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Thursday, 11 September 2003
Page: 19906

Mr TANNER (3:53 PM) —A couple of days ago it was reported that the Prime Minister had claimed victory in the culture wars. He was quick to deny this, but what he denied was that he had actually claimed victory. Of course, the culture wars, from his point of view, are interminable. He certainly did not raise any query about his role in the culture wars. He certainly did not argue with the proposition that he is the leader of one side in these culture wars that are designed to sanitise Australian history and to stifle debate in Australia on difficult, problematic issues.

The No. 1 target in the culture wars for Australia's No. 1 cultural warrior, the Prime Minister, is of course the ABC, against which he is directing a crusade. Bit by bit, the Prime Minister and his associated cultural warriors are laying siege to the ABC, with the ultimate objective of destroying it. With his ever-willing sidekick, Digital Dick, the Prime Minister is out to destroy one of the most fundamentally important and vital national institutions in Australia—the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Why does he want to do this? What is behind this strategy of laying siege to the ABC? Essentially, the Prime Minister wants to turn our nation into a nation of schoolchildren waving flags and singing God Save the Queen. Effectively, he wants to remake the entire nation in his image of what it was like 50 or 60 years ago. That is what the culture wars are about. They are about getting rid of criticism, getting rid of doubt, getting rid of analysis, getting rid of debate about what Australia is, where we should go in the future and what our past means. Of course, the ABC is the primary target in the cultural warriors' sights.

As I am sure members on this side of the House would agree—and probably even some on the other side would agree—the ABC's content can vary. It can range from being a bit daggy and a bit dull through to being very radical and exciting. It can be pretty amateurish at times; it can be very slick and professional at others. It can be riveting; it can be soporific. It can even be infuriating from time to time. I well remember, when Greg Chappell was making his first test century, in his first test at Perth, the ABC switching over to the weather when he was 99 not out. I was rather distressed about this at the time, as you can imagine—and the weather wasn't great either, in other parts of the country.

Regardless of those kinds of inevitable criticisms and the mistakes that are made from time to time, there is one fundamental fact which prevails and which this House should not overlook, and that is that the ABC plays a unique role in our national life because it is ours. It is part of us, it belongs to all of us, it is ours. It is ours in ways that Channel 9, Channel 7 and Channel 10 will never be, in ways that 2UE, 3AK and 6PR will never be, in ways that Foxtel will never be. The ABC is ours. It belongs to all Australians. It is a vital institution in our national life, and for 70 years it has been the universal connector for Australian society, the common cultural thread that links us across our entire vast continent and great nation, that connects Australians from all walks of life, all areas of our nation, together and enables us to be reflected to ourselves. It educate us, it stimulates us, it challenges us, it provides us with information.

When I was a child growing up in country Victoria, we got the ABC and commercial TV at roughly the same time and I was able to watch Batman and Hogan's Heroes and other programs like those on commercial TV—and I am afraid I did, I hasten to admit. But, if I wanted to see my own society, my own world, reflected back to me on television—

Dr EmersonBellbird.

Mr TANNER —I was able to see it on Bellbird—that is absolutely correct. I was not able to see it on commercial TV. Even today the same thing applies with programs like GrassRoots. Particularly for people in country Australia, what the ABC does is provide them with a vital link with all Australia, with the rest of the country, with other groups of people, with other parts of society and with information that is vital for their economic and social life. The ABC is a vital source of information, of debate, of ideas and of entertainment. It is not perfect—occasion-ally it does make mistakes—but the commercial broadcasters make a few mistakes from time to time too, a matter that rarely enters debate from the other side of the House when broadcasting issues are raised.

The reason why the Howard government has set out to destroy the ABC is that it is an independent source of debate, of ideas, of criticism and of analysis in our society. Upon coming to office, the Howard government cut $55 million a year from the ABC's base funding, and that funding has never been fully restored. It sought to stack the board. Its first initiative was to appoint one of the Prime Minister's best mates, Donald McDonald, as Chairman of the ABC. To his eternal credit, Donald McDonald has done a good job and has stood up for the independence of the ABC against his perhaps former friend's depredations.

But, not content with appointing Donald McDonald, the government had to get in a mate of the Treasurer as well, just for a bit of balance. It appointed Michael Kroger, with a CV relating to broadcasting that was a blank piece of paper. He was there to be a political head-kicker, to intimidate ABC staff and management and to bring the ABC to heel. There were numerous other people of a conservative political background appointed to the ABC board as well—former Liberal members of parliament, for example. Michael Kroger, as a board member, then engineered the appointment of Jonathan Shier, a former Young Liberal crony of his and the Treasurer's, to run the ABC. That turned into such a shambles that even the Prime Minister's own appointees on the ABC board had to cut Mr Shier loose.

More recently, we have seen the appointment of Dr Ron Brunton, another leading player in the cultural wars, to the ABC board. He is a key player from the IPA whose only credential for appointment to the ABC board, which was announced by the government—and these are not my words; this is from the minister's press release announcing his appointment—is that he has written extensively on issues that are covered by the ABC. So has Chopper Read! Chopper Read has written an awful lot about issues that get on the ABC, so he is obviously qualified. Alan Bond would probably qualify. We may even see John Elliot turn up on the ABC board on that criterion. Having done this, the minister rejected flatly Labor's proposal to introduce some genuine independence and fairness into the appointment mechanism for the ABC board by establishing a proper process of advertising, interviewing and short-listing that is at arm's length from the minister. This rejection is a telling indication of the genuine motives and real agenda of the government with respect to the ABC.

