Senate debates

Monday, 24 November 2014

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

3:00 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Employment (Senator Abetz) to questions without notice asked by Senator Urquhart, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Wong) and Senators Ludlam and Xenophon today relating to funding for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Here we are today where we have around 400, maybe more, jobs to go out of the ABC. We asked the minister questions about the broken promise of this Prime Minister Abbott that is now directly responsible for over 400 job cuts to the ABC. What did we get from him? We got that it is a decision of the ABC. It is absolutely outrageous. We got no answers about jobs. We got no compassion from the minister who is the Minister for Employment, no compassion about the 400 people who are going to lose their jobs over the next couple of years, because his government gave the false story the day before the election when the now Prime Minister of Australia said to the Australian people, 'There will be no cuts to the ABC.'

Here we are today with 400-plus jobs gone from the ABC. That is what it means. We have a Prime Minister who told Australia a pack of lies. There is no other word for it. He lied to the Australian people.

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

Senator Urquhart, you have to withdraw that last remark.

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I withdraw that, but he deceived the Australian people. He deceived the Australian people prior to the election when he said there would be no cuts to the ABC. Even his minister, Minister Turnbull, on 7.30 the other night could not even support him. Malcolm Turnbull said:

Well—well, look, you know, I mean, I've defended the Prime Minister on this today and earlier in the week. I think you've got to take his comments, which—look, I mean, what he said, he said, and, you know, it's there, it's on the record. But you've got to take that in the context.

What context do you take when he said there will be no cuts? How can that be taken out of context when as opposition leader—an opposition leader one day, the Prime Minister the next day—he stood up and told the Australian voters that there will be not cuts to the ABC? Then, the very next day when he becomes Prime Minister, he has obviously changed his mind His minister is saying that you have to put it in context. I do not know what context you can take that in. If they say there will be no cuts to the ABC, that is what people believe. They believe that is what he will do. But now we have a situation where there are 400 jobs going.

Then at Senate estimates last week where we had members of the National Party raising their voices at the Managing Director of the ABC, Mr Mark Scott, demanding that they provide some comfort for regional Australia, that they not lose some of their regional services. This is your government. Your government are the ones that have introduced the cuts to the ABC. It is interesting to note that in questioning from Senator Conroy to Senator Johnston, Senator Johnston talked about cuts to the ABC—

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Three times.

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Three times he said 'cuts to the ABC'. So even Minister Johnston on that side has accepted there are cuts to the ABC. He put it down. He said it in Hansard.

The questions that I asked Senator Abetz were about the 400 jobs, but there was no compassion from him at all. What we heard from Senator Abetz was only, 'Nobody has lost their job.' I just cannot describe how those 400-plus people, those workers at the ABC, would be feeling about their minister who is saying nobody has lost their job when he knows very well that those workers, 400 of them at least, are going to lose their jobs. All the Minister for Employment can say is, 'Nobody has lost their job.' Well, Minister Abetz, they will lose their jobs because of the cuts that your government has made to the ABC, cuts that Prime Minister Abbott said the day before the election would not occur—'No cuts to the ABC'.

3:06 pm

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It does give me great pleasure to rise and take note of answers by Senator Abetz on the ABC. The ABC is an organisation which has not had to provide an efficiency dividend. Anyway, why are we in this position?

Senator Conroy interjecting

Because, Senator Conroy, you presided over a period of administration in this country which was financially irresponsible and that is why we are looking for efficiency dividends. This is no different to any other organisation out there in the real world trying to compete in a competitive marketplace. Might I give some perspective for those listening to this contribution. The ABC will receive $5.2 billion over the next five years, as opposed to $5.5 billion. That will save the budget 4.6 per cent. I was not here last week, but I believe that in Senate estimates the management of SBS said that they could manage these efficiency dividends. They owned up and said: 'There will be no change in content. There will be no change in programming. We should be able to manage this.' That is what responsible management does, rather than shrilly picking out a capital city like Adelaide, my home town, and saying, 'This will be Adelaide wiped off the face of the map.' That is not what efficient management does. Efficient management looks at what it has to achieve. It looks at its content. It looks at its programs.

