The Role and Future of Radio Australia and Australia Television



The Government Senators have raised questions about the timing of this Committee of inquiry, and its report. They expressed these views on a number of occasions in the public hearings. It is questionable whether the Committee's reference was established more with a view to staging a political 'stunt' immediately prior to the May Budget, rather than a serious and substantive consideration of the various options relating to the continuing role and relevance of Radio Australia and ATV.

It is expected that the Government will make public a decision regarding the ABC's global funding in the Budget on 13 May, and it may be expected that this decision will reflect the Government's stated desire to maintain important core aspects of the Radio Australia service. However, ultimate responsibility for making a decision on Radio Australia's future funding and structure clearly rests with the ABC Board of Management.

In particular, the Government's decision regarding Radio Australia should reflect the strong commitment the Government has demonstrated towards the region, especially in Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific. The Government is urged to give particular consideration to maintaining a comprehensive RA service to these most important strategic areas.It is beyond doubt that PNG is a key strategic area for the Australian Government, as emphasised during the recent civil emergency.

Government Senators believe Radio Australia's English and Pidgin services are particularly vital communications services in PNG and the South Pacific countries. Direct listenership and re-broadcast arrangements enable RA to be heard by more than half the population of the region every week. Of particular importance to Australia are the business and community leaders, Government Ministers and other key decision-makers among this audience.

The role and availability of other international broadcasters in the region is a decisive consideration. It must be kept firmly in mind that no other international broadcaster offers a South Pacific service to match RA. The evidence presented to the Committee relating to the comparative activities of other international broadcasters showed that the BBC World Service, Radio France International, Voice of America and Deutche Welle are all available in the region, but do not have specialised services. Radio New Zealand International offers a more limited service based on its domestic New Zealand radio services.

However, this is not the case in the Asia region. Unlike the South Pacific region, in which no other international broadcaster offers a service to match RA, Asia is well served by a variety of international broadcasting services.

Also unlike the South Pacific, RA's penetration rate in Asia is relatively low, and falling. There has been a distinct trend that as countries of the region developed and their choice of media became wider and more sophisticated, the use of shortwave has declined. For example, evidence showed that shortwave listenership in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines is low, particularly among decision-makers.In the context of the ABC's budget commitments, the Government has to seriously and critically examine whether continuing to utilise scarce resources to maintaining the comprehensive service to Asia can be justified.Government Senators do not believe it is economically responsible to continue to require the ABC to provide a service to expatriates.

Continued commitment to the region

It should be stressed that this recommendation does not amount to, nor signal, a possible 'disengagement from Asia' in any way whatsoever. It is a decision we believe may be necessary within the Budget context. Continued engagement with the Asia-Pacific region must remain our highest foreign and trade policy priority. Claims that focusing Radio Australia's service on the South Pacific region would amount to a disengagement from Asia are simply unfounded and misplaced. The Australian Government's commitment and priority to the Asia-Pacific region as a whole is clearly demonstrated by, among other things, the frequency of high level (Prime Ministerial and Ministerial) visits to countries in the region, particularly by the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Downer, and the Minister for Trade, Deputy Prime Minister Mr Fischer.

We believe that these recommendations will allow Radio Australia to focus its services on the region where they have the greatest impact, that is, in our immediate region, including among national leaders, and thus be of greatest benefit to Australia.

With respect to the ATV service, a detailed consideration of ATV has not been presented here, since Government Senators support the current sale process which is proceeding. It is puzzling to find the generous amount of space devoted to this issue in the majority report.

However, Australia will still have a significant and important direct presence in the Asian region in the event that RA's services are changed, since the ATV service will continue to build a profile in the region. When the question is somewhat simplistically asked, "who will speak for Australia", a significant portion of the answer undoubtedly lies in the ATV service. Given modern communications developments in this region, a satellite service such as ATV will prove to be an excellent long term investment. The Department of Foreign Affairs concurred in its view that television is the major new medium for reaching opinion makers, particularly in the region of East Asia. In fact, its recommendation at that time favoured investment in ATV over Radio Australia. [2]



[1] Dr Errol Hodge, Senior Lecturer in Journalism - QUT, submission No.361, p. 3.

[2] Review of the Status and Funding of the ABC's International Broadcasting Services, 1995.