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Monday, 18 June 2018
Page: 3106


Senator WILLIAMS (New South WalesNationals Whip in the Senate) (17:03): I speak very much in support of this matter of public importance put forward by the Labor Party:

Strong, well-funded and independent public broadcasting in Australia by the ABC and SBS.

The Nationals leader, Mr Michael McCormack—the Deputy Prime Minister, the member for Riverina and a bloke I call my mate—made a statement today:

The Nationals does not, and has no intention of ever supporting the privatisation of the ABC.

The ABC provides an invaluable service to rural and regional Australians.

From providing cricket coverage to those driving Australia's long highways, to its dedicated coverage of the agriculture sector on The Country Hour, as well as its role in supporting emergency services during natural disasters, the ABC is a crucial and much-loved institution in the regions.

The Nationals believe the ABC should invest more of its staff and resources into rural and regional Australia.

We also believe the ABC should have a legislated obligation to provide coverage to rural and regional Australia.

The Liberals and Nationals Government has a range of measures to support these aims, including legislating that the ABC Board always has at least two members from rural and regional Australia.

There it is in black and white, read out for Hansard. The government supports strong, well-funded and independent public broadcasting in Australia by the ABC and SBS. That is perfectly clear. I get on very well with the ABC. I nearly always listen to them on the radio at home. I watch TV very little but the ABC often. There's one program I do refuse to watch, though, called Q&A. I will not watch that program. There are not enough hours left in my life to waste now without watching Q&A—and a bit of smirk there from Senator Carr! I was in the audience of Q&A one night, at Tamworth, and I was disgusted with the way the questions were stacked up against the conservatives. I almost walked out at half time; I thought, 'No, never ever.' Luckily, in the 10 years I've been in this chamber, I've never been invited onto Q&A. Perhaps they know it's probably a waste of a phone call inviting me.

Senator Kim Carr: They do now!

Senator WILLIAMS: They do now; exactly! I listen to ABC Tamworth radio. Kelly Fuller, every morning, does a great service. I've known Kelly for many years. She worked at 2NZ radio in Inverell, where my current chief of staff, Greg Kachel, trained Kelly in radio. It's a great local service—after AM, of course, with the update of current affairs from Sabra Lane. From 6.15, I listen to it each morning. We hear the stock market report and up-to-dates from Michael Pritchard, from Muswellbrook—another great reporter—and Kelly Fuller's Breakfast show. Local issues are highlighted there all the time, whether it be a local fundraiser or something in the weather; some grazier alerts, with snow coming, was probably the case this morning or last night, with the snow up near Guyra. The ABC is a vital service in regional Australia. One thing I find very disappointing, though, is that about one-third of the population of Australia lives in the regions but only around 10 per cent of people employed at the ABC are employed in the regions, with 90 per cent in the cities. I think that's a bit unfair—you probably agree with me, Acting Deputy President Leyonhjelm.

Can I say: the privatisation of the ABC is simply a no-no. It will not happen. But you watch the politics being played out on this now. It's like the last election—Senator Fierravanti-Wells would remember it well—with the 'Mediscare' campaign. Senator Hanson-Young is saying the government's lying all the time. I found it unbelievable that, at the last campaign—the 2 July 2016 election—the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Bill Shorten, said that we in government would privatise Medicare. How are you ever going to privatise Medicare? It's a business that earns $10 billion a year, with Medicare levies, and spends $21 billion a year. For a simplistic analogy, Senator McCarthy, I put to you: imagine if you went to buy a coffee shop that took $10,000 a week in income but cost $21,000 a week to run. It would lose $11,000 a week. You'd say: 'I'm not buying that business. No-one would buy that business.' But, of course, the politics of scare, of things being said that are simply not true, was a campaign by Mr Shorten at the last election and we can see it coming again now, even though I've read out the statement by the Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader, Mr Michael McCormack, the member for Riverina:

The Nationals does not, and has no intention of ever supporting the privatisation of the ABC.