Senator Bilyk interjecting

I do not need to take any of the interjections from the other side, Mr President

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

because even some journalists who had been working in the ABC environment acknowledge the fat that can be cut from the ABC. There have been various columns. There was a column by Amanda Blair in my home state daily several days ago. There is another one this morning from Louise Evans in The Sydney Morning Herald. This is not the coalition 'Hate the ABC' team. This is people who have worked in that environment and said, 'It's as clear and plain as the nose on your face that Mr Scott has got room to move.'

Mr Scott has also had the benefit of an efficiency study that was conducted and headed up by Peter Lewis. Peter Lewis is no lightweight. Peter Lewis is a person who has worked in the media. He has worked for Seven West Media, Sydney Olympic Broadcasting, the Seven Network and the Ten Network. Nothing on the other side of this debate, on the other side of this chamber, compares to the experience that that man and the people that prepared that review have had. This man has been a CFO of a major media organisation. All such organisations are accountable to their shareholders. In the case of the ABC, the shareholders are the Australian taxpayers. The shareholders are voters and taxpayers, and they want a level of efficiency. They do not want shrill calls. Mr Scott has had the benefit of that report. He has been able to look at that report and he has been able to identify the savings that he can make. It is up to him as to what representations he can make, but, on the face of it, you have to say there are people who have worked in the ABC, who have trod the halls and the studios of the ABC, who know that the efficiencies are there. To say that Mr Scott is going to hollow out the ABC and there are mass production costs in all these centres is somewhat hollow, because these places that he talks of are sheds and darkrooms not the size of a bedroom.

Senator O'Neill interjecting

Senator O'Neill on the other side is squawking somewhat about these issues, but I would be interested in her representation about what the ABC should not have to do or that they should remain unaccountable, unlike any other government department. (Time expired)

3:11 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Today I stand also to take note of Senator Abetz's answers on questions related to the government's gutting of the ABC and the SBS, despite the Prime Minister's ironclad promise on national television on 6 September: 'There will be no cuts to the ABC or SBS.' We all know that the Prime Minister has well and truly broken that pre-election commitment. 'No cuts to the ABC; no cuts to SBS'—today the grim reality of that set of broken promises can be added to the list of many, many others unfolding before the eyes of this nation. And it is not a pretty sight.

More than 400 people, close to 10 per cent of the ABC's ongoing workforce, face potential redundancies over the coming months. It is in that sneaky space that we see this sneaky government, and the Leader of Government Business in the Senate, pretending there are no job cuts. To actually have the audacity to say here, in question time, that there are no job losses and not say the word 'today' at the end just represents the depths to which this government will go to hide the truth from the Australian people. More of Australia's trained professional workforce—in many cases quite simply extraordinarily talented individuals, with the ability to tell Australian stories—will leave their jobs, will be dismissed. There are Australian families associated with these great workers—people with mortgages, with lives in our cities and regions, people facing the chop as a result of the Prime Minister's broken promise.

Just like the forced closure of Medicare Locals, the loss of hundreds of regional jobs will have a damaging impact in the regions' economies. These regions will face enormous strain when these talented ABC professionals will be forced to move on from the regions that they love. This is a government that deceived the Australian people. It is removing the value of this set of people's incomes from those local economies. That will be felt. Do you think, Mr President, that townships across the country—including, in Western Australia, the community of Wagin—will not miss the loss of their ABC? What about the Victorian town of Morwell and the people that are working there for the ABC? We know that office is gone today. In Gladstone, Queensland, every ABC journalist and person working in that office—gone. In South Australia, Port Augusta—gone. And in New South Wales, my home state, Nowra will lose the capacity to tell the reality of life for people in that region, because the ABC is being cut by our Prime Minister, who said there would be no cuts to the ABC.

