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.
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
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.
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:
- encourage awareness of Australia and an international
understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs; and
- 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.
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
Radio Australia is currently using eight NTL transmitters at
Shepparton and Brandon.
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
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
Mansfield made the following recommendations with regard to
- 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
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.
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
- 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.
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
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
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.
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
- that the shortwave service to PNG and the pacific be
- that satellite be the primary means of transmission to Asian
- 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
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
The Radio Australia site
of ABC Online contains:
The Friends of the ABC
(Victoria) have a number of documents relating to Radio Australia
in their archive, including inquiry submissions and ministerial
The BBC World
Service site contains much useful information about the
organisation and its role. It includes an Annual
Review and a FAQ page.
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.
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