Senate debates

Monday, 21 June 2021

Matters of Public Importance

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

4:52 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Iinform the Senate that, at 8.30 am today, 28 proposals were received. In accordance with standing order 75, the question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter from Senator Rice proposing a matter of public importance was chosen.

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

Members of the Morrison Government have called for ads on the ABC and for Australia's national youth broadcaster, Triple J, to be sold. The Senate agrees that the public broadcaster should remain ad free and that Triple J should not be privatised.

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 discussion. With the concurrence of the Senate, I ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:53 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to contribute to this debate. The reason is that last week I became very concerned sitting here and listening to the contribution in this place by Senator McGrath. In an absolute spray and attack on our public broadcaster, it called for Triple J to be privatised and sold off. Senator McGrath called for it to be advertised and sold off on Gumtree. He called for ads on the ABC and made a number of other veiled attacks on our national broadcaster.

We know that this government has had the knives out for the public broadcaster from day dot, right back to when Tony Abbott promised no cuts to the ABC, only to, 12 months later, bring in massive cuts to the public broadcaster. It has never stopped since then. In the national Liberal Party room, only a couple of sitting weeks ago, we heard members of this government standing up and attacking the chairperson of the ABC and attacking the hardworking staff of our public broadcaster. Then, of course, there's Mr Kroger, former president of the Liberal Party, going on Sky News and demanding that Ita Buttrose, the chair of the ABC, go.

These attacks are absolutely unfounded. They are the stuff of a boys' locker room. They are petty. It sends a message to some of the knuckle draggers in the Liberal Party that they might want to hear, to beat up on the public broadcaster, to beat up another woman in charge, to beat up on facts, news and public interest journalism. But what we have now is members in this place, members of the government, senior members of the team in this Senate, calling for Triple J to be sold off. Is this the platform that the Morrison-Joyce government are going to be taking to this election? What does Mr Joyce think about selling off Triple J, putting ads on the ABC and this attack on the public broadcaster? Does Mr Barnaby Joyce, the new Deputy Prime Minister, think that regional Australia want to have ads on their ABC? I think not. What's next, paywalling iView? That's where this leads. What you've got from this government is cut after cut after cut, attack after attack after attack. Then, once the ABC is struggling, they say, 'We'll just sell it off, like everything else.'

There's going to be an election either at the end of this year or early next year, and the Morrison-Barnaby Joyce government are telling the electorate that they want to sell the ABC and fill it full of advertising, paywall ABC iView, flog off Triple J. I don't think Australians are going to be very happy about this at all. Australians love our national broadcaster. When they need trustworthy news and analysis, when they need information in times of crisis—what do they do? I'll tell you what: they don't turn on Sky News. They don't open up their Murdoch rag. They turn on the radio or they turn on the TV or they go to ABC online and they hear, directly, what they need to hear from the trusted source that is the national broadcaster.

We know that during the summer bushfires back in 2019-20 Australians relied so much on the information that was coming from the national broadcaster, in terms of those emergency warnings. What does this government want to do? In between a warning about a bushfire they're going to run an ad, probably from Harvey Norman. In the midst of this pandemic, who have the Australian people and the community turned to, to know what's really going on with COVID-19, the vaccine rollout, the safety information, the health information about this health pandemic? Thank goodness they weren't listening to members of the National Party or the Liberal Party, who don't even believe the science and the health advice, often. No, they've been turning to the ABC and listening to Dr Swan, because they trust the information that is coming from the public broadcaster.

As we move towards the election, let's be very clear. If you want to protect the public broadcaster, if you want to save the ABC, if you love Triple J, then you have to vote this mob out. The attacks are not even veiled anymore. They are blatant. They are unhinged. The personal vitriol thrown towards Ita Buttrose, as the chairperson of the ABC, from men in the Liberal-National Party is just appalling. Is there a strong woman in leadership that this government doesn't like—another woman to tear down, just like they did to Christine Holgate? Now they want to do it to Ita Buttrose. They can't stand strong women and they can't stand facts, information and the public broadcaster having the support that it does from the Australian community.

