House debates

Monday, 2 March 2020

Private Members' Business

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

4:45 pm

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

I move:

That this House:

(1) thanks the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) for its service in delivering vital emergency broadcasts and comprehensive coverage during the catastrophic fires;

(2) acknowledges the dramatic rise in emergency broadcasts—from 256 in 2017 to 371 in 2018-19 and 673 so far this year, which have been delivered without additional funding to cover the resources which have been poured into the emergency broadcast effort;

(3) recognises that since Boxing Day, as bushfires raged across Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, the ABC handled more than 100 emergency broadcasts in a single week, receiving widespread praise for the practical, life-saving information and the professionalism on display;

(4) notes the heavy damage sustained to ABC radio and television network infrastructure during the bushfires, particularly at Bateman's Bay in New South Wales and East Gippsland in Victoria;

(5) commends the ABC for mobilising to restore local radio stations as a priority because of their critical role in providing information to communities during disasters;

(6) acknowledges that the ABC should not be put into a position of having to economise on its emergency broadcasting due to Government funding cuts; and

(7) calls on the Government to reverse the $83.7 million paused in indexation funding as a matter of urgency.

This motion mirrors a recent motion put forward by my Senate colleague Stirling Griff demonstrating, once again, that Centre Alliance have been long-time defenders of the ABC. It is a source of frustration that we have to continue defending our national broadcaster as successive coalition governments have slashed the budget. Two years ago, I became Australia's first politician to receive the Defenders Badge from the Friends of the ABC National. I wear it with pride today because I want to remind the House just how much Australia values the ABC, particularly in times of crisis. I acknowledge that we have ABC Friends of the ACT in the chamber here today, with the chair, Peter Lindenmayer. They are a very passionate group that needs to be here, because they are supporting the ABC against cuts. They know the value of the ABC.

My community experienced crisis in the fire season, with deadly bushfires in the Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island. During these events, all warnings were heeded. We lost power. Our telecommunications networks failed. Key infrastructure was burnt for critical periods of time. We had no internet, no mobile coverage and no landlines, but we did have the ABC on battery operated radios and on car radios, and it was the trusted voice of the ABC, delivering emergency broadcasts and sharing important local information, that assisted my community greatly.

In the weeks following Boxing Day, as bushfires raged across our nation, the ABC handled more than 100 emergency broadcasts in a single week, taking the financial year tally to 673 broadcasts as of 4 January this year. As of last Friday, I'm advised that that figure is now 933 emergency broadcasts. This compares to 375 in the previous financial year and 256 the year before. In South Australia, the ABC covered all fire events across the state, including the major blazes on Kangaroo Island, in the Adelaide Hills and in the south-east. During these major incidents, the local ABC provided 14 hours of rolling emergency coverage across the fire season. The ABC has provided continual information on bushfire activity.

Christmas holidays are normally when organisations operate on skeleton staff, and the ABC is no exception, particularly given its budget constraints. However, at the height of the bushfires in my electorate, ABC Radio presenters, producers, journalists, managers and technicians returned from leave to provide special emergency broadcasts. Some other ABC staff who were on leave reported while they were on holidays in fire affected regions. Many staff worked through the night to ensure communities continued to receive up-to-date information.

In times of crisis, the ABC is a trusted friend, and we shouldn't short-change our friends. The ABC should not be put in a position of having to economise on its emergency broadcasting due to government funding cuts. It should not be put in a position of having to economise to restore fire damaged radio and television network infrastructure in New South Wales and Victoria. The ABC should not be put in a position of having to economise core programming because it's trying to juggle savage funding cuts. The federal government has slashed $338 million from the ABC budget since 2014, including approximately $84 million in paused indexation from the 2018 budget. I'd just like to bring back to everyone's attention: I remember Tony Abbott, the then Leader of the Opposition, saying there would be no cuts to the ABC. He said that in September 2013. Well, that has proven not to be true. These future potential redundancies, on top of a thousand jobs shed in 2014—we're now looking at another 200 redundancies—are plainly unacceptable. A strong and independent Australian broadcaster is important to our nation's culture, and to the quality of our democracy.

