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Tuesday, 19 November 1996
Page: 5646

Senator EGGLESTON(4.38 p.m.) —Firstly, I would like to say that I oppose Senator Schacht's MPI. I note that, when he began his address, he stated that Senator Alston had given a commitment on election night that the ABC's level of funding would not be reduced. Of course, that was before the full extent of the Beazley black hole was known and, as a result of the government becoming aware of the extent of the huge deficit left by the previous government, the ABC, along with all other government agencies, had to take a small cut of two per cent, and that has been a cut which has been applied across the board. Nevertheless, it has to be said that, even though there has been a two per cent cut in government funding to the ABC, the ABC will continue to receive very substantial funding of just under $540 million in 1996-97, and $500 million is projected for 1997-98. These are very substantial sums and they do not really, as it happens, materially affect the service provided by the ABC.

Senator Schacht also alluded to the possibility of advertising on the ABC. I just want to say that the government is committed to maintaining public funding for the ABC and, in addition, the government will maintain a strong commitment toward the ABC in general, and remains dedicated to the concept of public broadcasting. The government recognises the vital role that the ABC plays in the community and the government intends the ABC to continue to provide high quality programs to the Australian community as well as provide a positive alternative to commercial programming.

Much has been made by members of the opposition in their speeches this afternoon of the two per cent cuts but, according to Bob Batten, who is the head of ABC Radio, these cuts will very largely occur in administrative areas and will not affect ABC programming in any significant manner. Senator Stott Despoja spoke of the cuts to Radio National programming but, as I understand it, those cuts are very largely in repeat programs and only one small religious program has been eliminated. There is nothing very significant in those cuts at all. I repeat that the government's objective is to see efficiency in financial management and, by giving the ABC notice of some reduction in funding, the government has given the ABC the opportunity to review its operations before these cuts come into effect.

The managing director of the ABC, Mr Brian Johns, has acknowledged that there was a need for fundamental restructuring throughout the organisation. In fact, many of the ABC's recent decisions to alter services have been as a result of the organisation's $13.5 million deficit, not the government's $10 million funding cut.

Senator Stott Despoja again also questioned the need for a review of the ABC. Experience suggests that national broadcasters who do not establish a role for themselves based on their strengths can only expect to wither away in the face of today's new technology and other forms of broadcasting. In setting up this inquiry under Mr Mansfield, the government seeks to have a more focused role for the ABC, and that is the purpose of the review to be conducted by Mr Mansfield.

Senator Coonan made the point that 15 years have passed since the last independent review. The Dix report and many major service changes and technology changes have taken place in that 15 years and there is no doubt that a review of the ABC's operation is necessary.

Mr Mansfield will be focusing his review on the need for independent news and current affairs services which are accurate, comprehensive and impartial. He will be considering how high quality information and entertainment services can be maintained by the ABC. Importantly, from my point of view, coming as I do from the north-west of Western Australia, he will be providing an evaluation of the services that are required to meet the needs of rural and remote communities as well as children and other groups who are not currently being serviced adequately by other broadcasting organisations.

In addition, Mr Mansfield's review will focus on the need for maintaining consistency between the cost of future ABC operations and the government's broader fiscal strategy, and there is nothing wrong with that. The government recognises that the ABC plays a unique role in Australian society as it provides news and information, community affairs information, drama, music and regional services and over the years has played a key role in creating a sense of Australian national identity.

Current ABC services include metropolitan radio, with stations in nine cities, regional radio with 49 studios, Radio National, Classic FM, Triple J, the Parliamentary and News Network, the national television network, concert music and international services, including Radio Australia and Australia Television, which broadcasts to South-East Asia. All of these services will be maintained, and that is very important for the Senate to know. It is very easy to believe from what has been said that the ABC is to be decimated, and that is far from the case.

Senator Lundy would be interested to know that, at a recent meeting in Parliament House, the chairman of the ABC, Donald McDonald, gave an assurance that radio services in regional Australia would be maintained, as would regional news services. I cannot overstress that the government recognises the importance of the ABC in regional Australia in general. (Time expired)