Is Barnaby Joyce, now having been elected as the Deputy Prime Minister, going to go around regional Australia spruiking this platform advocated by Senator McGrath—ads on the ABC, a paywall on ABC iview, the selling of ABC radio stations to the highest bidder and the filling of our emergency news with advertising? There is a reason this government doesn't like the ABC. It's because it doesn't like scrutiny. There is a reason the government doesn't like the public broadcaster. It's because it doesn't like being asked tough questions. We know because every time the Prime Minister gets a tough question from somebody in the press gallery or from a journalist out in regional Australia, he attacks them and dismisses the question: 'Oh, that's just the Canberra bubble.' No, it's a question about your ability as a leader of this country, Prime Minister. It's your responsibility, if you want the top job, to answer the tough questions. Rather than being upfront, rather than telling the Australian people what he really wants to do and rather than being accountable and transparent, the Prime Minister lets the attack dogs in the Liberal and National parties run riot about the ABC.

If you want to protect the public broadcaster, if you love the ABC, if you think that regional news needs to be independent, if you love Australian music, if you love knowing what's really going on and if you want access to emergency services information instantly, when it's needed and at hand, then you've got to protect the ABC, and that means voting this mob out. It means making sure they can't get their claws into any more of our public broadcaster. The Liberal and National parties like to kick the ABC and use it as a punching bag. Thank God there is such a strong will within the Australian community to protect our public broadcaster, to protect news and to support and demand accountability, and thank goodness for Ita Buttrose, who is standing strong in the face of such disgusting vitriol from members of the Liberal Party and from members of the National Party—from members of Mr Morrison and Mr Joyce's team.

You might think the Liberal party bullyboys have got their way with Ita. I'll tell you what. She eats men like you for breakfast, mate, and she won't be cowering under your attacks on the ABC.

5:03 pm

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

Triple j should be sold and there should be ads on the ABC. It's simple. When we get to the model of the ABC, it's very important to understand the history of where the Australian Broadcasting Corporation comes from. From its commencement back in 1932 as the Australian Broadcasting Commission and, further back in history, its commencement in 1928 as the National Broadcasting Service, it was established to fill a gap in the market. We're talking about a period of Australian history when the medium was just emerging. The cricket scores weren't broadcast live from Lords; they were actually sent by telegram. The radio wireless operators would read out the telegrams as if they were live scores being replayed from London. That was 90 years ago. The media market has moved on since then. Since then, there has been invented this wonderful thing called the internet, which means every device like the smartphone I'm holding is a device for us to seek news, to be a purveyor of news, to transmit news and to give an informed opinion on the world.

During a particularly boring part of the Senate sitting while the Greens were speaking before, I was reading The Times and The Daily Telegraph online, seeing the latest that's happening overseas. That's very important. We find this to be a very patronising approach from those on the Left, who think there has to be a taxpayer funded national broadcasting service. There actually doesn't have to be a taxpayer funded national broadcasting service. In my home state of Queensland, back in the 1920s, we had taxpayer owned butcher shops. Even in the town of Babinda, there was a government owned pub. Society has moved on since then. The failure of the ABC and the board, including the chair, is to understand how Australians get their news and that there is a plurality in the media market. For the ABC to constantly and consistently portray themselves as being the sole arbiter of all that is right and just in this world is just an example of this poor, sanctimonious approach they take to people who live outside the Canberra bubble.

What the ABC fail to understand, especially when they don't understand those on the centre-Right of politics, is that I don't want a right-wing ABC. I don't want a left-wing ABC. If there is to be an ABC, it should be an impartial national broadcaster. But, sadly, the ABC consistently fail to understand that people voted for Scott Morrison as Prime Minister. People like Scott Morrison as Prime Minister. The ABC just don't get that. When I ask the question, 'Name one conservative commentator or journalist on the ABC,' the Left go feral and say, 'Why are you asking that question?' It's because consistently there are no conservative commentators or journalists on the ABC. I just want one conservative commentator on the ABC—just one. Give me one. The fact that the ABC consistently fail to do that shows to me that they are snubbing those quiet, aspirational Australians. So the question must be: why should the taxpayers pay for it? Why should the taxpayers pay for a national broadcasting service that fails to consistently appreciate how most Australians live their lives?

I'm someone who actually is a fan of the ABC. I like the ABC. I think the ABC should be reformed to save itself. I think we need to sell off the inner-city headquarters, sell off Ultimo, that grand palace that would make a German prince blush, and sell off the headquarters in Brisbane and Sydney and move all of the staff out of the CBDs to suburbs. Queensland would love to see the ABC staff based in Beenleigh or Burpengary or further west to Thargomindah—somewhere like that. It should get out of the CBD. That would help those staff realise that that latte bubble is not how most Australians live.