Where is the National Party while this is going on out there in the region?—crying their crocodile tears and making a whole lot of hoo-ha out in the media. When it really counts, when they should be standing up in their party room, the National Party are going to water. They are weak and they are allowing this to happen. They have to be much louder in their party room and fight for their regions instead of just crying crocodile tears when agency after agency is being cut right across the country.

As a result of Mr Abbott's lies, we are now going to lose—right across this country—the state based 7.30 editions. These are so important. Every state in this country is so different culturally, geographically and economically. The ABC cuts will see an end to these very important community pieces of information that are provided weekly. Today, so far, we know that we will have an overhaul of TV sports coverage. What is up for grabs here? We could lose the Shute Shield. The mobile coverage, getting on-site vans out there to cover sports live, is gone or under threat. Four hundred staff and 100 of them from the news division, including Australian Story, Landline, Fact Checkand Four Corners, face the brunt of cuts—yet the Leader of Government Business in this chamber stood up today and told a bald faced deception of a sentence. I know I am not allowed to call it a lie, so I will not call it a lie.

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

Even if it is.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Even if it is. I know I am not allowed to do it. Nobody lost her job—but 400 people are losing their jobs today and know they are going. This is just arrogance in the extreme. From Newcastle, we know nine jobs have been lost. (Time expired)

3:16 pm

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of the answers to questions regarding the ABC. I take people back to three weeks before the last election. Tony Jones, on Q&A, was speaking to the Treasurer, Mr Joe Hockey, and said: 'Look, while we're on the subject, is the ABC immune from cuts?' Mr Hockey said: 'I'll just say to you, is there any waste in the ABC at all, Tony?' Tony Jones said: 'Say that again.' There was a following conversation. Mr Bowen took part in it. Tony Jones, at the end, said: 'A quick response to that, Joe Hockey.' The Treasurer said: 'If there is waste, we will cut it.'

That is a very clear statement from the coalition that where there is waste we will cut it. I go to the comments of Louise Evans, a former manager at ABC Radio National and a former managing editor of The Australian. She wrote: 'Pockets of the ABC have been allowed to get too fat, flabby, wasteful and unaccountable.' Very clearly, we see that people having worked within the ABC, comparing that to the private workplace, recognise that there is a lot of waste within the ABC.

Let us link back to that comment by the Treasurer on Q&A: 'If there is waste, we will cut the waste.' Now let us go to that statement by the Prime Minister, which was on SBS World News on the eve of the election, that everybody loves to quote. Anton Enus said: 'What about the public broadcasters, Mr Abbott—another soft target? Are the ABC and SBS in the firing line?' What did the Prime Minister actually say? He said: 'I trust everyone actually listened to what Joe Hockey said last week and again this week: "No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS".' He was referring to comments by Mr Hockey.

What did Mr Hockey say about the ABC? He said: 'Where there is waste, we will cut it,' which is the same approach Labor has taken with efficiency dividends. It is the same approach the coalition is taking to all government departments. Why are we taking it? We are taking it because of the debt this country has been left in by the maladministration of the former Labor government that sees us borrowing huge amounts of money—every month—just to pay the interest on Labor's borrowings.

In South Australia we are building a new hospital. Everybody is excited about the hospital but saying it is a huge amount of money. For the amount that we are borrowing to pay Labor's interest we could have six new hospitals, every year, in South Australia. That is how significant the amount is. This government is prudently—and in keeping with its consistent promises leading up to the last election—addressing the nature of Labor's legacy, which is to spend more than we receive. One of the ways you do that is by cutting waste and inefficiency.

The government has commissioned a report by Mr Peter Lewis, who has deep experience, in Seven West Media, in understanding media companies and how they run. The report he delivered to the government and the ABC has identified a whole range of areas where the ABC could save money. These are in the ABC's: technology; procurement; reducing radio-TV news-management overheads; outsourcing payroll and automating accounts payable; updating its broadcast technology; pooling staff and production managers into a shared service model; and implementing self-service rostering. There are a whole range of ways that the ABC could be making those savings to get rid of that waste and not cut programs. There is no reason for Mr Scott and the ABC to cut programs.

