought that wonderful presenters like Heather Ewart who won't be able to do their magnificent work, which is to take our stories to the cities and to each other and, in the process, give us economic development and tourism, get people to the country and, most importantly, encourage city people to move to the country.

5:06 pm

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm happy to speak in support of the motion put forward by the member for Mayo, standing up for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I welcome her back after a little intermission. I'm always happy to speak in support of our ABC, our Aunty. I also particularly mention it because the ABC was born the same year as my mum, and I think it almost knows more than my mum—just kidding, Mum!

I believe the ABC is an important institution in Australia. It's part of the fabric of our nation and has been for over 85 years. Who wasn't brought up watching Play School? In my home town of St George, we only had one channel, and that was the ABC. Big Ted, Little Ted and Jemima are as familiar as our own toys. The theme song, 'There's a Bear in There', was the soundtrack to our early childhood. There's also Sesame StreetI will give a big shout out to my special Kermit the Frog, Leo, who can do a great Kermit the Frog impersonation—the cricket, the Hottest 100 countdown and Bananas in Pyjamas. We could go on for half an hour about the staples of our childhood and of young children today. There is some comfort in this fast-paced, ever-changing world that there is one thing that grounded my childhood and continues through to my children's formative years—the familiar, dependable and always educational ABC.

Sadly, the coalition government, the Turnbull government, do not share my appreciation for our strong and independent ABC. The Turnbull government have made it clear that they are on a mission to destroy our public broadcaster, or to so weaken it that it will be unable to do its job. This Liberal-National coalition has launched its biggest attack on the independence of the ABC in a generation. I note that, on this speaking list, we've had one National Party MP speak in support of the ABC and, after that, silence. They are damned by their silence, I would suggest.

Since 2014 the coalition government has cut $282 million from the ABC. What does that mean? It means 800 jobs lost, a drop in Australian content, and services like shortwave radio shut down, which actually sabotages remote Australia—something the National Party should be ashamed of. In this year alone they've cut $83.7 million from the ABC funding. We are not talking about trimming fat; we are cutting into muscle.

Destroying the ABC through slashing funding is not enough for this destructive government. They've launched two damaging public broadcasting inquiries and have three bills before parliament to meddle with the ABC's independent charter. The Liberal Federal Council even voted to privatise the ABC. What would that mean? Privatising the ABC would see our kids seeing ads during children's programming; commercial influence on ABC news and current affairs, perhaps; missing out on popular ABC programming like Four Corners, Australian Story and Gruen, to name but a few that would never exist on commercial networks; an end to innovation through public funding like ABC iview; putting high-quality Australian content behind a paywall; and reductions in the diversity of Australia's media sector.

The ABC is a constant and reliable source of information for 17 million Australians every week. In regional Australia, the National Party homeland, the ABC has a more important role in keeping regional communities connected, providing them with local news and, in particular, emergency information in times of bushfires, cyclones and floods. At a time when people in regional Australia are facing crippling droughts—and the effect of years of drought on farmers and community has been severe—we see cutting the information services and the jobs that go with them in these communities as rubbing salt into the wound. It is a heartless act of an inept government. This Turnbull government is completely out of touch with ordinary Australians and, dare I say, especially the bush. Putting on an akubra for five minutes does not mean that you are looking after the bush.

For the community to have trust and faith in our institutions, like the ABC, they need a healthy public interest media sector, and a trusted institution like the ABC to continue to deliver independent content that is tested and supervised and that you know will ring true. Australians know the value of a strong, independent national broadcaster. We have seen survey after survey showing that Australians trust the ABC—as does Labor. Even though occasionally we will have our arguments with the ABC, I personally will always trust that the ABC will do their job well, that they will be strong and independent and that they will look after the interests of all of the nation, not just the inner city. If we want what our children see on our screens to be a reflection of our modern Australian community, we need to protect the ABC. It's about priorities, and it's clear that this Prime Minister is only concerned about the top end of town, and his own— (Time expired)

5:11 pm

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I think it is a disgrace that only one member of the government has had the conviction to stand up for the ABC. I might have expected it from Liberal members, but why more Nationals aren't standing up for the people of the bush I can't fathom. I well remember the promise by then opposition leader Tony Abbott in 2013 that there would be no cuts to the ABC. We all remember that. What an absolute joke it proved to be. Since 2014, the ABC funding has been cut by $366 million and 800 jobs have been lost. Some of those people are people that I studied journalism with. That newsroom in Sydney has shrunk beyond recognition. In this year alone, $83.7 million has been cut.

Funding cuts are one thing, but two damaging public broadcasting inquiries and three pieces of legislation to undermine the ABC charter take it to a new level. This is the biggest attack on the ABC's independence that we have seen. It shows the real intent on that side of the House. This is a federal government willing to use the ABC as a bargaining chip in its deals with One Nation. If you let that sink in and think of what the consequences of that are, it is horrific that they're willing to trade off the ABC for whatever purpose.

We know the ideology is driven by the Institute of Public Affairs, which several government MPs have been former staffers of. They have advised the government to privatise the ABC. Nearly a decade ago, the minister, Senator Fifield, gave a speech in which he stated:

Conservatives have often floated the prospect of privatising the ABC and Australia Post. There is merit in such proposals.

That is an outrage! We should never look at privatising the independent voice that is funded by taxpayers, that cannot be influenced because it has a charter that protects it. But what's really driving this government in its efforts to demonise the ABC is it's ideology. That's what's behind the recent Liberal Party federal council vote to proceed with a full privatisation of the ABC, except for services in regional areas. Well, small mercies there. Was this hotly debated? By all accounts, no. Not a single government minister at that federal council spoke against the motion.

Let's look at the consequences of these cumulative attacks on the ABC. The ABC says that the financial impact of the decision cannot be absorbed by efficiency measures. They have cut and cut already. It used to cost Australians 8c a day to run the ABC; now it costs 4c a day. Yet the ABC is delivering across so many more platforms. These funding decisions make it difficult for the ABC to meet its charter requirements and to meet the audience expectations. Part of me wonders if that's what this is all about: 'Let's undermine the ability of the ABC to deliver to the community; let's undermine it in any way we can to destroy the support that we know is out there in the community.' And that support is not just in Labor held seats; that support is also in Liberal and National held seats, as well as, clearly, in Independent held seats. My seat, the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury, has a very large Friends of the ABC—one of the largest groups in the country.

I was lucky enough to attend the rally in Sydney to support the ABC, and that was packed to overflowing. What are the things that people care about? No. 1, let's talk about the independence of news—that is the foundation of a strong democracy—and the ability of journalists to be able to go out and do their job without fear or favour and without worrying what a proprietor might think. For someone who's come out of commercial radio, I can tell you that's something to be valued and protected. Also, we have the ABC helping us understand our place in the world because they have Australian reporters all across the world. Those things start to be cut when funding gets cut.

The ABC has a commitment to telling Australian stories in homemade dramas—and, Deputy Speaker, you and I both know the importance of that—and a commitment to quality children's television. It's not just Play School and Bananas in Pyjamas, which my children grew up on, but also a variety of voices that reflect who we are as Australians. I want to know that any grandchildren I might end up with one day will have the same benefit of growing up with those Australian voices. There's also a commitment to covering in a thorough and balanced way issues on radio and online that wouldn't rate a mention anywhere else. There's a commitment to making sure Australian musicians are heard—whether it's broadcasting classical music from our symphony orchestras or Unearthed for the new up-and-coming musicians on Triple J. These are the things that matter—and, yes, bushfires. We need the ABC.

Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There being no further speakers, the debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.