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Why vote for the ABC and a healthy democracy?

Introduction by Croakey: “At no point in my lifetime has the ABC been more important than it is today. The time has come for those who say they love the ABC, who say they rely on the ABC, to stand up and be counted. Our vote is one of the most precious things we have. So is the ABC. So please make your vote count. Back the candidates who support a stronger, better funded ABC.”

So says former ABC journalist Kerry O’Brien in a new campaign by ABC Alumni, an organisation of former Australian Broadcasting Corporation employees. It is highlighting the importance of the public broadcaster to democracy at a time of funding cuts and attacks from the Coalition Government.

Tellingly, the three leaders debates during the election campaign have taken place on commercial channels, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison repeatedly refusing requests to appear on the ABC.

O’Brien, who will speak at a rally in support of the ABC in Sydney on Sunday, sees this as emblematic of the state of our politics, which he described in an ABC radio today as “worse than I have seen it in my lifetime and certainly in my time as a journalist’. (Listen to the interview from 52 minutes in).

While democracy was imperfect by nature, O’Brien said that Australian democracy is “fraying at the edges” and he lamented “the sense of a nation adrift, the sense of a nation without real leadership”.

“It just saddens me, I mean it really saddens me that this is the state of our politics today,” he told Virginia Trioli.

“What does that say about a commitment to democracy, that your public broadcaster, which is the most trusted institution in this country, and you have the Prime Minister, who won’t debate on the ABC and who turns his back on so many of its core highly respected programs.”

The history of Coalition Government cuts to the ABC are detailed below by journalists and academics Michael Ward, Associate Professor Alexandra Wake, Professor Matthew Ricketson and Adjunct Assistant Professor Patrick Mullins.

This article was first published at The Conversation on 28 April, under the headline, ‘No-one is talking about ABC funding in this election campaign. Here’s why they should be’.

Hear more about media policy and health at Croakey’s election webinar this Sunday, from 7pm AEST. Panelists include Misha Ketchell, Editor of The Conversation.


Michael Ward, Alexandra Wake, Matthew Ricketson and Patrick Mullins write:

The election campaign is well underway and the ABC is barely registering as an issue. Why is that, when according to the Morrison government’s own figures, the ABC’s real funding will continue to decline over the next three years?

Not that the government acknowledges this.

“The evidence is clear,” communications minister Paul Fletcher declared in February. “The Morrison government has provided strong and consistent support to the ABC.”

This is a breathtakingly misleading statement.

Accumulated losses

Two of us, Michael Ward and Alex Wake, have tracked the Coalition Government’s support several times on this site, most recently in February, writing that the ABC’s budget hasn’t been restored – it’s still facing A$1.2 billion in accumulated losses over a decade.

Ward has also conducted research on how much the ABC has lost and will continue to lose in aggregate over the course of a 12-year period. Ward used a number of public financial sources to build the data sets behind the tables and figures in this article, including ABC portfolio budget statements, a 2014 Budget paper, and a 2022 Budget Strategy Paper. He also used Australian Parliamentary Library reports and ABC answers to Senate Questions on Notice in 2018 and 2021.

The evidence is clear: but for a series of decisions made over the nine years of the Coalition Government, the ABC would have far more funding at its disposal.

The Morrison Government has been neither a strong nor consistent supporter of the ABC. Yes, the ABC benefits from deals with Google and Facebook under the Government’s news media bargaining code, but the Government initially excluded the ABC from the code and the deals are for a limited period.

As the below table shows, decisions by the Coalition Government since 2013 have left the ABC far worse off financially.

There was the axing of the Australia Network, (a service providing soft power diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region) announced in May 2014, at a cost of $186 million.

There was the simultaneous 1% reduction of ABC funding, which has since cost the ABC $72 million.

There have been “efficiency” savings of $353 million, beginning in November 2014.

There have been cuts to tied funding initiatives totalling $122 million, announced in May 2017. (“Tied funding” means grants tied to a specific purpose or project.)

And, since 2019, there has been a freeze on indexation for ABC funding that has cost the broadcaster $84 million.

By 2025–26, we project these all decisions will leave the ABC $1.3 billion worse off.Meanwhile, the Government has sought to trumpet the slightest reprieves and slenderest funding increases as evidence of its commitment to the public broadcaster.

Fletcher’s declaration in February, alongside his announcement of the government’s plans for the ABC’s next triennial funding period, was entirely in this vein.

The Government reversed its freeze on indexation for ABC funding and increased the ABC’s operational funding by a total of $38.3 million between 2022-23 and 2025-26.

The budget papers , released on March 29, stagger the funding increases by 0.7% in 2022–23, 2.0% in 2023–24, and 1.6% in 2024–25. This is an average 1.5% annual increase over the next three years.

But those same budget papers predict inflation to be 3%, 2.75% and 2.75% over the same period. And already the first prediction has needed to be increased to 5.1% after the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest Consumer Price Index figures on Wednesday.

What this means is that the modest increases in nominal funding will be outpaced by inflation, leaving the ABC worse off in real terms.

The Government’s strategy of anaesthetising the ABC’s funding as an election issue appears to be working because few in the media are talking about it. But they should be.

Reductions over the past nine years have already led the ABC to significant job losses and programming changes. Remember when each state and territory had its own edition of 7.30 on television on Fridays? That level of scrutiny has been sorely missed during the global pandemic when we have all been reminded how important state and territory government services are.

In real terms, analysis of Budget papers and a Parliamentary Library report show ABC operational funding has declined by 12% since the Hawke Labor government. The table below compares average annual funding for each government since 1971.

This historical comparison shows that, barring changes to the plans of whoever is in government, ABC funding in 2025–26 will be at its lowest level in real terms in 45 years.

As we (Matthew Ricketson and Patrick Mullins) show in our book, Who needs the ABC?, the environment in which the ABC operates is profoundly different to that of two decades ago. Apart from sustained Coalition Government hostility, the ABC is under almost continuous attack from sections of the commercial news media.

Yet the ABC does more now than it ever has, running six television channels, more than 60 capital city, local, and digital radio stations, four national radio services, a vast array of online resources, and live music.

On funding, one side, the Coalition, is clearly associated with an overall reduction in ABC funding.

The ABC is too important a national cultural institution for voters to be denied a clear picture of how it is being treated by the Government, and by the Labor Opposition. For its part, the Opposition has promised to move funding agreements beyond the electoral cycle, to five years, and to reverse the indexation decisions of 2019.

As we have noted, though, this will not restore the funding lost over the past nine years. Both major parties should commit to restoring ABC funding.

Author details

Michael Ward is a PhD candidate in media and communications at the University of Sydney. From 1999 to 2017 he worked for the ABC, including as a senior executive contributing to funding submissions.

Associate Professor Alexandra Wake is a program manager for Journalism at RMIT University, teaches Global News Studies in the Graduate Diploma of Journalism, and is the elected President of the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia. She was a senior journalist with the ABC, and did her last shift with ABC Radio Australia in 2015.

Professor Matthew Ricketson is an academic and journalist. Presently the professor of communication at Deakin University, last year he conducted paid in-house feature writing training sessions for journalists in the ABC’s Asia Pacific Newsroom. He is the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s representative on the Australian Press Council.

Patrick Mullins an adjunct assistant professor in the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, at the University of Canberra. He has received funding from ArtsACT and the Museum of Australian Democracy.


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Featuring Misha Ketchell, Editor of The Conversation
 

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