Senate debates

Tuesday, 7 February 2017


Australian Broadcasting Corporation

7:35 pm

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

I rise to speak tonight about the failure, once again, of the ABC to service rural and regional Australians, an issue I have canvassed many times in this place. Over many years we have witnessed a systematic deresourcing of services to our regional communities, and the quality of rural journalism itself is suffering as a result. Right now    88 per cent of ABC jobs are located in urban areas. Of course I speak about the decision by the ABC board in December 2016 to not renew its short-wave transmission radio service contract, resulting in the short-wave service being cut off last week. That is, sadly, reflective of the corporation's failure to serve its rural and regional audiences.

Over summer this decision has caused widespread concern and distress throughout the Northern Territory and beyond. Let's not forget that many of our Pacific neighbours, including Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, also accessed this service prior to its termination. The reported savings for the ABC's $1 billion-a-year budget is $1.9 million—less than 0.2 per cent of the corporation's annual budget. This is an organisation which paid 176 executives over $1.6 million last year in bonuses. This is at what cost to the farmers, workers, rangers, truckies, grey nomads, commercial fishermen and regional and remote Territorians who utilise this service?

Most concerning is that there is no evidence that in making this decision there was any meaningful effort by the ABC to engage with the Northern Territory community, industry or government to assess the impact the removal of the service may have or to understand how Territorians who do not live in Darwin live and work.

Meeting the needs of rural and regional Australians as a broadcaster needs more than glossy photos in the annual report, board visits to rural towns once a year or expensive celebrations in towns like Yackandandah. The ABC is cherished by rural and regional Australians. It is often our primary source of high-quality news, current affairs and weather. It is our emergency service communication provider. But this latest decision once again highlights that the glossy image is not backed up by consistent engagement with our communities.

Last week I travelled to Darwin and met with the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association, and heard about the detrimental impact the ABC's decision is having on pastoralists and workers across the Territory. Ms Hayes, the CEO, expressed concern that the ABC had failed to identify how many Territorians utilised its shortwave service prior to making a determination to axe the service.

The Northern Territory has around 220 pastoralists, on huge stations, collectively covering over 50 per cent of the Territory's landmass. These farmers use shortwave radio as their primary communication tool around their homesteads, and when they are out in the bush or doing 500-kilometre bore runs on any given day. They are only using a UHF radio service. They cannot text back to the station. They cannot use the satellite. There is no other way. So they are often out there alone, without any understanding of what is going on in the broader world.

Post the decision, I am encouraged that concerned Territorians have made submissions to the Senate inquiry into my private member's ABC bill into rural and regional advocacy. They have registered their disappointment with the ABC's deeply flawed decision. Mr and Mrs McBean, who own Bonalbo Cattle Company, have owned and lived on cattle stations in the Northern Territory since 1964 and have relied on shortwave transmissions. The ABC shortwave radio has given them a lot of joy and helped them through emergency situations over a long period of time. Those who have travelled across the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia, the Simpson Desert in the Territory, and the Great Victoria Desert in South Australia and Western Australia, and those remote areas in our country have relied on the ABC shortwave radio program. It is a similar issue for our commercial and recreational fishing fleet, and indeed our Indigenous community in remote areas. Sometimes our radio can be sporadic and hard to hear, but the shortwave is clear as a bell.

It is simply not good enough. The vast solution, which the ABC said will replace it, is no solution at all. If they had consulted, they would know that. It is a fix solution. It is fine, unless you are in a ute, unless you are on a fishing trawler, unless you are actually moving out and about in remote and regional communities. It is simply not good enough. I urge all Territorians—the committee is coming to Darwin so you will be able to lodge your submission and make sure the ABC management and board are very aware that their lack of consultation has had severe impacts on your ability to access their services, and it is your right as a citizen in this country to have great access to the ABC.