Secondly, I think there should be a review of the charter and the governing act. There hasn't been a detailed review for some time. That review should look into what the purpose of a taxpayer funded national broadcasting service is and, if there is to be one, should there be ads on it? I think there should be ads on the ABC. There are ads on the SBS. Certainly the quality of programming on the SBS has not been diluted in any way or form. But, also, Triple J should be sold. It goes to why the ABC was set up in the first place. It was set up to fill a gap in the market. Triple J is, by all accounts, I'm told, a successful radio station that garners a particular demographic, especially those who are 15 to 25. Funnily enough, those between the ages of 15 and 25 have quite a lot of money to spend. So you'd find that advertisers would be very keen to advertise on Triple J. It could be self-funding. So why don't we just sell it off and let it be self-funded? You will have that quality music that those opposite seem so obsessed with, but it would mean the taxpayers aren't funding Triple J.

The third point on how we should reform the ABC goes to the recruitment of their staff. There are many fine and good people who work at the ABC; I acknowledge that. But there is a groupthink that has taken over that organisation, and it has got particularly worse. These are staff who work together—they're lovely people, but they think the same. They think Scott Morrison should not be Prime Minister. It's this Scott Morrison derangement syndrome. They can't believe that Bill Shorten didn't win the last election and that Scott Morrison is somehow Prime Minister. They've never, ever come to terms with that. We see that most particularly with some of the recent programs. I will mention Four Corners. A couple of weeks ago, Four Corners attacked the Prime Minister because he has a friend who has some—I would say—wacky views. The Prime Minister was very strong in condemning the views of QAnon. But what the ABC failed to mention in the program was that one of their key witnesses is a serial conspiracy theorist who has twice been detained by the fixated persons unit of the Queensland police and admits he took part in the TV program to politically damage Scott Morrison.

So here is the ABC allowing, quite frankly, a nut job to go on their so-called premier current affairs program and attack the Prime Minister. Of course, the ABC didn't say, 'Oh, and this person has been twice detained by the Queensland police because they're a nut job.' Rather, they put them up on a pedestal. What the ABC fails to understand is that those on the centre-right of politics are sick of you. It is very dangerous for you in the ABC, because why should the taxpayers of this country continue to fund an organisation that continually derides and sells down those of us who have centre-right views? I can tell you that the thought leaders in the centre-right community around Australia are also sick of the ABC. The ABC needs to reform itself, and the challenge is for Ita Buttrose to understand that the centre-right of politics is continually and increasingly questioning the role of the ABC in modern society and questioning whether there is a need for the ABC.

In my maiden speech, I said that, if the ABC doesn't reform itself, it should be privatised, but that there should be a rural and regional broadcasting service. I repeat that today. I think it is time for the government to look at whether the ABC should be halved—whether we should have a rural and regional broadcasting service and then sell off the rest, if the ABC won't reform itself. On behalf of the taxpayers of Australia, who put billions of dollars a year into this organisation: we want value for our money and we're not getting it at the moment.

5:13 pm

Photo of Marielle SmithMarielle Smith (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, rise to speak on this matter of public importance. I wasn't quite sure, just then, if I was sitting here in the Senate or in a Young Liberals branch meeting or even in Senator McGrath's living room, listening to him shout at his television. Perhaps it's best to let Senator McGrath's contribution speak for itself, rather than me unpacking it line by line.

The ABC has a long and proud history at the heart of the Australian media landscape. It is consistently one of our most trusted institutions, with 72 per cent of Australians agreeing that the ABC is their most trusted source of news and current affairs. During the depths of the COVID pandemic, 61 per cent of Australians tuned into its digital platforms, showing that when accurate, timely information really matters Australians turn to the ABC. It's an incredibly valued and impactful institution. Its flagship current affair programs have shaped news coverage and driven significant policy change. Children's content, like Bluey, has become an international phenomenon.

Despite the assertions of some of those opposite, the ABC is not some ivory tower in the inner cities. In regional Australia, including regional South Australia, it is more important than ever. Often the ABC is still the only provider of vital local content. It keeps Australians connected with their communities and the broader nation, as shown by their weekly reach among regional Australians being 49 per cent.

The ABC also saves lives in times of disaster. We've seen it time and time again, and we saw it also during the Black Summer bushfires in my state. South Australians tuned into the ABC to get the vital and critical information they needed to keep their families safe. If that's not relevance to regional South Australians, I don't know what is.

