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Thursday, 11 September 2003
Page: 19910

Mr McGAURAN (Minister for Science) (4:08 PM) —Even though it is the end of parliamentary week and I am struck down with flu, it is very hard to take this MPI very seriously, because the Labor Party does not take it seriously. It is another filler. I do not know why the member for Melbourne allows himself to be used and abused by the attacks committee in this way. There were no lead-up questions to this but—wait for it—there have been 247 questions since the last budget where the Labor Party has accused the government of underfunding the ABC and not a single one has been on the ABC. If this is such a dastardly campaign—a crusade by the Prime Minister to destroy the ABC aided and abetted by Senator Alston—why isn't the Labor Party taking it just a little more seriously? We are not asking for 30 questions on the ABC; maybe not even three questions on the ABC. But can we have one out of the 247 questions asked of the government in relation to its budget and to its public policy and administration?

This is just a time filler. There are no questions in the time-honoured fashion of preliminary questions being asked during question time to lay the groundwork for the MPI, build a climate of expectation and heighten the drama. There was none of that. Instead the member for Melbourne is called upon to fill a gap in the parliamentary day because the opposition have to fill this slot. They choose the debate and, of course, they have resorted to his bid to put forward criticism of the government on the ABC. He does not make out his case. You range across a number of areas, which I will touch on one at a time. May I stress to the honourable member for Melbourne that you confuse statutory independence with immunity from criticism. You cannot say that the ABC cannot be subject to debate or cannot be criticised. The government maintains its statutory independence, but we reserve the right as individuals, or as the head of the government, to make criticisms where appropriate and be judged by the public.

There is not some tool that the government has resorted to which can damage the ABC. Instead we put forward our opinion. If we are wrong in the eyes of the public then we suffer accordingly. But that is not going to stop us having our opinion. Let me give you mine, and it is not necessarily that of the government: of course the ABC are biased against the Howard government and against conservative philosophies. It is just a question of how biased they are. But I do not actually work myself up into a frenzy on these issues, because it is my experience that most people allow for that. Most people who listen to the ABC or choose not to listen to the ABC factor in the undeniable fact that the ABC has a certain philosophical, political and social agenda.

Let us not pretend that the ABC is not biased. We know that from Labor members. How many Labor members could we mention—without embarrassing them; so we will not—who tell us that of course the ABC is antigovernment as a whole? Many within the ABC wear this like a badge of honour, believing that the ABC's role is to be hostile and searching and critical of the government of the day. To a certain extent they perform that role even when the Labor Party is in power but not to the same extent and not with the same heartfelt commitment that they do in keeping the Howard government honest. Let us not kid ourselves: we all know in this chamber that the ABC is anti-Howard government. But I just do not think that is the end of the world. I think it is worrying because the ABC truly does, as the member for Melbourne contended, belong to all Australians. It is a national and unique cultural influence on our community. We agree. What we want is for it to be accountable, to be transparent and to be answerable for its material and for its broadcasts.

The ABC is not some sacred cow above and beyond criticism any more than we as members of parliament are or as a government is or as the commercial networks are. The opposition members well know the lie of the land within the ABC and I venture to suggest that most listeners do too. The member for Melbourne—

Mr Pearce —Where is he?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Aston might want to contribute to this debate in a minute. I advise him to be quiet.

Mr McGAURAN —He indulged in what I thought were very unnecessary personal insults of Senator Alston—he feels very intimidated by Senator Alston and why wouldn't you? Senator Alston is a formidable intellect and an imposing character when he is a good mood. And he carves up the member for Melbourne every time they go head-to-head, so what has the member for Melbourne resorted to? He resorted to name calling: I think he called him Digital Dick at one stage, and said something about Senator Alston's appearance being unappealing. May I just say that when I was Senator Alston's arts minister there were a number of artists who sought to paint his portrait because of his startling blue eyes—piercing. I do not want to get into Senator Alston's personal attributes; I would rather deal with him as a public figure. But let me say that, if you did a poll, I am sure there are a great many people who would find him far more attractive in appearance than the member for Melbourne. But do not let me be dragged down to the level of the member for Melbourne; let us pitch this debate at a higher level than he did.

Of course, the most absurd of all charges from the member for Melbourne was about the Prime Minister. This is the paranoia of Labor members: even if the Prime Minister is not involved, even if he is not here, they will drag him into the debate. They are so intimidated by him and so preoccupied with him because of his dominance and their inability to deal with him. It is a very unequal match, I concede. They say that he is out to destroy the ABC and—wait for it—`remake the nation in his image'. The Prime Minister has said himself that he has never claimed to be victor in the cultural wars, because the battle of ideas—the cultural debate—is never ending. He would be the last to say he could ever—if he sought to and wanted to, and he does not—remake the nation in his image. How could you? This is the most pluralistic democracy with the most diverse number of public opportunities for debate and input, whether it be talkback radio, the plethora of metropolitan, suburban and rural newspapers or our television stations.

