These additional comments to the Senate Environment and Communications
Legislation Committee's report into the Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Amendment (Restoring Shortwave Radio) Bill 2017 are prefaced with
acknowledgement that the independence of the ABC is embedded in its Charter and
is without question; equally, its critical role as a provider and facilitator
of news and information to Regional Australia is acknowledged.
However, while the ABC operates independently, evidence to the Inquiry
highlights significant concerns about the ABC Board decision of December 2016
to cancel ABC shortwave services to the Northern Territory, Papua New Guinea,
and other parts of the Pacific. These comments are made with the objective of
finding a way to restore those services, whilst respecting the ABC's
independence as a statutory authority.
The ABC's decision to unilaterally withdraw without consultation its
remaining shortwave services is unacceptable as the ABC cannot guarantee that
listeners who previously used these services will be able to access the
replacements. Until it can provide such a guarantee, shortwave must remain an
integral component of the ABC's strategy to meet its Charter obligations in the
Pacific, as well as to consumers in regional and remote areas.
Inevitably, shortwave will be withdrawn. However, this cannot occur
until solutions that are better in quality, reliability, coverage and access
are available. Whilst the shortfalls of proposed shortwave replacements are
examined below, the problem is exemplified by the admission AM and FM
transmissions (offered as a bedrock solution in place of shortwave both
domestically and to the Pacific) covers some 4% of the NT landmass but 84% of
the other 16% of the population is essentially excluded.
The independence of the ABC is essential, and the community's
expectations of the public broadcaster are articulated in its charter. The
Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Restoring Shortwave Radio) Bill
2017 challenges the independence of the ABC by mandating multiple transmitters
to reinstate the services along with imposing other specific requirements on
content that the ABC would be bound to meet. This is unduly prescriptive in
nature, and so cannot be supported.
However, given the weight of evidence to both this inquiry and the
committee's previous inquiry into the Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Amendment (Rural and Regional Advocacy) Bill 2015, the ABC is strongly
encouraged to reconsider its decision to terminate shortwave services to the
Northern Territory and the Pacific.
The issues raised in both inquires include:
the apparent lack of consultation engaged in by the ABC in its
decision to terminate shortwave services to the Northern Territory and to the
questionable research used to substantiate a contention that
fewer than 500 people are affected by the decision to now summarily terminate
the ABC's remaining shortwave services;
the shortfalls of purported replacement technologies as
alternative platforms with which to deliver ABC content that will guarantee
most, but not all, affected listeners coverage;
the apparent refusal by ABC personnel to satisfactorily answer
directly relevant questions put to it, both in the course of this Inquiry and
others the Senate has conducted, and its refusal to disclose documentation said
to support the ABC's shortwave decision;
evidence heard by this and other Senate inquiries that directly
contradicts the ABC's claims that minimal numbers of complaints have been
received, and from where;
implications for the ABC's role and reliability as an emergency
the apparent breach of the ABC's Charter obligations the
withdrawal of ABC shortwave constitutes.
Lack of Consultation and
Questionable Research Methods
It has been impossible to satisfactorily quantify consultation the ABC
Board claims it undertook in arriving at this decision, partly through a
reluctance to supply relevant documentation on demand, and partly through
conflicting answers given by ABC officials to questions on notice. This
constitutes a failure of the Board to subject itself to the scrutiny of the
Senate over its expenditure of public funds.
The ABC has been unable to quantify the listenership of ABC shortwave in
the Northern Territory, admitting in evidence to a Senate Committee on 16 June 2017
that it had undertaken no surveys of shortwave listeners prior to its decision
to axe the service.
It did however make the statement that 'the estimation' of 500 regular
shortwave listeners in the NT was partly the result of an ABC Radio listener
report in May 2016.
These answers are contradictory, and further complicated by the fact the
National Association of Shortwave Broadcasters reported shortwave usage at
approximately 1% of the population (or some 225,000 users at the time).
Even accounting for the fact the NT represents roughly 1% of the Australian
population, this would suggest shortwave usage at roughly 2,400 users, not 500
as the ABC claims.
Either way, it fails to take into account users of the ABC service
including cattlemen, farmers, tourists, fishermen and truck drivers and others
who used shortwave services, but who are by their nature impossible to
incorporate into any accurate assessment of actual shortwave usage in the NT.
Many of these workers made submissions to the ABC (Rural and Regional Advocacy)
In relation to usage of ABC shortwave in PNG and the Pacific, the ABC
stated in an answer to questions on notice that it estimated 300 Radio
Australia shortwave users in Papua New Guinea, on the basis of a 2016 media
survey by Tebbutt Research that identified 15,000 regular Radio Australia
This answer also appears to contradict other ABC evidence, further
stating that approximately 2% of the PNG population uses shortwave to access
Radio Australia transmissions (which equates to 160,000 people).
