PAUL TURTON, HOST: In the 2018 Budget, the Treasurer refers in the forward estimates to the ABC – there being savings around budget cuts at the ABC. This is where the concept of the budget cut has arrived at. What’s actually happening is the Government is freezing the indexation on the ABC’s funding. All up it will cost the organisation $84 million that it would have otherwise received over three years. 250 jobs will be axed.
Now today Federal Labor has said that if they were running the joint, they would reverse the cuts and save those jobs. Pat Conroy is the Labor Member for Shortland and he’s come onto our show today to explain Labor’s position, and I appreciate him doing that. Mr Conroy, thanks for that.
PAT CONROY, MEMBER FOR SHORTLAND: Good afternoon.
TURTON: Now I’ve got some skin in the game here Pat so I’m uncomfortable conducting the interview. I’m not impartial so I will throw some questions in, but I’d like our listeners to text in questions as well to 0487 99 1233. I’ve got my digital assistant here, Aunty, to fire off some questions. So let’s get underway with Aunty.
AUNTY, COMPUTER PROGRAMMED VOICE: Pat, the Labor Party has moved to protect the ABC’s funding. Why is that?
CONROY: We’ve moved to protect the ABC’s funding and committed to reversing the $84 million worth of cuts because the ABC is a vital institution in Australia. It’s one of the most trusted institutions. The way the ABC operates literally saves lives. We saw during the last bushfire crisis that three in five people in bushfire affected regions said that they took advice from the ABC to evacuate or make preparations that ultimately improved their safety. So the ABC performs enormously important functions for this country and it’s essential that it’s properly funded.
AUNTY: Isn’t the ABC just like any other Government department, and shouldn’t it be expected to tighten its belt?
CONROY: No, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the ABC has a unique role in our society, and secondly, it has been cut very significantly over the last seven years. Since 2013 going up to 2022, the ABC budget will have been cut by 10 per cent. It will be 10 per cent in terms of its budget funding in 2013. And in fact people may remember when we used to say that your ABC costs every Australian about eight cents a day, it’s now down to four cents a day. That’s just unacceptable. We need a well-funded ABC to provide the vital functions it does, whether it’s during national emergencies or just holding the Government and the Opposition to account for our positions.
AUNTY: The Prime Minister says the freezing of the indexation is not a budget cut. Do you agree? The 2018 budget papers clearly state that the Government’s savings in the forward estimates will reduce funding to the ABC. Is the PM being disingenuous?
CONROY: In fact I think the PM is just lying, and I am sorry to use strong language. I know people don’t like it, but that’s just a lie. If you reduce funding, if you have a budget saving, they are just all euphemisms for a cut. An indexation sounds like an obscure accounting term, but it means that the ABC funding is maintained to deal with inflation because in three years’ time, every dollar is worth slightly less than it now because of inflation. So if you don’t provide indexation, you’re in fact cutting the ABC’s budget by reducing the amount of money that it can expect to get. So this is a cut by another name, and it’s just an example of when politicians don’t use straightforward language to hide what they’re doing. At least Mr Abbott in 2014 when he cut the ABC budget called it a cut.
AUNTY: Isn’t the ABC in competition with privately owned media and virtually stealing income from them?
CONROY: No, the ABC provides a vital function that we don’t see from commercial broadcasters. So for example, in this [financial] year alone, the ABC alone covered 935 emergency events. It was literally saving lives on the South Coast of New South Wales and Victoria. That is not something that commercial broadcasters generally will not be able to do because they have to make a profit. So I think that’s very important.
And secondly, the ABC is truly independent. It gives the Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the National Party, the Greens a hard time. They hold political parties to account. They don’t have a vested agenda (inaudible). So having an independent broadcaster that is accountable, that is there to serve the interests of the Australian public (inaudible) is really, really important to how a democracy functions. And in a world of fake news, in a world where people get misinformation off Facebook and where people can just select the things they want to hear, having an independent broadcaster like the ABC is more important than ever.
AUNTY: Are you worried about how Donald Trump has eroded public confidence in America’s media? Could the same thing happen here?
CONROY: Well what we are seeing is a worldwide attack on independent media where instead of trying to articulate positions, we have politicians saying it’s fake news and it is incredibly corrosive to democracy because in this world of Twitter and social media, people tend to pick the facts they like. They pick the news sources they like to hear from to confirm their world view. And that combined with political leaders undermining trust in institutions such as public broadcasters I just think makes democracy more precarious than it should be. I think reinvesting in strong public broadcasters, giving them the true independence so that they’re not at the beck and call of the Liberal Party or the Labor Party or whoever is in power is really important.
AUNTY: How much has the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to Labor’s position?
CONROY: Sorry in terms of our position on the ABC? Well I think what we’ve seen over the last six months, whether it’s the bushfires or the COVID crisis, is that people in Australia turn to the ABC for information. They turn to the ABC as a trusted source of facts, whether it’s to evacuate your suburb because of bushfires, or what’s the latest advice from Dr Norman Swan and others on what to do with COVID-19. And it’s certainly, I think, built trust in the ABC from the Australian people, and it’s a sign of the respect that the ABC is held.
We should fund the ABC to be able to perform these vital functions, and I am really worried that if these cuts, this $84 million, is allowed to be cut from the ABC, we’ll see 250 jobs go, and a lot of those jobs are in the news division and regional areas. That will undermine the ability of the ABC to perform that really important information role.
AUNTY: A texter says it is not a cut it is a freeze. In these times, isn’t sharing the pain appropriate?
CONROY: Well if a freeze means that the ABC is getting less money than they were going to get, then it’s a cut. If I promise to give you $100 tomorrow and in the end I only give you $95, that is a cut. Even if I was getting $95 today, that is a cut by any other language, and we’ve got to think about what will be the impact of this. You can talk about sharing the burden – and we do need to share the burden, we’ve got a very large deficit to deal with – but this is $84 million that will really impact on the ABC’s ability to operate. I think this is one area where this is a good investment because that will fund good journalism, that will hold governments of all persuasions to account to make sure that governments don’t waste money. So I would argue that it’s an investment in saving money down the track.
AUNTY: Pat, do you agree that Paul Turton is fantastic and deserves a greater share of the ABC budget?
CONROY: Well I think his voice isn’t quite as alluring as the voice I am talking to now with Aunty. So I’m not sure, but I think he needs to get a bit more voice training from Aunty to earn a bigger slice of the budget.
AUNTY: Thank you.
CONROY: Thank you very much.
AUNTY: You are very welcome.
TURTON: Thank you Pat, I appreciate you coming on today.
CONROY: Thanks Paul, have a great day.