Despite the clear importance the ABC holds for Australia and Australians, including the regional South Australians that Senator McGrath was talking about before, it has been subject to burdensome efficiency measures and ideologically driven cuts under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison/Truss-Joyce-McCormack-Joyce governments—I think I've got them all there. In 2020, the ABC were facing an $83 million cut in funding, forcing them to operate on increasingly fine margins and putting enormous strain on their staff, systems and programs. I sat there in estimates as the minister tried to deny they were making these cuts, but they were; the cuts were in black and white, and they were confirmed by the CFO at the time. Those cuts meant that 250 staff could be facing the sack. There was an enormous amount of talent, passion and knowledge on the line for our national broadcaster. Of course, it's not just staffing which is under threat. When the Liberals enforce these brutal cuts, it's programs like the flagship 7.45 am radio news bulletin, which was cut after 81 years on air. Many other iconic programs have faced reduced episodes and resourcing. In every one of the eight long years that have passed since Tony Abbott's false promise of 'no cuts to the ABC', this Liberal government has embarked on brutal cuts which leave Australians with less and less service from their loved and cherished national broadcaster.

Senator McGrath has come in here today and openly called for the ABC to be privatised. He has openly made that call. It's not veiled, it's not hidden; that's what he wants to see—a member of the Liberal government, quite high up on the Senate ticket, if my memory serves me correctly, calling for the ABC to be privatised. These are calls which go deep within their ranks.

But let's imagine if the ABC were privatised and their board were suddenly responsible for delivering a profit to shareholders. Would they still broadcast the important emergency information, ad free, that keeps Australians safe? Would they invest in valuable Australian made TV over cookie-cutter television content produced overseas? Would they still have local journalists in regional areas or, like some of the commercial networks have done, would they just have centrally produced news grabs filmed in other states? A privatised ABC would be a disaster. It would be a disaster for all Australians.

Of course, something that is often lost in these discussions about the future of the ABC is triple J and how these absurd calls from Senator McGrath to see it privatised would impact young Australians. It's no real surprise to me that these calls to privatise triple J are coming from those who haven't been particularly relevant to triple J's target market for several decades. Triple J is the incubator of unique and experimental Australian music. South Australian artists like George Alice and the most recent Unearthed High winners, Teenage Joans, all featured on triple J, leading to broader commercial success. It's not just those on Unearthed; it's also the other Australian musicians, bands and artists who get that valuable airtime on triple J which leads to other commercial opportunities which wouldn't have been there otherwise.

And it's not just music. Triple J is also home to exceptional reporting through the Hack program, which is reported, produced and broadcast by young people for young people, covering topics which impact young Australians—Australians who often feel ignored by this Liberal government and often feel ignored by the other networks. In just the past few months, the team at Hack has produced stories on consent reforms; the failure of online dating platforms to address sexual harassment and assault; and in-depth reporting on how the federal budget impacts young people. These stories matter to young people. Having relevant content produced for them and by them matters to young people, and, without triple J, it is unlikely they would be able to access it. Particularly under a privatised Triple J it's hard to see how this content would continue or how this support for our budding Australian artists would continue. Very few institutions in Australia have the reach and impact amongst young Australians that Triple J can boast. Most of us would have tuned into it when we were young. Maybe I'll reflect on that, looking around the chamber. Certainly some of us would have tuned into Triple J when we were younger.

An honourable senator: I did.

There we go—a broad cross-section of this chamber tuned into Triple J when we were young. So shouldn't we stand up for them now, when they continue to provide that vital service to young Australians?

Of course, it's not just the youth who would be affected but kids, too. Ads on the ABC would be a disaster for the children who tune in afternoon after afternoon. Do we really want our kids exposed to ads while they're watching Play School or when they put on The Gruffalo after school and having a snack, being exposed to advertising for anything from junk food, games, toys and gambling to ads from the private sector that we can't necessarily control? Corporate advertising on the ABC would be a slippery slope, and our kids could be some of the most affected.

The ABC produces some of Australia's—actually the world's—best children's programming. For countless families across Australia, as in my household, Kangaroo Beach and Bluey are absolute staples. I'm grateful that my three-year-old can turn on the TV and find age-appropriate, educational and engaging content. It's hard to imagine any of these shows getting the investment required and, therefore, the reach if it weren't for the ABC. Developmentally appropriate content on television is absolutely critical. It's particularly critical for vulnerable kids who don't have access to some of the commercial content, who can't afford Netflix and who can't afford other pay-per-view providers. It matters to those kids. It matters that that's on the ABC.

