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Tuesday, 10 September 1996
Page: 3177


Senator LUNDY(7.43 p.m.) —Madam President, congratulations on your appointment. My contribution to tonight's adjournment debate deals specifically with cuts to the ABC. I want to begin by reading three quotes from coalition policy documents:

The Coalition will maintain existing levels of Commonwealth funding to the ABC.

The ABC must be an independent, truly national, publicly funded broadcaster devoted to excellence and objectivity and offering a clear alternative to the commercial broadcasting sector.

We will encourage and support the ongoing expansion of ABC Radio, including the extension of the highly successful Triple J network into regional Australia.

These are fine and noble sentiments, are they not? In an exchange between Jim Middleton and Senator Alston on March 2, Middleton said:

. . . the ABC and the commitment to maintain funding in real terms over the term of the coming Parliament. Does that stand?

Senator Alston's reply to that was:

Absolutely.

Middleton went on to say:

Even if you discover on Monday the budget's bottom line is much worse that the government's been saying?

Senator Alston replied to that:

Oh yes. I think John Howard's made it very plain that we want to maintain—honour—all our commitments and the ABC is a very important part of that.

These were all pre-election promises from the coalition. Less than six months later we saw Senator Alston, now minister for the ABC, fearlessly take back all those promises by announcing a $55 million cut to the ABC's 1997-98 budget and the establishment of the Mansfield review into the management functions of the ABC, against all of their pre-election promises.

More and more I fear we are moving into the twilight zone with this government. Ten per cent or $55 million sounds eerily like one of their 1993 Fightback policies—surprise, surprise! Fightback contained a 10 per cent or $50 million cut to the ABC. The budget has since seen a cutting of $209 million over the next four years.

In a betrayal of voters' trust, Fightback policies have been resurfacing at every turn. Whether it is differential HECS, cuts to the public sector or cuts to labour market programs, it all comes straight from the 1993 Fightback policies. The government seems to be caught in a time warp. On 3 March this year, Senator Alston did not wake up to find himself transported back to 1993. It is now 1996. Australians rejected those Fightback policies and, as a result, the coalition was forced to reinvent itself with a new package of policies and a new set of promises.

Back in 1993, those policies were rejected in the context of what I am talking about. Australians believe in the ABC and support the ABC. It is not surprising that rallies calling to save the ABC attract tens of thousands of people. The ABC feeds the spirit of Australians. It is an essential part of our culture and to cut that funding is, in a sense, to have some of our dignity stripped away.

The ABC has been instrumental in developing and sustaining our cultural identity for decades that extend beyond my lifetime. I believe the ABC is one of Australia's most important cultural institutions. It is not only a trendsetter but also a trail blazer. It is only through the predominance of quality ABC Australian drama that the commercial stations have taken the course of making quality commercial Australian drama now available around the world. Science programs like Towards 2000 were ABC originals. They were so good that they got cut in this government's budget. Consumer programs and Australian made comedies started on the ABC. We have opera and concert simulcasts. Triple J unearths Australian music in regional areas, giving young bands a fair go and an opportunity to extend themselves. That would never have happened on commercial radio; now it will not happen on Triple J.

Who but the ABC reports on the height of the Darling River and cattle and sheep prices? It keeps regional Australia connected with their urban counterparts, with their businesses and with their environment. The ABC sets the standards and the rest follow. Without a well-funded national broadcaster, the quality of Australian production will fall, leaving all broadcasting in Australia in an unhealthy situation. In 1993 when the coalition first raised the prospect of cutting 10 per cent off the ABC's budget, ABC management was claiming that it would see the sacking of at least 1,500 people, a reduction in Australian content, closure of state-based production, cuts to transmission hours, cessation of specialist programs like the rural, religious, science and arts programs and the abolition of some regional services to Australia.

Like every other part of the public service, the ABC has been undergoing efficiency and productivity restructuring. About 80 per cent of the ABC's budget is spent on buying and making radio and television programs. So a cut of $209 million over four years will affect programming as well as personnel. But the government has not just cut the ABC's budget; it has established yet another inquiry into its role and functions to redefine and reposition the ABC for the 21st century. This comes from the very same man—now the minister—who last year chaired a Senate inquiry which found the ABC's basic structure to be quite sound and worthy of its then levels of funding.

What is the real intention of the government? Is it motivated by economic indicators or blatant ideology? Will John Howard go down in history as the man who killed off Big Ted, put UnEarthed six foot under, put the Bananas in the dole queue with the dole diary for a partner and applied the gag to some of the ABC's political commentary and current affairs reporting?

The Mansfield review is the government's attempt to dictate changes to ABC management and programming. What is at stake? Where is the independence? We cannot allow this review to marginalise the ABC, providing only specialised programs for a small section of the community. That would be its death knell. We want quality and excellence in production, not just B-grade re-runs from our public broadcaster. The efforts of commercial broadcasting to educate, inform and even entertain will always be contingent upon their reliance on sponsorship and advertising. Surveys have shown that 80 per cent of Australians tune in to the ABC at some time. Of course, it is not the only radio and TV that we watch, but independent broadcasting is all about providing choice to all Australians. And it is that choice that we need to defend.