Defending the ABC
Ms WELLS (Lilley) (18:53): The ABC has never been under greater attack in its formidable history than it is now. Almost $340 million has been cut from its base funding since 2014. Programs have been axed, locally produced drama is way down, foreign bureaus have been closed and hundreds of years of journalistic experience has been lost. ABC journalists who are simply doing their jobs are attacked on an almost daily basis by coalition politicians through a steady stream of complaints and inquiries.
The Liberal Party federal council voted 4-1 in favour of selling off the ABC altogether. But the ABC—in Bluey and Utopia and Rosehaven, in You Can't Ask That and Costa's Gardening Australia—isn't theirs to sell. It belongs to us, the Australian public. That is why we are standing up to say, 'Hands off our ABC.' Today we are calling on the government to put its money where its mouth is for rural and regional Australians by addressing the final report of the ACCC digital platforms inquiry, which finds that public broadcasters are not currently resourced to fully compensate for the decline in local reporting previously produced by the traditional commercial publishers. It also recommends that stable and adequate funding be provided to the ABC.
We all remember that on the eve of the 2013 election Tony Abbott promised that there would be no cuts to the ABC, yet the past six budgets have included measures to reduce, remove or freeze ABC funding, without adding any new funding initiatives. This has resulted in an accumulated reduction in available funding of $393 million over a five-year period, starting from May 2014. According to current budget forecasts this also means the ABC stands to lose $783 million in funding by 2022 unless steps are taken to remedy the situation.
I will anticipate any government rebuttal by noting that the coalition government, and others, would argue that the ABC actually received a reprieve in this year's budget, with committed funding for enhanced news gathering, because it treats as new the renewal of tied fixed-term funding as it expires. The enhanced news gathering and digital delivery funding was first enacted by the former Labor government in 2013 and although it has been renewed twice by the coalition government since then, including in this year's budget, the amount allocated for the program was slashed in 2016. So, while it might be spun that the current budget announcement is good news for the ABC, the reality is that it is simply a continuation of what should be seen as core business, for which those opposite are wheeling out the tea trolley and cutting themselves a congratulatory serving of hubris tart. The reality is that just as they are cutting $83.7 million from the ABC they are introducing a bill that will cost the ABC hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars on more bureaucracy and red tape.
The ACCC has just completed a major inquiry which found that public broadcasters are not currently resourced to fully compensate for the decline in local reporting previously produced by traditional commercial publishers. This bill does nothing to address that finding, nor the ACCC's recommendation that stable and adequate funding be provided to the ABC.
The government needs a real plan to address the decline in local news in rural and regional Australia. Cutting the ABC and meddling with the ABC Act and Charter aren't going to improve service provision in rural and regional Australia, but funding the ABC properly will. Labor took a policy to the federal election to reverse the government's ABC budget cuts of $83.7 million and commit $10 million over three years for ABC local and regional media and emergency broadcasting. This government needs to put its money where its mouth is. If passed, this bill will amend the ABC's charter to ensure that the ABC's programs contribute to a sense of regional and national identity, that they inform and entertain and that they reflect the cultural and geographic diversity of the Australian community. The intention of this amendment is to ensure that the ABC contributes to and promotes regional Australia and provides services and information that cater to the needs of those areas.
We oppose this measure, because there is no evidence of shortcomings with the ABC charter with respect to rural and regional Australia. The current charter already creates obligations for the ABC to serve rural and regional Australians, which the ABC effectively delivers on. The insertion of the words 'regional' and 'geographic' seeks to divide Australians when the ABC already serves all Australians. It's legislating what the government focus groups have told them to say for best partisan effect: whose side are you on?
The ABC has a strong commitment and record of achievement with respect to rural and regional programming and initiatives. The creation of the ABC's regional division in 2015, as well as the March 2017 announcement of a content fund, 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 trends in the media sector at large, are at play. The government should acknowledge that, instead of waging this war on our beloved national broadcaster.
I would like to address the issue of quotas in this legislation. The bill amends the ABC Act to ensure that the board has two non-executive directors with:
… a substantial connection to, or substantial experience in, a regional area through business, industry or community involvement.
