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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Australian Broadcasting Corporation


CHAIR: I welcome officers from the ABC. Thank you for joining us. Do you have an opening statement you would like to make?

Ms Higgins : Yes, thank you. Just a point up front: as we notified in writing, the Manager Director, Michelle Guthrie, can't be present due to a significant family commitment. I'm joined by the ABC Editorial Director, Alan Sunderland.

As Chief Financial and Strategy Officer, my job is to ensure the public understands how the ABC is funded, how those funds are spent and the strategic direction for the ABC into the future. Like my colleagues, I treat seriously the ABC's obligation to be transparent and accountable. After all, there are many demands on the public purse and our annual funding of more than $1 billion is a significant investment made on behalf of all Australians. To improve transparency and accountability, in February the ABC held its first ever annual public meeting. Our objective was to detail how we spend public money, outline our strategy for the future and, importantly, describe ways in which the public service broadcaster can help address important policy challenges. To build on that initiative the ABC board is continuing to adopt public company governance principles in relation to matters such as oversight, ethics, reporting and risk. In addition, we're building an internal culture of disclosure that respects the public's right to be provided with information about the ABC's activities and the positions of key public importance.

As well as transparency and accountability, I am committed to the ABC's efficiency. That's not to say the ABC has been sitting on its hands. Thirty years ago the ABC had five platforms and 6,000 staff. Today, by contrast, we have six times the platforms and 4,000 staff. Our per capita funding has halved during this time. This is not a complaint as much as a statement of reality. A further reality is that our productivity journey must continue, not just because we are stewards of public resources, but also because, importantly, we face two sets of rising costs. First, like our commercial peers here and abroad, the ABC faces production costs that are escalating faster than inflation and driven by the giant content budgets of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google. Secondly, we must maintain traditional broadcasting services for our very large and loyal audiences at the same time as modernising our technology platforms so digital audiences can access ABC content however and wherever they are. Every dollar we can save, and then some, will help the ABC meet these challenges. No doubt the government's foreshadowed efficiency review will help give an opportunity to demonstrate how the ABC's productivity has improved over recent years and how it will continue to improve as we look to modernise the ABC for the digital age.

I appear before this committee today representing 4,000 ABC people who do important work every day for Australia. This includes 855 journalists who work as far afield as Broome and Beirut to deliver the most trusted news service in Australia; 2,000 storytellers who provide Australian stories in a world flooded by foreign content; and many more women and men who enable the front line through their critical support services. My colleagues and I understand the importance of our work at the ABC, an organisation that reaches 71 per cent of adult Australians every week and delivers a service that 83 per cent of them value and 82 per cent rate as trustworthy. Our collective aim is to maintain those achievements while building a public service broadcaster that is transparent, accountable and efficient. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Higgins. We will now go to questions.

Senator URQUHART: You mentioned your budget. Can you tell me again what the ABC's budget is, and how it is apportioned? How much is spent on wages, transmission costs, content and overheads?

Ms Higgins : We receive just over $1 billion of funding every year. About a quarter of that is spent on transmission. That includes both our big broadcasting contracts, which reach all Australians, as well as supporting our digital platforms. Half a billion is spent on staff costs, and the remaining quarter, half of that again, is spent on program acquisitions in the external market, supporting Australian productive industries. The remaining bits—just over $100 million if we do the maths—it is spent on supporting those content makers. That is where your technology comes in, property costs, supply costs, expenses, newsgathering, and so on.

Senator URQUHART: So just to confirm: the ABC's overheads are eight per cent or four per cent?

Ms Higgins : Eight per cent. When you take the properties that we put in, the technology that supports them, and every other cost, including accountants, lawyers and so on, it is eight per cent.

Senator URQUHART: How would you describe the operating environment of the ABC and what this means for the ABC's funding?

Ms Higgins : The ABC is not unique in terms of commercial or public service broadcasters around the world. I think the difference for us in Australia is that because of our geographical nature we will still be servicing large and loyal audiences on traditional platforms for a very long time. We are not going to exit radio or TV services for decades. That is just due to the nature of it—it can reach all of Australians. But running parallel to that is that an increasing number of Australians are looking to consume digital services. We know that Australians respond very quickly. Netflix, for example, got their greatest traction in the Australian market. They got to 30 per cent penetration in two years. So we know that Australians take to digital services very fast. The challenge for the ABC in a fixed funding envelope is to maintain those traditional broadcast services for quite a long time, and running parallel to that, making sure they are reaching Australians on digital platforms and services in the way they want as consumers.

Running alongside that again, in a third track if you like, as I referenced in our opening statement, we have increasing costs of content. One could describe them as hyperinflation. That comes down to the way that audiences have changed how they consume content. In the past you might have consumed the show once a week and you were very happy to wait seven days for the next episode. Now consumers want to be able to binge whole seasons or have seasons available for a long time on digital platforms. That becomes very costly in the acquisition of those digital rights. Content costs are also rising. That relates to the point made in my opening statement that you have a lot of content money going into the market from the overseas global players. So within a fixed funding envelope, we are still reaching all Australians on TV and radio, ensuring they have what they want to consume on digital platforms, and really still doubling down on distinctive Australian content. That is our raison d'etre, that is what we do, but that is becoming increasingly expensive to make.

Senator URQUHART: If I go back to your opening statement, you talked about the number of employees and how much that has reduced. You talked about what you were doing 30 years ago and what is happening now—the increasing reach that you have with digital, traditional, and the increasing cost of content. Is it fair to say that at this stage the ABC is already a fairly lean organisation?

Ms Higgins : I take this three ways. As I said in the opening statement, we have had a history of efficiency. We have had to be efficient to be able to build out those services and maintain that level of content. Therefore, as we sit here today in 2018, it does mean that we are very thinly spread, because we have those locked-in transmission contracts and we are sustaining four TV stations and 66 radio stations as well as the digital footprint. So as we sit here today, we are lean. I think there is an important point to make, though, that in the future, as we are able to modernise and adopt more digital practices, I think we will start to reach a point that we can see more efficiency gains, but they are foreshadowed more into the future as we sit here today.

Senator URQUHART: Can you step me through the ABC's Investing in Audiences strategy? What are the key features of that, and what is the ABC trying to achieve through that process?

Ms Higgins : There are four pillars as part of our Investing in Audience strategy. The first pillar goes to the statement I made a moment ago. What is special about the ABC, what will make and maintain it as a unique service to Australians, is distinctive Australian content. That is absolutely the first pillar of that strategy. In fact, we're very proud that, over the last year, the amount of Australian content that you see on your screen has increased from 76 per cent to 81 per cent. That is what we'll continue to focus on and what will set us apart.

The second element of that strategy also talks to some of the themes I've touched on already—that is, making sure that we provide our audiences with the experience that they're looking for so that, if they want to consume their news on their mobile phone, like we know 40 per cent of Australians do, we have an adequate service for them or, if they want to consume iView, we have a standard of service that they would like to consume and is personalised for them. It's about making sure we have a great audience experience for the Australians who come and consume ABC content.

The third pillar is, if you look at our act and the charter contained as part of that, it is really important that we provide a very broad diet of content. It talks to everything from making sure we serve things of mass appeal as well as distinctive to servicing the areas of real speciality—your arts and science—while reflecting what is important to Australians. The third pillar is making sure we are being as relevant as we can be to all Australians and that we're not narrowing ourselves to say, 'We're only important to you under these circumstances.' We are looking to make sure we're giving back to taxpayers something that is important to as many people as possible.

The fourth pillar is, as Australia's largest creative employer—in fact, I understand we're the largest creative employer in the Southern Hemisphere—having a great, creative place to work really matters. We are supporting our content makers and we are ensuring that not just the ABC but the broader creative communities we support flourish and thrive. Those are the four pillars: great Australian content, ensuring we're reaching Australian audiences with relevant content, ensuring they have a great experience and supporting ourselves as a creative organisation.

Senator URQUHART: Could you explain the status of the ABC's restructure to adapt to the digital age. Step us through how you've restructured to be able to move into the digital age.

Ms Higgins : This will be a case of continual evolution. I want to make that point upfront. You don't restructure for the digital age and then are done. I wish that were the case! The first step towards that is we were still very much structured in a way that reflected our past—a TV division, a radio division, a news division—but a way to be the most efficient is to make sure we collect like groups of content. We have a lot of people who work on sports throughout the organisation. We have a lot of people who work on arts or science or religion or children's. By reshaping the organisation to be based around genres, as we call them—to someone in the pub, you'd say, 'Same content'—you can get more economies of scale and also more leveraging of what we do.

Tonight is a brilliant example. We have Stargazing Live. We have 250 live sites across Australia. It is a beautiful example of science content, children's content, live broadcasting and community engagement. Because of the way we're structured, we can facilitate that across multiple platforms and be supported by those genres teams. So it's about thinking about content first and then the multiple platforms on which audiences can then consume that content. That was a restructure that we moved to at the beginning of this year. I absolutely foresee that, as we progress through the next years, we'll have to continually think about how we're set up to be most efficient and make sure that the content that we make is made in the most efficient way for our audiences.

Senator URQUHART: How did the ABC realise the $254 million in savings that the ABC has returned to government since 2014? How were those savings derived?

Ms Higgins : They were made across a broad number of programs. The biggest area of contribution was around the renegotiation of our transmission and satellite contracts. That made up quite the lion's share. We were able to renegotiate those big transmission contracts over a 28-year horizon. It was the same with satellite. We were able to renegotiate those across a 15-year horizon. And then, with those big-ticket items achieved, they came through a broad number of categories. So we took a big reduction in our support, as you would anticipate that we would do, and big reductions in technology, in property—really throughout the organisation, where we felt we could still sustain output.

Senator URQUHART: What will the government's further $84 million cut compel the ABC to do to find further savings?