Of course, it's not just our ABC which is under attack from this government. Community television in my state of South Australia and in Melbourne and Geelong is also being systematically attacked by the Liberal government. Community television is incredibly important to South Australians and Victorians. It contributes so much to our communities, but it's facing a rapidly approaching end, thanks to this Liberal government. During the pandemic, community TV was there for South Australians and Victorians, especially people of faith in my state, who couldn't go to their services because they were closed down due to the pandemic. Community TV provides incredible training opportunities and job opportunities. I've spoken to people from Channel 44 who got their start as volunteers at that station and were then able to use that to get work commercially. Instead of valuing this asset, the Liberals want to kick it off the air. They want to kick it off the air when it costs them nothing to keep it on the air, and they have no plans to replace it. They're kicking community television off the air to replace it with static. It is absolutely unacceptable. It's an ideologically driven attack on community TV from a government and a minister who hold a callous disrespect for those who make it and watch it, just as they do for the ABC. They attack precious community assets that matter to Australians, and we won't stand for it.

5:23 pm

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

In making this speech today, I'd like to dedicate it to that wonderful organisation, ABC Friends, and particularly to my mate in Western Australia Margo Webb, who recently chased me down and gave me the forms and information to become a 'friend' of the ABC. She also got me to become an official member of an organisation here in parliament which I'd assumed I was already part of, which was the Parliamentary Friends of the ABC.

I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time chatting to a couple of regional heads of the ABC Friends organisation who were in the building for a Parliamentary Friends of the ABC event. I put to them some of the ideas that have been circulated recently in relation to the future of our national broadcaster, particularly the idea that has been floated by some in the Liberal Party and in the national spaces that it be separated and that a rural and regional broadcaster be created and the rest of it sold off. The president of the New South Wales regional chapter, I think it was, was quite angry at that idea, and I was quite surprised. I said: 'Why? What would be the problem with that for you?' She said, 'One of the greatest challenges that we as country people have is that the people in the cities don't always seem to understand us and we, being isolated in rural and regional communities, don't get the opportunity to connect and engage with what is happening in metro and other areas of the country. So the fact that the ABC serves both the rural and regional communities and the metro communities allows it to act as a bridge between the two and ensure a continuation of shared understanding.' She said to me that it was actually quite offensive to assume that any particular content on the ABC wouldn't be relevant to rural and regional communities because actually people in rural and regional communities like to know what is going on in other parts of the country too. Then we had a very interesting conversation about how certain political parties in this place seem to function to reduce rural and regional identities and communities down to a flat parody of what they actually are, for political purposes. I said to her: 'Well, enough about the National Party. Let's get back to the ALP and to the ABC more broadly.'

On the question of our national broadcaster, I've got to say that I love it. There are so many people in our community who feel the same. As somebody who came to Australia from the UK—I know I hide my accent well!—it was something that allowed me to begin to develop my identity as an Australian person and to connect with the community that I'd joined. I remember so fondly, obviously, Play School and all of that. Also, for anybody watching along at home, there was a series the ABC did when I was a kid called Ace Lightning, which was an early attempt to meld together a children's program and a computer animated thing, which I absolutely loved and rewatched recently and realised how utterly terrible the graphics are by modern standards. But, between that and the educational portions of ABC programming in the morning on the TV, that was it for me, really. I consumed it all, loved it all, and found it an amazing source of knowledge, information and connection to community and to the world.

It struck me, even as a kid, that whether it was listening to a Radio National program at night on the beach in Rockingham and a story about thylacines—I think I was probably eight at the time—or whether it was watching the children's programming in the afternoon or sitting on Pop's knee and watching Lateline when it was technically bedtime, the ABC was somewhere you could go where there wasn't the noise. You could go and engage with the information. Now in this job I have discovered that that is so much the case. If you put the ABC next to any of its commercial equivalents, there's no comparison. Putting aside the gross, horrible stuff that often comes spewing out of a channel like Sky, trying to consume their content is really quite challenging because there are about 14 million things happening on the screen simultaneously and it breaks every five or 10 minutes for an ad session.