In South Australia, Dream Build is listed as one of the 12 most popular Australian-made shows. There is The Cook and the Chef, Poh's Kitchenand Behind the News. These are all valuable contributions that regional and local ABC officers are making, in accordance with the ABC's charter. The ABC needs to be a responsible member of the Australian community and take the measures required to get the efficiencies that will deliver the savings, without going against their charter and without undermining the services or the creative talent that is resident around this nation in regional and local areas.

3:21 pm

Photo of Chris KetterChris Ketter (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise also to take note of answers given by Senator Abetz in relation to the ABC and SBS cuts. The ABC cuts leaked over the past few weeks, before being announced by the communications minister, are another broken promise that will hang around this government's neck.

I am indebted to Senator Fawcett for reiterating the offending sentence, which the Prime Minister uttered prior to the last election. I will repeat that sentence, because it is extremely important to remind people of this. In fact, it is one of those sentences you would think of entering into the Guinness World Records as the sentence in which the most broken promises have been compressed by any political leader. Again, that sentence is:

No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.

These half a billion dollars in cuts to the ABC and SBS show the absolute ineffectiveness of the Nationals in standing up for regional Australians—regrettably, there are not any Nationals senators here at the moment. Much media commentary of late has been made of the bargaining power of the minor parties and Independents in the Senate of late, but there is one minor party that is sleepwalking itself into irrelevancy through its own inaction and absolute unwillingness to stand up to the Liberals on many matter—that is, the Nationals.

Today, we have seen the itemisation of what the government's cuts to the ABC—yet another broken promise—will mean on the ground. I would like to briefly focus on what this will mean for regional Queensland, but before I do I will quote from the media release issued by the Managing Director of the ABC, Mark Scott, today, where he says:

The Government has confirmed that, in addition to the May 2014 budget cut of $120 million, the ABC budget will be cut from July 2015 by a further $207 million over four years. The schedule of cuts outlined by the Government acknowledges that extracting efficiencies incurs a big upfront liability for the ABC in the form of redundancies and early transitional costs. We must fund these costs from our current funding allocation and asset base. Because the cuts are back-end loaded, in the latter years the accumulated impact to the ABC is over eight per cent a year. We face immediate work to meet the 2016-17 ask of more than $60 million. This target requires concerted, disciplined action to meet our twin challenges. We must make significant savings to ensure that our content is largely protected from external funding shocks.

The ABC is an institution in regional Australia, where often it is the only source of local news and current affairs through radio, TV and online services. Amongst the details of the cuts announced by ABC Managing Director, Mark Scott, now we will see the closure of the Gladstone ABC radio station as well as the axing of the state 7.30 programs on Friday nights. The closure of the Gladstone radio post is a blow to a growing region whose economic development and investment in recent years has helped drive the Queensland and national economies. Some Queensland Nationals and Liberal senators may even be pleased at the axing of Queensland 7.30. This was a program, after all, that in recent months aired very revealing interviews with former LNP heavy-hitters Dr Bruce Flegg and Dr Chris Davis. Quite simply, Queensland 7.30 is one of the best and only programs for in-depth political coverage of issues specific to Queensland. There are reports today that Landline will also bear the brunt of these cuts.

There are other instances where the Nationals have capitulated to the Liberal Party. We saw that in the expression of Minister Joyce's disappointment, in respect of the China free-trade agreement concerning sugar, rice and cotton. We saw it in rural health funding, with Senator Nash saying that the Nationals' commitments were not coalition commitments. We saw it with Minister Joyce ignoring SPC because they were in a Liberal seat, with the Nationals being duped on fuel excise increases and with Minister Joyce being rolled on his own agricultural competitiveness paper. So the fact that the Nationals have rolled over on these cuts is the only certainty for Queenslanders.

Federal Minister for Agriculture Joyce last week said that he wanted assurance that rural and regional news services will not suffer as a result of the ABC cuts, and Senator McKenzie has also said that she is disappointed. (Time expired)

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

I presume on a separate matter, Senator Ludlam?

