Senate debates

Monday, 24 November 2014

Matters of Public Importance

5:16 pm

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

A letter has been received from Senator Moore:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

Mr Abbott's broken promise that there would be 'no cuts to the ABC or SBS'.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today’s debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

5:17 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Over the course of last weekend thousands of people turned up to rallies across Australia, including 3,000 people at Sydney's town hall and another 2,000 at Federation Square in Melbourne. Rallies were also held in several other cities, including Newcastle and Adelaide, where, funnily enough, the member for Sturt, Mr Pyne, was conspicuously absent.

In my home state of Tasmania, 200 people turned up to a rally outside the ABC studios in Hobart, which was addressed by my colleague from the other place, Julie Collins, the Labor member for Franklin. I want to point out how the ABC cuts are going to hit Tasmania, just having mentioned that Ms Collins was there addressing the group. I am sure I heard Senator Abetz in question time say that nobody had lost their job. I presume he was maybe being a bit smart with words and forgot to add the word 'yet'. But it has been acknowledged that the budget cuts are likely to reduce ABC Tasmania's headcount by eight or nine staff and it is very likely that a small number of ABC News positions will be made redundant but that managerial and back office staff are expected to bear most of the pain.

In fact, ABC managing director, Mr Mark Scott, has already confirmed that the Tasmanian director's position held by Andrew Fisher will be made redundant. With local ABC radio bulletins being replaced after 8 pm by national bulletins and the Friday edition of 7.30 Tasmania being replaced by a national program, I do not think all augurs well for the ABC in Tasmania. The 2012 closure of ABC's Hobart TV production unit which was responsible for such great shows as Gardening Australia and Collectors had already removed all but one of Tasmania's TV production positions and that had cost 17 jobs. So now we know it is likely another eight or nine are going. Mr Scott did announce earlier that the ABC would lose 400 positions nationally, about 10 per cent of staff, in response to the $254 million cut imposed by the federal government. So for Senator Abetz to stand up and say that no jobs will be lost, I really hope he has done his homework and checked up on what is happening there.

Tomorrow there will be another rally on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra. The message of these rallies is really simple: the Abbott government needs to keep its unequivocal election promise—and that was, 'no cuts to the ABC or SBS'. It is absolutely astounding that this government can deliver cuts of more than half a billion dollars to the ABC and SBS, and then claim that they continue to stand by the commitments they made before the election. Those opposite really must take the Australian people for mugs. They cannot seriously think that Australians will believe this government have not lied and blatantly broken their pre-election commitments.

But, whatever weasel words the Abbott government uses to justify their broken promises, the fact remains: a cut is a cut is a cut. I know some conservative commentators, and even senators in this place, who question the purpose of having a publicly funded broadcaster competing with commercial providers. That might be a valid argument if the ABC was seeking commercial revenue or competing on a level playing field, but it is not. The line of argument that the for-profit commercial broadcasters would love to have a billion dollars a year subsidy is completely disingenuous, and ignores the reason for having an ABC and the important public service it provides. It ignores the point that a for-profit broadcaster could not fulfil the role that the ABC do because their commercial imperative is completely at odds with the ABC's responsibilities.

Yes, commercial broadcasters would love to be subsidised by the government, but they exist for a completely different purpose to the ABC—that is, to make a profit from advertising revenue. They do not have the restrictions that the ABC has placed on it. The ABC exists to deliver on its charter, a charter which includes providing educational programming, reflecting Australia's cultural diversity, promoting Australian culture and Australian performing arts, and providing independent news and current affairs. These functions may not be commercially lucrative, but they are certainly of value to the public interest. For example, the ABC's news and current affairs function serves an important role in Australia's democracy. Casting an informed vote relies on independent, unbiased information about the important issues that are shaping public policy. You see, producing news and current affairs can be used to inform the public, but it can also be used as an instrument to shape and influence public opinion.

There are three reasons why commercial news and current affairs cannot be trusted to be free of bias, why it is compromised by the profit motive. Firstly, commercial news needs to suit the interests of its advertisers. If a business is unhappy with the way their business is being reported, or the report is in conflict with some other commercial interest, it will not provide advertising revenue. Commercial news providers also like to present a view of policy issues that suits their own commercial interests, not just those of their advertisers. And, finally, some of the lengthy, intensive journalistic investigations that the ABC often engages in are just too costly to turn a profit—yet they are of great value to the public interest.

Having an entirely commercial broadcasting market would mean we would lose a number of Australia's most popular and highly successful TV dramas. Sea Change, for example, an iconic Australian drama, was rejected by every commercial network before it appeared on the ABC. You see, commercial TV networks cannot innovate in the way the ABC does because it creates too much commercial risk.

Not only do Australians believe strongly in having a publicly funded, fiercely independent national broadcaster, but they overwhelmingly believe that our ABC does a good job at fulfilling this role. The ABC commissions an appreciation survey each year, which consistently shows, year on year, that Australians think their ABC performs a valuable role in return for the 10c a day they pay for it. In the latest survey, 85 per cent of Australians said that the ABC performs a valuable role, with almost half agreeing that it provided a 'very valuable' role. Seventy-eight per cent of Australians believe the quality of programming on ABC television is good, compared with 44 per cent for commercial television. Sixty-four per cent believe the quality of programming on ABC radio is good, compared with only 51 per cent for commercial radio.