Ms Higgins : I think the most important point on this is that this funding that we're referring to with the indexation pause of $84 million does not come into effect for at least another 12 months. It doesn't come in until 1 July 2019. Now, we know it will be challenging for us insofar as we have foreshadowed already that we have costs that rise greater than inflation. We have also foreshadowed that we have really been very much focused on back office efficiencies in the last few years. So we do not want to contemplate, as yet, where we would look to make sure we could manage that indexation pause on the basis that we're 12 months out and we also have a normal negotiation period still available to us, as we would normally as we enter the funding period. And we would, as I understand was the case in the previous process, be looking to submit a number of funding proposals that will go to the points I've raised already today around being able to continue to be able to support Australian content, being able to continue to reach audiences. Therefore I think that in being a responsible employer and the fact that we have 4,000 staff—and most of our costs are staff costs that aren't fixed—it wouldn't be responsible for us at this time to be making those decisions until we have fully exhausted the normal process of government.

Senator URQUHART: How many efficiency reviews has the ABC been subject to in recent years?

Ms Higgins : When we think about efficiency reviews, over the last 10 years a number of reviews have certainly been initiated by government. We know that the most recent one was in 2014, the Lewis review, but there were a number previous to that. I think there was one called the McGarrity review, and so on and so forth. There was a KPMG review from the government in 2005 that looked at the adequacy of our funding. But in concert with that—by nature of keeping up with content and keeping up with audience expectations—we have also commissioned a number of our own efficiency reviews. Less than 10 years ago we commissioned a significant review into our property portfolio and we were able to reduce our property footprint from 120 properties down to 55. After the Lewis review we commissioned another internal efficiency review with PwC to have a look at where else we could find self-funding mechanisms to continue to launch those additional services you've seen in recent years. And when I commenced at the ABC over a year ago we again led another internal review that was able to help us fund the announcement of the $50 million content fund, of which $15 million has gone into regional communities and the remainder is what you're seeing supporting that Australian content. That was led entirely internally, and that was through, again, the reduction of roles across middle management as well as savings that we could make in procurement and back office.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. I think prior to that there were about nine there, in the last 10 years.

Ms Higgins : There have actually been a total of 12. If you bear with me, I'm happy to find the list for you. Yes: I have 12 in front of me, if we go back to 2004.

Senator URQUHART: What do you make of the minister's comments with Patricia Karvelas that services between the ABC and the SBS should be examined in the efficiency review?

Ms Higgins : The first comment I would make is that we already work very closely with the SBS, and that's being good stewards of public service money, but with another public service broadcaster of course we would look to work together as well as we can. In fact, in the last few years there have been four key areas of savings that we've already delivered working with the SBS. This is just the ABC savings: we delivered $2.3 million in content delivery networks over four years, we delivered savings in a satellite area over the 15 and we delivered the 385 in the transmission services, all by negotiating with SBS. We work with SBS all the time when we can see tender and procurement savings opportunities. And I won't foreshadow the efficiency review per se, but what we will be encouraged by is not only what I said in my opening statement—the efficiency review highlighting the efficiencies we have made in the past, highlighting the productivity gains that we continue to make—but I also hope it takes a much more forward view and says: in the long-term, if the ABC is well funded to modernise, we know that a digital ABC can be an efficient ABC. And as we look five, 10, 15, 20 years out then there are significant savings available to taxpayers and government, as there would be an appropriate time to start to consolidate spectrum. I think it is about being broader than just the ABC and the SBS. I think it really is about taking a long-term view as to public service broadcasting.

Senator URQUHART: I want to talk briefly about the enhanced news-gathering funding. The minister insists that is still on the table, which is a good thing. Can you please outline what that initiative has achieved?

Ms Higgins : The enhanced news-gathering funding has been in place now for over five years; it would be coming into its sixth year. It represents already about seven per cent of our total news funding. Where it was born from was the absolute need to make sure we have really good coverage in areas which to that point have been underrepresented, and they are both areas slightly outside the metropolitan areas, so making sure the growth you've had in Geelong, for example, in Victoria, was well serviced, as well as further afield and regional. What it enables us to do is make sure there's sufficient funding for our news gathering coverage, particularly in periods of breaking news and particularly when you think about natural disasters or things that happen that need greater support than just that local team perhaps—important stories that need to be told to all Australians—that we were adequately funded to do so, that's what that funding has achieved. As we have said on the record, along with the minister, as part of the normal try funding process, we will absolutely be putting in a funding bid and we very much look forward to that funding being continued.

Senator URQUHART: So it's important that it be continued?

Ms Higgins : It's very important.

Senator URQUHART: I want to turn to Tassie. What services does the ABC currently provide to northern Tasmania?

Ms Higgins : Services in so far as radio, TV?

Senator URQUHART: Are there any services that the ABC provides around northern Tasmania.

Ms Higgins : In Tasmania, we are currently in the three sites—Bernie, Launceston and Hobart. As well as having local radio and as well as state based bulletins, earlier this year we launched the AB service in Tasmania, which we're very proud of, and we have also been able to introduce the streaming of local radio services.

Senator URQUHART: What's the physical presence?

Ms Higgins : There are three offices and around 130 staff.

Senator URQUHART: In northern Tasmania? I think there are only two.

Ms Higgins : Sorry, you're absolutely right; Burnie has three. From memory, Launceston would have, I'm going to say, approximately 16.

Senator URQUHART: And how many in Burnie?

Ms Higgins : Three, from memory.

Senator URQUHART: I think that's right, from my memory. I'm not sure about Launceston but there's three in Burnie. What are the roles they undertake?

Ms Higgins : I haven't got that detail in front of me but I do know that Launceston has certainly got quite a breadth of roles. There are cameramen there, reporters and online editors. Launceston is an excellent example of very much a multi-platform bureau that's able to service all of those platforms.

Senator URQUHART: What about Burnie?

Ms Higgins : Burnie I would have to take notice.

Mr Sunderland : I was in Burnie a few months ago. I know they would have a news reporter, a general radio reporter and a rural regional features reporter.

Senator URQUHART: Very good, Mr Sunderland, that's exactly right. I just wanted to make sure that nothing had changed. I don't know the answer to this one, but how often do ABC Hobart and Launceston based TV—the TV crews are only based in Launceston and Hobart. There is no TV crew in Burnie.

Ms Higgins : Correct.

Senator URQUHART: How often do ABC Hobart and Launceston based TV and radio crews go to the north-west, the west coast and King Island?

Ms Higgins : I would have to take that one on notice.

Mr Sunderland : It would be driven by the demand for those kinds of stories. I should point out that they would go to Burnie from time to time but they would also go elsewhere around Northern Tasmania as stories and issues came up. That's why they're based in Launceston.

Senator URQUHART: What does it take for crews to get to the far regions? The Launceston crew is based in Launceston. What does it actually take to get them to go to the west coast or King Island or the far north-west?

Mr Sunderland : Do you mean what kind of issue or what kind of story?

Senator URQUHART: Yes. What would draw a camera crew and people out to those areas?

Mr Sunderland : It's not dissimilar to the approach we take right across our regional offices. Whether they're Launceston based content makers or Burnie based content makers, they would be pitching stories. The way we have moved to a cross-platform, multiplatform approach means that we would look at issues and say, 'Is this a story which is purely radio and online or is there an obvious television element to it?' You understand that there are far fewer stories in capital cities let alone regionals that are done on TV rather than radio. The stories are pitched within the division. In their case it would be the regional and local division. Where there is a justified need, we look at our resources—how many crews we have and where we can best make use of them—and, on that basis, they'd be assigned and would go and cover those stories. Often what will happen too is that you might pitch two or three stories and say, 'If you come up here for a couple of days, we can knock off two or three stories.' It's very much based on the nature of the content and the pitching that goes on within that team.

Ms Higgins : It now comes to me that I mentioned earlier that we have invested $15 million in our Connecting Communities package, which supported rural and regional based reporting. In fact, of that investment in about 80 roles, two of them were invested in Northern Tasmania. Those were in Burnie and Launceston for exactly the point that you've made about being able to serve remote communities, particularly King Island. The other important aspect that those two roles enable us to do in Northern Tasmania is ensure that we do have seven day coverage. With emergency broadcasting or anything else that arises of that nature, we are now resourced to do so.

Senator URQUHART: What challenges do these crews face in covering breaking news in all three corners of the state and adequately covering that news?

Mr Sunderland : We have our resources across-the-board. The ABC's editorial resources, particularly when it comes to breaking news, would be spread more widely than any other broadcaster because of our radio footprint. Increasingly, those offices are not just reliant on camera crews. We would have people who have skills for shooting their own material either with smaller cameras or even with iPhones. So we have a range of means through which we can respond to news. For a big story where there's advanced notice, we will move our crews around. For the rest, we would rely on—

Senator URQUHART: There's not always advanced notice, though, is there?

Mr Sunderland : Exactly. That's where we'd get crews to events as quickly as we can, where it's a major long-running event, otherwise we rely on the skills of the increasingly multiskilled staff we have in those areas. Of course, let's not forget the large parts of regional Australia where we don't have offices.

Senator URQUHART: Ms Higgins, you talked about the cuts previously. You recall the 2014 budget and the $254 million cuts to the ABC when Malcolm Turnbull was the communications minister. Can you tell me how many ABC jobs were impacted in Tasmania as a result of those 2014 cuts?

Ms Higgins : I don't have in front of me the exact post closures from those particular cuts. I can say that, since 2014, we have closed about 20 posts in Tasmania. The reason for that has been not just the 2014 cuts but we have closed our retail shops in Tasmania. That has contributed to about a quarter of those roles. A quarter of those 20 roles were editorial roles that were closed in Tasmania, and then the remainder were closures that we had particularly across our support services—closures in property roles and technology roles.

Senator URQUHART: Can you narrow that down? Were there any reductions to services to northern Tasmania as a result of the 2014 budget?

Ms Higgins : My understanding is the post closures that were really minimised on editorial did not have an impact on services to northern Tasmania.

Senator Fifield: To assist the committee, from memory, most of those decisions about the employment profile of the organisation that Mr Scott made were ones that were in train and in contemplation before the Lewis measures. You can't draw a straight line between decisions that ABC management have made about employment and how to deploy those resources and the Lewis review.

CHAIR: A couple more questions before we go on.