Every Australian should be concerned that there are views given oxygen within their government that are not only somewhat questioning of the value of the ABC; they are nakedly hostile to the ABC. They want to cut it up and sell it off. They don't want it to be a thing anymore. They'll come in here and give you all these arguments and clasp their hands behind their backs as though it's a Young Liberals meeting, and talk about the history and all the rest of it. But, if you cut it all down and cut out the noise, what is their problem? Their problem is that sometimes the ABC has the gall to fact-check them. That's the problem. It fact-checks them and it finds out they're speaking nonsense, and then they come in here and have a sad, and they take that sad to the cabinet room and put all these ideological ideas around it and say, 'For these reasons, we've got to cut the thing up and sell it off,' when really it's just that they're annoyed by the fact that they've been fact-checked and called out.

May I suggest that, rather than trying to take the knife to the national broadcaster, a better course of action would be to actually do your homework before you speak, and then this whole thing could be avoided. Senator Hanson-Young, who has done fantastic work in this space and I think is quite fairly regarded as the parliament's fiercest champion for the national broadcaster, has made the observation that Ita Buttrose, the current chair, could eat some of her critics for breakfast. I totally agree—she absolutely should! But, knowing some of her critics, I would suggest that she not do that, because I can't imagine that they would be very good for her health.

An honourable senator: She's a vegan.

Oh, she's a vegan. Okay. Well, then they're safe! Going specifically to the idea of selling off Triple J, Triple J is a fantastic institution. It is often one of the only mediums through which information about public affairs and complex issues in our community are addressed by young people in a way that is relevant to our lives. Programs like Hack are indispensable. Triple J also has the proud honour of being the host of the world's largest experiment in musical democracy, with over three million people participating in the Hottest 100 process every single year. It is a platform that has given space to innumerable artists who make incredible contributions to our cultural life as a community. It absolutely should be preserved and celebrated.

The ABC, as I said at the beginning of my speech, is excellent. It should be celebrated, supported and well funded. This government's taken about $1 billion out of the ABC between 2014 and the 2024 budget. Not only is this money in need of urgent return to the ABC; what is needed is for the proper investment to be made. It's not good enough just to take the ABC back to where it was in 2012. We actually need to see proper investment in our ABC so that it is able to be the dynamic, diverse, relevant and trustworthy public broadcaster that our community loves, needs and wants to see continuing to exist. I thank the chamber.

5:33 pm

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In the first instance I would like to correct the record in one sense, and that is that there are members on this side of the chamber who have listened to Triple J. And I must say, whilst my good friend from Western Australia was giving his wistful remembrances in terms of engagement with the public broadcaster, I thought back to 1991, when I was going through—

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I wasn't born yet!

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

No, you weren't born yet, absolutely! I'd gone through a particularly torrid matter of the heart and was looking for some emotional succour and I spent the day listening to Triple J's Hottest 100. It was 1991. Let me tell you what was on Triple J's Hottest 100 in 1991. No. 1 was 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', by Nirvana. No. 2 was 'Love Will Tear Us Apart', by Joy Division. That wasn't a particularly great song for me to be listening to in that 'State of Mind'. 'Lithium' by Nirvana—it all had a pretty bleak quality, I must say. There was 'Throw Your Arms Around Me' by Hunters and Collectors, 'Tomorrow Wendy', 'How Soon is Now' by the Smiths, 'Blister in the Sun' by Violent Femmes—I've heard that song at many Young Liberals conventions after dark. So there are those of us on this side of the chamber who have engaged with Triple J in the past. I was a fan of Triple J. I'm more likely now to listen to jazz on the ABC after dark, I must say, but I do listen to our public broadcaster.

One point that has been missed in this debate by those on the other side who have spoken on this topic is with respect to how advertisements have assisted one of our great public broadcasters, the SBS, in delivering quality material to the Australian people. SBS's annual Corporate plan 2020-21 says on page 13:

SBS's unique hybrid funding model means that commercial returns may be channelled back into curating Charter-focused content, while continued government funding supports allows for stability and long-term creative ambitions to be realised.

So we have an example of a publicly owned broadcaster that has a hybrid model. There is a degree of advertising on SBS and its charter has not been undermined. Those on the opposite side of the chamber should reflect on the fact that SBS has managed to run ads whilst being true to its charter. It has not undermined its independence. It has not undermined the important public function that it undertakes.

SBS's 2019-20 annual report, at item 1.2A in the financial statement, says that in service delivery, including advertising revenue, SBS generated $114 million in revenue. Isn't that a good thing—that, whilst having the safeguards in place to protect its editorial independence, especially around news and current affairs, it's managed to generate a stream of revenue that has allowed it to produce more content? Isn't that a positive thing? Why do we have to be so negative about commercial realities? Appropriate advertising can generate revenue, which can assist in paying for quality content for the benefit of the Australian people.