It is interesting to note that, according to a recent survey of Tasmanian radio listeners, 936 ABC Hobart has the highest audience share of any of the radio stations in the south of the state. The station's highest rating shows include Ryk Goddard's Breakfast show, Mornings with Leon Compton and Evenings with Helen Shield. And 80 per cent of Australians think the ABC is doing a good job of covering events happening in country and regional Australia, compared with only 45 per cent for commercial television, radio and websites.

While the Liberal member for Sturt, Mr Pyne, obviously recognises the value of the ABC to his constituents, I am utterly amazed at the hypocrisy of his online petition. When the ABC decided to cut production staff in Adelaide as a result of the government's savage cuts, Mr Pyne started a petition against the closure, which garnered 2,000 signatures—but I must admit that none of the signatories were very complimentary. Given the fact he is a member of the cabinet that cut hundreds of millions from the ABC, you have to ask yourself: who is he trying to fool? Mr Pyne described the ABC's decision as 'an act of political vandalism', but the true vandalism is the savage cuts that the government is making to the ABC.

Of course, the sheer irony of Mr Pyne's campaigning against the consequences of his government's cuts is not lost on those on this side of the chamber or to the people of Adelaide. Mr Pyne's argument that Adelaide's TV production unit should be quarantined from the Abbott government's savage cuts is the height of self-interest and he should be absolutely ashamed of himself. Nevertheless, I would encourage anyone who opposes Mr Abbott's cuts to the ABC to have a look at Mr Pyne's petition and use it as an opportunity to tell Mr Pyne what you think of the government's broken promise, like so many other people have.

It is a good thing for the ABC that it is not only popular but also held in high esteem by Australians. We know that having independent reporting is inconvenient to the coalition, who are generally treated more favourably by the commercial media. We know that the coalition would like to get rid of the ABC but they cannot, because it is an institution loved by Australians—a cultural icon, a valued public service and a part of our lives which many Australians wake up to every morning or go to bed to every night.

These cuts are part of an ongoing war the conservative side of politics has been waging against the ABC for decades. It is a war the Howard government waged when they appointed their mates such as Michael Kroger, Janet Albrechtson and Keith Windschuttle to the ABC board, when they removed the position of staff-elected director from the board and when they initiated an efficiency review into the ABC in 1996 and then cut its funding, contrary to pre-election promises. Ah, that sounds familiar. (Time expired)

5:28 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In listening to the contribution of Senator Bilyk, it was quite interesting to hear the many comments that she made about the ABC being different, not having commercial revenue opportunities and bias et cetera. But I just wonder whether the difference of the public broadcaster means that it is somehow immune from being efficient, effective and accountable. I wonder, when the ABC did its study to find out what Australians thought of their ABC, whether it asked those people in the study whether they believed that it was okay for the ABC not to be as efficient as it absolutely could be. I am sure it did not. If it had, I am sure that the Australian public would have said that, whilst they love their ABC—as I am sure everybody in this place does—they still believe that it should be running as efficiently as it possibly can be.

It is interesting, when we are talking about the efficiency, the effectiveness and the accountability of the ABC, that, last week, when I was questioning Mr Scott in relation to the ABC and how it determined the priorities for the allocation of its resources and how it measured whether it was actually achieving the objectives of its charter, Mr Scott referred me to the strategic review—which I had already had a look at, but I thought, 'I'd best go back and have another look at it to make sure that I haven't missed something.' I think there is a real issue here, and that is that the ABC, for all the billion dollars a year that it gets from the government, really does not have any defined, transparent methodology that is published, so the public can see it, as to how it actually determines how it allocates its resources but also to measure against its ability to achieve its charter.

So I cannot see how on that basis the board of the ABC is really in any position to be able to be measuring the output of the organisation when it does not actually have anything against which to benchmark. If you have a look at the strategic review and the strategic plan the ABC has a number of strategies, but they are all motherhood type strategies: 'Audience focused', 'High quality', 'Innovative, 'Values based', 'Responsible', 'Efficient'. But, really, in the greater scheme of things, what does that actually mean unless you have something tangible by which to measure it?

It was interesting today reading in The Australian comments of the former Labor Premier of South Australia, Mr John Bannon. For the record, I thought it was quite interesting that Mr Bannon made this comment:

The lesson is that the board must not be conned by a management offering very popular programs in the hope that the government will back down.

Mr Bannon, I am assuming, is meaning to cut very popular programs.

Nor must allow centralisation is purported economies to rule. Instead of what being at what can be cut "out there" and brought back to Sydney Central, it should be looking the other way. What can be outsourced to regional officers with capacity, more efficiently, cheaply and with real commitment to local production and capacity?

It has to insist on this principle and not just roll with the management offerings. That way we'll get a better, more robust, truly national broadcaster.

That from the Hon. John Bannon, former Labor Premier of South Australia.

The other thing that has been quite interesting in this debate is the debate about efficiencies versus cuts. The minister earlier this year sought to have conducted an efficiency study to determine what opportunities there were in the ABC and the SBS to be able to make the organisation run more efficiently and to find savings. That review was undertaken by Mr Lewis and came back with a quantum of savings which Mr Lewis and his team believe that the ABC and SBS could implement without actually taking away from the delivery of programs.