As demonstrated in the bushfire crisis, having a well-resourced ABC is also essential for the safety of our community. The ABC broadcasts from 46 regional and peri-urban areas. We support its vision to expand regional services. At the very least, I call on the government to reverse the $84 million paused indexation funding as a matter of urgency. The ongoing funding cuts to our national treasure, our national broadcaster, are savage and they are hurting regional Australia. I can tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker Claydon, I do not know what my community would have done if it wasn't for the ABC over the Christmas period when we experienced the worst bushfires that we've had in living memory.

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

Is there a seconder for the motion? I believe the member for Indi jumped in.

Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

4:51 pm

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (Monash, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It would've been my pleasure to second the motion. However, I've been jumped by the member for Indi, which I'm now crushed about. I've already told the story to the parliament of going to a dear friend's funeral in Bairnsdale. Outside of that funeral centre was a massive electronic sign. In the middle or just after the crucial days of the fire, that sign didn't say 'look after yourself' or 'drive with your lights on' or 'bushfire area—be careful', none of that. That massive sign said one thing: 'Fires and storms—tune to the ABC.'

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (Monash, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You're right, there were too many telecommunications that went down. There were too many situations where nobody could communicate anywhere with anybody except for one thing—the ABC. So I'm here to praise Laura Poole and her team out at Gippsland and of course, the member for Gippsland, Darren Chester, Minister Chester, who was also extremely effective in his use of the ABC to get the general messages across from the government as to what needed to be done on a daily basis and about what was happening at Mallacoota. But we know that this enormous tragedy affected everybody from Queensland through New South Wales down into East Gippsland, across to the Adelaide Hills and some parts of Western Australia. So it was erupting around us but there were Laura Poole and her team, all of them—I'm not going to name them individually because the list is that long. I'll name Gerard Callinan, because he left the ABC some years ago and came back as a volunteer presenter to support his old team. They were a magnificent team that went virtually 24 hours a day non-stop on behalf of the people of Gippsland, and everybody was tuned to the ABC. They were so important in this time of crisis.

The ABC, for me, have been a way in our rural area to communicate messages that local members need to get out in any situations that we face, so they're always there in times of trouble. They are the reporting agency. They are the people who take the responsibility to get the messages out when no-one else can get the messages out. So, Laura, I say thank you to you and your team at the ABC Gippsland, and to Gerard Callinan for coming back and giving his time and expertise.

They have to be very effective communications as to what's happening. We're best off if we have presenters who can actually pronounce the names of the areas, know where the roads are, and are not challenged by the fact that they are tired and exhausted, but rather would relish the opportunity to be part of the community response to what has been a tragedy in this area, and a national tragedy around the country. I'm not saying for one minute that my ABC was better than your ABC—I wouldn't dare do that—but I have supported my ABC forever in this place. I have supported Friends of the ABC. I have supported very clearly and forthrightly how important the ABC is to regional Australia and regional Victoria. It doesn't matter where you go; it doesn't matter how remote you are; it doesn't matter how far away from city centres you are: you get an opportunity to tune into the ABC in one way or another.

When the nation's under threat, we have the ABC to communicate to us. We must preserve that. We must look after that. And we must say, 'How can we best do this job with the ABC?'

An honourable member interjecting

I know it all comes down to money. There was a $1.1 billion outlay by government, and what I do know is that every government—and I've been here from the Hawke government through, but not consistently, sadly—has had problems with the ABC. Every government has been through this. But I really thank them for the work they did during this bushfire season. Thank you.

4:56 pm

Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I commend the member for Mayo for this motion, and I endorse the words of the member for Monash. The ABC is a highly efficient and greatly trusted community service. Both a 2018 Roy Morgan survey and a 2019 study by the University of Canberra found the ABC is Australia's most trusted media brand. As a former university academic, I can say: you don't need a university to tell you that. We just know it.