Senator URQUHART: I've got about five left. Can we finish this package?

CHAIR: If you can do it quickly, before the break.

Senator URQUHART: I will try. Have any of the 2014 budget cuts affected the service that the ABC could offer in extreme weather events, like in the June 2016 floods in Latrobe?

Ms Higgins : My understanding is that, particularly for key events, particularly emergency broadcasting—and I was trying to see if I could find how many we have covered in Tasmania—the reduction has not limited our ability to cover those. So, again, they were made at the time in a very sensible manner so that they did not have that impact.

Senator URQUHART: The ABC does perform an important emergency function, doesn't it?

Ms Higgins : It absolutely does.

Senator URQUHART: What funding does the ABC receive to fulfil its role as emergency broadcaster?

Ms Higgins : We don't receive separate funding. We are not legislated to provide emergency broadcasting. We absolutely respect it's an expectation from the community, and we treat it with that seriousness. We make sure that we've got the right protocols, processes and staff in place. From memory—I couldn't remember Tasmania in particular—since the beginning of July the ABC has covered as many as 280 emergency broadcasts across Australia. As you can appreciate, we've had a very busy season, given the cyclones and fires in Victoria and New South Wales, as well as lots of extreme weather events in Northern Territory and WA.

Senator URQUHART: You said from July?

Ms Higgins : Yes, 1 July last year.

Senator URQUHART: What happens if there's an emergency that needs to be covered in a regional area? Does that eat into your content budget for other things, given that you don't have specific funding for that?

Ms Higgins : How we cover that, largely, is through our people. We are asking our people to work longer hours, we are asking our people to be on call in other areas to support when we do need to go emergency broadcast. The cost of—

Senator URQUHART: That's still eating into your budget, isn't it? That you're not actually covered for.

Ms Higgins : We're not covered for it per se but we certainly make sure we are adequately staffing and investing in regional areas so that appropriate coverage can be done in a way that is similar to what I touched on earlier about Tasmania. That is, by investing in two roles there we could make sure we did have seven-day coverage available. But, to be very specific, no, we are not specifically funded for emergency broadcasting.

Senator URQUHART: I want to draw your attention to comments from ABC news director Gaven Morris on 10 May 2018, who said of the 2018-19 budget cuts, 'The ABC would need to cut into muscle to absorb them.' Do you know what muscles the ABC will cut into to absorb the most recent cuts?

Ms Higgins : No. I'm going to make two statements. The first statement I made earlier. We will be very considered and are certainly nowhere near that. We have another year available to us, and we will look to negotiate with the government as part of the normal process before we would contemplate where services will be cut or jobs will be lost.

Senator URQUHART: The keyword there is 'where'. You said 'where services will be cut or lost'. You are cutting into muscle.

Ms Higgins : The second point I wanted to make was this. We have a history, as I said, of continually looking to be as efficient as possible and being able to keep up with the demands of audiences' expectations. We are having to make very sensible decisions all the time on what services we would stop or do less of to make sure that we're investing in the content and in the platforms that audiences are looking to consume their content on. That is the nature of the comment. As I said before, the big efficiency gains of being able to extract millions of dollars from renegotiating transmission contracts are behind us. So we are in a world where we face choices. As we need to maintain or grow, and ensure that we are relevant for Australians, that does mean at the moment we have to make choices as to what services we do less of or where it is that we stop.

Senator URQUHART: I draw your attention to a Fairfax story from 11 May 2018 which says that Mr Morris said it was too early to identify what, if any, parts of the ABC could face cuts. Is this statement still accurate?

Ms Higgins : It is absolutely accurate and supports the statements I've made already. We need to be very sensible and considered and not be premature in what we consider are the decisions we have to make.

Senator URQUHART: Two more questions. Has any preliminary work been done to identify which muscles will be cut?

Ms Higgins : No. Our focus has still very much been on, with the year ahead of us, looking to where we can put our best foot forward in demonstrating to the government where we are very hopeful for funding. That is twofold. As we look across the next couple of years, as we look to meet the demands of rising content costs, and as we look at the demands of service in both traditional as well as digital platforms, we will absolutely be putting our best foot forward in those funding proposals. The other area of focus for us has been over a much longer term horizon. We are doing a considered amount of work thinking about the next five, 10, 15 years for the broadcaster. We are an 85-year-old legacy business. We have very old legacy infrastructure that is still binding us to traditional ways of making content across TV, radio and so on. We're not unique. We're not unique as a government business. We're not unique as a broadcaster. Our greatest focus has to be, if we want to keep making great Australian content and we want to be able to support our content makers and also reach Australians, on modernising and being fit for purpose. We very much have to ensure that we are fit to continue to make distinctive Australian content for the digital age. And so our focus, until we feel that we are left with no choices and we have not been successful in seeking any further funding, will be on demonstrating a case to the government around both near-term opportunities to fund content and distribution as well as long-term opportunities to fund the modernisation of the ABC.

Senator URQUHART: Can you guarantee Tasmania will be spared any cuts because of the government's budget decision?

Ms Higgins : No, I cannot guarantee Tasmania will not experience any cuts.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you.

CHAIR: Senator Hanson-Young.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you. Are we still planning on breaking at nine?

CHAIR: Yes, we are. We can come back to it afterwards.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Okay, great. Ms Higgins, thank you for your opening statement and some of the conversation we have had already about the impact on these cuts that have been put forward in this year's budget. Just to be clear, overall under this government my figures put it at around $338 million worth of cuts. Would you agree with that?

Ms Higgins : That sounds about right, if you combine the $254 million cuts that have already been referenced in 2014. I'm assuming the addition to that has been the loss of the Australia Network contract.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: How many job losses do you know have occurred during this time?

Ms Higgins : Since the beginning of 2014, the ABC has had to close over 1,000 posts, of which we have had to make approximately just over 930 redundancies.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: That's a lot of staff.

Ms Higgins : It is. We absolutely recognise that that is a lot of people.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do you have the figures on how much in wages that is?

Ms Higgins : I don't have what that equated to in wages. My apologies, Senator.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: That's all right. If you could take it on notice, that would be helpful. While we're talking about staff numbers and job losses, do you know how many employees are based in South Australia?

Ms Higgins : I should have that. I might come back to that, if I may, because I know that we do have that to hand.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: That's fine. We can come back to that question. When did the ABC become aware of the most recent budget cuts—the $84 million?

Ms Higgins : By the nature of how the budget system works, agencies are required to upload their forward numbers into a secure system in the weeks leading up to a budget. The normal course, approximately two to three weeks out, is liaising with the department on those forward numbers, and it was during that time that we were alerted to the indexation pause.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So you were told before budget night. What was the rationale given to you at that point by the government?

Ms Higgins : Because they are budget-in-confidence conversations, we are limited in the information provided. We were told it was an indexation pause. We could reconcile those numbers. That was about the extent of it.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You've said already that you're not sure what that will look like, where you'll find those savings. Of course, the budget papers clearly say this isn't an efficiency dividend; however, in the days following the budget, in debate in the Senate on a different bill, in conversations in relation to the ABC with the minister, the minister said effectively it is an efficiency dividend. What would you describe it as?

Ms Higgins : I would describe it as a pause in our indexation.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: How many jobs at the ABC do you think that $84 million would be worth?

Ms Higgins : I think, again, that would be very irresponsible for me to say. As an employer of over 4,000 staff, we wouldn't know. We haven't done the work, and it could be quite irresponsible to start to put staff numbers to it. That would cause unease and distress amongst our staff.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: People must be feeling nervous and worried already.

Ms Higgins : I absolutely imagine that's the case.

Senator Fifield: I might just ensure that there's not an impression inadvertently left, through questioning from colleagues, that the ABC's staffing profile would have remained unaltered over the last five or more years if the ABC's funding profile had remained unaltered. ABC management look at the staff they need on an ongoing basis, so that is something that happens anyway. I wouldn't want the impression to be that each and every decision that ABC management have ever made about staffing is tied to government efficiency reviews and changes to resourcing.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Sure, Minister. However, if you're going to cut almost $340 million out of the ABC budget, of course that's going to result in job losses. I think it's just laughable to try to suggest that it's got no impact.

Senator Fifield: What I'm saying is you can't draw a direct line between the ABC management's decisions about the employment profile of the organisation and the government's funding profile for the organisation.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Sure, but I think the public are smart enough to understand that, if you cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the ABC, they're going to have to cut staff and cut resources, not to mention services. Ms Higgins, that's the point you're making: you're not even sure how you're going to absorb this, what that will mean for services, whether this will job losses or how on earth the ABC are going to manage this.

Ms Higgins : Again, we're unsure at this point as it feels premature to do that work when we still have over a year available to us to work with the government on the normal tri-funding process and look to put in a number of proposed policies that look to make sure that we can support Australian content and we can continue to support reaching Australian audiences. Yes, we acknowledge that at some point we'll have to be clear on our workforce planning. The minister is absolutely right. Some of how we have to respond is due to government cuts, but I do also support the minister's comments that we also have to be good stewards of public resources and that, when you are operating within a fixed funding envelope and you have to keep delivering broadcasting services and digital services, with rising cost of content, that does mean we're left in the unfortunate position on quite a few occasions where we have to close jobs, particularly in support services. You've seen this year already that we cut a number of roles out of middle management. We continue to make the best efficiency and productivity gains available to us in support services, but, when it then comes to our content or our news, we are absolutely faced with choices and will continue to be where we have to stop doing something or do less of something else because we need to keep pace of what Australian audiences are expecting.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: There's obviously been some reporting today around a complaint made by the government, the Prime Minister and the minister, in relation to a story aired by Emma Alberici. Is it usual that you have to respond to complaints made by the Prime Minister?

Ms Higgins : I might pass to my colleague on this.

Mr Sunderland : Senator, it's not unusual for us to get complaints from a range of sources: sometimes politicians, sometimes interest groups and sometimes members of the public. We get a range of complaints and we always investigate them, look into them and follow up on them when they come in.