More recently, the government rejected the ABC's budget bid, effectively, therefore, locking in the effect of previous funding cuts and failing to address new costs, such as the ABC's online role and the mounting costs of digital transmission. As a result, the two digital multichannels the ABC had have had to be closed down. So our transition to digital television in Australia, which was already occurring at a snail's pace, has now gone into reverse. It is now actually going backwards. Behind the News, a vitally important program for schoolkids, has been axed and that is now the subject of protest from all around Australia. This was forced upon the ABC by the budget cuts imposed on them. Other programs, such as the cadetship program, had to be abandoned as well. On the first day these cuts were announced, the minister said it was all okay—that it was all fine, there were no problems and the ABC had a responsibility to manage its budget properly. But, of course, as soon as there was a bit of community protest, he changed his tune and started to attack the ABC again.

Then there were the infamous 68 examples of anti-American bias that the minister allegedly found on the AM program, which the properly constituted internal ABC review process found virtually no substance in. The minister responded by saying, `That's Caesar judging Caesar; that's crook, unfair and not independent.' He failed to point out that there is actually another tier of appeal to a genuinely independent body that consists of, for example, the dean of the University of New South Wales Law School, the ethnic affairs commissioner of New South Wales and a former general manager of Channel 7. These are people who have no vested interest in supporting or helping the ABC and no connection with its decisions. They are people of standing in the community and in media matters.

The minister decided that he wanted to appoint his own panel. Before he had even taken any appeal to this panel, he decided that the ABC process, which previously he had approved and said publicly was a good process, now was no good, and he wanted to appoint his own panel. Since then we have had Senator Santoro, with information supplied by the minister's office, launching false claims against the ABC, suggesting, for example, that Indira Naidoo is being paid $250,000 a year—approximately three times what she is actually being paid—and suggesting, for instance, that the ABC has some kind of link with a refugee advocacy group. That turned out to be completely false. Most significantly of all, there has been a parade of Liberal backbenchers calling for advertising on the ABC and for the ABC to be privatised.

Dr Emerson —Name them!

Mr TANNER —I will. The member for Sturt—a very popular figure with members on this side of the House—the member for Casey, the member for Corangamite and the member for Parramatta have all put forward the idea of advertising or privatisation, which will ultimately mean the same thing. Advertising on the ABC will simply be the first stage in the introduction of privatisation. The minister's only response to that, rather than rule it out and say that the government has no plans or reject it, has been to say, `We think the ABC should have status as a charitable institution—that's the way to solve its funding problems.' So, in other words, we might have Kerry O'Brien rattling the tin out in the Bourke Street mall or something like that or Geraldine Doogue washing people's windscreens and getting $1 from people as they go by to help fund the ABC. That is the minister's response and that exposes what the real agenda is here.

We are witnessing the early stages of a long-term softening-up process with the ultimate objective of privatising the ABC. Make no mistake: that is what this is about and that is where this is headed. If this government is re-elected, you watch—it will not just be the occasional ramblings of backbenchers and government whips; you will see a serious attempt to privatise the ABC. That is what all this is about. Of course, the National Party—those great defenders of government ownership of Telstra—will be nowhere to be seen. In spite of the fact that their constituents will be about as happy at the idea of the ABC being privatised as my constituents will be, the National Party, those great political cowards, will be nowhere to be seen. Senator Alston is pursuing a sinister long-term agenda here. Even though he might look like a bit of a goose—and he is a bit of a goose—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member would be well aware that he cannot reflect on members in either house.

Mr TANNER —I withdraw the reference to geese. Why is this happening? Because a substantial section of the Liberal Party—particularly the Kroger-Costello faction—regards the ABC as the enemy. Therefore, it has to be starved of funds and bludgeoned with false accusations. Its staff have to be intimidated and its board has to be stacked.

The Australian people will not put up with this. The latest Newspoll data shows overwhelming support for the ABC. It shows that almost 90 per cent of Australians think that the ABC does a good job and that the overwhelming majority of Australians think the ABC is balanced and not biased. The only people who see the ABC as biased are people who are so extreme right wing that, from where they sit, everybody looks left wing. Everybody else looks left wing when you are part of the Kroger-Costello faction of the Liberal Party. That certainly says more about those people than it does about the ABC.

The ABC has been an integral part of Australian society for over 70 years. Whatever its faults, it has been and it continues to be a central part of our lives. It has been a vital element in Australian society. It is the connector; it is one of the crucial means by which we as a nation are drawn together with common thoughts, common ideas, common culture and a common sense of our own identity, and Australians will not put up with the government's long-term agenda to privatise the ABC. I call on them to come clean. Tell people what you really intend to do. Answer those crucial questions: does the Howard government intend to introduce advertising for the ABC? Does the Howard government intend to privatise the ABC? There will be some weasel words now but, rest assured, if the Howard government is re-elected, privatisation of the ABC will be there on the top of the agenda as part of their pursuit of the culture wars. (Time expired)