There were three major fires in Indi: the Green Valley, or Walwa fire; the fire around Dinner Plain and Falls Creek; and the fire which started near Abbeyard. Collectively, these fires burnt nearly 600,000 hectares of my electorate of Indi. In what was a tense and frightening summer, it was the ABC's emergency broadcasts that calmly and clearly kept us all up to date on what was an ever-evolving and terribly frightening situation. On behalf of my constituents, I would like to thank all of those at ABC Goulburn-Murray who worked tirelessly for weeks to keep us informed. I'd also like to thank the emergency services communications personnel working across the various incident control centres who liaised with the ABC to ensure the broadcast information was current, concise, accurate. So in times of trouble we know that, come what may, keep calm and tune in to the ABC. We all know the importance of maintaining a radio and fresh batteries in our emergency kit, because when the power goes down and the phones stop working, we have the ABC to keep us up to date. It's just there. Always. Right?

During the peak times of this summer's fires, the people of the Upper Murray recently experienced what life is like when the ABC is not there. Shortly after the Walwa fire began on New Year's Eve, power and mobile phone reception was lost. Soon, the local ABC radio transmitter was also damaged by fire. This left most of the surrounding area—including the Corryong and Walwa valleys—without their local ABC station. No fire updates. No communication of evacuation orders. No localised road closure information. No phone. No reception. No power. No ABC. Silence, stillness, disquiet.

Eventually, ABC Radio broadcasting was restored, and for the people of the Upper Murray it was like emerging from the jungle after the war. It was restored thanks to the efforts of our New South Wales neighbours at ABC Riverina, who picked up the mantle. ABC Riverina, your ABC became our ABC. Pronunciation of Victorian town names by ABC Riverina left some residents scratching their heads. And while many found this initially pretty humorous, it also underscored, as the member for Monash pointed out, the importance of local knowledge in emergency broadcasting.

Many people listen to emergency broadcasts out of the corner of their ear, tuning in only when they hear the name of their town or towns nearby. Without local broadcasters and their knowledge of the area, crucial information can be lost in translation. The outage demonstrated the precarious nature of the reliance of our most important infrastructure on mains power—infrastructure such as the ABC transmission tower and mobile phone base stations. It highlights the vulnerability of the most fundamental services in rural and regional areas; a vulnerability that is made all the more obvious now by the warnings of longer, hotter and drier summers, and more intense and frequent bushfires. That was vulnerability brought home with a knockout punch this summer.

Adaptation to what is now an inevitable 1.5 degrees of global warming means we must prioritise and fund additional transmission distribution services, services which can ensure the ABC transmitter can operate with renewable energy technology. The technology is there; it can be done immediately. There would be no need for backup diesel fuel generators, with all the problems they entail, and no need to wait for mains power to be restored.

It's undeniable that the ABC has been successful in achieving the efficiencies governments have demanded of it since the 1980s. But the ABC receives no additional funding for emergency broadcasts. Maybe that was okay in times when emergency announcements were a rare event. But situation abnormal is now a new normal, and we must not expect the ABC to divert funds intended for regular programming to cover these costs. The ABC emergency services broadcasting must receive specific funding as part of our national disaster framework. But, more than that, the role that our ABC plays in the very fabric of our culture is of such importance to our very way of life as we recover from the hideous black summer of 2019 that the time is long overdue for the reversal of the three-year $83.8 million indexation freeze. As the people of the upper Murray know, we are literally lost without the ABC.

5:01 pm

Photo of Bridget ArcherBridget Archer (Bass, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This is not the first time that I have stated my commitment in this place for the ABC and the services it provides. As I've stated before, I am foremost, like those who I represent in my electorate, a community member in a regional area. I understand the crucial role that the ABC plays in informing and entertaining regional and rural communities. Certainly, having grown up in Northern Tasmania and having now spent the last 13 years or so on a farm, I can personally attest to the importance of the ABC and, in particular, its Country Hour radio program, which does an incredible job in representing the issues that matter to rural communities. It's a way of providing a connection for a somewhat isolated profession.

The Morrison government has demonstrated its commitment to rural and regional communities like mine by amending the Australian Broadcasting Act 1983 to ensure that the ABC is broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of regional, as well as national, identity and to reflect the geographic and cultural diversity of the Australian community.