It further stated that the ABC was not aware of a survey conducted in 2014 by
Radio Australia that found 80% of PNG-based respondents received content
In any case, the ABC did not provide details of those surveys in its
account on notice of listener numbers—in
Australia and the Pacific—preventing any meaningful examination of the
fieldwork, methodology used, or the veracity of the conclusions and estimates
drawn from them.
This lack of consultation by the Board extended not only to affected
communities, nations and industries but also internal mechanisms within the ABC
to assist with decision making.
The ABC neither sought nor received advice from its Advisory Board in deciding
to terminate shortwave services, nor did it consult with the Friends of the
This was received despite the ABC stating, that 'internal consultation with ABC
Executives and ABC Radio management' occurred prior to the ABC Board reaching a
Given the impact on NT communities, cattle industry, road users outside
Darwin, Alice Springs and Katherine, the ABC did not consult the Northern
Territory government on the decision to withdraw shortwave services from the
Territory. Despite monies saved from ABC shortwave broadcasts were earmarked
for boosting digital services in markets including Darwin,
where reliable internet services mean ABC Radio content can already be
accessed. In over 80% of the NT landmass, they now cannot.
Given the lack of meaningful listenership surveys undertaken to guide
its decision, and in view of its admission that various key stakeholders were
not consulted, it is difficult to accept either the ABC's stated estimates of
shortwave listenership numbers or its claim that adequate consultation had been
in Proposed Replacement Technologies
The ABC management claims that a suite of other technologies and
platforms are viable alternatives to shortwave. Evidence to both committee
inquiries would suggest otherwise, at this present time.
Whilst these will prove efficacious in delivering content to some
listeners affected by the shortwave decision, the reality is that known
shortcomings of each of these technologies make it inevitable that some
listeners will now be prevented from receiving this content altogether.
Some of the inherent problems in these technologies, as reported in testimony
to the Inquiry, include:
The limited reach of AM and FM broadcasts (20km to 90km from the
broadcast point) as opposed to shortwave showers, which can cover vast tracts
from a single transmission point.
Both AM and FM broadcasts are adversely affected by topography
and weather events.
Mobile telephony, as a content platform, is limited by signal
strength and coverage.
Satellite telephony, which does not directly receive radio
signals, is too slow and prohibitively expensive for users to use internet
radio streaming of those signals it does receive.
Viewer Access Satellite Television (VAST) is a static delivery
platform—unable to be moved—and thus unsuitable for travellers and mobile
commercial operators. In any case, it is also adversely impacted by bad weather
Some of these technologies (such as VAST) require users to make upfront
capital outlays on hardware in order to receive broadcasts via those platforms;
prohibitive user costs must also be taken into account.
The shortfalls in the ABC's proposed replacements for shortwave apply
equally to the Northern Territory and to the Pacific. In fact, some areas of
the Pacific would seem more compromised by the abolition of shortwave on
account of the susceptibility of FM to adverse weather events.
The ABC's Refusal to
Disclose Evidence and Complaints Received
During a Senate Budget Estimates hearing on 24 May this year, the ABC
was asked on notice to provide a document associated with its Transmission
Strategy that ostensibly substantiated ABC estimates of fewer than 500 regular
shortwave users in the NT, but which was redacted. The answer provided referred
to alternative technologies, but stated the requested document was 'outside the
scope of the shortwave issue' and that it had thus been redacted. It was not
provided as requested.
Taken in tandem with the stated failure to conduct any surveys at all of
shortwave listenership in the NT and the conflicting accounts of listenership
in PNG and the Pacific, it is difficult to accept the ABC Board decision to
terminate shortwave broadcasts has been made on any firm basis of small
This apparent unsatisfactory basis for the ABC's decision to withdraw
shortwave is also reflected in accounts of complaints received in relation to
The ABC told an Estimates hearing that two complaints were received from
listeners in the Pacific,
and both were said to have originated from Fiji.
A separate answer to a different question on notice, this time during
the Inquiry into the ABC Amendment (Rural and Regional Advocacy) Bill 2015,
stated that 18 NT residents had made complaints about the withdrawal of
shortwave broadcasts, in addition to the two from Fiji, as well as a further
nine complaints from as far afield as the USA, India, Laos and France.
It is understood these complaints were made through formal ABC complaint
channels, and do not include complaints from listeners made by telephone to its
Alice Springs office or other less formal means of providing feedback, or submissions
made to Senate Inquiries representing thousands of affected listeners.
The appearance given by all of this is that on one hand, the ABC has
either withheld material that may undermine the veracity of ending shortwave
broadcasts, or lacks evidence to validate the decision; and on the other, that
it has downplayed adverse feedback it has received in relation to the decision
by restricting the admissions of complaints to those made through its official
However in evidence to an earlier Senate hearing into the termination of
shortwave transmission services, there was no doubt from witnesses to the loss
of the service.