It is worth noting that over the next five years the ABC will receive $5.2 billion from the taxpayer as opposed to $5.5 billion that was the budgeted number. We are talking about $300 million in total over five years out of a $5.5 billion budget. That in itself raises a number of questions about Mr Scott's statement last week and Mr Scott's statements today. I will read you from a statement that Mr Scott has posted online in which he says:

Because the cuts are back-end loaded, in the latter years of the accumulated impact to the ABC is over eight per cent a year.

I don't know whether you studied maths or economics at school, Acting Deputy President Bernardi, but I would suggest that $300 million over five years out of a budget of $5.5 billion, even at an extraordinary stretch, does not go anywhere near being eight per cent. So I think Mr Scott needs to be a little more honest when he is using these figures, because it does not matter which way you look at it, there is no way in the world, no matter what you add in or how you look at it, that the budget changes are eight per cent. In fact, I cannot make them reach five per cent. So we do need to be very, very careful about the misinformation that is being put out there in the public space by this particular issue. Just remember that nobody is asking Mr Scott to do anything more than to deliver the efficiency savings measures that have been identified in an independent report commissioned for him. I am sure he has probably got a report he has commissioned himself in his bottom drawer that will tell him ways that he can get more savings, including the savings that have not even been discussed about the savings that could be achieved from transmission costs.

The efficiencies that came out basically said that the ABC can be more productive, can get the same or even ideally a bigger bang for slightly fewer taxpayer dollars. It was also interesting to note that last Thursday during the estimates hearing the SBS representative, Mr Khalil, made the comment that the SBS would be absorbing its savings and efficiency measures without having any effect on production, content or any job losses. So I think is quite interesting that we have a completely different approach being taken by the ABC in relation to trying to find these efficiency savings.

I do not think anyone can credibly argue that the public broadcaster should be exempt from finding savings. I don't even think those opposite could come up with any justification for doing that. It is really quite interesting that a number of commentators that have been very great supporters of the ABC are all coming out and making the comment that the ABC really does need to be reasonable about this. In the words of Louise Evans, who is a former manager at ABCs Radio National and a former managing editor at The Australian:

Pockets of the ABC have been allowed to get too fat, flabby, wasteful and accountable.

The same efficiencies and workplace practices that are the norm in corporate Australia need to be front and centre at the ABC so that it remains a strong, independent voice …

Everybody seems to think that there is nothing wrong with the ABC becoming more efficient, apart from perhaps Mr Scott. The real tragedy, I suppose, of this is this is just another step along the road of centralisation. Currently 50 per cent of the ABC staff already work in Sydney. These changes that Mr Scott has put on the table today in relation to closing the Adelaide studio, getting rid of the 7.30 Report, cutting five radio stations in rural and regional Australia will just serve to increase that city-centric focus of the ABC. It is tremendously sad because the name of this organisation is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It is not the 'Sydney Broadcasting Corporation'. It is time that the ABC started to show a little bit more transparency about some of its decision making and also started to behave a little bit more responsibly when it comes to being an efficient and effective organisation.

I must say though, in closing, that it was very heartening to hear Mr Scott put on the record on Thursday night that he would prioritise rural and regional Australia, and today it is public statement he has come out and said that he is intending to create a regional division. That is obviously something that is terribly important to people who live in rural, regional and remote Australia, because often the ABC is their only form of communication and news that they are able to get, despite Mr Scott not wanting to accept the fact that the ABC in some instances is the broadcast of last resort. It is all well and good to have all the nice things that happen in the metropolitan and urban marketplace, but for people who live in rural and regional Australia the ABC is the broadcaster of last resort. I think Mr Scott would do well to remember that. The other thing that was obviously of great relief to those people who live in the country was that Mr Scott confirmed that the ABC would continue to be the emergency broadcaster, and that there was absolutely no intention whatsoever for that service to be reduced, cut or otherwise. There were a couple of good pieces of news in this but, sadly, Mr Scott still seems to believe that his organisation is immune from having to make efficiency savings.

5:38 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I think the only thing sadder than the axe that has been brought down on public broadcasting in the last couple of weeks and the confirmation that we have seen today about exactly how that is going to wash through is the shameless, bug-eyed hypocrisy of coalition senators lining up to condemn the consequences of the cuts that they voted for. Are you people completely out of your minds? It is absolutely unbelievable!

Let us talk a little bit about the meaning of the word 'efficiency' because Senator Ruston—and I suspect Senator McKenzie is going to jump up and do the same thing shortly—pointed out that from a purely commercial point of view the ABC is inefficient. Senator McKenzie is not going to say that—I probably should not pre-empt what other senators are going to say. But this idea that the ABC should just knuckle down and behave like a commercial broadcaster kind of gives the game away. The fact is that from a purely commercial point of view it is inefficient to cover local sport, it is inefficient to maintain small regional bureaus in places like Wagin or Morwell, it is inefficient to maintain dedicated state current affairs reporting and it is probably really inefficient to put well-paid and well-resourced investigative journalists into the field. These things from a purely commercial point of view are inefficient. That is why we have public broadcasters to provide those things—because the private sector will not.