Today, I join with the members for Mayo, Monash and Indi in commending the ABC for the invaluable role that they played in the recent bushfires that ravaged Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia over the summer—particularly their handling of more than 100 emergency broadcasts in a single week. The ABC and many commercial television and radio broadcasters, particularly those based in regional towns across fire affected areas, worked tirelessly over the summer to provide Australians with up-to-date news and information about the bushfires. In areas where infrastructure literally melted, commercial enterprises jumped in, offering their towers to the ABC so it could continue its transmissions. This was a wonderful show of industry cooperation through adversity, and, once again, a show of how so many did their part to help those in need during the recent crisis.

Though Tasmania was incredibly fortunate to be spared from the devastation of the fires which spread through so many of our mainland rural and regional communities this summer, we did experience a small number of fires in which emergency broadcasting by the ABC played an important role. In the Northern Tasmania communities of Glengarry and Winkleigh, a fire at the end of January spread quickly. Residents were advised either to evacuate or to enact their bushfire survival plans. Thankfully, no lives were lost, and I believe that emergency broadcasting played a crucial role in ensuring the safety of our community. Likewise, in my neighbouring electorate of Lyons, where some fires burned intensely for weeks and caused loss of property in Fingal and the surrounding areas, access to emergency broadcasting was essential for residents and visitors alike.

It is important to highlight that over this triennium the ABC will receive $3.2 billion of taxpayer funds and a further $43.7 million to continue the enhanced news-gathering measures supporting local and regional news. Whilst over $1 billion is allocated to the ABC each year by the government, decisions as to how that funding is allocated are a matter for the ABC Board and management, just as they would be for any other television or radio broadcaster or newspaper company in this country. In a rapidly changing media environment, the ABC has greater funding certainty than any other media organisation in the nation.

I understand that the ABC has prioritised emergency broadcasting at this time, which is commendable, and much has been made of the cost that this involves. As the government has stated, if the ABC has incurred any specific additional costs in providing emergency information to the Australian people as part of this summer's bushfires, it is open to the ABC to bring forward detailed information about those costs for consideration by government.

In a perfect world, were we not faced with any economic challenges, it would be wonderful to continuously increase the budget of our national broadcaster along with many other important services. Under the strong economic management of this government, we have taken many necessary measures for budget repair, and now, sitting in the aftermath of the recent bushfires and with our commitment to assisting rural Australia, which has been affected by the drought and the as-yet-unknown impact of the coronavirus, we are placed strongly to response to the financial impacts that they have and will continue to have. I am committed to the ABC, and I'm also committed to a strong and resilient ABC operating efficiently and delivering the best possible outcomes with the substantial funding that it receives

5:06 pm

Photo of Anika WellsAnika Wells (Lilley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In the nine short months since I was elected to this place, I have made no secret of the fact that I am one of the most ardent and dedicated fans of our national broadcaster. I say that now as the proudly elected representative for the people of Lilley, who—when I was doorknocking the streets during the election campaign, and in the mobile offices on the north side that I've held since then as the MP—have also made very clear to me that they love our national broadcaster and want to see it properly resourced. They want to see it properly resourced because 7.30 provides informed and unbiased news and reporting that keeps Australians up to date with current events in our backyard and across the globe; Q+A and Insiders give a platform to a cross-section of voices for diverse debate on important issues like the impending religious freedom bill and climate change; Triple J provides the best playlist for Australia Day weekend parties across the country; Bluey and Playschool teach our children about imagination, caring, leadership and problem-solving; and Four Corners brings Australian stories into our lounge rooms, shining a light on heroes like Rosie Batty and investigating injustice that would otherwise have been swept under the rug, as we saw with St Kevin's in Toorak and the George Pell story. The ABC challenges the Australian media landscape when it is often swamped by disinformation sprayed by commercial media and broadcasters for power, for profit or to encourage division and disharmony among Australians.

