Matters of Public Importance - ABC

The coalition government values the ABC and its role, but that does not mean the ABC is entitled to be immune to change or to be insulated from the kind of performance measures that are the standard procedure in the private sector and in the administration of other government departments. After all, why should the ABC be immune to the requirement to find efficiencies that other independent agencies face? The Commonwealth DPP is such an agency. It discharges its vital public function with enormous respect for the value of taxpayer funds, including finding efficiency dividends, without complaint.

The ABC service is essential in regional Queensland, and time and time again Queenslanders in the bush tell me how important regional radio programming in particular is. The 48 local regional stations throughout this nation provide an important connection between the people of the bush and what is going on in their nation and in the world. They give vital weather information for those on the land and important safety information in the event of emergencies. I, too, depend on it when I hit the road. ABC TV also provides children's programming that is particularly valued in the regions.

That's why we have legislation before the parliament right now in the form of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Measures) Bill 2017. That bill would amend the ABC's charter to include the words 'regional' and 'geographic' to reflect the fact that its programs are required to contribute to a sense of regional as well as national identity and that its programs are required to reflect the geographic as well as the cultural diversity of Australia. Most people assume that this is something that's already in the charter and that it would be an obvious requirement. It's not—but it really should be. It also implements requirements for the ABC board to have a regional advisory council and to consult with it on matters relating to broadcasting services in regional areas. It's hoped that a measure like that will help stop a trend within the ABC of diverting resources from regional services and into the cities.

The bill would require the ABC board to have at least two non-executive directors who have a substantial connection to or experience in a regional community. That's currently satisfied by the inclusion of a WA and a Queensland regional person on the board. The bill also includes a requirement that the annual report of the ABC include particulars of regional versus metropolitan employees, the ratios of journalists to support staff and the hours of local regional news broadcasts. All of these measures aren't onerous, and they ought not be controversial. They're simply designed to ensure that Australians who live in the regions can depend with certainty on the ABC to provide a meaningful service to them—a service that is equally meaningful to that which is provided in the cities.

But no government-funded body is entitled to exist without justifying the expenditure it incurs. Every government body must be constantly acting to improve its efficiency and to make its services more relevant, adapting to make sure its service is meaningful to consumers and a fair use of taxpayers' money. I'll give you an example. One in seven Australians watches the ABC, but 100 per cent of taxpayers fund the ABC. With the more than $1.3 billion that goes to funding public broadcasters in this country, it should be doing more to appeal to its constituency. Requiring the ABC to conduct a review into its efficiency is one of the ways that the coalition is determined to deliver maximum value for taxpayers. It's not an attack; it's an opportunity to improve, and we should all be in favour of the continual improvement of service delivery by anybody who receives public money.

Now, it's true that there was a motion carried at the weekend by the Liberal federal council that supported the sale of the national broadcaster—although, importantly, not its regional services. Any such sale has been ruled out by the Prime Minister and Minister Fifield. They've been very clear about that. I wasn't at the federal council; I was attending to my constituents in Queensland. But it's worth listening to the message sent by the motion. One could take from it a deep-seated frustration with the performance of the ABC when it consumes considerable public funds which it then spends on running reruns of foreign gems like That '70s Show whilst it complains that it doesn't have funds to be able to provide short-wave radio services in remote communities.

There is a similar frustration, no doubt experienced by at least a share of the six out of seven Australians who don't watch the ABC, with what appears to be a deep-seated bias in metropolitan reporting. A 2013 report from University of the Sunshine Coast academic Folker Hanusch showed that 75 per cent of ABC journalists are supporters of the political left. Perhaps the takeaway from this motion should be that there is work to be done to ensure that the independence of the ABC is not merely used as a platform for the advancement of private political agendas in its metropolitan content. It's not for nothing that some people say the acronym ABC stands for 'anything but conservative'.

Let's call this matter of debate what it is. It's just Labor thrashing about for yet another 'Mediscare' or perhaps a distraction from its $200 billion in new taxes. Whichever way you dice it, that's what it is—a distraction, a manufactured issue—because this government has been clear that it supports the ABC continuing on efficiently and effectively serving Australians, particularly in their regional areas, well into the future.