3:26 pm

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

No, Mr President, on very much the same matter.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Employment) Share this | | Hansard source

They are all attacking me.

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

So it was all answers given by Senator Abetz to the ABC?

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

Yes, President. Senator Abetz, you have earned it today. You had to expect it.

I would like at the outset to express my condolences to those staff at the ABC and their families. Today is a pretty awful day for the national broadcaster. Having not seen, obviously, what Mr Mark Scott has had to tell his staff internally, I can only imagine how people must be feeling. The fact that this was completely unnecessary really just rubs salt into the wound. So, at the outset, the Australian Greens want to put on the record our condolences to those who work so hard for the national broadcaster to provide a service that so many of us—not all, unfortunately—deeply value.

It is good that Senator Abetz has stuck around for the take note section now. During question time earlier, the government provided us a really important lesson in the power of political delusion and self-deception, and I think that they have thrown down something of a challenge to the entire Australian population. Senator Fawcett, when he was in here before, spelled out for us again that the coalition are still denying that Mr Abbott made a black and white commitment to the entire country on SBS—and the knives are also out for SBS, obviously—that there would not be any cuts to the ABC and SBS. They just pretend that it did not happen.

Through you, Mr President: Senator Abetz and other colleagues who are trying to perpetrate this delusion, which you have obviously well and truly absorbed, it makes you look a bit crazy when you just come out and pretend that it never happened, when, obviously, it did. It makes you look a little nuts. I will read in exactly what Senator Abetz said a short time ago, although we do not have the final corrected Hansard proof. When I asked about the some 400 people, nearly 10 per cent of the workforce of the national broadcaster, who have lost their jobs, Senator Abetz said 'Nobody has lost their job'—such extraordinary delusion. Confronted with a national uproar—and I attended huge and very well-attended rallies in Sydney and Melbourne over the weekend—you have frontbench colleagues starting their dopey little petitions. I should say that 'Don't read the comments' is generally considered to be the first rule of the internet, but for Mr Pyne's petition I would say that you could suspend that rule for the purpose of looking at how people have treated Mr Pyne's initiative to start a petition condemning the government for its own policy, which presumably he voted for around the cabinet table. We have got National Party MPs demanding that the cuts not happen in their backyards and Senator Abetz saying it is just not happening and that nobody has lost their jobs.

This is the Liberal approach: that it just does not exist. You would not be wanting to follow Liberal MP advice if you were seeking help crossing the road, would you? Just pretend the traffic is not there. Read the press statement. We have said clearly here in black and white that there is no traffic. I do not expect that this speech is going to pierce the powerful shroud of delusion that coalition MPs—Liberals and Nationals—have shrouded themselves with. Question time, clearly, is not the place where that is going to happen. Press conferences will not do it.

I think the coalition has thrown a very serious challenge down to the people of Australia. You may believe that Prime Minister Abbott did not make a black and white commitment not to attack the national broadcaster. You may believe that nobody is going to lose their jobs as a result. But the fact is that it is pretty bloody obvious to the rest of us that that is exactly what is occurring in front of us. The challenge that you have thrown down is not to forget, as we run towards the 2016 election, that across the multiple fronts on which you have attacked treasured national institutions, asylum seekers, the renewable energy industry and some of the most vulnerable quarters of our population that we will remember the role that you have played in attacking our treasured national broadcasters.

Of course these entities could always be more efficient, and that is nowhere in contention. What has been happening in recent years is that, as the ABC finds internal efficiencies, it has been shifting the way that it delivers content to try and meet the way that people are demanding content, whether that be online platforms or wherever. And now, what we have seen is an Australian government attacking the national broadcaster, not in search of efficiencies but hunting down an entity that you do not believe is on Team Australia—however the hell you conceive of that. This will not be forgotten. This will be remembered, and I think your delusion will be exposed either in this parliament or at the ballot box.

Question agreed to.