Like Mr Bruce Davey, a cruise boat operator in the NT who gave evidence
We have had absolute silence now. I do not know what is
happening to the world...I would implore the Senate committee to fully
understand the hunters, fishermen and numerous other stakeholders that have just
been thrown to the wind here.
Or the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association:
Mental health problems are already a considerable problem in
remote areas—sitting in silence while the rest of the country has a radio dial
chock full of stations, internet-capable phones in their pockets and newspapers
doesn't help any of that.
The NTCA contended that the ABC had 'seriously underestimated' the
number of people adversely affected by the termination of shortwave
Implications for the ABC
as an Emergency Broadcaster
One answer to a question on notice stated that 'whilst the ABC took the
opportunity to broadcast weather warnings into the Pacific, it has never been
the ABC's responsibility to do so.'
Whilst this may be true, past practice has clearly created the expectation the
ABC will continue to perform such a role. Indeed the ABC promotes itself as an
emergency broadcaster, a role the community would recognise.
The fact remains that shortwave is unaffected by weather, is reliable,
and is a cheap and effective way to broadcast such warnings.
The value of the ABC's activity in this regard is underlined by
testimony from the Prime Minister of Vanuatu, Hon Charlot Salwai, who told the
Inquiry that terminating Radio Australia shortwave services 'could cost many,
many lives in the likelihood of a major natural disaster.'
It went on to state that ABC shortwave helps save Pacific lives and saves
by virtue of the warnings it provides and the resultant mitigation of later
disaster relief expenditure.
From evidence to both committee inquiries, it is clear that the ABC promotes
itself as the emergency broadcaster and is viewed as such by the broader
community, here and abroad.
Given the ABC's Charter obligations, it is not unreasonable to expect
that it will continue to play a role in providing warnings and information
ahead of cyclones, tsunamis, bushfires and other natural disasters in these
The excuse given by the ABC that the Bureau of Meteorology was now able
to provide such information failed to recognise that this BOM service only
extended to coastal areas and not inland Northern Territory.
The ABC Charter specifies the publicly funded broadcaster's main role as
defined in clause 1, subclause (b):
(b) 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
The evidence to the ABC (Rural and Regional Advocacy) Bill 2015
highlighted the need for better reporting and increased consultation processes
for the ABC Board's decision making.
The ABC deserves support, and its right to operate independently to be
respected. This is certainly true in the case of the ABC's decision to
terminate shortwave services to the NT and the Pacific.
Shortwave is a cheap, low-tech, reliable medium that is ideally suited
to broadcasts over significant distances, and which is ideal for transmissions
during emergencies and disasters.
The overall picture painted by the ABC's collective statements and
disclosures to various Senate committee hearings simply doesn't add up: figures
have been provided to assert tiny listenership of ABC shortwave, with no
concrete evidence to validate them, but an avalanche of anecdotal and
circumstantial evidence showing the number of people affected is much, much
higher than the ABC acknowledges.
This appears to be at best a failure by the ABC to clearly account to
the Senate for its decision making processes or to consult appropriately and at
worst, a failure of due diligence on the part of the ABC Board.
It is deeply concerning that the decision to unilaterally withdraw the
domestic shortwave service will impact residents and travellers in regional and
remote NT communities, compounding the isolation and detachment they may
Additionally, the Charter clearly states the ABC's role in the Pacific,
a service that is compromised by their desire to save 1% of a $1bn Budget.
Finally, the ABC is a corporate Commonwealth entity operating under Public
Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 (the PGPA Act). As the
governing body of the entity, the ABC Board is responsible for meeting and
maintaining standards of governance the Act prescribes.
The lack of proper information and consultation guiding the Board's
decision to terminate shortwave calls into question best practice governance
Recommendations follow for the ABC shortwave decision to be subjected to
further action. Alternatively, the decision may be referred to the Commonwealth
The objective of these extensive comments to this report is to find a
way forward that balances the ABC's independence and operational expertise on
the one hand with a cost-effective restoration of shortwave services,
undertaken and overseen by the ABC, on the other. The inconsistencies shown in
the process of making the decision to terminate shortwave, and the
contradictory justifications used to defend it, merely illustrate why the
decision needs to be revisited.
the ABC Board revisits its decision to terminate shortwave radio services to
the Northern Territory, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific.
the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Regional and Rural Access)
Bill 2015 be passed, to ensure a similar failure of process is unable to occur
in the future.
given the conflicting evidence submitted by the ABC, the ABC Board's refusal to
submit to Senate scrutiny and the defective decision it made as a result of
failure of process, the Minister for Communications consider referring the
matter to the Finance Minister under the PGPA Act 2013.
National Party Senator for
Navigation: Previous Page | Contents | Next Page