Over the last six months, with the catastrophic bushfires, the importance of independent and accountable public broadcasters like the ABC has become undeniably evident. The ABC's extensive coverage of the bushfires across television, radio and online services is a testament to the network's position as Australia's No. 1 emergency broadcaster. Australians trust the ABC in times of crisis. We know we can turn the TV or the radio to the ABC to keep informed and to stay safe.

There is no doubt that the ABC's coverage of the bushfires this summer saved lives. Reporters, presenters, producers, staff and crew across the country worked around the clock to provide fire warnings, road closure updates and evacuation plans. They broadcast accurate, reliable, continuous coverage under incredible pressure and sometimes in very dangerous conditions. An example of this was when the ABC team in Canberra had to host an impromptu outdoor broadcast because they were evacuated from their own studios because the bushfire smoke triggered the fire alarms. They stood outside in that smoke, which made it too dangerous to be in their studios, and they persevered with the broadcast.

When the ABC's emergency broadcasting policy was delivered in 2011, the emergency division ran for around six months of the year. It now runs year-round. The number of ABC emergency broadcasts has risen from 256 in 2017 to 900 so far this financial year. The ABC topped the Nielsen digital content ratings for digital views in January 2020 both in unique visitors and average time on site, with Australians going online to their ABC to keep up-to-date with the bushfires.

The cost of the ABC's emergency broadcasting coverage comes out of base funding. There is no specific federal funding for emergency broadcasting. The cost of reporting teams on the ground and keeping regional TV and radio running during crises has to be found from somewhere. With the predicted rise in natural disasters, we also have to factor in the cost of replacing or fixing infrastructure after natural disasters. Broadcast towers are vulnerable to fire, which we saw in Batemans Bay and Gippsland.

In 2019 the Morrison government imposed $84 million in cuts to ABC funding through a three-year freeze. The ABC themselves have estimated that they will have to cut 200 jobs to meet the 2020 budget. According to budget forecasts the ABC stands to lose $783 million in funding by 2022 unless steps are taken to remedy the situation. That's why we're here today.

Cutting ABC funding doesn't help Australians living in rural and regional Australia. In emergency broadcasts we need experienced local reporters to guide the coverage. The ABC cannot fly city staff into regional areas during a crisis and expect them to know all of the local areas, the back roads or the correct pronunciation of names. Knowing the area can be the difference between life and death if an accident were to happen because a reporter was giving the wrong pronunciation to names because they were unfamiliar with the area; they could send evacuees into immediate danger. They didn't because they were local, and it should stay that way.

I call on the Morrison government to put its money where its mouth is for rural and regional Australians so that the ABC can continue to provide vital emergency broadcasting during natural disasters.

5:11 pm

Photo of Celia HammondCelia Hammond (Curtin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Mayo for her motion. By way of declaration, I am a member of Parliamentary Friends of the ABC. But like all good friends I am not an uncritical one.

ABC emergency broadcasting brings warnings and coverage of emergencies to one place. It helps people find information during, before and after times of crisis and disaster wherever they may be in Australia. The service alerts people to what the emergency is and where it's located, what essential information is available that will help people make decisions and where they can find more information. It is a reliable, accurate and vital service to and for Australians. Although other broadcasters also provide emergency information, many across this country see the ABC as the national emergency broadcaster. While it's not explicitly within the ABC's charter, it is clearly something that both the ABC and the country consider to be an integral or core part of the ABC service.

I want to pay tribute to the incredible work that the ABC did in delivering vital emergency broadcasts and coverage during the devastating bushfires of this summer. ABC staff, particularly those based in regional towns, worked tirelessly over the summer to provide Australians with up-to-date news and information about the bushfires. I think it's also worthwhile noting here that this is not the first time the ABC has stepped up in times of emergency in Australia; it played a vital role in Cyclone Tracy, Cyclone Alby and the Black Saturday bushfires.

The ABC is our national broadcaster and has been since it was officially launched in 1932. It is above all else a service provider. The service it is mandated to provide Australians is an innovative and comprehensive broadcasting service of a high standard which informs, entertains, educates, encourages and promotes the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia. It is to contribute to and reflect a sense of national identity.