Senator Fifield: I'm sure former Prime Minister Keating would have complained to the ABC on occasion.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Your statement today rejects 10 out of the 11 grievances that were made by the Prime Minister in relation to this story. Is that correct?

Mr Sunderland : I'm not sure of the precise numbers, but certainly there was one matter where we felt that we needed to clarify one issue, but nothing else was upheld by our complaints investigators.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Have you communicated that back to the minister and the Prime Minister?

Mr Sunderland : I believe that communication has taken place, yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Prior to today?

Senator Fifield: What was that?

Mr Sunderland : The response to the complaint made about the Emma Alberici story on innovation. I believe that a response has gone back on that.

Ms Higgins : I can assist and provide a clarification on that. The review that was conducted by the consumer and complaints department was only concluded today. The team, as I understand it, would have responded to those letters today, so I would expect that they should be received at the Prime Minister's office and that of the minister very shortly.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: The reason the public knows about this is that there's an article in the Fairfax papers about it. How often do complaints made to the ABC find their way into other media agencies?

Mr Sunderland : It happens from time to time. That's a matter largely out of our hands. It's up to complainants. We have a process in our complaints system where we respect the confidentiality of complainants when they make complaints. We don't necessarily publicise complaints, no matter who they're from. Of course, it's entirely up to individuals. Some will choose to make their complaint public as well as directing it to us.

Ms Higgins : Chair, may I just come back to something? I was right that about six per cent of our staff are based in South Australia. I clearly was not fast enough in applying six per cent to 4,000 people. So we have in South Australia 263 staff.

CHAIR: We'll break now.

Proceedings suspended from 21:00 to 21:14

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Ms Higgins, you talked in your opening statement about the two reviews that are currently underway. We have the competitive neutrality review and now the efficiency review. How much communication or consultation have you had thus far into either of them?

Ms Higgins : I'll talk about the competitive neutrality review first. There was a terms of reference that came out earlier this year. Following that terms of reference, we met with the panel on two occasions to discuss our operations and the broadcasting environment. Since then the panel has released an issues paper which covers about 14 issues where they're looking for responses not only from the ABC and SBS, but public submissions. Our submission is due on 22 June. We will see what occurs after that. In regard to the efficiency review, we have seen a draft from the department today in relation to a terms of reference, and our comments are due back on that early next week.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What is your understanding of what the purpose of the competitive neutrality review is meant to be, given that you have now seen the issues paper?

Senator Fifield: For the sake of completeness, I should add the ABC and SBS were consulted on the terms of reference for the competitive neutrality review.

Ms Higgins : That's correct. In regard to the competitive neutrality review, I can only talk to what we've seen in the terms of reference in the issues paper. The terms of reference were incredibly straightforward, talked about competitive neutrality principles, which in layman's terms essentially means you're not using taxpayers' money to distort the market. The issues paper, however, does take a broader look. We understand that that has been the panel's view after they've had consultation with not just us but lots of commercial media. It does look to traverse a range of issues, such as how we consider when we launch new services in the market to digital services. So it does look at a broad range of 14 questions.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: How important are digital services to the ABC in terms of fulfilling your charter?

Ms Higgins : There are two very important points to make without labouring points I made earlier. It was only a few years ago in this very building that legislation was passed for digital to be included in the ABC's act. The second point, as I have underlined a couple of times already today, is that Australians are looking to consume their content increasingly on digital platforms, whether that be streaming or mobile devices. Without being too cute, us being able to perform digital services is no different to the launch of TV services in the 1950s. It's how Australians are going to consume their content. If we're not operating in the digital environment, which is legislated as part of our act, there will be a significant number of Australians who will not be consuming our content. That certainly doesn't go to us being funded by taxpayers to ensure all Australians receive a relevant service.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do you buy any of the arguments put forward by commercial broadcasters that you have an advantage that they don't?

Ms Higgins : I don't, for two reasons. I make this statement having worked in both commercial media and public service broadcasting here and abroad. The two things that are different for Australia's public broadcaster, that one doesn't encounter in a commercial environment are, firstly, we are legislated for a broad range of content. I appreciate that the commercial players have content quotas in respect to some of their content, but think about the breadth of that act and the charter within it. We have to provide arts, science, children's, ensuring we're reflecting the cultural diversity of Australia, ensuring we're reaching all of Australians. That itself has a number of standards which we very proudly hold ourselves to, but is certainly much more complex and has much more breadth to it than when you're operating a commercial organisation.

The second thing is that is more tough for us than a commercial media organisation is that when you're running a commercial media business you can look to exercise your discretion to cut anything back which you feel is not having the necessary return. What is different about public service broadcasting is that there is a cost of being the ABC. We're proud of that cost, but it's very important for us that we have a very good regional and rural service. It is very important to us we hold ourselves to very high editorial standards. It's very important to us that we exercise best practice governance. There is a higher bar set for us than for a commercial media organisation. To reiterate, it is twofold: one is the requirements we're legislated to perform as part of the act and the charter, and the other element is that it's difficult to make changes to a lot of our cost base because of that standard of being the ABC and the services that Australians expect from you.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Are you concerned about the possible conflation of the efficiency review and the competitive neutrality review when there is public talk and debate about whether your wings should be clipped with your online services, whether your budget should be clipped and whether you can more efficient? I guess it's easy to be efficient if you get told you can't be having services on ABC iview.

Ms Higgins : I can see the point you're making. I understand the question, but I think it's only appropriate for us—we only know what's being presented to us. We have a competitive neutrality review. We will submit our response on 22 June and wait to see what happens. We haven't had further instructions in regard to the efficiency review outside of being shared a terms of reference for comment. I don't think I'm positioned to have a view on the outcome of those or how the department or minister or government will consider them.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Can you understand why the public might think the ABC is under assault?

Ms Higgins : I can understand your question, but again I can only operate on the processes that are being put forward to us. The government has taken a view to look at the competitive neutrality of the Australian public service broadcasters. Again, the government is making sure that it feels confident about the efficiency of those public service broadcasters. I don't think it's appropriate for me to make further comment.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Does the ABC have a view in relation to charging people to access their online services, such as streaming on iview?

Ms Higgins : We are funded by taxpayers to provide a free service to Australians. That is what we are legislated and required to do. It is a job that we do proudly, and unless there was a change formally put forward in that regard, I'm not sure that's something we would have reason to contemplate.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Has anyone from government ever raised with you the notion of a paywall on ABC iview?

Ms Higgins : No-one has raised that view with me personally.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do you think the public would pay to access iview?

Ms Higgins : I don't think it's a question of would Australians pay. I don't think I'm here to represent whether Australians would pay for the ABC or not. I would hope we would all agree it would be a very disappointing outcome if we ever reached that point. Public service broadcasting is there for all Australians. I think we've been in a wonderful position that we have been funded by the government to ensure that continues and it has that access for all Australians. I would really hope that would continue.

Senator Fifield: Senator Hanson-Young, the only person I'm aware of canvassing that option is yourself.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I'm deadly opposed to it, Minister.

Senator Fifield: I'm just observing that the only person talking about that scenario is yourself.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: And those in the commercial broadcasting sector.

Senator Fifield: Let me say that they haven't put that to me.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Good. I did ask you to rule it out earlier today.

Senator Fifield: And what I said is that the ABC has legislated independence in operational matters, so that scenario you're putting forward would only come about if ABC management decided to do it.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You'll recall that I asked you whether you would protect the Australian taxpayer from ever having a pay wall on ABC iView. The protection is already there because the ABC has legislated operational—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Good. Let's keep it there.

I have questions in relation to some of the other pieces of legislation currently before the parliament? There's a change in relation to 'fair and balanced' descriptions and then there's, of course, the bill to require the publication of wages of ABC staff. Have you had any further conversations with government about these pieces of legislation?

Ms Higgins : Not in recent times. There was of course correspondence earlier this year, from memory.

Senator Fifield: It was in relation to the publishing of salaries above $200,000. The ABC Act provides the opportunity for the government of the day to advise the ABC of government policy, and the ABC Act says that the board should give consideration to government policy. It is then up to the ABC to concur or not with that government policy and the ABC chose not to concur. So, as a consequence, we have legislation before the parliament in relation to that transparency measure in terms of ABC salaries. In terms of the legislation that we have in relation to putting 'fair and balanced' into the ABC Act, the managing director has, I think, expressed a view on that, but we are continuing to seek the passage of that legislation, and I think it's something that the ABC as an organisation should be relaxed about because—and Mr Sunderland will correct me if I'm wrong—chapter 4 of the ABC's editorial guidelines talks about importance of a balance that follows the weight of evidence. Also, the editorial guidelines talk about the importance of fair treatment. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance Journalistic Code of Ethics also talks about the importance of fairness on no fewer than six occasions.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Why do we need the legislation then, Minister? I guess that is the obvious question.

Senator Fifield: It is enshrining in legislation that which the MEAA thinks important and the ABC's editorial guidelines think is important. If it's okay for the MEAA and the editorial guidelines then people should be very relaxed about it being in legislation.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: It's just another example of Fox News taking over this government.

Finally, it seems pretty clear to anyone on the outside that, with budget cuts of $340 million, efficiency reviews, a review into whether you should be able to service the public with your digital platforms and streaming, legislation before the parliament requiring your staff to have their wages and salaries published and questions about whether your balance and fairness is adequately managed, this government is carrying out an all-out assault on the ABC. How do you deal with that and communicate that back to your staff, saying, 'This government doesn't have our back; this government is assaulting us'?

Senator Fifield: Chair, through you—obviously, if Ms Higgins wishes to contribute, she certainly will—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: It was a question to her, Minister.

Senator Fifield: and is entitled to. But, as a minister at the table, I'm entitled to seek the call and provide a response, and then it's up to the representative of the independent public broadcaster to contribute as she wishes. What the government has before the parliament and what the government has by way of policy are all about efficiency, transparency and accountability of the public broadcasters, which are—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Cuts, cuts, cuts.

Senator Fifield: which are three things which are important for the government to look at on behalf of the taxpayer. And I might just summarise what you have said, Senator Hanson-young, as an editorial monologue.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Cuts, cuts, cuts. That's the summary.

