The Role and Future of Radio Australia and Australia Television



9.1 Term of reference (c) requires the Committee to consider the 'consequences of the closure of Radio Australia and/or Australia Television'.

9.2 A number of media reports in recent weeks have indicated various proposals under consideration by the Expenditure Review Committee and Cabinet in relation to the future of RA. In the earlier reports, it appeared that RA would be reduced to a satellite service in English only, but more recent reports have indicated that this would be supplemented by short-wave services to the Pacific in English and Tok Pisin.

9.3 Notwithstanding the Government's decision to restrict funding for RA, which would reduce RA to a minimal service, the ABC Board decided on 30 April 1997 to supplement funding by $1.6 million to enable the Mandarin, Vietnamese, Khmer and Indonesian language services to continue operating on a reduced basis. No funding was provided for the Thai, Cantonese and French language services. Whilst the Committee welcomes the Board's decision as fas it went, it still believes that the substantial reduction in current services will be a serious loss to Australia's and the ABC's international services and reputation. At least the ABC Board's decision recognises the importance of broadcasting to Asia in Asian languages. This is something that the Government wrongly dismisses as unimportant.

9.4 As it appears from media reports that Radio Australia's Pacific services will be maintained with the support of the Government, the Committee considers below only the consequences of closure of RA's non-Pacific services. Notwithstanding the ABC's recent decision to continue four Asian language services, they are continuing without government support and three foreign language services will be closed. In the circumstances, the Committee believes that it should still put on the record the consequences of closing Asian language services. The Committee also considers the consequences of the closure of ATV or its privatisation, whereby it is driven only by commercial imperatives.

9.5 The Committee believes that the consequences of the closure of RA Asian services, and/or ATV or ATV's privatisation, would seriously damage Australian interests.

Domestic Consequences

9.6 A more immediate consequence of the discontinuation of the service would be the loss of employment and a reduction in local ABC television production. The Community and Public Sector Union advised the Committee that close to 20 television staff would be directly affected. In addition, 'the closure or relocation of Australia Television would decimate local ABC television production and mean the loss of Darwin as anything other than a Regional bureau of ABC Television. [1]

9.7 In addition, probably more than half the staff of RA, including many long-term language specialists, would lose their jobs. It is a resource that is virtually irreplaceable.

9.8 If the Cox Peninsula (near Darwin) short-wave transmitters were to close, it is estimated that the Darwin Power Authority would lose revenue of $2.1 million a year. In addition, there would be loss of maintenance work on the transmitters which would affect a number of contractors in the Territory.

International Consequences

9.9 The Committee was warned by many submitters living in the region that the closure of ATV or RA would send a strong signal to the region that Australia is not interested in Asia. Such a decision, coming within twelve months of the termination of the Development Import Finance Facility (DIFF), which caused considerable diplomatic problems for the Australian Government, and the more recent race debate, which received much bad media coverage in Asia, would only confirm the doubts already held by many Asians about Australia's commitment to Asia. It would also confirm suspicions that Australia is only concerned about what it can get out of Asia through trade without making an investment in forging ties with the region. As Australia is regarded as a relatively wealthy developed nation, the fact that closures of its highly successful and respected international broadcasting services could occur for small budgetary savings is incomprehensible to Asians who made submissions to the Committee. It must also be said that even consideration of their closure or sale is incomprehensible to the Committee.

9.10 Moreover, how will Australia explain to the region the cessation of its services on cost grounds when nearly all Asian countries operate short-wave services? It seems incredible to the Committee that even countries in the region which are struggling with social and economic problems far greater than Australia's problems see the benefit of operating international short-wave services.

9.11 The tone of many of the submissions coming from abroad is one of shock, anger and sadness. For the tens of millions of devoted listeners to RA, some for dozens of years, particularly from countries where there is not a free media, all the goodwill for Australia built up through years of avid listening will turn to bewilderment and anger. Trust and reliability are the key qualities in any relationship in Asia. If that trust is broken, the relationship disintegrates. This was told to the Committee time and time again during our inquiry into the abolition of the DIFF scheme in 1996 and also during the Committee's earlier inquiry into relations with China. There will be tens of millions of Asians who will feel very hurt and let down by Australia. That will not be good for our image. It will also hurt Australia in many ways.

9.12 Many Asians listen to RA and ATV because the services are friendly and the presenters not only understand Australia but also the cultures and countries to which they are broadcasting. The services, including news and current affairs, are about Australia and the region. No other international broadcaster dedicates itself to regional affairs in the same way as RA and ATV. That is why, in the case of RA, it receives so much mail, far more than any other international broadcaster. This is loyalty which money cannot buy.

9.13 If RA and ATV are closed, who will project Australia's image to the region? The new generations in the region will not know anything about Australia. There will be no feeling of warmth towards Australia that has been built up among listeners of RA and more recently viewers of ATV. When future events occur which unfairly get bad media coverage in the region, who will provide a counter view? Without RA and ATV, no-one. How will the Australian side of the story get told. It won't without RA and ATV.

9.14 It appears from the submissions and other sources that RA, and more particularly ATV, encourage tourism to Australia. Is Australia in the future going to spend millions of dollars more in Asia to promote tourism to Australia? It would be more effectively done by showing tourism programs on ATV at a fraction of the cost and using tourism advertising more sparingly.

9.15 ATV and RA portray Australia as a clean, healthy and safe country for Asians to send their children for their education. This type of portrayal is far more effective than spending considerable sums of money through education centres in Asia and other recruitment strategies. How much will it cost to replace this benefit should RA and ATV be closed?

9.16 Without RA and ATV, who will inform business and industry in the region about the advantages of doing business with Australians and Australian companies? Who will tell the region about our advances and developments in science and technology? Who will tell the region that Australia is really a very clever country? There are other ways but at what cost?

9.17 How much will it cost to replace the promotion of the Olympic Games in Sydney which RA and ATV would have done and would the alternatives be more successful?

9.18 Who will keep the tens of thousands of Australian expatriates living in the region informed about Australian affairs? Without RA and ATV, it will be very difficult for many of them to keep abreast of what is happening in Australia and the region.

9.19 As Australia has been a strong advocate of universal human rights for a long time, and human rights organisations in the region have depended on RA's accurate reporting of human rights matters, who will replace this invaluable service if RA's Asian language services are closed.

9.20 If you feel some affinity with a country, you will be disposed to buy its products, enter into business arrangements with it, attend visiting cultural or sporting events involving people from that country, or visit the country. Tens of millions of Asians have developed that affinity through listening or viewing our broadcasting services. We don't have to persuade them that we are a friendly neighbour. Without RA and ATV, how will Australia establish that affinity with our Asian neighbours? It won't.

9.21 RA and ATV have been the only independent news services broadcasting to the region which focus on Australian and regional news and current affairs. The BBC may be independent but does not provide the coverage of Asia Pacific news that RA and ATV provide. The region will be poorer for the absence of RA and ATV.

9.22 The Committee has posed a number of questions above. Mr Mansfield did not consider them. There is no evidence that the Minister for Communications and the Arts or the Government has considered them. If the Government goes ahead with the closure or reduction of RA or the closure or privatisation of ATV, the Government has a duty to the nation and the region to answer them.

Senator Michael Forshaw



[1] Community and Public Sector Union, submission p.15.