The Role and Funding of Radio Australia

Current Issues

The Role and Funding of Radio Australia

E-Brief: Online Only issued 18 September 2000

Dr Kim Jackson, Analysis and Policy
Social Policy Group


The nature and scope of the services provided by Radio Australia have been the subject of some controversy in recent years. The closure of the Cox Peninsula transmitter site and the reduction in services resulting from the 1997-98 Budget decisions have coincided with a period of political instability and conflict in the region that is its main audience. This has led to a revaluation of the importance of its role, culminating in the Government's recent announcement of additional funding over the next three years.

This brief provides some background on these issues, together with links to relevant sites and documents on the Internet.

Brief History

Australia's first overseas broadcasting service began two months after the beginning of the Second World War. Its objective was to support the BBC's External Service in counteracting enemy propaganda. Various bodies were responsible for the organisation in its early years: the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) in the period 1942 to 1944, and the Commonwealth Department of Information in the years before and after this term. The organisation had no statutory basis and in 1950 it was transferred back to the ABC by administrative decision. The Menzies Government appears to have taken the view that the credibility of the service would be enhanced if it followed the British model of a broadcaster independent of direct Government control, rather than that of the United States, where the 'Voice of America' was an arm of Government.

It was agreed between the Government and the ABC that Radio Australia's programs would be based on domestic broadcasts, but with special programs for south-east Asia and the western Pacific. A liaison officer from the Department of External Affairs would work with the ABC editorial staff on these programs, but final responsibility for broadcasts would rest with the ABC. This situation continued through to the 1970s.

In 1975 the Whitlam Government established an independent inquiry into Radio Australia. This was conducted by Sir Keith Waller and reported in December 1975. It recommended that the ABC retain responsibility for the organisation and that this situation be given a statutory basis. It also proposed that Radio Australia's transmitting facilities be improved and extended. Similar recommendations were also made by the Committee of Review of the ABC (Dix Report) in 1981.

Statutory Basis

A statutory basis for the service was finally established in 1983, with the passage of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983. Section 6 of the Act establishes the Charter of the Corporation. This sets out its functions and duties. Under section 6(1)[b] one of the functions of the ABC is:

to transmit to countries outside Australia broadcasting programs of news, current affairs, entertainment and cultural enrichment that will:
  1. encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs; and
  2. enable Australian citizens living or travelling outside Australia to obtain information about Australian affairs and Australian attitudes on world affairs.
While the Charter provides a rationale for Radio Australia, there are no specific provisions in the legislation concerning the establishment, structure and role of the organisation.

Transmission Facilities

The ABC does not own the transmitting facilities it uses to broadcast its programs, including those of Radio Australia. The Australian Broadcasting Commission Act 1932 specified that the Postmaster General should undertake the provision and operation of all technical services associated with the transmission of programs. The National Broadcasting Service continued to be operated by the Postmaster-General's Department until the creation of Telecom Australia in 1975. Thereafter Telecom provided and operated the transmitters and equipment under contractual arrangements with the Department of Communications, which was responsible for planning, funding and the supervision of the functions performed by Telecom.

All of these functions were brought under one body with the establishment of the National Transmission Agency (NTA) in 1992. At this time, Radio Australia was using fourteen transmitters based in Darwin, Carnavon, Townsville and Shepparton. The Carnavon site was subsequently closed, with its 300 kilowatt transmitter being refurbished and transported to the Cox Peninsula site at Darwin. On 30 June 1997 the Cox Peninsula site was also closed following decisions made in the 1997-98 budget (see below).

In July 1997 the Government announced that it would sell the NTA and in December 1998 Parliament approved legislation to permit the sale. Under the arrangements announced by the Government, the national broadcasters' access to transmission facilities would be protected and they would be funded directly for the purchase of their transmission requirements. In March 1999 NTL (a UK based telecoms and media company) won the bid to own and operate the national transmission network. This did not include the Cox Peninsula site.

Radio Australia is currently using eight NTL transmitters at Shepparton and Brandon.

The ABC Funding Context

Under the agreement with the Labor government, the ABC was funded on a triennial basis (1994-95 to 1996-97), with 1994-95 the base year and funding for subsequent years indexed to the non-farm GDP deflator. The ABC was exempt from the application of the Government efficiency dividend, was allowed to retain any additional revenue it generated and was not to be subject to any Departmental savings proposals. In return, the ABC itself was not to bring forward any new policy proposals requiring additional Budget outlays before the 1997-98 Budget. This funding agreement was negotiated between the Government and the Corporation, and had no statutory basis.

On the 16 July 1996 the Minister for Communications and the Arts, Senator the Honourable Richard Alston, announced a Review of the future role and functions of the ABC by Mr Bob Mansfield. He also stated that "In examining the ABC and the very significant future funding pressures which its many activities are likely to place on the budget, the Government has decided that the current level of funding cannot continue indefinitely". Funding for 1996-97 would be reduced by 2% (the reduction in running costs required of all Government departments and agencies) while in 1997-98 funding would be reduced by $55 million. Funding levels for later years would be determined in the 1997 Budget taking into account the Mansfield Report recommendations.

Mansfield Review of the ABC

The Mansfield report The challenge of a better ABC was completed in December 1996. The recommendations of the report, together with a number of associated documents and press releases, are available from this page.