Senator Fifield: And, as it is an editorial monologue, Ms Higgins would be free not to respond, but obviously she is welcome to if she wishes.

Ms Higgins : I will take the opportunity as there are two points I would like to make. The ABC, as I said in my opening statement, absolutely support being efficient. We support being accountable and we absolutely support being transparent. We've already instituted a number of measures this year in reporting more than we have previously, and we're going to continue to do so. I would like the opportunity to respond to the salaries. The minister is absolutely correct in terms of the correspondence that occurred and the decision made by the ABC board. And so, whilst we absolutely support transparency and accountability, we do not when it could have a detrimental impact on the organisation. And so, at the moment, we comply with both best practice public as well as private guidelines for the disclosure of remuneration. With the Public Service—and in fact it's available publicly on our website—we make sure we disclose all of our salary bandings, we disclose in our annual report details in relation to bonuses and we have adopted best practice in line with Australian Stock Exchange guidelines that the salaries of key management personnel, including myself, as well as my bonus, are published on the website.

Now, if we were to go beyond that, we are not the BBC. We are fundamentally different in terms of the salaries being paid to our on-air talent. The highest presenter at the BBC earns $3½ million. Ours is closer to $400,000 and under. And so disclosing anything above the salaries of executives, the bandings, the bonuses—everything that we are above requirements and disclosing today—would only seek to do two things. It would put us at a very unfair disadvantage in the commercial sector. We know that our staff is paid below, on many occasions, the market rate in terms of on-air in particular, and therefore that would open us up to our key talent being poached. The other thing it would do is absolutely, as it has done internationally when companies have gone down this route, lead to immense wage pressure and the cost of that wage bill increasing. So I did want to be very transparent and accountable in responding to why the ABC hasn't gone as far as disclosing all the salaries over $200,000.

Senator Fifield: One additional point by way of context. With the BBC, you can go on their website and you can look and see what the director of the BBC Scotland owns. You can go on their website and see what the host of Panorama turns. So what we're proposing really is not substantially different to that which the BBC does.

CHAIR: Thank you, Minister. Senator Abetz.

Senator ABETZ: Is the ABC considering doing a documentary on the life and times of Captain James Cook?

Ms Higgins : I might ask my colleague.

Mr Sunderland : I have no idea.

Senator ABETZ: Senator Hanson-Young would be greatly interested if you were intending to do so!

To my questions, if I may.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Touche, Eric Abetz!

Senator ABETZ: I will start on a very serious matter, and that is the Jon Stevens case. He is the former ABC employee who pleaded guilty to child sex abuse. I have pursued this a number of times at these estimates and I got an answer, I think, yesterday—thank you—that email contact has now finally been made with the victim as of 10 April. Has the victim responded?

Mr Sunderland : Yes. Over the course of the last three weeks we have been liaising very closely with the legal representatives of the victim at their request.

Senator ABETZ: I welcome that. Has the ABC accepted their responsibility in this case?

Ms Higgins : We have taken this matter very seriously. Upon commencing an investigation last year, we have made sure we have been very exhaustive in terms of the records available to us, as well as interviewing of witnesses, and, as you, Senator, have placed on the record previously, we took it as seriously as employing external counsel to help us in our endeavours. Our own investigation—

Senator ABETZ: But you engaged that counsel prior to even making contact with a victim, so you lawyered up before you even thought about the plight of the victim, which is something that we've talked about. Talking about your outside lawyer, how much has that cost us now?

Ms Higgins : Chair, if I might just correct that comment, we did not lawyer up before we contacted the victim. We have been very responsible in our obligations as a corporation. It was absolutely responsible and appropriate for us, given the sensitivity and the importance of this matter, to get assistance so that we could conduct the most thorough of investigations internally. It was when they were concluded that we actually found our investigation was inconclusive, and then it was appropriate to contact the victim. In answer to your second point, to date, we have incurred $14,000 worth of legal expenses.

Senator ABETZ: External.

Ms Higgins : External plus GST, Senator, and, no, we have not been billed as yet by the barrister for those charges.

Senator ABETZ: You corrected me to say that you had not lawyered up before contact with a victim.

Ms Higgins : I disagreed with your phrasing that we lawyered up in relation to the victim.

Senator ABETZ: Let's establish the facts. Did you engage an external lawyer before you made contact with a victim?

Ms Higgins : As was appropriate, yes.

Senator ABETZ: The answer is yes, isn't it?

Ms Higgins : Yes—

Senator ABETZ: Thank you.

Ms Higgins : but as was appropriate for us to do to conduct a full investigation, as you would expect under good corporate citizenship and governance, to be undertaken.

Senator ABETZ: The fellow, Mr Stephens, pleaded guilty even on his appeal on 13 September 2017. Was there any doubt that the victim was the victim of child sex abuse whilst he was in the company of Mr Stephens, who was engaged by the ABC? Was there ever any doubt in the ABC's mind as to that circumstance?

Ms Higgins : We were unable to get, under freedom of information, access to the details of the police files. Is your statement correct insofar as he was guilty? Yes, absolutely. Were we able to ascertain the details? No, we were not. In fact, after doing our own investigation that proved inconclusive, we are now working with the victim's lawyers on helping us access that data so that we can ascertain the nature of the ABC's involvement.

Senator ABETZ: But the simple fact is that this Mr Stephens, a former ABC employee, on his own plea of guilty was sentenced in the Gosford Local Court on 15 June 2017; that's correct, is it not?

Ms Higgins : Correct.

Senator ABETZ: And you only emailed him on 10 April 2018, 11 months later.

Ms Higgins : It was appropriate for us to commence our investigation after the court proceedings, on the basis—I will absolutely answer your question—that at that time we were hopeful that, once proceedings concluded, the ABC would be furnished with the details of the police file. We were not provided with that detail even under an FOI request, so it was entirely appropriate for us to commence proceedings of our own investigation after the court case. And, as I said, this is an event that happened 36 or 37 years ago. It has taken us some time to locate the records, to locate the witnesses, and ensure—I give you my absolute assurance that we have treated this with the utmost seriousness and the utmost diligence, and to have done it in any lesser time would have not been satisfactory and would have not demonstrated the lengths that we have gone to to ensure it has been thorough.

Senator ABETZ: And can you confirm that the ABC has still not reported on this story nationally?

Ms Higgins : I think that—

Mr Sunderland : We've done that one story that we referred to earlier.

Senator ABETZ: It was not national, though, was it? It was a local ABC story, was it not?

Mr Sunderland : It would have been run in New South Wales.

Senator ABETZ: Yes, so it was not national.

Mr Sunderland : I can double-check that, but I don't believe so.

Senator ABETZ: Can you give any explanation as to why the ABC would not have broadcast something like that nationally?

Mr Sunderland : The story was treated on its merits. Speaking as the editorial director of the ABC, the advice that we provide to our ABC content teams when they're doing stories that touch on or relate to the ABC is that they treat them as they would any other story, on their merits, editorially, that they don't either overemphasise or underemphasise. There's a tendency sometimes to navel-gaze about the ABC, and there's a tendency in other media organisations not to report anything negatively about their own organisations. We try not to take any of those courses of action. The advice that we consistently provide on this issue, as any other, is to report it on its merits according to the significance of it. That's what I think was done at the time, and I'm comfortable with the level of coverage that this issue received in the context of the great many quite significant and quite unfortunate events of this that happen all around Australia all the time. It's a terrible problem. We do report on it. We do not report nationally—

Senator ABETZ: On all the other institutions and very condemnatory reporting—

Mr Sunderland : No, I wouldn't say that, if you let me finish. We do not report nationally on every single sexual abuse case that goes through the Australian courts, and that is in no way an indication that these are not serious and important issues. But there are a great many of them happening on, sadly, a far too regular basis around the country, and we advise our reporting teams to cover those stories on their merits in the mix of all the other news that needs to be covered.

Senator ABETZ: But when a national institution is involved, your reporters, in particular, I think, take a relatively aggressive approach—aggressive mightn't be the correct term, but, nevertheless, an approach to highlight these matters and to talk about the inhumanity of the response in seeking lawyers first rather than reaching out to victims and matters of this nature. And here we have a situation where the national broadcaster, taxpayer funded, should be acting as a model employer and as a model citizen in situations like this. You were made aware of it. The ABC even reported on it—one local story—but you couldn't bring yourself to talk about it nationally or reach out to the victim. And that is what I cannot believe or understand. If I think of some of the other institutions, if they had said, very straight-faced, as we have heard this evening, 'We weren't going to reach out to the victim because it was all those years ago and we wanted to get lawyers in place first et cetera,' I can imagine the sorts of stories we would have been subjected to and, if I might say, quite justifiably so. But not when it's the ABC having to deal with such a sensitive and important matter.

Ms Higgins : Senator, I just want to correct that. At no point did I say we didn't reach out to the victim because it was all those years ago. Again, I underline the statement I've made earlier. We have absolutely treated this with the utmost seriousness. We ensured that we did a comprehensive investigation, as you would expect us to undertake, before we contacted the victim. I just wanted to be very clear that we did not lawyer up on the basis of before contacting the victim, and we did not not contact the victim because it was 37 years ago. We have treated this with the utmost respect and seriousness, and, as an employer, as someone who does engage frequently in the hiring of children, we absolutely hold ourselves to the highest standards with our child protection and the way that we engage. I just want to be very clear on that.

Senator ABETZ: And you might like to take on notice how many stories were reported today on the conviction of the Archbishop of Adelaide.

Mr Sunderland : How many separate stories on separate platforms?

Senator ABETZ: Yes, nationally; right around the country. Take that on notice, and then ask yourselves how you dealt with your own in-house case.

Mr Sunderland : I will take that on notice, but I have to make the point that those are two completely different stories in two completely different contexts. If you're suggesting the two are the same—

Senator ABETZ: One was the Catholic Church and the other was the ABC. We get the difference!

Mr Sunderland : No, that's not the point I'm seeking to make. I think the difference between those two stories should be fairly obvious to anyone who examines the circumstances of them. But I'll certainly take on notice the information.

