The future of the ABC has been occupying the minds of politicians of all persuasions recently, for a variety of reasons. But with the welcome news that the ALP will introduce a five-year funding model and restore indexation if it wins office in 2022, is the national broadcaster becoming a major election issue or a political football? Greg Wilesmith reports.
Five Year Funding – Labor Pledge
By Greg Wilesmith / 3 December 2021
ABC Alumni applauds the decision of the Labor Party to introduce a five-year funding model for the ABC and SBS if it were to win government.
ABC Alumni urges the Coalition to match that commitment and to reverse the funding cuts it has imposed since 2014.
Labor says five-year funding would “bolster the independence and stability of the national broadcasters as a guard against political interference in Australia’s democratic institutions.”
The “political interference” charge pointedly echoes this recent statement by ABC Chair Ita Buttrose. She was protesting against the attempt by Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg to set up a Senate committee inquiry into the ABC’s complaints handling process, in competition with the ABC’s own independent inquiry.
Labor has already committed to reversing the Coalition’s indexation pause, which stripped $83.7 million from the ABC’s budget over three years from 2019. The ALP says it will “review options for delivering a greater level of financial stability and certainty to the national broadcasters to safeguard against arbitrary ideological cuts and political interference.”
ABC Alumni would be keen to understand what those “options” might be? Fully restoring $83.7 million in the ABC’s base budget would be a great start. But the sad fact is indexation alone won’t be anywhere near enough to ‘stabilise’ the ABC after a decade of swingeing funding cuts. The result has been organisational disfunction, programming cuts and many rounds of redundancies.
As for preventing “political interference”, what mechanisms does Labor have in mind to prevent influence being exerted? The Rudd government instituted new rules for appointing SBS and ABC Board members, which in theory would have prevented them being chosen for their political leanings rather than their managerial competence.
Unfortunately, the system has been honoured more in the breach than the observance by coalition governments since 2013 – though the Prime Minister’s “captain’s pick”, Ita Buttrose, has proved to be a formidable defender of the ABC’s independence. Will Labor commit to a genuinely non-partisan appointments process?
Labor has clearly decided to make the ABC and the SBS an election issue and is using the financial plight of the broadcasters as a fundraising tool, asking members by email: “Will you donate $20 to our ‘Save the ABC’ campaign fund and help fund our campaign to save the ABC at the next election?”
Unsurprisingly Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has attacked the shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland, claiming that Labor’s donations campaign is itself undermining the ABC’s independence.
“The ABC needs to be completely free of any bias or political alignment,” Mr Fletcher told the Nine newspapers. “This curious action by the shadow communications minister should be of concern to any Australian who cares about the ABC’s objectivity and political independence.”
Which is a bit rich, coming from a minister whose political party’s official policy is the complete privatisation of the ABC.
But the ALP’s use of the ABC for fundraising almost guarantees that it will become a political football once again. ABC Alumni would welcome the prospect of a serious debate during the coming election campaign about the functions and funding of the ABC and the SBS. Will we get it? Don’t hold your breath.
Greg Wilesmith is a Walkley Award-winning journalist, producer and writer. He’s a former ABC Middle East Correspondent and “Foreign Correspondent” producer and executive producer, and has held executive positions in ABC News and Current Affairs, Policy and Program Development, and National Programs.