If you want to know what cutthroat commercial efficiency looks like, have a look at how commercial players have reacted to changes in the broadcast environment. They have reacted by closing down dozens of regional radio bureaus because they are expensive and inefficient. Now you get kids sitting in studios in Sydney reading news headlines that have been faxed to them from local newspapers—also likely produced a long way from regional towns—because that is more commercially efficient than maintaining people in those towns in the first place. We also see incredibly superficial treatment of current affairs. It is expensive and, commercially, probably a bit inefficient to maintain the kind of world-class current affairs and investigative work that we have trusted the ABC and the SBS to do. It is not impossible—and we do obviously have great journalists working in commercial bureaus around the country and upstairs here in the gallery—but it is difficult. It requires commitment and from a purely commercial point of view it is inefficient. That is why we see some commercial current affairs programs have gone down this degraded rabbit hole. It is like watching the visual equivalent of junk mail. It does not really count as current affairs any more. It is a lot cheaper to produce than putting top-notch investigative journalists on planes and sending them around the world to hot spots, or having them poke their noses into places where powerful people would probably prefer they not go.

If you want efficiencies, look at what has happened in the corporate sector—mass sackings, closures of bureaus and the disappearance of decent investigative work. Are those really the kinds of efficiencies that you want to pursue? You then come into this place and line up with surprise. Mr Pyne put out a press statement saying:

I am deeply disappointed in the ABC's announcement today about the closure of South Australia's production facilities …

What did you expect? Senator McKenzie is seeking assurances from the ABC that they will not cut services in her backyard. Good luck, Senator McKenzie; I wish you well. I suspect you are on a hiding to nothing. If you seriously did not expect that this was going to happen, I am not sure that it is going to be possible to help you. But marching in here and railing on behalf of your constituents about how Mr Scott should not be centralising things—

Photo of Sam DastyariSam Dastyari (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Address your remarks through the chair, Senator.

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I certainly will, Mr Acting Deputy President. Thank you for the reminder. This has been going on for years. There was the closure of Hobart, for example, and the gradual leeching and running down of production capacity in Western Australia, which cost a lot of good people their jobs. This has happened right around the place. In fact, I think Adelaide really is the only place left outside the Sydney-Melbourne axis that has maintained dedicated production capacity. Do you know why? Because centralisation is efficient, according to the way that these calculations are made. On the raw spreadsheets it is less efficient to have people right around the country doing this kind of work. That is why we maintain public broadcasters in this country—because the private sector really has to pay attention to those kinds of efficiencies, and that is why we see the hollowing out of regional production.

If you are so desperate to operate the ABC and the SBS as efficient commercial broadcasters, I invite coalition senators to quit their Senate positions and to go and get jobs in the private sector and to leave people who care about public broadcasters and public institutions to run those things. Quite clearly you are more interested in running these institutions into the ground. Quit your jobs in the Senate running public broadcasters and go and find yourselves work in the public sector. I am sure they would love to hear your views on efficiency out there. Leave the ABC and the SBS the hell alone in the meantime.

5:43 pm

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We are debating this matter of public importance today on the ABC and SBS. It is a pretty sad day for the ABC's workers in South Australia, and I am going to take a very parochial view in respect to this. The Prime Minister made an election commitment stating that there would be no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no changes to pensions, no changes to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS. He has reneged on all of those commitments—absolutely reneged on all of those commitments. I suppose, to the credit of the ABC, they have highlighted that. I think that fundamental to any democracy is freedom of the press and having a public broadcaster that has the breadth and depth of experience to accurately portray to millions of listeners the situation in this country.

It is absolutely extraordinary that, on top of the efficiency dividend, there are further cuts to the ABC. You could take the very biased view that it is the coalition government getting back at critics. I certainly do not agree with everything the ABC present to the population, but I respect their right to do that—and I think it is a very important thing to be doing. When we live in a society where people are reading less and they get more through their ears and their eyes than they do through sitting down reading documents and newspapers, there is a very important role to play in balancing the prejudice that occasionally comes from some sections of the media.

There is no doubt that there have been times in history where a certain large press organisation has backed either a Labor government or a Liberal government and they sail on those fair winds that they see in the population having the support of one or another position. But the ABC seeks to be balanced. It is critical of Labor governments, it is critical of Liberal governments, it is critical of Greens party members, it is critical of PUP members and it is critical of National Party members. It attempts to put some balance into the equation.

On South Australia, quite ironically, I do agree with Christopher Pyne and his call for the last production unit outside of Sydney and Melbourne—which is Adelaide—not to be cut. But, very interestingly, I listened to his contribution in the debate in the other place just after question time and the ABC did not get a mention. All of the alleged sins of the previous government got a mention, but the ABC did not get a mention. It is quite ironic that, on top of Holden and on top of the discontent around submarines, we now have another cut to South Australian jobs. Mr Pyne and his coalition colleagues should hang their heads in shame for allowing their leadership to continually attack South Australian jobs.

As senators for South Australia we should be standing here protecting South Australian jobs. Extremely work is done in South Australia by those good journalists, production workers and backroom staff in the ABC, and we should be standing meekly by while this economic rationalist debate is thrown about. We should be honing in on the defence of the institution of the ABC and, in particular, the South Australian component of that. I have had the privilege of being duty senator for Grey, and I know how much those rural constituents rely on their ABC for radio news, for Landlineand for the ABC news in the evening. Any attempt to take information away from people, to reduce the flow of information and to reduce the balance in the argument in the media by cutting their budget is an incredibly bad step for any democratic country.

The ABC is an institution which is worthwhile supporting. It is obviously worthwhile working for, as people compete to work for it. It may have an efficiency dividend imposed upon it, but to have savage cuts imposed on top of that dividend is truly remarkable, given that the Prime Minister of this country stated that 'there will be no cuts to the ABC or SBS'.