Senator ABETZ: Thank you. The ABC has interviewed four former employees, I've been told. When were they interviewed?

Ms Higgins : I don't have those dates in front of me. I agree with you that it was four former employees but there were also five other people interviewed as well.

Senator ABETZ: When did those interviews take place?

Ms Higgins : I'm very happy to take that on notice and provide you with the dates.

Senator ABETZ: A few months ago?

Ms Higgins : Since our investigation started up until we would have contacted the victim. It has taken us some time to track down individuals who had left the ABC and who the ABC had engaged with at that time.

Senator ABETZ: Given this very sorry saga, are you willing to acknowledge that if you had your time over again you may have handled it differently?

Ms Higgins : From the time the court case concluded to then doing the right thing in making sure we had a thorough investigation to now being in a position to work with the victim and their lawyers, I still stand by us having done the right thing.

Senator ABETZ: So the ABC needed a court conviction before it was going to reach out to the victim? I find that not to be the behaviour of any organisation or person with any humanity whatsoever. Let us move on. Can I ask about bonuses. What was the total paid out in bonuses last year?

Ms Higgins : If you bear with me—

Senator ABETZ: Was that the 2.6?

Ms Higgins : It was 2.6, yes.

Senator ABETZ: I just wanted to have that confirmed. How much have you budgeted for bonuses this year?

Ms Higgins : I don't have the budget in front of me but I can take that on notice.

Senator ABETZ: It's Senate estimates, and you don't have your budget?

Ms Higgins : I can give you an indication of what I would expect it to be.

Senator ABETZ: All right, and then correct it on notice if need be.

Ms Higgins : I certainly can. From memory, our total, where we would have budget across both executive and non-executive, would be around 4.5. I'm happy to come back with the exact number.

Senator ABETZ: That's already a fair slice, isn't it; $13.5 million over three years of the alleged $83 million or $84 million cut—which of course isn't a cut but we'll get there later. What is the lowest-paid staff ranking or lowest staff ranking that is eligible for a bonus?

Ms Higgins : I don't have the rankings in front of me. I do know, as part of our enterprise agreement, that for staff who exceed expectations there is a percentage that's able to be applied. I don't think there is a minimum. I don't think they have a limitation. That goes the whole way down for our employees.

Senator ABETZ: So from the lowest- to the highest-paid ABC employee, and in each and every category, there is the potential for a bonus?

Ms Higgins : No; there are two very different things. We have non-executive employees who have, as part of an enterprise bargaining agreement, that available to them. We then have what are deemed executive employees. I want to give some clarity here: some of those wouldn't have an at-risk component and some of those would have an at-risk component, and they would be absolutely linked to the delivery of certain KPIs at the executive level.

Senator ABETZ: I think you indicated earlier that you were potentially entitled to a bonus. Is that correct?

Ms Higgins : That is correct.

Senator ABETZ: And Ms Guthrie?

Ms Higgins : No.

Senator ABETZ: Mr Sunderland?

Mr Sunderland : Yes.

Senator ABETZ: And Mr Gaven Morris?

Ms Higgins : Correct.

Senator ABETZ: And Emma Alberici?

Ms Higgins : I wouldn't expect so, but I will take that on notice.

Senator ABETZ: And then can you tell me whether these people have got bonuses? Do you disclose who gets bonuses?

Ms Higgins : Where they are defined as key management personnel—that is similar to what you would find in a listed company, the key personnel, which would include me and Mr Morris, who you've already referred to—our bonuses would certainly have been disclosed. But then below that: no; we class it as a total pool.

Senator ABETZ: So we are not told whether Ms Alberici, for example, gets a bonus?

Ms Higgins : No.

Senator ABETZ: Why not?

Ms Higgins : Well, I'll refer to the comments I made earlier. We already disclose best practice in terms of disclosing the salaries that our staff make over $200,000 by bandings. We already disclose the senior people in our organisation and their salaries and their bonuses. To start to list the individuals would, we believe—and we've seen the evidence occur overseas—put us at a great disadvantage in terms of them being approached on the commercial market and also leading to inflation internally.

Senator ABETZ: But we are dealing with taxpayers' money, aren't we?

Ms Higgins : As I said in my opening statement, which I am absolutely standing behind: where we can be transparent and accountable, we absolutely should.

Senator ABETZ: No, you can be transparent; you just don't want to be in this circumstance.

Ms Higgins : Where we believe it will put the corporation at a disadvantage, with taxpayers' money, we absolutely believe that to be the case. We would have a very difficult job running the operation once the salaries of some of our presenters perhaps could be disclosed. That opens them up to approach on the external market. It also puts us in a very difficult position internally with staff being able to see how their peers and so on are paid and leads to conversations in terms of them looking for that inflation.

Senator ABETZ: They don't try to find out through other mechanisms? Mr Mrdak, in your department are people paid bonuses?

Mr Mrdak : No.

Senator ABETZ: Turning to the ABC funding, can we confirm that the removal of indexation is a freeze?

Ms Higgins : I can absolutely agree with you: the technical terms of indexation—

Senator ABETZ: And how was the figure of $84 million that was thrown into the public domain calculated?

Ms Higgins : Would you like me to—

Senator ABETZ: Yes—well, it was the ABC that put the figure out into the ether, so one assumes that there's some methodology to it.

Ms Higgins : The figure that we work with—

Senator Fifield: Mr Mrdak can take you through the year-by-year profiles.

Senator ABETZ: Thank you.

Mr Mrdak : It's calculated by us and the Department of Finance. It's based on essentially looking at the indexation that would otherwise be applied. What has been quarantined in their calculation is the transmission funding for the ABC, recognising that there are fixed contracts, with escalation factors in those contracts. So, the indexation applies to the non-transmission funding for the ABC, and that equates to the overall figure of $83.7 million over that three-year period.

Senator ABETZ: That's about $28 million per annum.

Mr Mrdak : It escalates up. It's $14.6 million in 2019-20, $27.8 million in 2020-21 and $41.3 million in 2021-22.

Senator ABETZ: So, out of the total ABC budget, what percentage are we talking about? Three per cent? Less?

Mr Mrdak : Yes, it's less than three per cent. It's just over two per cent.

Senator ABETZ: Yes—less than three per cent. Now, in question No. 127 from budget estimates 2017, I asked, 'If the ABC can find savings of this magnitude', and I was talking about the savings of middle management to fund the regional funding—and a good move, might I add, one that I fully supported. Might I just add that the former CEO always said that it was impossible to make savings, that ABC had been cut to the bone and that there were no more savings to be made. You get a new CEO, and all of a sudden 50 mill can be cut out of middle management and redirected to regional funding—which was a damn good idea, and well done to the ABC. In talking about that, I asked:

If the ABC can find savings of this magnitude to pursue other projects, has any thought been given to providing a dividend to consolidated revenue?

In answer to question 127(c), I was told:

The ABC undertakes savings efficiencies and returns monies to consolidated revenue. In 2017-18, savings in excess of $50 million will be returned to consolidated revenue.

We are now, if I'm right, nearly at the end of 2017-18, and I'm wondering whether that $50 million has found its way to consolidated revenue.

Ms Higgins : I don't have the questions in front of me. This is my understanding. I want to make sure I answer your question. We get the appropriation from the government. We get an appropriation for general activities. As the minister has already pointed out, it's a discretion of the board—in fact it is the responsibility of the board—to make sure those funds are used in the most efficient manner. We look to make sure we can repivot resources where we can, so you're absolutely spot-on on this occasion. We were able to save funds from not just middle management but other back-office operations and put them into really important regional roles as well as Australian content. So they net each other off. You're spending less here and more there.

Senator ABETZ: Yes, of course, but I was told in an answer: 'In 2017-18, savings in excess of $50 million will be returned to consolidated revenue.' I may have got myself confused. Are you talking about ABCs consolidated revenue or the government's consolidated revenue? When I asked, I was clearly talking about the government's consolidated revenue.

Ms Higgins : All I can talk to, in the management of the ABC's finances, is that we operate within that fixed funding envelope. We receive the appropriation, we ensure it's allocated efficiently and we do each year, in the main, exhaust those funds.

Senator ABETZ: But, if there is a leftover, you would return that to consolidated revenue?

Ms Higgins : Return it to the government? Is that the implication?

Senator ABETZ: Yes—or do you just carry it over to the next year?

Ms Higgins : We don't have a terribly great deal left over at the end.

Senator ABETZ: Out of a $1 billion budget, $50 million is like petty cash. But I accept that you don't have much left over. Rather than delaying tonight, I invite you to relook at the answer to question No. 127 and tell me what you actually meant by returning savings in excess of $50 million. If you could do it in one year, you might apply that by three years, and that is $150 million, which is half of Mr Morris and a few others got into high dudgeon about. I was just wanting to do the calculations and understand.

Ms Higgins : I will make two points in response. We will certainly take it on notice. The only funds that would have been returned to the government were those $254 million savings from 2014 which have been referred to already this evening. They were across a five-year period. I don't have in front of me how they broke down, but they would have come out across that, and it could be that the $50 million being referred to was relating back to the $254 million.

Senator ABETZ: Let's not speculate. I accept that we might be talking at cross-purposes.

Ms Higgins : I do want to make one very important point: $50 million is not a rounding error to the ABC; $50 million goes a very long way for us in providing Australian content to Australian audiences. I do just want to make sure we are clear on that point.

Senator ABETZ: You're the one telling me in an answer that $50 million will be returned to consolidated revenue this financial year. Why that is, I don't know. That is what you told me. Given that there seems to be some doubt about that now, let's revisit to see if the question was understood as I understood it when I asked it, and also the answer, because, on the face of it, it seems pretty clear that you are anticipating $50 million excess this year which you're going to hand back to the government.

Ms Higgins : Senator, we will take it on notice.

Senator ABETZ: You are the chief financial officer, so the chances are that you would be across this in some detail, and you seem surprised.

Ms Higgins : Senator, I am not surprised. I can emphatically say—and I'll certainly take the question on notice—that there is absolutely no expectation on our side to be returning any excess funds to the government any further to the $254 million cuts which were announced in 2014 and phased over the five-year period.