That's the end of the story. In fact, we want to see some more fairness put into the ABC, as far as regional areas go. Let me explain—I'm talking about the ABC in the regions. One of the areas where the ABC is greatly valued is its regional coverage. We really appreciate it. With a strong channel and strong signal, no matter where you drive in the bush, you can get the ABC. I found out a couple of weeks ago. When I was out at the Dig Tree and Innamincka in the Cooper, down to Flinders Ranges, I listened to ABC all the time. It has 48 local regional stations. ABC regional radio is a vital service that is highly valued by those communities.

The government wants to ensure that the ABC's commitment to regional and rural Australia is strong and enduring. That is why we currently have legislation before the parliament in the form of the Australian Broadcasting Corporations Amendment (Rural And Regional Measures) Bill 2017. The bill contains a range of measures, recently championed by our colleague and my good friend Senator Bridget McKenzie, that will amend the ABC's charter to include the words 'regional' and 'geographic' to reflect that its programs are required to contribute to a sense of regional as well as national identity, and that its programs are required to reflect the geographic as well as the cultural diversity of the Australian community. Most people assume this is already in the charter; it's not, but it should be.

It will implement new requirements for the ABC board, including the establishment of a regional advisory council and consultation with the regional advisory council on matters relating to broadcasting services in regional areas. It will require the ABC board to have at least two non-executive directors who have a substantial connection to or substantial experience in a regional community. The government's appointments thus far have ensured that the board currently satisfies this requirement, through Vanessa Guthrie, chair of the Minerals Council, from Western Australia, and Georgie Somerset, a bee producer from Kingaroy. Isn't it good to see, Mr Acting Deputy President, that a bee producer from Kingaroy is on the board!

It will also include a requirement that the ABC's annual report include certain particulars, including a breakdown of regional versus metropolitan employees, the ratio of journalists to support staff, and the hours of local or regional news broadcasts. These measures are not onerous; nor should they be controversial. They are designed simply to ensure that Australians who live in the regions can depend with certainty on the ABC servicing them as well as it does those of us who live in the cities—me not being one of those 'us', of course.

I look forward to Senator McKenzie's legislation, the great work she has done on this, coming to the chamber and being supported right around the chamber. It will be interesting to see whether those opposite and the Greens and so on will support the strengthening of the ABC's broadcast into regional Australia. As I said, I am disappointed that basically 90 per cent of those employed with the ABC are in the urban areas, whereas one-third of the listeners and one-third of the viewers are in regional areas. I think it would be only fair to have the percentage of those employed in those areas increased from 10 per cent to 20 per cent to make the job easier for those out in the regions, where they have to travel long distances doing stories and do excess work on weekends with sports coverage or whatever. But to say that the government is going to privatise the ABC is simply wrong.

I support this motion. As I said, we want strong, well-funded and independent public broadcasting in Australia by the ABC and SBS. There has been a freeze in the budget for three years, the reason being that we are fair dinkum about getting the budget back into the black—not like Mr Swan, who for years said the budget would be in surplus this year, then next year, then the year after. We never saw a surplus. You never see a surplus when Labor is in government, I can assure you. It's always the coalition that has to come into government and clean up the financial mess. Now we're seeing a surplus one year earlier from this budget. There's been a freezing, for three years, of funding to the ABC, but not of funding to SBS; they're actually getting an increase in some areas. We're getting the budget back to surplus. That is something we will deliver, not just promise.

When Labor were in government they froze the Medicare rebate to our doctors, our GPs et cetera. They did it to help get the budget back in surplus. Unfortunately, it didn't help, because the spending just went on and on and on—as it has with the Labor Party in government all of my life. Whether they be state governments or federal governments, the only thing they know in budget figures is red print—more debt, more borrowing. Thankfully, we're heading back in the right direction.

I'm confident the ABC, with that freeze in indexation, will continue their services. They may have to get some efficiencies there. Like all businesses, they can find efficiencies. Funding of $1.2 billion is an enormous amount of money. I think it might even be $1.3 billion for both ABC and SBS. (Time expired)