SBS has appropriate safeguards in place with respect to advertising. I quote from section 5 of the 2014 code of practice. It says:

SBS may broadcast advertisements and sponsorship announcements that run in total for not more than five minutes in any hour of broadcasting. Revenue from advertisements and sponsorship announcements assists in the funding of programming which fulfils SBS's Charter obligations.

Those opposite haven't mentioned this at all—this hybrid model and its success. SBS hasn't been mentioned by those opposite in the course of this debate because it undermines their argument. This hybrid model works. I quote again from section 5 of the code of practice:

All decisions regarding commercial revenue are subject to the overriding principle that the integrity of the SBS Charter and SBS's editorial independence are paramount. SBS reserves the exclusive right to determine what is broadcast on SBS services.

That's entirely appropriate. The safeguard is there that permits advertising on a public broadcaster, which enables SBS to produce more content, Australian content, for the benefit of the Australian community. What's the problem? It actually works.

Again, we look at the facts. I don't need an ABC fact-checker on this. The ABC, or whoever's listening, you can do your fact-checking on me. On page 75 of the annual report 2020, there is a section dealing with the SBS Ombudsman. This details the complaints, because SBS has a complaint process if you have some concern about ads undermining the editorial independence of SBS.

Let's look at the figures. During 2019-20 there were 34 complaints with respect to accuracy on SBS—not many. And there were 29 complaints with respect to how different programs were classified—again not terribly many, but a few complaints. How many complaints were there about advertising on SBS? There were eight complaints about advertising on SBS, fewer than one a month. So where's the issue? Isn't it a good thing to allow our public broadcasters to generate a stream of revenue which will enable them to produce more Australian based content and actually discharge their service?

The reality of the matter is: there are so many calls made upon us in this place for funding, from so many desirable endeavours, and so many things that we need to address in this place. The track record of advertising on SBS demonstrates that it can work in the context of a public broadcaster. We've seen it work. Eight complaints in 2019-20—that's all there have been. I've been trying to find out how they were resolved to see how many of them went through to ACMA or the different complaints authorities and were assessed and judged. But that's all there were—only eight complaints in the whole year. How many people watch SBS? There were only eight complaints. They could have been eight complaints from one person for all I know. I don't know how many people actually complained. But there's the proof that a hybrid model actually works, and it enables SBS to produce more content for the benefit of the Australian people. Isn't that a good thing? Wouldn't we like to see more women's sport on our public broadcaster? If, in order to get that women's sport on our public broadcaster, there needs to be some advertising or sponsorship, what's wrong with that? SBS has demonstrated that it can work.

We need to be open-minded with respect to funding opportunities for our public broadcasters. They provide an absolutely invaluable service to the Australian community. I can't believe those opposite are not aware of the fact that SBS runs ads. I'm a frequent watcher of SBS—SBS World Movies, a lot of the cultural programming on SBS and current affairs in particular. I assume those opposite are watching SBS, but not one of them in this debate has mentioned advertising on SBS. I can only assume it's because there's some sort of ideological objection to having ads on a public broadcaster, even though it works. So don't come into this place—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President—throwing bricks at those of us on this side of the chamber and accusing us of being ideologues, when you're not prepared to enter into a reasonable discussion about a hybrid funding model which, over the course of quite a few years, has proven to be successful, as demonstrated by the fact that there were only eight complaints during 2019-20 in relation to advertising on SBS.

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

Thank you, Senator Scarr. Senator McCarthy.

5:43 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this matter of public importance. Just to pick up on Senator Scarr's last comments there in terms of SBS and ABC: I've had the opportunity to work at both and I can give a comparison of what it's like. This has to be about whether the Australian parliament supports public broadcasting in this country and in what form it supports public broadcasting. If we look at the history, certainly over the eight years that the coalition government has been in power, there is no doubt that there have been enormous cuts to public broadcasting in this country. The cuts have been exponential, not only with SBS but incredibly so with the ABC. We only have to look at the regional areas of this country. I'm sure all of those members in the other chamber who have electorates in the regional areas of Australia will know how valuable and absolutely vital the public broadcaster is to this country.