Senator ABETZ: Well, have a look at that answer—

Ms Higgins : Certainly.

Senator ABETZ: so I know how to understand it. In more recent times, from the additional estimates spillover in April 2018, you have now kindly told me that the hijab show, which is going to promote a garment of oppression, has cost the taxpayers $56,000. That's correct?

Ms Higgins : Sorry, Senator?

Senator ABETZ: $56,000 for the show?

Ms Higgins : Yes, you are correct.

Senator ABETZ: And this is for 36 minutes of actual airtime. So it's costing us $1,555 per minute for this show trying to promote a garment of oppression that women in Iran are willing to go to jail by discarding.

Ms Higgins : Senator, I do not have in front of me the hours of broadcast, but I'm happy to go with your number.

Senator ABETZ: I was told in answer to question No. 243, if you have it in front of you—Ms Guthrie was telling us—that the program is six by six minutes of programming, so my state school maths tells me that that is 36 minutes—

Ms Higgins : You are indeed correct, Senator.

Senator ABETZ: and then I confess it was the calculator that I used for the $1,555-per-minute calculation. And how much does the star of the show, or the producer of the show, get out of that $56,000?

Ms Higgins : The individual that you refer to, Ms Abdel-Magied, received $3,500 to present the six episodes.

Senator ABETZ: That's a pretty good return on 36 minutes.

Mr Sunderland : I'd have to observe that I don't think presenting six six-minute episodes involves 36 minutes of work. I'm sure that's not how television works.

Senator ABETZ: But it's about the same time that you would need to correctly fill out a visa for the United States?

Mr Sunderland : No, I don't believe that's accurate either, Senator.

Senator ABETZ: Why, how long does it take to fill out a visa for the United States?

Mr Sunderland : I suspect it doesn't take as long as it takes to complete six six-minute episodes of television programming.

Senator ABETZ: Oh, it doesn't take even that long! It doesn't even take 36 minutes. Yes, it's a pretty simple exercise that the person that you're paying all this money to couldn't figure out. We'll leave that be. We shall return.

CHAIR: Yes, we will be back.

Senator KENEALLY: Thank you for coming tonight. I have some questions about funding and some about content, but I recognise that we may not get through all of them this evening. I want to lead off, though, by just picking up on something Senator Abetz was asking about, and that is the ABC's coverage of the story about Archbishop Wilson, of Adelaide. He asked you to take on notice to provide information about your coverage of that event and coverage of another historic case of sexual abuse. Would it surprise you, Mr Sunderland, to know that various media outlets in Australia besides the ABC covered the Archbishop Wilson conviction?

Mr Sunderland : No, Senator.

Senator KENEALLY: Would it surprise you to know that, The Advertiser, Channel 9, The Sydney Morning Herald, Channel 10, USA Today, the BBC, Reuters, The Australian, The New York Times and The Washington Post also covered the Archbishop Wilson conviction?

Mr Sunderland : No. It was quite a significant story.

Senator KENEALLY: I will go on to my questions. Let's start with some questions for Ms Higgins. What was the ABC's combined national audience reach across television, radio and online platforms last year?

Ms Higgins : We reach 71 per cent of adult Australians.

Senator KENEALLY: Are you familiar with a survey by the Australia Institute which sought to assess Australian views about the ABC?

Ms Higgins : I am, Senator, yes.

Senator KENEALLY: Do you know what percentage of Australians, according to that survey, agree with the statement that a strong, independent ABC is critical to a healthy democracy?

Ms Higgins : I believe 70 per cent of Australians, or seven out of 10.

Senator KENEALLY: Your maths, I believe, is correct. From the same poll, what percentage of Australians believe that the ABC needs a boost to long-term funding?

Ms Higgins : That would be 60 per cent of Australians.

Senator KENEALLY: How many Australians said that the ABC was their most trusted source of news?

Ms Higgins : I can't refer to whether trust was tested as part of the Australia Institute polling. I certainly know that we test it. Trust is very important to us. We very much see that as our social licence, and 82 per cent of Australians rate the ABC as trustworthy.

Senator KENEALLY: I know that Senator Urquhart asked you some questions about the $250 million of cuts that the ABC sustained in 2014, and also she alluded to the efficiency reviews that the ABC has undergone. I believe you said there have been 12?

Ms Higgins : That we have either undertaken ourselves or that have been government initiated.

Senator KENEALLY: The ABC Director of News, Analysis and Investigations, Gaven Morris, has stated that only four per cent of the ABC's budget goes to back-office and overhead costs.

Ms Higgins : Can I qualify Mr Morris's comments. I understand—and I was not present—that when he referenced the four per cent he was referring to news only, so the news division. Four per cent of their costs were on overheads.

Senator KENEALLY: And you gave some testimony earlier regarding overhead costs for the ABC.

Ms Higgins : Correct.

Senator KENEALLY: Could you just remind us, then?

Ms Higgins : For the total organisation, we would consider that eight per cent is truly our overheads and spent on supporting across technology and property costs as well as back office.

Senator KENEALLY: You said earlier to Senator Urquhart that you're now at a point where you will have to make choices—choices about what services you will do less of, or did you say what content you will no longer provide?

Ms Higgins : I think it's in relation to everything, Senator. Our choices are in relation to our content, our services, and really making sure we're true to our act and true to our strategy of making sure we've got the most relevant content for Australians. As their behaviours are changing and they're expecting content to be delivered in a certain manner and you're operating within a fixed funding envelope, you do have to make difficult choices.

Senator KENEALLY: Mr Gaven Morris has said that there is no fat to cut. I presume he's talking about the news division there. It sounds, from the testimony we've heard tonight, as if the ABC does not believe there are further efficiencies to be gained without cutting into programming and content.

Ms Higgins : I had answered this previously, and I do want to really give some context. We will always look for efficiencies. That's what we've done in the past; it's what we do currently. We will continue to do it in the future. We have built in efficiency measures by virtue of us sustaining both traditional broadcast platforms and digital, as well as keeping up with the cost of Australian content. Now, as we go forward, we will always look for the more efficient ways to do that. And, as I had spoken to earlier, over the next five- to 10-year period, we'd look to work with the government and certainly look to seek investing in modernising the ABC. As most businesses go to do that and they go from legacy systems to software as a service, there are efficiencies to be gained. But that's on a more long-term horizon.

As we sit here today, we will always look to be as efficient as we can, and therefore sometimes things that we have to do differently means we stop some things or we do less of because we are having to really sustain those rising costs across both content and distribution.

Senator KENEALLY: In 2019-20, the ABC will be $14.6 million worse off—that is my understanding from the budget.

Ms Higgins : Correct.

Senator KENEALLY: Minister, that cut of $14.6 million is roughly equal to the full annual operating budget for both NewsRadio and Radio Australia, including its associated online language content. Can the government guarantee that these services won't be affected by these cuts?

Senator Fifield: Senator, we've announced an indexation pause for the ABC, which is paired with an efficiency review, to help the ABC to realise those areas where there is the potential for it to be more efficient, and I'm not going to pre-empt the work of that review. Ultimately, any decisions about ABC operations are ones for the ABC.

Senator KENEALLY: In 2021, Ms Higgins, I understand that the ABC will be another $27.8 million worse off. First of all, is that correct, Ms Higgins?

Ms Higgins : Yes.

Senator KENEALLY: Minister, this additional cut is roughly equal to the full annual operating budget of ABC Classic FM, Heywire and iview, and that includes and both the preschool and school-age versions of the ABC Kids app. Come on, Minister: can the government guarantee these services won't be affected by these cuts?

Senator Fifield: I refer you to my previous answer.

Senator KENEALLY: Ms Higgins, in 2021-22, the ABC will be another $41.2 million worse off. Is that correct?

Ms Higgins : That's correct.

Senator KENEALLY: Minister, this additional cut is roughly equal to the full operating budget of ABC Kids and ABC COMEDY as well as triple J, including Double J and Unearthed. Can't you as the minister guarantee these services won't be affected by cuts?

Senator Fifield: I refer you to my previous answer and, because the ABC has legislated independence in relation to operational and programming matters, I can't speak to any future ABC programming decisions.

Senator KENEALLY: Minister, on 9 May Senator Ian Macdonald said in the Senate:

One of the things the ABC does very, very well, and it has my full support, is the regional service it provides to audiences where there aren't any other providers.

Minister, is the government aware that the ABC currently spends $90 million annually on rural and regional teams to deliver content for local radio, state based bulletins, websites and social media?

Senator Fifield: I think—and Ms Higgins will correct me—that the ABC has 42 regional radio stations, and one of the pieces of legislation that we have before the parliament is to put into the ABC's act specific reference to the ABC's obligations to rural and regional Australia. Most Australians would assume that the ABC Act already makes explicit mention that the ABC is responsible for rural and regional Australia. It doesn't, and that is something we want to see in the ABC's act.

Senator KENEALLY: What impact will the budget cuts that I've just outlined, Minister, have on the ABC's ability to produce specialised news for rural and regional Australia?

Senator Fifield: As I mentioned before, the ABC has legislated independence in relation to its operational and programming matters.

Senator KENEALLY: You don't have anything to say about whether or not cuts from your government will impact on the ABC's ability to produce what Senator Macdonald says has his fullest support—their specialised services for rural and regional Australia?

Senator Fifield: All I can do is point to the fact that the ABC will continue to receive in excess of $1 billion a year and that it has a very important role in rural and regional Australia. It has 42 regional radio stations, which are very important, and that is recognised by colleagues across the spectrum. We want to further enshrine the important role of the ABC in rural and regional Australia by putting specific reference to rural and regional Australia into the ABC's act.

Senator KENEALLY: Come on, Minister. We've heard from the ABC themselves that over the past 30 years their funding has declined by 28 per cent, in real terms, that they are doing more than they have in the past. They have reduced their employees, from the mid-1980s, from 6,000 to 4,000. They've gone from eight cents per person per day to four cents per person per day. Can't you accept that these cuts from the Turnbull government will mean cuts to programming and content? Do you reject that?

