Labor Senators reject the views and recommendation of the Committee in
Labor Senators regard the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (Rural and
Regional Measures) Bill 2017 to be an insult to rural and regional Australia.
This bill will achieve nothing for rural and regional Australia. It is a
self-serving ruse by the Liberal-National Government to appear to be doing
something for the bush whilst papering-over their woeful record of broken
promises, ABC budget cuts, back room deals, bungling on the NBN and
pork-barrelling of mobile blackspots.
This hollow bill serves three ends of the Liberal-National Coalition:
shift blame for the impact of budget cuts from the Government to the
hold up the Government's side of a backroom deal with One Nation to
attack the ABC in exchange for Pauline Hanson's support for the repeal of the 2
out of 3 cross-media control rule; and
distract from the real communications issues facing rural and regional
Australia – NBN, mobile blackspots, and the 'postcode lottery' of service
availability in the bush.
Despite promising "no cuts to the ABC" on the eve of the 2013
election, the Abbott-Turnbull Government cut ABC funding by $355 million over
five years in 2014, then cut further in the 2016 budget.
It beggars belief that the Liberal-National Government slashes ABC
funding, only to turn around and cry crocodile tears that the national
broadcaster isn't doing enough for rural and regional Australia.
Labor Senators note that the first iteration of the measures in this
bill were contained in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural
and Regional Advocacy) Bill 2015 (the 2015 bill) which was introduced by Nationals
Senator Bridget McKenzie on 1 December 2015 – after significant budget cuts to
the ABC were announced in 2014.
The 2015 bill was a case of blame-deflection of the highest order by a
Senator who supported ABC budget cuts only to point the finger and blame the
ABC for the general decline in service availability in the bush, including
rural and regional media coverage at large.
In a dissenting report to the report of this Committee of Inquiry into
the 2015 bill, Labor Senators expressed concern that Coalition budget cuts are
putting pressure on the ABC to find efficiencies in ways that may undermine
important service provision.
In that report, we noted the ABC's submission, made prior to the 2016
budget, which states:
In 2014, the Government imposed funding cuts on the
Corporation over a five-year period. In addition to further cuts announced
during the course of 2014, the overall reduction is $355 million over five
The ABC is on track to deliver its required funding cuts via
support service efficiencies and other non-audience-facing measures. The
opportunity cost, however, of the funding cuts is the ability of the ABC to be
more agile in addressing areas of need. It is a pool of diminishing returns—as
the Corporation continues to service its budget reduction; it is ever more
difficult to use internal efficiencies to invest elsewhere.
In that report, Labor Senators noted that the ABC's decision to cease
shortwave radio transmission in the Northern Territory as an example of the
national broadcaster having to make trade-offs as it is being stretched to
deliver on its mandate to, among other things, provide both 'comprehensive
broadcasting services' and 'digital media services' in a media landscape
undergoing transformational change. We noted that 'efficiencies' were cited in
the ABC's December 2016 announcement on shortwave cessation and that the ABC's
Director of Regional stated in evidence to the Committee:
[T]he ABC must make clear-headed and rational decisions about
the services it can provide within a finite budget envelope...[T]he ABC's
recent decision regarding the Northern Territory short wave services...is a
case in point.
Labor Senators note that the bill is politically motivated and believe
it is important that rural and regional Australians understand the steps which
led to its introduction into Parliament, last year.
In April 2017, the ABC Four Corners program aired an investigative story
into One Nation called 'Please Explain' and ABC News subsequently published
leaked recordings of conversations between Pauline Hanson on the donation of a
light aircraft, among other things. In May 2017, One Nation complained of bias
at the ABC and threatened to refuse to support the Federal Budget unless the
ABC's funding was cut by $600million over four years.
In August 2017, the Turnbull Government announced a deal with One Nation
on the media ownership changes, inclusive of a number of unnecessary and
unwarranted amendments to the ABC Act and Charter as well as an insidious 'competitive
neutrality inquiry' aimed at reducing the role of the ABC to that of a market
failure broadcaster. In a subsequent press conference, Pauline Hanson also made
it clear that she will be speaking to the Treasurer and going after the ABC's
budget in 2018.
The Liberal-National Government used the ABC as a bargaining chip in
exchange for One Nation's support for the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment
(Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017 which made final passage through the House of
Representatives on 16 October 2017.