5:48 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The hypocrisy! The level of debt that was left and the assumptions underpinning those from the other side who have spoken on this particular MPI are absolutely breathtaking. The assumption is that we on this side do not appreciate public broadcasters and do not appreciate the substantial contribution that a public broadcaster has made over 80 years to our national identity, serving particularly rural and regional communities where others have not been before. They let us know what the weather is going to be so we know when to put the crop in. They let us know about community events and how the national agenda will play out at the local level. To make the assumption that we do not appreciate that in our local communities is an absolute joke.

There is a lot of community concern about the reforms to the ABC and SBS. It means difficult decisions, Senator Ludlam—difficult decisions that you were never prepared to make. You are happy for Indigenous programs to have an efficiency dividend. You are happy for education departments to have a dividend. You are happy for defence departments to have a dividend. But you are not happy for the ABC and SBS to have to be like everybody else across the whole of government and actually be subject to contributing to pay down the absolute mess that you left us.

Change is never easy, but it is almost always necessary. The taxpayer spends more than $1 billion a year on the ABC and the taxpayer is entitled to demand value for money. However, people are less concerned about the dollar amount given to the ABC and far more interested in the level of service that it provided to them and their local community. The government and the communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, have repeatedly stated that they remain committed to maintaining the health and vibrancy of the ABC and SBS but that it must be financially sustainable.

These are choices, and Mr Scott made that point in estimates last Thursday—it is about prioritisation and it is about choices as to how to fulfil their charter obligations in the most efficient manner. For the people the Nationals represent that means the health and vibrancy of services to people living in regional Australia—a principally, ABC local radio and, vitally, emergency broadcasting services. I note in Senate estimates on Thursday that, when I questioned him on this, Mr Scott was quite flippantly about to say, 'Oh, Senator, we can't actually rule in or rule out. We'll wait until Monday when I make the announcement.' The fact is that that was generating very real fear, particularly in regional Victoria, around the provision of the emergency services program. He then very, very quickly decided that that 'was all in the basket'.

So I do not make any apology for putting all my efforts into ensuring that ABC management and the board maintain their regional footprint—and I am buoyed by Mr Scott's public declarations of a regional focus, because it is about prioritisation as a national broadcaster. As a former member of the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, I have had the privilege of being able to question ABC management in Senate estimates over a number of years. ABC Managing Director, Mark Scott, has repeatedly assured me that the ABC's role as an emergency broadcaster is not under review. But I think his other answers over a period of time have been less reassuring about his commitment to regional Australia, which is why I am buoyed by his statement today.

He did not seem to have a lot of information on hand about local radio in regional Australia and what it costs. In May estimates, I asked Mr Scott how many of the ABC's 4½ thousand employees worked in regional offices. He could not tell me. Apparently it is 501. In estimates last week, I asked Mr Scott how much of the ABC budget goes to local radio—western Victoria, central Vic, Bendigo and Ballarat et cetera. Mr Scott said he would have to check that. I said: 'Well, let's look at trends. Of the $1 billion that Australians give to you as the national broadcaster, has the amount you have actually invested increased over time into local radio?' And the answer I got was, 'No, I think the amounts have actually remained static.' So they have not been investing in the areas that count as a national broadcaster, rather they have been doing exactly what Senator Ludlam said.

And they have been centralising—centralising!—to Sydney. That is exactly what Mr Scott said—

Photo of Sam DastyariSam Dastyari (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Through the chair, Senator McKenzie.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

that in a drive for efficiency, they have been centralising. And where have they been centralising? To Adelaide? To Tasmania? To Perth? To regional Australia? No. they have been centralising to Sydney. Today was a classic case of where the options were available—in fact, the options were even laid out for them where they could find efficiency measures—but it went to Sydney. They do not want to do that.

Mr Scott also talked about local radio stations in regional areas. I asked him about staffing costs, because as the footprint gets bigger we collapse local radio into each other, and why we needed to do that. He could not tell me why because the ABC does not keep central records of staffing areas. It is a little hard to look at your business and make serious decisions about efficiencies in the business if you do not actually record the details of how you are doing business, so I think there is a way to go on that. The vagueness is deeply worrying and gives the impression of a lack of transparency in how the resource allocation, via the taxpayer, marries with the charter obligations of the ABC in its role as the national broadcaster. As Minister Turnbull said in his headland speech, we need:

… more granular detail on where the ABC … spend their money and how it relates to their charter obligations.

The minister said:

The best cure for suspicion in sunlight.

I could not agree more. Without that sunlight, we are left believing ABC management see regional broadcasting as an annoying distraction from the more exciting areas of prime TV and current affairs and competing in city markets with yet another fabulous brekkie program. But it is not good enough: the ABC charter is to be a national broadcaster and not just another Sydney or Melbourne network.

Government, as I said, identified a variety of options through the efficiency review. The back office or support services function could generate $40 million and make 150 less staff potentially redundant. That was not an option taken. Savings by changing the way broadcasters negotiate the transmission contracts could save $30 million over 10 years. Savings could be made from selling properties: the building that is a car park and for costume storage—that is, not core production facilities—in, oh, hang on, North Sydney is worth around $20 million. There may be another $40 million available in implementation costs, which is why there is a savings program spread over five years with zero money actually required in year 1. It is also worth noting the ABC has 45 senior presenters and managers earning more than $200,000 a year, which is more than 10 per cent of their total staff. The government is confident there is money available without impacting on programming to meet implementation costs and that the long-term gains from modernising the business far outweigh any one-off implementation costs.