This amendment is meant to provide that the perspectives, views and needs of regional areas are appropriately considered by the ABC board. I oppose this measure on the grounds of the rampant hypocrisy of those opposite when it comes to the matter of quotas. They are quite happy with the quotas that underpin Federation, which see New South Wales, with a population of 7.9 million, and Tasmania, with a population of 524,000, each send six senators to the other place every election. They seek quotas when it comes to their own representation in the coalition government and ensuring enough of their own party secure plum spots, positions and delegations. They seek quotas when it comes to their own representation in the cabinet and the ability to make snow angels on the blue carpet of the Deputy Prime Minister's office. They seek quotas when it comes to providing:
… that the perspectives, views and needs of regional areas are appropriately considered by the ABC Board.
But, when it comes to quotas suggested by progressives, which are just the same, aimed at providing the perspectives, views and needs of particular groups—like, for example, half the population; like women—they are dead set against them. They are hypocrites for their stance, and they should be called out for it as they seek to legislate quotas that suit their own purposes whilst arguing outside this chamber that quotas which reflect poorly upon their own representation are some sort of miscarriage of democracy.
In this debate about representation from our national broadcaster I will speak about a great love of my people north of the Tweed: our reverence for the Heeler family of Brisbane. Bluey is a groundbreaking Australian children's television series. It has been played on iView over 100 million times, only 96 per cent of which have occurred in our household after bath time. One of my favourite moments during the three weeks of pre-poll was at Chermside when I met the mother of the Bluey creator. It was one of those moments where, despite the very tight nature of the poll in Lilley, I wanted to fling away my how-to-vote cards, kneel at the lap of this woman and hear every little skerrick about how this wonderful Brisbane icon came to be. At the time, back in May, Disney was still pursuing a deal to broadcast Bluey across the globe, but the Brisbane team were holding out because they refused to yield to demands that the Australian accents be cut and the local references be muted. They won, and now Bluey streams worldwide on Bluey's own terms. Good on you, Bandit, and good on you, Chilli, for holding strong; you did Australian parents proud. It is, as one of my daughter's educators would call it, an absolute gem of Australian art, carefully distilling the essence of family life and capturing the wonder of parenting whilst delivering precious and digestible nuggets along the way. It is everything that the ABC seeks to nurture, to foster and to support. If only our federal government would give it the support and resourcing it deserves.
One of my fondest childhood memories is the day that my drawing made it onto Mr. Squiggle. I was five years old, and Mum had to rush the boys and me home to make the 3.20 pm screening. Mr Squiggle decided to turn my scrappy artistry into a picture of a whale holding some sunscreen, because I was from Queensland. I still remember how proud I was that Mr Squiggle, an iconic part of Australian childhood, chose to highlight my home and celebrate what makes it special, even just for a couple of minutes, as I sat cross-legged on the cool tiles in my school uniform that hot afternoon. That is the power of the ABC, an iconic institution of our country that already does celebrated work in representing all of us from wherever we've grown up across this land. We love our ABC and we should fund its celebrated work properly.
In conclusion, cutting ABC funding and tinkering with the ABC Act and ABC Charter doesn't help Australians living in rural and regional Australia and doesn't constitute a plan to address the decline in local reporting. Today we on this side of the House and many millions of Australians who love their ABC are calling upon the government to put its money where its mouth is for rural and regional Australians by addressing the final report of the ACCC digital platforms inquiry, which finds:
… the public broadcasters are not currently resourced to fully compensate for the decline in local reporting previously produced by traditional commercial publishers.
… recommends that stable and adequate funding be provided to the ABC …
Labor will oppose this bill for a number of reasons, but the three key ones are that the bill is unwarranted, duplicative and burdensome; that the bill will achieve nothing for rural and regional Australians; and that the bill does nothing to address the findings and recommendations of the ACCC digital platforms inquiry with regard to the ABC. As currently drafted this bill is nothing but window-dressing and will achieve nothing to improve rural and regional services for Australians who love their ABC.