Senate debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2016


Australian Broadcasting Corporation

7:40 pm

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

A big issue for me and many of the people I talk to throughout rural and regional Victoria is the concern about the lack of local content in media programming, particularly in their local ABCs. The ABC used to be the benchmark in country areas for local news, current affairs and for many locally produced programs which are sadly now gone.

Since 1 July 1932, when the ABC radio first came on air, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation—created by this parliament—has played an integral and essential role in in serving communities from all corners of the Australian federation. The evolution of a diverse but cohesive Australian polity contributed significantly to the creation of a distinctive Australian identity and has been a critical guarantor of the quality and strength of Australian democracy.

The ABC's charter states the broadcaster shall:

Contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community.

It is wonderful tonight to actually have the ABC showcasing and speaking about their obligations to the wider Australian community, and to hear once again the rhetoric by their managing director Mark Scott about the ABC's commitment to pursuing regional local content.

Over the course of the time that I have been in this place I have heard continually that the reason for the restriction of the ABC, and the retraction of their services, is budgetary restraints. Budgetary constraints are the reason there has been an increasing lack of local content and the reason programming is now centred on our capital cities. Let's get real, Mr Scott. Out of a total budget of a whopping billion dollars, the ABC in its wisdom allocates just $24.6 million to the provision of services across rural and regional Australia for the radio services. That is less than two per cent of the total budget of the ABC.

Older Australians lament to me that the ABC used to be a strong local identity, one they relied on for their news, which was reported to them by locally based, knowledgeable reporters. And our local ABC presenters still attempt to live up to that cultural tradition, but the expectation is becoming increasingly difficult as their footprint as local radio providers is being increased and increased over time with a decrease in people and infrastructure for them to actually do their job.

I know it is not just the ABC that has virtually pulled out of local coverage. The commercial TV stations have slashed television news coverage dramatically over decades, closing news bureaus throughout rural and regional areas. The commercial sector is also now crying out for media reform, which may mean the removal of the reach rule and the three-out-of-four ownership laws, which I would argue should not occur without being accompanied by a suite of regulatory options that protect the provision of locally produced content.

As part of a suite these may include, for instance, licencing provisions which enshrine locally produced content, ensuring that our ACMA regulations are clear about our communities' expectations about what broadcasters should and should not be providing as consumption, and amending the Broadcasting Services Act. I think until the conversions of the media platforms actually occur there is a significant gap not only in the provision of internet out there in the regions—that may allow regional Australians to access their news, current affairs, entertainment, information and weather in an appropriate and individualised and local way—but also there are cultural issues out there about who has access to the internet, how they use it and how often et cetera. So, until full conversion does occur, there do need to be some mechanisms to ensure that rural and regional Australians have access to information that is locally produced and locally relevant.

That is exactly why I introduced my private senator's bill, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Advocacy) Bill 2015. That is to deal with the ABC. Obviously, it is up to Minister Fifield to examine ways that he can look after local content but also ensure that our commercial providers in the regions are commercially viable. As a result of my private senator's bill, the workings of the ABC in regional areas have now been referred to the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee for inquiry and reporting. We will be conducting inquiries right around Australia over coming months. Submissions do not close until the 26th of this month, so I encourage anybody out there who has an interest in this area to get submissions into the secretariat as soon as you can. We would love to hear your views.

With the expected changes in media law, the regional media landscape is about to change forever. Regional Australia needs the ABC to rise to the occasion and provide serious commitment, not just rhetoric, and resources to regional Australia in a climate that is now even more tenuous for our communities. The ultimate aim should be to fulfil the specific role that public broadcasters are created for and to be an ABC for all Australians. It is interesting to note the ABC's own comments on this issue from its annual report in 1997. It stated:

Regional Services embodies the ABC's commitment to localism and to providing services which respond to the needs of the diverse State regional and rural audiences throughout Australia.

This commitment was reinforced in the Mansfield Review which confirmed the importance of the ABC 'maintaining a regional presence' and providing 'programming with a regional focus'.

So what has actually happened? Twenty years on from those comments, most of the localism which the ABC so proudly proclaimed is no more, with a number of regional newsrooms closed or severely downsized. The ABC, many could say, has lost its way. It needs to re-embrace its sense of purpose.

I think it was great to hear tonight the managing director's commitment. In a converged media environment, who is going to tell the stories of regional Australia? It is not going to be the huge international corporations. The Netflixes of the world are not going to tell me what has happened in the Bendigo football or netball league grand final. It is going to be a local internet provider that will put that up, and I am going to be able to access that. But, until we get to the point where I have the infrastructure and the know-how to do that, and indeed the entrepreneur to provide that information to me, there has to be a stopgap to ensure that I have locally produced content.

Rural Australia loves its ABC. A survey of ABC audiences has revealed that 91 per cent of those surveyed said that access to local content was important or very important, and 63 per cent of those surveyed accessed local content on their local ABC radio at least weekly. The findings of this research lead to a number of conclusions. Locally produced content is clearly important to regional Australians. We run our businesses by it. We interact with our communities by it. We understand who we are by it. It is somebody from our community talking about our community to our community. We do not want that coming out of Sydney or Melbourne. ABC local radio and online services are important components of the media mix in regional Australia. That is what that research shows us.

In estimates in 2013 the ABC stated that it had 'an enduring relationship with rural and regional communities and an unrivalled commitment to providing news and information for and from regional Australia' and that that was all part of its charter obligations. A commitment to rural and regional communities that have been so loyal to the ABC for so long is being given little consideration as budgets are drawn up in Sydney or Melbourne with city audiences and ratings—which I keep hearing every estimates, from a public broadcaster. Ratings are somehow more important than ensuring that my communities get the essential information they need to run their businesses, live their lives and connect. The regions should not be expected just to tag along with this. We need only go to some of the celebrity—shall I say—wage packets across the ABC to see that millions of dollars are being spent on ratings, when I would like a few more local radio stations opened.

The ABC does not need to and should not concentrate on ratings. Leave that to the big commercial networks that have the finances to compete for international cricket, tennis, netball or football matches. Women's sport, so long neglected by all of the networks, is, I am glad to say, finally being recognised for the top spectacle that it is. Go the Southern Stars, the Matildas and the great Diamonds! Let us expose these top athletes to more radio and television time on the ABC. The audiences love it. Back in the day, I loved getting up on a Sunday morning to watch the Australian netball team—because no-one else would show it. Now they are getting the money they need to develop their sport from commercial broadcasters because the ABC gave them the chance. Leave the cricket to the commercials. Give women's sport a chance. I hope that the new CEO, Michelle Guthrie, renews the ABCs commitment to rural and regional Australia.

Senate adjourned at 19:50