Australians have a great history—a great natural instinct—for fierce and strong debate. I think it is patronising for the member for Melbourne to say, `One man on a mission to destroy the ABC will remake the nation in his image.' It tells us a lot about how he regards the Prime Minister but it also tells us how he condescendingly regards the Australian people, whom he underestimates. That is very revealing of the member for Melbourne's mind-set. May I say, I think it reflects the mind-set of too many within the ABC. There are just too many people within the ABC who believe they should run their entire affairs with minimal, little or, at some times, no scrutiny whatsoever.

This was highlighted by the survey that the ABC did recently—a Newspoll survey that the member for Melbourne made much of. The latest Newspoll survey found that 89 per cent of Australians believe the ABC provides a valuable service to the community. Righto. I will be one of the 89 per cent. I am sure the members of the government would be. It provides a valuable service to the community; not as valuable as it could provide, mind you. It found that 68 per cent believe that it is efficient and well managed. No; I will not be one of the 68 per cent. It found that between 85 and 93 per cent believe that its flagship news and current affairs programs do a good job of being balanced and even-handed. No; again, I am not entirely committed to being one of those affirmative respondents.

Let us look at this survey. Let us just be very careful about the authenticity of this survey. I have no problems with surveys; they are a necessary part of gauging, to the extent that they can, public opinion. Mind you, they are only ever a snapshot at a certain period of time. I do hasten to add that I thought it was Labor Party policy, at least as espoused by the Leader of the Opposition, to take no notice of surveys, of polls. Because his are so consistently damning, he has a stock reply that surveys are not a true reflection of the people's mood and the people's attitudes. I have no problems with surveys as a whole but they only go so far in identifying deficiencies given their quantitative nature.

This particular ABC Newspoll survey, relating to the balance and even-handedness of news and current affairs, was asked of people who only watched or listened to those programs occasionally. In other words, they did not survey people who chose not to watch or listen because they had opted out, believing that they did not get a balanced and even-handed representation of the news of the day. If they believe they are the servants of the Australian people, the ABC should be surveying people who decline to watch them or listen to them. That would be more revealing.

Also, the questions of that survey were not restricted to people who were regular or avid listeners who arguably would be more able to identify a lack of balance or even-handedness. Because such surveys go only so far, Senator Alston asked the ABC board to consider reporting annually to the parliament on how it is meeting its statutory obligations to provide an accurate and impartial news and information service. Importantly, Senator Alston asked the ABC to commission an independent expert assessment of whether it is meeting the statutory requirement. Notably, the ABC has not conducted any such external assessment for five years. If the ABC is truly committed to being accountable then the periodic issuing specific external assessments of the accuracy and impartiality of its news and current affairs services would be a major enhancement. Any organisation funded entirely by the taxpayer would welcome the opportunity to properly engage the public at large and to connect with their listeners and viewers. But somehow two men within the ABC believe they will hand to the public what they believe, in their judgment, is in the interests of the community.

The member for Melbourne also touched on the budget. This is a classic. The ABC's budget has not been cut. Do I need to repeat that? There is a scare campaign amongst a lot of school children. We are all getting letters. I am referring them to the managing director of the ABC and will be very interested in his reply. The ABC funding has not been cut; it has been maintained in real terms in accordance with the commitment we gave in the 2001 election. We did not go to the election promising to increase the budget in real terms; we committed to maintain it in real terms. So the public have—amongst many other issues, I freely concede—ruled on the matter. We have been entirely open and up front about our funding program for the ABC. We have nothing to apologise for.

It is a very significant investment in public broadcasting—more than $2.2 billion over three years. The ABC just cannot put its hand out and ask for more money. It is like any other taxpayer funded activity. There has to be a limit and we are answerable to the public for the judgment we make as to what that limit is. We will happily take to the public the budget we have committed to the ABC, believing it is sufficient and, in many people's eyes, more than sufficient to maintain the standard of public broadcasting that the community want and expect. Of course you would want to give it more. Every government body wants more and every government minister would want to give them more, but the fact is we know there are no magic puddings in government. I hasten to add: we have nothing to apologise for in this regard.

We have seen how the ABC arrogantly—and there is no other word for it, and this is the body the member for Melbourne would have you believe are so intertwined with Australian life that they are part and parcel of the community—cancelled a number of programs without consulting the community. They made the judgment about the closure of Behind the News. They made the judgment about discontinuing their multichannels, Kids and Fly, which had a target audience of children and youth. The SBS, a great organisation, was treated identically in the budget—in other words, it had its funding maintained in real terms—and has committed to continue its multichannel.

In summary, there is much about the ABC for Australians and parliament to be proud of. I know a great many ABC employees and journalists, and the bulk of them are as honest, decent and hardworking as you would hope and expect them to be. But the fact is, I believe, that there is an overall cultural problem, as I have outlined, in regard to their approach to funding and their approach to outside accountability. Until the ABC restore these issues within their own ranks, I do not believe they are going to have the full confidence of nearly as many Australians as they purport to have. (Time expired)