Mansfield made the following recommendations with regard to Radio Australia:

  • That the requirement for the ABC to broadcast programs to audiences outside Australia should cease;
  • that the ABC should retain the ability to transmit programs outside Australia if it chooses;
  • that the ABC should be permitted to apply net savings from the closure of Radio Australia to the achievement of its savings target - this should include any transmission savings, consistent with the Government's commitment to fund the ABC directly for its transmission costs.

Mansfield considered that the ABC should not have the provision of overseas services as a priority in its Charter and that if the Government wished to maintain an overseas broadcasting service, then it should be funded "in the context of the public diplomacy effort" (ie. by the Department of Foreign Affairs).

The Mansfield Review also reported that the total cost to the Government of Radio Australia services in 1996-97 was an estimated $20.5 million, comprising $13.5 million in ABC costs and $7 million spent by the National Transmission Agency (NTA) on shortwave transmission facilities in Darwin, Shepparton and Brandon.

The 1997-98 Budget Decisions

In April 1997 it was reported that the initial Government decision to abolish Radio Australia had been reversed following pressure from the Department of Foreign Affairs and foreign governments. The Minister for Communications, Senator Alston, was also reported as supporting the continuation of Radio Australia, but not at the expense of the ABC budget. The 1997-98 Budget confirmed these reports with the following decisions:

  • the ABC would receive $4.7 million in 1997-98 (rising to $5.0 million in 2000-01) to maintain Radio Australia services from 1 July 1997. The funding would provide an English language service via satellite throughout the Asia Pacific, an English language service via shortwave transmission to Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the South Pacific, and a shortwave Tok Pisin language service to PNG.
  • The $4.7 million would be obtained from savings within the Communications and Foreign Affairs portfolios. $3.2 million would be obtained from Communications through reduced expenditure on discretionary capital works by the NTA. The remaining $1.5 million would be met by Foreign Affairs through a transfer from their overseas aid program. An additional $2.5 million from the same source would be used to offset transmission costs.

In May 1997 the ABC Board decided to provide an additional $1.6 million from its domestic budget allocation to maintain programs in Bahasa Indonesia, Chinese, Khmer and Vietnamese. This meant that Radio Australia's budget for 1997-98 was $6.3 million, compared with $13.5 million for 1996-97. To meet this reduction, staffing was decreased by more than half (from 144 to 68) and there were significant reductions in English and foreign language output.

Transmission Costs and the Cox Peninsula Site

The 1997-98 Budget reduced the funds for shortwave transmission of Radio Australia programs from around $7 million to $2.5 million. This was sufficient to operate the Shepparton transmitter site (mainly directed at the Pacific) and two small transmitters at Brandon serving PNG. Funding for the satellite service was included in the $3.2 million provided by the Department of Communications.

The Government also announced in the 1997-98 Budget that Radio Australia services would no longer be broadcast from the NTA facility on the Cox Peninsula after 30 June 1997 and that the NTA would investigate alternative uses for the site. The closure of the site severely downgraded coverage of Asia, particularly in Indochina, Malaysia and Thailand.

In June 2000 it was reported that the Cox Peninsula transmitter site had been leased to Christian Vision, an evangelistic broadcaster controlled by Mr Bob Edmiston. It has been reported that Mr Edmiston would consider a request from Radio Australia for broadcast time, but that it would depend on what they wanted to broadcast and at what times (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 2000, "We might be Christians, but we're no nut cases").

On the 8 August 2000 the Government announced that it would provide Radio Australia with an additional $3 million p.a. for three years to strengthen its transmission arrangements and to enhance its online services. The Chairman of the ABC has stated that they will now examine transmission options, including Cox Peninsula, for the expansion of the Asian service.

Recent Parliamentary Committee Reports

In May 1997 the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee released its report on The Role and Future of Radio Australia and Australia Television. The Committee recommended:

  • that funding for Radio Australia be sufficient for it to maintain its current range of services;
  • that additional funding be provided to establish a Burmese language service and to expand the Khmer language service.

A minority report by Government Senators made further recommendations, including:

  • that the shortwave service to PNG and the pacific be maintained;
  • that satellite be the primary means of transmission to Asian countries;
  • that the Department of Foreign Affairs provide some funding for the service; and
  • that consideration be given to establishing Radio Australia under a funding arrangement separate from the ABC.

The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade report Australia and ASEAN: Managing Change (March 1978) contains a section on Radio Australia (in Chapter Nine). The Committee recommended that the Government restore the Cox Peninsula transmitters to full operation for the use of Radio Australia.

Information from the ABC

The Annual Reports of the ABC contain information about the role and operations of Radio Australia. The most recent data is from the section on International Broadcasting in the 1998-99 Annual Report. Annual reports for 1993-94 and later years can be obtained from this page.

The Radio Australia site of ABC Online contains:

Other Sites

The Friends of the ABC (Victoria) have a number of documents relating to Radio Australia in their archive, including inquiry submissions and ministerial correspondence.

The BBC World Service site contains much useful information about the organisation and its role. It includes an Annual Review and a FAQ page.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is a private non-profit corporation funded by the US Congress. It broadcasts primarily to Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.

The Voice of America is the United States Government's overseas broadcasting service.

The Open Directory Project has a comprehensive list of international broadcasters.


For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to Members of Parliament.

Back to top