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A friend of the ABC...

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 1 Sep 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (22:08):  

While not necessarily essential for physical survival, I believe that an independent, quality, public broadcaster—free from commercial influence—is essential for the survival of our own quintessentially Australian culture and to provide the reliable, accurate information which is the currency of democracy.

That is an excerpt from my first speech to the Senate, delivered in August 2011. I went on to say:

I watch with concern as many of the qualities of the ABC we fought for in the 1990s are now under threat by decisions that are being made in 2011.

Exchange 2011 for 2014 and the situation is now even worse.

My advocacy for strong, independent, properly-funded public broadcasting has been ongoing for 20 years. In the late 1990s I fought passionately to save the ABC from vicious attacks and funding cuts from the Howard government, who had been elected on a lie that they would not cut the funding of the ABC. Within months of gaining office, they cut $50 million from the ABC and commissioned a review to cut further. The Mansfield review, on the contrary, found that Australians valued their public broadcaster to such an extent that would make commercial corporations envious.

But here we go again, and this time the cuts will prove to be so vicious and so ideologically driven that John Howard's attempts will look like a mere trim. Prior to the 2013 election, the Coalition made a clear and unambiguous promise that ABC funding would not be cut. But many of us feared that was a farce and so it has proved to be. With a one per cent cut to the recurrent funding in the May budget, the Managing Director Mark Scott reported that it will have an effect of $120 million over four years—with more to come. And it seems there is much more to come. So far we have seen the abolition of the Australia Network, and there are reports that the ABC management has been configuring losses of 500 jobs on the back of a further $50 million cut. But there may be even more jobs at risk—some reports suggest that figures as high as $100 million are being floated. Certainly ABC sources are saying, 'The situation is very dire.'

After all, the Institute of Public Affairs—the right-wing think tank that writes much of the Abbott government's policy—had a checklist of 75 radical ideas to transform Australia, and pride of place at No. 50 was: break up the ABC and put out to tender each individual function. Why does this matter? Because information is the currency of democracy. Without reliable, accurate information, how can any citizen be confident that in exercising their vote or in forming their opinions they are exercising a real choice?

Just ask the citizens of Putin's Russia right now. I heard an interview with Keir Giles who spoke on ABC's Radio National this morning. It brought home to me the fundamental importance of having a reliable and accurate media that is independent of government and independent of commercial influences. He was being interviewed by Fran Kelly on Breakfast. She put to him the suggestion that there is definitely a Russian-backed rebel advance in the east of Ukraine. Keir Giles said:

The striking thing about this is how it looks from Moscow…Even the military involvement itself looks entirely different when you get it through the distorting mirror of Russian media treatment. We've been talking to lots of Russian friends and colleagues, civilian and military, over the past few weeks and the striking thing over there that comes through is that they are living in a parallel reality. It looks entirely different, what is going on down there.

…  …  …

They're only now just learning about the scale and extent of the of the Russian involvement there and the nature of the conflict simply because Russian soldiers coming back dead and injured, when they are supposed to have been sitting in their bases.

… …  …

They really don't understand the situation. I'm talking about the ordinary Russians but educated, intelligent ones who are seeing things through the prism of the Russian media. We hear the most bizarre things coming from them. For example, to give you one example: they are convinced there will soon be a full-scale military attack not just on Russia but also on Scotland because Scotland is having its own separatist referendum and obviously England will be wanting to exert its territorial integrity. So the picture that they are getting there is ripe for the kinds of statements about nuclear weapons that President Putin has been issuing lately.

That is a really clear indication of the degree to which we rely on accurate, independent information in a democracy to understand the choices that we really have to make. The concentration of media ownership in Australia has never been more serious, which means that information is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

I am concerned about the South Australian situation. The ABC is extremely important to regional areas of Australia. One of the reasons that I fought so passionately to support the ABC in the 1990s was that the ABC is a voice that can unify Australia. It is our own independent cultural broadcaster. It captures the lived experience and the reality for Australians throughout Australia. It is pluralistic. It actually appeals to and represents the various interest that Australians have, whether it is classical music, local radio, country radio or the Bush Telegraph, which is joining country people to city people so that city people can have an understanding about what it is like to live in rural areas. There are programs about culture, there are programs about religion, there are programs about popular music and there are programs about sport. Every Australian has a favourite aspect of ABC Radio and ABC television.

In the ABC in Adelaide in South Australia, there are 408 staff employed. About 350 of those staff are in Adelaide. Reports indicate up to 150 of those jobs are currently at risk. If those jobs go, the ABC's ability to represent the people of South Australia will be severely curtailed. The recent Lewis Review presents a substantial risk to the size and functionality of the ABC Adelaide operation. ABC Adelaide is one of the last ABC regional offices to retain internal TV production capacity. But the Lewis Review into ABC and SBS efficiency has an executive summary, which was leaked to News Corp and Fairfax and reportedly showed how the ABC could save $70 million through back-of-house efficiencies and by outsourcing production to the private sector.

The Lewis Review makes various recommendations, which—if implemented—would have a direct impact on ABC Adelaide: outsourcing ABC payroll, which is run from Adelaide and employs more than 60 staff; outsourcing other support, administration and commercial functions, which employ an estimated 30 staff;  and the axing of ABC internal TV production, which estimates indicate could directly impact more than 20 jobs and have indirect impacts on a further 30 to 40 jobs. It is not clear at this point what impact on jobs or services may flow from other Lewis Review recommendations, which include selling studios and outside broadcast vans and discontinuing digital radio.

The government and the public are already getting more from less when it comes to ABC output. In 1996, the ABC budget accounted for approximately 0.44 per cent of total government expenditure. By 2012, this had fallen to around 0.28 per cent of total government expenditure. In the 1980s, the ABC employed 6,000 staff. Now it is just 4,600, which is a 23 per cent reduction. Among 18 major western countries, Australia has the fifth lowest level of funding for public broadcasting. Our public broadcaster, considering the range of services and platforms it provides to the Australian public, is lean and mean. Funding to the ABC and SBS is only 50 per cent of the average funding in comparable countries, yet the quality is still there. That is, the quality of Radio National, the debate, the discussion and the information that is available there. The quality of the programs that we are able to see that are produced in Australia on ABC television are still so extremely good, despite those efficiencies.

The cuts and savings we have so far heard about are just the beginning. My colleague Senator Scott Ludlam has made an order for the production of documents, asking the Minister for Communications to publish the secret Lewis Efficiency Review. The minister was due to provide the review by today, but it was not done. Again, we see secrecy. Again, we see that information is the currency of democracy. We need to have that information so that we know what is going on in Australia. That is why public broadcasting is so important.

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