The ABC, our national broadcaster, is funded by every taxpayer in the country. Over this triennium the ABC will receive $3.2 billion, which is just over $1 billion per year. Over and above this amount, in the last budget the Morrison government committed a further $43.7 million over three years to support the ABC's enhanced news-gathering in regional areas. In the context of this motion, it has to be noted that this level of funding gives the ABC more financial certainty than any other media organisation in the nation.

Further, and again in the context of this motion, the ABC has full operational independence. This means that the board and the executive of the ABC have the power and the responsibility to determine what they spend the money on. I have no doubt that the ABC, in providing its invaluable emergency service broadcasting during the devastating fires this year, has faced some costs that it did not anticipate or budget to spend this year. There are many individuals, businesses, NGOs and other service providers who are facing exactly the same situation. Just like those other organisations facing this issue, the resolution of it will not be easy. I do, however, stress once again that, in accordance with its charter and its operational independence, resolving this issue for the ABC is a matter for the board and the executive of the ABC.

The fiscally and responsible response to this is not, with all respect to the member for Mayo, to simply reverse the indexation pause for the ABC. Rather, it is for the board and executive to undertake a detailed examination of the financial impact of the service it has provided over this summer on its planned activities, to reprioritise and rebudget for the year ahead. If, following that exercise, the board is of the view that there is a compelling case for some of these additional and unexpected expenses to be offset by additional funding, it should bring forward detailed information about those costs for consideration to the government.

I am, and the government is, committed to a strong and resilient ABC operating efficiently and delivering the best possible outcomes for all communities. The work it did over the summer was exemplary, and the ABC deserves huge commendation for that. I agree that the ABC should not be financially punished for undertaking this role, but at the very same time, as an organisation which is funded by taxpayers to provide a service to all Australians and which has full operational independence as to how it spends its money, it must also take full responsibility for establishing a compelling case if it requires additional financial support. The Australian taxpayers who pay for this deserve no less.

5:17 pm

Photo of Fiona PhillipsFiona Phillips (Gilmore, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am delighted to rise to speak on this motion about the amazing job of our local ABC during the recent bushfire crisis. The ABC, as our official national emergency broadcaster, played an instrumental role in keeping our community informed, updated and, most importantly, safe.

ABC South East and ABC Illawarra in my electorate provided rolling coverage of the bushfires. Their regular emergency broadcasts were a familiar, if anxious, sound that immediately put you to attention. When the power went out across the New South Wales south coast, it was the handy battery-powered radio that so many people were forced to rely on. In a fast-moving and chaotic crisis like our community experienced, a reliable and trusted source of information cannot be overstated. During the height of the bushfires, both of these stations received hourly updates from our local Rural Fire Service district managers. This gave people a direct line to what was happening on the ground, where the dangers were and what to do. The ABC also gave important information on what to do in the event of a bushfire, how to prepare to evacuate and where to go—life-saving information, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind. It wasn't just important for people on the ground. Family members and friends from near and far were also tuned in on their radios to their ABC news channel, glued to the latest updates. Again, without telecommunications or power, for so many this was their only way to know what was happening in the towns and cities of people we loved.

While the ABC did an absolutely astounding job—no question—there are many, many other media outlets which also provided this vital service to our community. I would just like to take a quick moment to acknowledge the work of all of our local media outlets for the way they supported our community through this extremely trying time. So many of our local journalists worked non-stop through the bushfire crisis. They were there when our community needed them, and they were unwavering. Many of these journalists were dealing with threats to their own homes. None of us were immune from that over this long summer. They are part of our community and they mourned with us. They fought to make sure our community was informed, safe and supported, and they are all champions in my mind.

I would like to thank each and every one of them for their contribution—2ST, Power FM, 2EC, Wave FM, i98FM, Shoalhaven Community Radio, Bay and Basin Community Radio, Eurobodalla Access Radio, the South Coast Register, the Bay Post-Moruya Examiner, the Milton Ulladulla Times, The Bugle Kiama, the Kiama Independent, About Regional, The Beagle,, the Illawarra Mercury, the Illawarra Star, WIN TV, Channel 9, SBS, the UOWTV. All these media outlets and more deserve our eternal gratitude for all they have done and continue to do. Social media also played a huge part in keeping the community informed. It would not be possible for me to list all the community Facebook pages that became a key source of information here but each of them deserves our thanks.