Labor Senators note the remarks of ABC Managing Director, Michelle
Guthrie, in her speech at the ABC Friends Public Conference Dinner in October
The ABC's role in the media law reform debate was supposed to
be as an interested bystander. We had no skin in the game. Or so we thought. We
now find ourselves very much impacted by the deal-making and with a real need
to ensure that the public interest – as opposed to vested interest – is
The ABC doesn't need more bureaucracy to serve its rural and
regional audiences. It knows that the third of the population living outside
the capital cities regard the national broadcaster as life-blood. It is why we
have invested an extra $15 million a year in creating 80 new content-making
jobs across the country at a time when other media companies are cutting staff.
More red tape that the ABC is forced to underwrite simply reduces our
investment in the primary mission – providing quality, trusted content to the
households of Australia.
Labor Senators note that the bill is unwarranted, misguided,
duplicative and costly.
Labor Senators oppose the proposed ABC Charter amendments because the
current Charter already creates obligations for the ABC to serve rural and
regional Australians, which the ABC delivers on effectively. The current
phrases "national identity" and "cultural diversity" must
be and are interpreted broadly and the addition of the words "regional"
and "geographic" may serve to narrow the existing interpretation of
the ABC Charter.
Labor Senators note the ABC has a strong commitment and record of
achievement with respect to rural and regional programming and initiatives,
including The Country Hour, Landline, Back Roads and Heywire. The creation of
the ABC's Regional Division in 2015 as well as the March 2017 announcement of a
Content Fund, including a $15 million per year investment in regional jobs were
realised without the inclusion of the words "regional" or
"geographic" in the Charter.
To the extent that there could be improvements in the coverage, amount
or frequency of local news in rural and regional Australia, neither the problem
nor the solution is related to the ABC Act. Other factors, including ABC
funding and broader trends in the media sector at large, including the
commercial media, are at play.
Labor Senators oppose the proposed establishment of a Regional Advisory
Council because the ABC Board already has an Advisory Council which provides
advice to the Board on all matters, including rural and regional matters, and
the current Advisory Council includes a number of members who reside outside of
capital cities. In addition, the ABC conducts an annual Newspoll of ABC
audiences. It is duplicative and wasteful to establish a Regional Advisory
Council, particularly as the ABC's resources are already stretched in service
Labor Senators oppose the proposed amendments to the ABC Act relating to
Board appointments because the ABC is a corporation operating in a complex and
rapidly-changing media environment and stewardship of that business requires
board members with business and media skills. It would be concerning if a 'substantial
regional connection' quota were to hinder Government in selecting people best
qualified to steer the Corporation through the challenging media landscape.
While regional connections may be a desirable attribute, they do not qualify a person
to provide advice to the national broadcaster, nor do they guarantee the
appointment of a person who will advocate effectively for regional Australia.
Labor Senators note that the ABC Annual Report already includes a Staff
Profile detailing "Regional", "Corporate Management" and "Finance
and Operations" employee figures and extensive lists of service
transmissions and frequencies by location. Labor Senators also note the
publicly stated aim of the ABC Managing Director, Michelle Guthrie, is to
increase the ratio of content roles over operational roles. Labor Senators will
continue to hold the ABC to account and provide transparency through existing
processes and reporting requirements, including Senate Estimates.
Labor Senators regard the ABC as one of Australia's most important and
trusted public institutions. The ABC plays a vital role in the diversity of
news in our media landscape and provides an opportunity for Australian content
to be shown and heard in local news, public announcements and emergency
messages to regional and remote communities.
While 85 per cent of Australians trust the ABC above all other media
networks, again the Turnbull Government is lining up to attack the ABC with
changes to the ABC Act and Charter as well as a damaging 'competitive
Labor Senators value Australia's tradition of strong public sector
broadcasting. In Government, Labor provided funding that helped establish a
dedicated digital children's channel and supported efficiency measures in the
ABC that helped fund ABC News 24 and ABC online. Labor's 2016 election
commitment was to invest $60 million over three years in the ABC to produce
local drama—a funding boost that would have provided an opportunity for
Australian stories to feature prominently in the ABC's schedule in a market
that is increasingly being dominated by international content. These
commitments demonstrate that Labor puts people, and the services they rely on,
Labor's positive approach is in stark contrast to that of the
If the Turnbull Government really cared about the ABC, and its regional
and remote viewers and listeners, it wouldn't just point the finger: it would
fund it properly.
Under the current ABC Act, the ABC has maintained a strong commitment to
rural and regional Australia in the face of harsh budget cuts at the hands of
the Liberal-National Government.
The bill before the Committee does nothing but waste taxpayer funds on
duplicative, pointless measures. It is window dressing to make the Turnbull
Government and One Nation look like they are doing something for rural and
regional Australians – but it won't trick people in the bush.
Urquhart Senator Anthony
Tasmania Senator for
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