I note that today the managing director of the ABC did announce that five regional radio stations would be closing—one in Morwell in my home state. I want to go to some press about that, where a regional ABC source said:

… management's decision to shut down the Morwell studio was a "big mistake" that showed little understanding of how many major news stories were generated in the Latrobe Valley during the past year alone.

"Clearly this decision was made in Sydney," the source told Fairfax Media.

"It doesn't make any sense. For Gippsland, It's where most of the news comes from, like the courts. The power stations are there, and what happens if there is another … mine fire?"

Too Sydney-centric seems to be the recurring theme, I could not agree more.

Considering Mr Scott says savings are coming from back office, there should be no redundancies in regional Australia since ABC workers in regional Australia are all on the front line. It is worth noting the comments of ABC Chairman, James Spigelman, as he endorsed his managing director's plans. He said:

The initiatives outlined by Mr Scott comprise a carefully considered response to the twin challenges of technological change and reduced funding. We will keep a sharp eye on Mr Scott's plan for the ABC. It would not have been easy for him to look at the business and work out which areas he was going to prioritise to find efficiencies in and I hope he has chosen to balance competing issues accordingly.

Whether it is a local weather report, local issues, emergency broadcasting announcements or community events ABC radio has played a core role in country communities for over 82 years and should not be cut by the board or the managing director. While I would urge them to appreciate the important role that the ABC plays in our environmental, economic and social wellbeing, I also absolutely support the government's role in getting the budget under control.

5:58 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

My time is very brief, but I can indicate at the outset that I am a great friend of the ABC but I have become an enemy of the ABC management that have made these decisions that are completely unfair, particularly to the so-called BAF states—to Queensland, to Tasmania, to South Australia and to Western Australia. John Howard used to talk about core promises and non-core promises. The government may consider this a non-core promise not to cut the ABC, but the ABC is fundamentally important. It goes to the core of the identity of communities around the country in the work that it does in giving us program diversity and in being a unifying force for the nation in its extensive coverage. Whether you agree or disagree with the ABC, it is an important independent broadcaster.

The other thing is that the government's cuts go way beyond an efficiency dividend. Do they include, for instance, the redundancy payments that will be made? That to me is unclear therefore the cuts are much deeper than that.

Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, I am in the delicious position where you cannot respond to what I am going to say: I know you are a big fan of education minister Christopher Pyne and I just think it is a bit cute for Minister Pyne to say that he has got a petition to get people to sign up so they can oppose the cuts to the ABC production in South Australia. I suggest Minister Pyne direct his energies to getting his cabinet colleagues to support him on this, not getting a petition which is a bit of a political stunt—and I know a thing or two about stunts. That is a stunt.

Let's go to the managing director, Mark Scott's announced cuts to the ABC. They have been a long time coming, but that has not softened the blow. Mark Scott has had it in for the Adelaide production unit of the ABC for many years, despite the fact that it is lean. It is efficient. It is creative, and they have just had a ratings blockbuster with Countdowntwo episodes with something like an average of 1.2 million viewers for each episode, and a great testament to the skill, creativity and efficiency of that ABC production unit.

Mr Scott cannot choose how much the ABC is cut; however, he can choose where the ABC bleeds and he has made some very bad choices in relation to that. It is now clear that the ABC management intend to axe the last remaining half hour of ABC state based current affairs television left on our weekly schedules. That makes a big difference to the states and territories outside Sydney and Melbourne. It makes a difference having that local content—I take it back: I think that what Quentin Dempster is doing in New South Wales is important in terms of state coverage. What is happening in Victoria is important in terms of state coverage. It means that it will be centralised.

Mark Scott has an obsession with centralising the management of the ABC and its resources. That is why I will be pushing for a Senate inquiry in relation to the whole issue of the ABC cuts and pushing to change the ABC charter so that it does reflect the cultural and regional diversity of this nation. Cutting the ABC in Port Augusta is a disaster when you consider it is such an important part of this country—the crossroads of Australia are going to lose their ABC outlet in terms of its bureau.

It is interesting that the latest ABC annual report reveals that New South Wales now counts for 51 per cent of all ABC staff while the proportion in Australia has slipped from eight per cent to 6.9 per cent over a decade.

To the ABC Board members, some of whom were too busy to see me: I will be doing my very best to have you appear before a Senate inquiry about the ABC and how you have gutted production in the states. Of course the government must be held to account for their cutbacks, but the ABC board must also be accountable. (Time expired)

6:02 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today Mr President to say: 'Shame on those opposite.' I am proud to be a friend of the ABC. It is do disappointing to sit in the chamber and hear people from the National Party come and defend this government's terrible record when it comes to broken promises when they promised before the last election that there would be no cuts to the ABC and SBS.

What do we have this afternoon? Senator McKenzie comes in here week after week espousing that she speaks for rural and regional Australia. She has let them down and let them down once too often.

Shame on the Abbott government for forcing the ABC to cut over 400 jobs—and before Christmas, Mr Acting Deputy President. I once referred to the former Prime Minister Mr Howard as Mr Scrooge. He is back in force in this government again this Christmas. 'How low can you go?'—I think this government should take that slogan to the next election. That is what they are: a government of the lowest-common denominator.