In regional communities like mine, the other essential part of our media landscape are our community newsletters. In an electorate the size of Gilmore, I cannot name them all here but they are so important and have also done the most incredible job of keeping us all informed, being by our side every step of the way. I would also like to acknowledge the vital work of my local councils—Shoalhaven City Council, Eurobodalla Shire Council and Kiama Municipal Council. Like the media outlets, they performed an essential role in making sure our community was informed while also working to respond to this crisis. So many people in our councils worked around the clock in the emergency operation centres and beyond. Thank you to everyone involved in this mammoth operation.

Our ABC, along with everyone else I have mentioned here, has been there every day for our community. The headlines may have gone, the national and international media may have moved on, but it's our local media that will always be there with us. We have a shared experience that has bonded us all forever. This has been the fire season we sometimes thought would never end. We feel the exhaustion together; we feel the heartache and loss together. I thank them all for what they have done now and every day.

Honourable members: Hear, hear.

5:22 pm

Photo of Rowan RamseyRowan Ramsey (Grey, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It gives me pleasure to rise on this motion by the member for Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie. I think the motion is structured in two parts in so much the first half deals with congratulations to the ABC for the fine work they have done over the summer, and the second half, of course, asks for more funding. To deal with the first half—it has been a tough summer. Mercifully, in my electorate, we were spared the worst of the fires—we had some issues—but we did have some very bad fires in South Australia on Kangaroo Island. I did take some time to go down to the island and help a friend there with the mopping-up process and talked to farmers about what should be done to the future and what we can do on a whole lot of issues. I have given speeches in the House on that previously, so I won't go back over that.

But certainly the most important thing the ABC does during the fire season is transmit the warnings in South Australia issued by the CFS. This is a cut-and-dried approach—the CFS posts the notices and the ABC presenters read them out. Now that is the most important thing because this is the information that warns people not to drive up a certain road, to either head home or it is time to evacuate or whatever it might be. It is one of those things, though, I must say—and a slight criticism here, not of the ABC—is that in South Australia it seems that those warnings are not always current. I think that fault probably lies with the CFS because often we know that grounds are safe and they're still saying to evacuate and all those kinds of things. That is another issue that I'll try to chase up in the future.

The second thing the ABC do, of course, is put reporters on to the fire grounds. This is probably not an essential service but it is one that is greatly appreciated by the communities that are affected. I think when you are facing that kind of challenge, you like to know that others can actually share your plight and understand what you're going through, so it is a very important service they provide, and I congratulate them for that. In terms of resources, these are reporters that are already employed, even though they may well be doing longer hours than what they would normally do. All of that is good.

But then the motion goes to asking for extra resources for the ABC. I checked my figures: the ABC, this budget year, is receiving $1,062 million from the taxpayer and it's raising another $68 million through other sources for a total budget of $1,130 million. They employ 4,180 full-time equivalent staff. I must say: they are a fairly secretive organisation when it comes to understanding where all those staff are, and certainly how they're paid, but I don't think there could be any more than a hundred of those in South Australia. We have the regional radio network and then we have the city radio network. I'm not too sure what the ABC does in television in Adelaide anymore—not too much, I don't think.

The member for Curtin talked about how the ABC is at arm's length from government and they make their own decisions. They operate four television platforms nationwide. They run, I think, 10 different radio frequencies. They're not all original shows. And they certainly run a 24-hour television news service, which uses a lot of resources and is actually competing in the space where already there was a commercial service. But those are decisions for the ABC board to make. When they're making their decisions, one of the incontrovertible obligations they have is to maintain the services in the regions that actually warn people about these fire set-ups. So I don't think that you can really make that justification for them needing extra resources.