We've seen here in the Senate those from regional areas who have joined with us in our battles to stop the cuts to the ABC. Let's look at short-wave, for example, in the Northern Territory. For many, many years we fought—we even had Senator McKenzie join us on this side with Senate inquiries, acknowledging the fact that the public broadcaster is an absolutely vital service. Cutting it, and cutting it completely, in those areas where it reaches remote and regional Australians is having a detrimental impact. Let's acknowledge in the Senate that those cuts have been unfair. When you throw on top of that the pressure of now having to go down the path of advertising on the ABC and you compare the advertising on SBS, there hasn't been an adequate body of work done on that. Ask some of the employees at SBS how they think that organisation is running. I can tell you a few things they tell me. No, having advertising on SBS isn't the panacea that senators opposite would like to think it is. Nor is it an example that you should hold up to say this is why the ABC should be going down that path. That's not good policy, and, yes, it's all about politics.

The Australian parliament has to be better than that. The Australian government has to be better than that. Ask the Australian people what they think. Come to the Northern Territory and find out what people feel in relation to the fact that short-wave has disappeared. It has been gone for nearly five years. Where once we were able to hear when cyclones were coming, we were able to be made aware of road floodings and closures, remote communities, rangers out on their boats and fishos out on the seas were able to tune into the ABC through short-wave, they can no longer do that. Time and time again, I've stood in the Senate to express the importance of the ABC in remote and regional Australia. If you think putting ads on triple J and on ABC programs is the answer, then you're missing the point, as usual.

The public broadcaster is vital in its role as an independent media service not influenced by political or commercial interests. Yet this government wants to see Aussie kids watching advertisements during children's programming and it wants to see commercial influence in ABC news and current affairs. Haven't we seen, just in recent weeks, the complete attack on the ABC over the importance of integrity and reporting? You do not agree with it even now, and then you want to throw in something else to add to the pressures that the organisation is facing. It's hardly surprising, isn't it? We know that this government is on a mission to destroy the public broadcaster. You absolutely are. There is no doubt about what your intentions are. We know that you have form. I've given one example of short-wave in the Northern Territory. There are the cattle stations up there, the truckies who drive the highways and the grey nomads who go along the Stuart Highway and beyond. There's no way they know what's going on, because you removed that. Yes, you can say that the ABC made that decision, but there is a reason why it was forced to make that kind of decision. It's because you lot keep taking, keep taking and keep taking the amount of money that's required to keep a very good public service in this country.

In 2018 the Liberal federal council voted to privatise the ABC. We all know that the Howard government's attempt to privatise ABC international was an abject failure. You remember that one? ABC overseas—yes, you'll probably forget that one, conveniently. Since the coalition came to power in 2014 the ABC has lost $783 million in funding. That's according to a 2020 report into the cumulated impacts of government cuts to the public broadcaster. The report's author said:

The ABC is now operating with the smallest budget since the Howard Government's extraordinary 2% funding cut in its first budget, in 1996, which removed $55 million from the ABC's triennial funding.

Today the ABC has more services, including iView, ABC online and podcasts, yet so much less money. While facing these cuts, the bushfire crisis of summer 2020 added an extra $3 million in emergency broadcasting costs, which had to be absorbed into the budget. We are certainly grateful that they did. The ABC saves lives during emergency times, with journalists in news rooms across the country working tirelessly to get accurate and up-to-date information out. How many senators in this chamber sit on their iPads and sit on their phones and go through the news and check what the ABC is reporting? It's all those journalists and producers out there who are bringing it in here for you.

Objectivity: they are bringing stories from right around the country. All the way up there in Arnhem Land, north-east Arnhem Land, across to the Kimberley, down to Perth, over to Adelaide and across to Victoria, Mildura and Wagga—you name it. ABC journos are bringing this Senate and this country the stories that matter, yet you continuously disrespect that organisation, which is our national organisation as the public broadcaster.

Senators opposite have asked about SBS. Well, SBS certainly does punch above its weight, but, let me tell you, if you're absolutely serious in wanting to know what the workers of SBS and the workers of the ABC think about advertising, then put it to the test. Do your homework. Don't just go in there demanding that advertising take place on the ABC simply because (a) you don't want to give it any more money and (b) you don't like it anyway. That's what this is about, isn't it? It is about politics. It's not about good policy. The journalists, the producers, the staff, the camera crews, the editors—all of the people who work in our ABC newsrooms and ABC offices, from dramas to children's programs—do an exceptional job. This parliament needs to show more respect for all of those people who work for our public broadcasters, the ABC and SBS.

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

Order! The time for the discussion has expired.