Today is a sad day not only in the history of our national broadcaster but, more importantly, in the history of our nation—a day where the ABC has been forced to cut 10 per cent of its workforce. Over 400 people will lose their jobs across the country. The 400 people have families and those 400 people at the ABC are the latest victims of Tony Abbott's lies.

I am a student of history, so let's look briefly back at this government's shameful record on this issue.

Photo of Michael RonaldsonMichael Ronaldson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

On a point of order: I was a bit slow, Senator Polley. You know you did the wrong thing, and perhaps I will ask you to withdraw.

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Abbott went to the election promising 'no cuts to the ABC and SBS.' He later announced cuts to the ABC and SBS. Tony Abbott lied to the Australian people. There is no escaping that fact, but those opposite will try.

In the last week, the communications minister—

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Polley, I am sorry to interrupt. You have just repeated the statement that Senator Ronaldson suggested you withdraw. It is inappropriate and unparliamentary, so I would ask you to withdraw that statement.

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, I apologise for not referring to Mr Abbott with his correct title, but Mr Abbott lied to the—

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

No, you have referred to Mr Abbott in a way which is most unparliamentary and I would ask you to withdraw that.

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. I withdraw, but the Prime Minister, leading into the last election, promised the Australian community that there would be no cuts to the ABC and no cuts to SBS, and he did that—along with so many other cuts that he gave a commitment before the last election. Commitment was given at that time and then, as soon as they got back into government, they made those cuts. Surely, that is lying to the Australian community and that is at least how the community sees it.

Last week the communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and the finance minister, Senator Cormann, embarrassed themselves beyond belief trying to defend the impossible. People do not like liars, but what they hate more is when people lie about a lie, and that is what Mr Turnbull and Senator Cormann have done.

When you break a promise, you do the responsible thing and be honest about why you broke the promise. You do not try and cover up a lie with another lie, which is what those opposite have tried to do—and failed badly, I might add.

This government has lied and misled the Australian people about cuts to the ABC and SBS, about their promises to also not cut health, education spending or pensions in this country. On every one of those counts, they have failed the honesty test. They have cut education. They want to have further cuts to higher education. They have cut health, and we know they have changed the pension system, which is going to have a devastating effect on the aged-care sector in this country.

I do not usually say favourable things about Mr Abbott's predecessor, but I think I mentioned before the Mr Howard has at least one thing in his favour, and that is he is a politician of conviction. He is a man of conviction. I have to say this Prime Minister, whom I would have thought was someone aspiring to follow in Mr Howard's footsteps, has failed miserably.

Earlier this morning the Managing Director of the ABC, Mr Mark Scott, was forced by the Abbott Liberal government to outline how the national broadcaster would find $254 million in savings over five years. Mr Scott informed staff of the ABC about the impending redundancies and changes coming to the ABC. I would like to read a part of the statement sent to ABC staff across the country, because that is who we are thinking about here today: those who are going to be directly affected and those in our community who rely on the ABC and SBS in this country.

In charting this new course, my thoughts go out firstly to those who face losing their jobs. As other companies in the media sector have found, structural change can have painful personal consequences.

We anticipate that more than 400 people – close to 10% of our ongoing workforce – face potential redundancy as we adjust our activities…

We regard the changes as vital to securing the long-term health of the organisation but I acknowledge that is no comfort to those who will lose their positions.

It is sad, and it is not only the ABC which will be forced to make employees redundant; the SBS has also been asked to find $53 million in savings over the same period.

We all know that ultimately our public broadcasters should never have been put in this position. They should have been forced to make people redundant at any time, let alone less than a month before Christmas. We on this side know that those on the other side are forever attacking the ABC. It has been part of their mantra that they are going to do whatever they can to undermine the national broadcaster. But Mr Scott was forced to make people redundant in order to secure the viability of the national broadcaster for the future because the government unnecessarily ripped funds away from it. This was all unnecessary and not called for.

At the weekend it was confirmed that Stateline would not be coming back next year, replaced by a Friday edition of 7.30. This morning Radio National's Bush Telegraph tweeted that it would stop airing at Christmas. This is really sad. These productions are quality programs which Australians love. Among the other high-profile cuts are the Adelaide TV production studio, which will close. Six other TV productions in smaller cities will also close, and production will be based in Sydney and Melbourne. Once again rural and regional Australia will be directly affected. Regional radio bureaus will be closed in Gladstone, Port Augusta and other places. Sports coverage from across the country and internationally will also be scaled back, and I bet my bottom dollar that it will be women's sport that will got to the cutting floor. Women's sport, when we have been working so hard to get it the recognition that it deserves, will be cut. Further, the ABC foreign bureaus will be reshaped and a new bureau commissioned in Beirut.

At this time there are many regional towns that do not know whether the ABC will be able to function as it does today. Will TV productions be closed in my home state of Tasmania? There is little left there as it is. I do not know. Will radio production be severely downsized due to staff cuts? We do not know. Nobody knows. But what we do know is it is this government's agenda to take as many resources as they possibly can to disadvantage the national broadcaster because that is part of its mantra. It is part of its DNA.

I do not know how many positions will be lost in my home state of Tasmania, but obviously I hope that there are very few, if any at all, because we in rural and regional Australia, particularly in my home state of Tasmania, value the independence of the ABC. These cuts are vicious and will affect our national broadcaster unnecessarily. Such cuts will have a significant impact on regions such as my home state, as I said. They provide vital information to the community. The ABC provides a voice for the community and a voice for Australians who do not usually have a voice. It provides national and community services.