They have been major beneficiaries of the advances of technology. If we're making fridges—though we don't make many of those in Australia anymore—or putting together farm machinery or whatever it is, and we have changes in technology which mean that we don't actually use as many people to do it as we used to do, that is one of the efficiency gains that industry needs to capitalise on. So it is in the media. If you look at the newspapers, for instance, there's a fraction of the number of people in the newspapers that there used to be. Maybe they're not as good as they used to be. But there is certainly room for this productivity increase. I think that's where the ABC really is. They have to look at the services they provide across a wide range and who they compete with, and stick to those essentials which are the underlying strength of the ABC.

5:27 pm

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Mayo for moving the motion and all those who spoke in support of it. All reasonable people agree that the ABC is one of our most important institutions and part of the fabric of our nation. It adds to media diversity and Australian content and it plays a vital role in our regional and remote communities, providing news and, importantly, emergency information. This summer's bushfires have reminded us all once again of the vital role that the ABC plays. It's unfortunate, but it is at times like these when the importance of independent and accountable public broadcasters like the ABC becomes most evident. We need the ABC, to protect not only our democracy but our very lives. That's very apparent to us from time to time up in the Northern Territory.

With the bushfires, the ABC handled 371 emergency broadcast events in the 2018-19 year, an increase of around 120 emergency events compared to 2017-18. During the recent bushfires, the ABC handled more than 100 emergency broadcasts in a single week. It was an extraordinary effort, and everyone at the ABC deservedly received widespread praise, some of which we're hearing today, for the practical and life-saving information they broadcast and for their professionalism and bravery while doing it. No doubt it would have been heartbreaking for the people on the ground that the ABC journalists, camos and soundies were talking with, but it was because of them that we got the word out.

The emergency broadcasts are especially important, as I've said, in the Northern Territory during our cyclone season. On average, there are about eight days a year, though there can be more, where a cyclone has formed off the coast. So, in the days leading up to it, and as the cyclone actually is tearing down on us in the Territory, tens of thousands of Territorians are relying on the ABC to stay up to date on developments and actions that they need to take. In the lead-up to the cyclone season, the ABC reminds us about getting our cyclone kits and plans ready. And the ABC does this without any additional resources.

It is unfortunate that the important work of the ABC is periodically undermined by those opposite. I'm not reflecting on the member for Wentworth here—he probably thinks the ABC is not a bad organisation—but you'd have to agree that many on that side of politics continually undercut it. And it's not helpful. Remember Tony Abbott's promises that there would be no cuts to the ABC? That was back in 2013. Next minute, $631 million was cut from the national broadcaster. If that's what 'no cuts to the ABC' looks like, I'd hate to see what it would look like if the government was honest about its policy in relation to the ABC.

The ABC board is meeting in Darwin in June of this year. We'll be looking after them and we'll also be explaining to them the incredibly important role that the ABC plays not only in our jurisdiction but as we saw over the break. During those cuts, we saw the cut to short-wave radio. That was very unfortunate not only for Indigenous communities throughout the Northern Territory but also for people out in commercial fishing off the coast. And we actually beam Australia's news into the Pacific. So it would be good if that short-wave radio came back—and it was a disgrace that it was ever cut.

In the time I have left, I want to acknowledge the work done by the ABC in the Northern Territory keeping Territorians up-to-date with emergencies that might affect them. In particular, I want to thank the ABC for bringing their board to Darwin. If they were in Darwin right now, they would learn that there is a severe weather warning in the Tanami district. There is a flood watch for the Tanami, Central Desert and MacDonnell Ranges and there is a flood watch for Bonaparte and North West Coastal Rivers. That is vital information for people in the Territory. Whether they be fishing recreationally or commercially, whether they be on a road train getting our cattle to market or whether they be on a station, it is vital information that is incredibly important; and the way it gets to those Territorians out on the ground is via the ABC.

ABC services are vital. I call on the government to put its culture of cuts to the ABC aside and start backing in our national broadcaster. You saw it during the fires. The ABC journos were out there on the fireground when others were not. So backing the ABC is vital for our nation.

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.