Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Federal Government intends to make much deeper cuts to the ABC according to a Cabinet document obtained by the 'Age' newspaper

ELLEN FANNING: There are claims, this morning, that the Howard government intends to make much deeper cuts to the national broadcaster. A confidential Cabinet document obtained by the Age newspaper reveals the Federal Government originally intended to make immediate cuts of between $125 million and $135 million to the ABC's budget, but backed down fearing community opposition. Instead, it announced a $55 million cut in its August budget and commissioned a review to be conducted by Mr Bob Mansfield.

Well, now, it's been revealed that in a Cabinet document by Communications Minister, Senator Richard Alston, his big picture plan is to reduce the ABC's budget even further, from well over $500million a year to just $416 million. The Cabinet submission said that would involve closing down JJJ, Classic FM and significantly reducing metropolitan radio services. Mr Mansfield's report is due out tomorrow.

Well, the ABC staff-elected board member, Kirsten Garrett, joins me now, and Kirsten Garrett, has the ABC board been duped?

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Well, it certainly looks like it, doesn't it, Ellen? If all this is true, then the cynicism is absolutely breathtaking. It's a huge betrayal, not only of the board but of the entire country. They went to the election saying they wouldn't do it at all and they've obviously had a strategy in place now, for a long time, to actually destroy it and take control of it. It's very serious.

ELLEN FANNING: What do you read into the Communications Minister's intentions here? What is your reading of what the Age newspaper is alleging?

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Well, there's a very sinister sentence in the Age's report on it, and I think this is the thing that made my hair stand on end, that 'this strategy will'-and I'm quoting now, and I'm quoting the Age which is quoting the document-'will give us the ability to influence the future of ABC functions and activities more directly. That means they want control of the organisation. That means that the Australian people would no longer have an independent autonomous broadcaster. This is very serious. It's a very important change to the nature of Australian society and it's not what the people want. I mean, we have to remember that 80 per cent of the people value the ABC. They're not dopes; they know what the ABC is.

ELLEN FANNING: The Age document suggests that the Government originally thought about fairly significant cuts to the ABC but decided, instead, to go with smaller cuts and then an inquiry conducted by Bob Mansfield. What does that indicate to you about the Mansfield inquiry which is due to report tomorrow?

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Well, if it's true, the whole thing's been a total sham and a complete waste of time. Many people around the country outside the ABC, inside the ABC, the board, all those 11,500 groups of people and individuals have put in submissions, put a lot of time into it. It was a complex and hard thing to do. Well, you know, they've been made fools of, they've been smacked in the face-if it's true.

ELLEN FANNING: How seriously, then, will you be taking Bob Mansfield's report due out tomorrow? I mean, do you think he was aware of any of this?

KIRSTEN GARRETT: I have no idea; I have no idea.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: So how seriously do you take his report?

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Well, it depends, doesn't it? Let's see what the Government says. Everybody may have changed their mind in the last six months. We live in hope. I think we won't know for probably a week what the Government's reaction to it all is now, but certainly his report begins to look very thin. But it always was a bit thin, wasn't it?

ELLEN FANNING: The Minister, Richard Alston, has said that he has fought for the ABC's funding in Cabinet. He has denied publicly that by cutting ABC funding he and the Government have broken an election promise. These leaked Cabinet documents make a lie of both those claims. Can the board remain confident in the integrity of the Minister?

KIRSTEN GARRETT: It would take a lot of persuading to convince me that I should have any confidence in the Minister. I can't answer for the other board members.

ELLEN FANNING: What about $416 million as a target? How would that affect the ABC?

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Oh, it is cataclysmic. I fully believe that even the $55 million cuts have the potential to seriously weaken the organisation in all sorts of ways. Without a doubt, the ABC and Mansfield will be able to point at pockets of things where we've been able to find money and make savings and do this and that. That is true of any large national organisation, but the fact is, at the program-making level, the people who put out the programs, who make the programs, they are running to keep it up, to keep the quality up, to keep the output up. They are working extremely hard and there is no fat there at all, and the $55 million alone was going to cut deeply into that.

ELLEN FANNING: It's still a significant amount of money, though? Why would it affect the independence, say, of the ABC?

KIRSTEN GARRETT: The $55 million?

ELLEN FANNING: No, a total budget of $416 million.

KIRSTEN GARRETT: Oh, because it's an enormous and complex organisation. We are doing 24-hour-a-day broadcasting across the country and into Asia, and we are doing work of a very high quality with, for example, a very deep research base, with nearly 50 country radio stations which are an important part of what we do. This is very expensive. Nobody's saying producing good quality television and radio is dirt cheap.

ELLEN FANNING: So what action will the board and, more specifically, you as staff-elected director, take today?

KIRSTEN GARRETT: I don't know what action the board will take. Ishould imagine that there will be some kind of special and urgent meeting to discuss it and probably Brian Johns and Donald McDonald will have urgent talks with Canberra.

ELLEN FANNING: Kirsten Garrett, thank you. The staff-elected director of the ABC, Kirsten Garrett. And the ABC Managing Director, Brian Johns, declined to talk to A.M.this morning but did issue a statement which said 'The ABC has dealt honestly and openly with the review process put in place, and the ABC has given MrMansfield every co-operation, whatever the Government's intentions were. The ABC submission to the review shows that the ABC is now an efficient organisation. We must now get down to discussions about the funding the ABC really needs for the next triennium'.