The ABC does not just provide news and current affairs but also provides at times community service announcements and emergency bushfire announcements. Forget about Peppa Pig and Bananas in Pyjamas; the ABC in certain circumstances does save lives. We need a national broadcaster that provides an unparalleled service to the people of Australia. It should not be compromised by those opposite. Australians deserve a vibrant ABC with the funding to thrive and remain commercial free.

These are truly dark days in our country's history because everything in this country that makes our country great is under attack by this government, which will cut anything to improve its own bottom line. It is all about them saving face. Shame on those opposite. Shame on them for not having the heart or any vision for this country. Not only do they have no heart or vision as far as the ABC and SBS are concerned; as I have said earlier today in this place, when it comes to aged care we know that that side of the chamber have gone missing. We have had an assistant minister who is asleep at the wheel. It is just a shame that the Minister for Communications did not stand up for the ABC and did not stand up for rural and regional Australia. I put shame on the Nationals in particular because they espouse to be representing rural and regional Australia. (Time expired)

6:13 pm

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is another day, so it is another matter of public importance and another display of rank hypocrisy from the Australian Labor Party. If anyone in this place knows anything about broken promises, it will be our friends in the Labor Party. Let's talk about Anna Bligh, Premier of Queensland, at the 2009 state election. The Labor Party and Anna Bligh said they would not have asset sales. What did they do? Got re-elected and had asset sales.

Senator Polley interjecting

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator Polley.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Let's talk about Kevin Rudd. Let's talk about the former Prime Minister. He was going to be an economic conservative. He was anything but an economic conservative. He got into power and destroyed this country economically. So don't come to this place with your fake outrage and your faux angriness about broken promises when you senators in the Labor Party are the experts in broken promises.

And we have got the big daddy or the big mama in the room, and that is the carbon tax. In 2010, Julia Gillard said—I will read the quote out for you; you may have forgotten it: 'There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.' She got up there and said that; she made that promise about the carbon tax.

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President—

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Pause the clock. Senator McGrath, resume your seat. Before I call you, Senator Polley, I will just say: Senators on my left, you are being very noisy; it is very hard to hear Senator McGrath. Senator Polley?

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order on relevance. We are discussing the cuts to the ABC and the SBS. We are not having a—

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Polley, there is no point of order. Senator McGrath is being relevant.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You don't like broken promises, do you? You don't like the truth coming out and being seared on you. That is what you did to the Australian people with your carbon tax.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Through the chair, Senator McGrath.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Sorry, Mr Acting Deputy President. As to this false pretence on the carbon tax in 2010—the world's largest carbon tax—let us have a discussion about that and what it did to Australian families, that $9 billion carbon tax. But, no; the Labor Party—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President—do not want to talk about that. You turned your back on Australian families with that carbon tax.

Senator Bilyk interjecting

Yes, you did. You don't like hearing that very much at all. And if that is not bad enough, we are delivering on our mandate. Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister, and the coalition are delivering on their mandate, but, more importantly, they are delivering on cleaning up the mess that you left behind.

You do not want to talk about the carbon tax, but let us talk about the debt you left behind, because the reason we are having this discussion about the ABC and the SBS today is that this country has a huge debt. Do you know how much the interest bill is each month? It is a billion dollars. But if you are a member of the Labor Party, it is like, 'I don't really care about that. I don't really care about interest. I don't really care about debt.' You do not care about what your children and grandchildren—our children and grandchildren—are going to have to do to pay off that debt. Well, the buck stops here in terms of everyone tightening their belts. And the ABC and the SBS are not some deities to be put up on a pedestal, for us to go, 'Let's all pray to these institutions.' They are also part of the Australian fabric and they also must tighten their belts. So do not blame these parties on this side of the chamber for what is happening to the ABC and the SBS. Have a good look in the mirror in terms of how you left this country economically, and in terms of how the Labor Party and the Greens left this country with the huge debt that we are slowly going to pay off—as we did when we won office in 1996; we paid off the debt. Then you got elected in 2007 and racked it all up again on the government credit card.

Let us just talk about the efficiency study. Let us talk about what the ABC and the SBS—these billion-dollar organisations—can do to tighten their belts in terms of delivering better services with less money. They can do that. Let us look at what Sky News does in terms of the delivery of its services. But, no—somehow we have to protect the sacred cows of the ABC and the SBS; for some reason, they are excluded from efficiency dividends. Well, didn't the last Labor government but one put an efficiency dividend on the ABC? Didn't Ralph Willis do that when he was finance minister? So what is the difference now? There is no difference now. All we have here is pure politics from Labor and the Greens in relation to the ABC and the SBS.

It is disappointing that some ABC employees, who I think should know better, are actually tweeting in relation to this. I would hope that ABC employees would be aware of their own editorial policies and their own policies in relation to Twitter. I do have a tweet here I would like to read out. It is from Aaron Hollett, who is an editor of the South Asia bureau. He says: 'One in 10 jobs to go at your ABC. Thanks, Tony, you …' I can't say the word but it begins with F and rhymes with ducker or mucker or something like that. I say to the managing director of the ABC: I hope that he is going to ensure that his editor-in-chief and his employees follow the policies of the ABC. (Time expired)

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The time for the discussion has expired.