Senator Fifield: You refer to the last 30 years. I would point out that the coalition has not been in office for the last 30 years.

Senator KENEALLY: No. That's a good point, Minister. So when was the last Liberal government that increased funding to the ABC?

Senator Fifield: The point I was making is, if you're talking about a time series of ABC funding reduction over 30 years, the coalition hasn't been office for 30 years. There were Labor governments in office over those 30 years.

Senator KENEALLY: Can you tell me the last Liberal government that increased funding to the ABC?

Senator Fifield: I don't have a 30-year time series with me.

Senator KENEALLY: Could you take that on notice, please, Minister?

Senator Fifield: You can pull out budget papers, from previous years, over the last 30 years.

Senator KENEALLY: Are you going to table the last 30 years of budget papers if I ask this question on notice?

Senator Fifield: We have a Parliamentary Library, which is available to all members and senators.

CHAIR: The Parliamentary Library is excellent.

Senator KENEALLY: We also have Senate estimates. And you don't get to tell me how I get to ask my questions. You cited the last 30 years.

Senator Fifield: No, you cited the last 30 years. That's why I quoted the last 30 years.

Senator KENEALLY: I did cite them and you thought a good and clever answer was to point out that Labor governments had been in power during that time. I said, 'Fine.' I'm asking you, if you want to go party political, to name the last Liberal government that increased funding to the ABC.

Senator Fifield: Senator, I'm not going to—

Senator KENEALLY: You introduced party politics into this.

CHAIR: He's answered. You've asked again. He's answered again. Can we move on?

Senator KENEALLY: I've asked a question on notice.

Senator Fifield: I'm not going party political. I'm simply observing that, over the time frame, there were governments of both persuasions. I'm just providing context.

Senator KENEALLY: Has there ever been a Liberal government that's increased funding to the ABC?

Senator Fifield: I would hazard a guess that there was.

Senator ABETZ: Certainly, yes.

Senator Fifield: Let me endeavour to be helpful to the committee and we'll take that on notice.

Senator KENEALLY: Thank you, I appreciate that. What do you think that rural and regional Australians would prefer to have their taxpayer dollars spent on, an essential service like the ABC or a $50 million statue of Captain Cook in the Treasurer's own electorate?

Senator ABETZ: Which is called Cook.

Senator Fifield: Governments make a range of decisions in budgets, from ensuring funding for the National Disability Insurance Scheme to ensuring funding for the ABC, to ensure there's funding for important commemorations in Australian history.

Senator KENEALLY: That didn't answer my question. I understand that governments make choices. Your government has made a choice to put $50 million into a statue of Captain Cook and cut funding from the ABC. So do you think rural and regional Australians will welcome that decision?

Senator Fifield: That's not correct. There is not $50 million going into a statue of Captain Cook.

Senator KENEALLY: How much is going to fund the statue of Captain Cook in the Treasurer's own electorate?

Senator Fifield: It is a centre. It is a facility that has—

Senator KENEALLY: Are we getting a facility and a statue?

Senator Fifield: joint funding between the Commonwealth and the New South Wales governments.

Senator ABETZ: It will be a tourist attraction, no doubt.

Senator Fifield: An important historic Australian site.

Senator KENEALLY: Senator Macdonald also said:

… if the ABC think that they are going to punish the coalition by cutting services in the country, let me warn them: they will have a real fight on their hands if that happens.

Minister, how can the coalition possibly expect the ABC to continue to perform at the same standard when it's cut more than a third of a billion dollars' worth of funding since 2014?

Senator Fifield: I'm confident that the ABC will ensure that it continues to serve rural and regional Australia.

Senator KENEALLY: Could you repeat that? I couldn't hear you.

Senator Fifield: I have a cold, so my apologies. I'm certain that the ABC will continue to ensure that rural and regional Australia is well served.

Senator KENEALLY: Given that Senator Macdonald is prepared to have a real fight on his hands with the ABC if they cut funding to rural and regional services, doesn't that suggest the ABC have to be mindful of political interference from the coalition government in making their choices about how they achieve efficiency?

Senator Fifield: The ABC has legislated independence.

Senator KENEALLY: So they should just ignore Senator Macdonald's threats on the floor of the Senate?

Senator Fifield: Every member and senator in the parliament is entitled to express whatever views they want on whatever matters they choose.

Senator ABETZ: I think Ian will be flattered by your interest in him.

Senator KENEALLY: I have more quotes from Senator Macdonald. Perhaps Senator Abetz is jealous I'm not quoting him!

Senator ABETZ: It just confirms my suspicions!

Senator KENEALLY: I listen closely when Senator Macdonald speaks. According to the Australia Institute, 76 per cent of Australians believe the ABC should be protected from political influence, and 76 per cent of coalition voters agreed with that statement. So I quote Senator Macdonald again:

Some of the journalists that work at the ABC, particularly in this building—

the parliament—

are good journalists. But you get down to Ultimo and you get all the lefties who run the subediting stuff and who really are just mouthpieces for the Labor Party and the Greens.

Minister, aren't these cuts to the ABC politically motivated?

Senator Fifield: No, Senator.

Senator KENEALLY: Not at all? You're not persuaded by the points of view put forward by your colleague Senator Macdonald?

Senator Fifield: I've answered your question.

Senator KENEALLY: Why is the coalition cutting the ABC when this flies directly in the face of the wishes of their own voters, given that 76 per cent of coalition voters want the ABC to be protected from political influence—the type of influence we're seeing from people like Senator Macdonald?

Senator Fifield: Sorry, what was the question?

Senator KENEALLY: The question is: why are you attacking the ABC when it flies directly in the face of the wishes of your own voters?

Senator Fifield: We're not doing what you suggest.

Senator KENEALLY: You're cutting their funding. You've called for a competitive neutrality inquiry. You're interfering in their enterprise bargaining. You complain about their content once a month.

Senator Fifield: What the government is about is efficiency, transparency and accountability at the ABC.

Senator KENEALLY: Senator Macdonald also had this to say:

… there is a real opportunity to shave the bloated bureaucracy and the subeditors, the left-wing cabal, who are in the back rooms of the ABC, and get onto their main purpose of disseminating real information, not the opinions of some first-year journalist who has been to university and picks up on the sort of rubbish you hear from the unions.

That's his quote.

Senator ABETZ: He must've been on valium when he said that! It's so toned down.

Senator KENEALLY: Minister, again, is the coalition's decision to defund our public broadcaster to silence criticism from what many in the coalition would perceive as a left-wing bias at the ABC?

Senator Fifield: You said that the government are defunding the ABC; we're not defunding the ABC. We will be providing more than $1 billion a year to the ABC.

Senator KENEALLY: You're cutting their funding.

Senator Fifield: Defunding means the removal of—

Senator KENEALLY: You've cut a third of their $1 billion since 2014. So there is no politics involved?

Senator Fifield: No.

Senator KENEALLY: How do the government justify their $127 million handout last financial year to Southern Cross Austereo, Nine Entertainment Co. and others while they have been cutting funding to our public broadcaster?

Senator Fifield: Are you referring to the licence fee reductions for commercial broadcasters, which were supported by the Australian Labor Party?

Senator KENEALLY: The Australian Labor Party is not the point of these questions. The point of these questions is that you as a government have taken a decision to do two things at the same time: to give a handout to Southern Cross Austereo, Nine Entertainment Co. and others, as well as, I might say, $30 million to Foxtel; and to continue to cut funding to the public broadcaster. Those are the two decisions that have gone hand in hand in the coalition government. I'm asking you: how do you justify giving money to private sector operators while cutting funding to our public broadcaster?

Senator ABETZ: Sam Dastyari voted for it.

Senator Fifield: The removal of broadcast licence fees and the replacement with a more modest spectrum charge was done in recognition of the fact that licence fees were introduced in the late 1950s for TVs as a superprofits tax at the time, when there was no competition for electronic media. The media landscape has changed dramatically. It was appropriate to rebalance those charges that were levied on commercial broadcasters. It was done to help the viability of commercial broadcasters in an environment where revenue is declining, because we want to have good, strong, viable Australian media organisations. That is an important underpinning of media diversity. Another important underpinning of media diversity in Australia and a significant contribution to civil journalism is the more than $1 billion a year that the government provides to the ABC.

Senator KENEALLY: Minister, I think we we're going to go round and round in circles on this one.

Senator Fifield: I'm heading in a straight line, Senator.

Senator ABETZ: Did ACMA make a finding against a recent news report by the ABC?

Mr Sunderland : This was a report by Andrew Probyn. Yes, they did.

Senator ABETZ: Yes. I wasn't going to mention his name, but you've now done so. What was the finding?

Mr Sunderland : The finding was that a line in one of his news reports had breached our impartiality guidelines.

Senator ABETZ: Was it that it was:

… judgemental, not in language considered as analysis, and one that the ordinary reasonable viewer would have understood as a pejorative descriptor.

Mr Sunderland : You're quoting from ACMA's media release. Yes.

Senator ABETZ: If I had listened to every single ABC news bulletin the day of the finding, the next day or the day after that, would I have learned about that finding?

Mr Sunderland : It wasn't covered in our news reports, no.

Senator ABETZ: Funny that! You're into openness, transparency, doing all the right things and being a model broadcaster, and yet when a finding was made against you there was no need to broadcast it or tell anybody about it?

Mr Sunderland : It was publicly acknowledged by the ABC, and I believe it was also discussed on our media program Media Watch.

Senator ABETZ: I will get to that. But the ABC news bulletins did not broadcast it?

Mr Sunderland : It wasn't in the news bulletins, no.

Senator ABETZ: No. So how did you publicly acknowledge it on the website?

Mr Sunderland : The ACMA reports are put on the ACMA site, but we've—

Senator ABETZ: No, I'm talking about the ABC.

Mr Sunderland : We don't post ACMA findings on the ABC's website. The ACMA posts them on their own website. We publish the findings from our own independent investigative teams.

Senator ABETZ: But, if an outside body's made a finding such as this, you don't find it necessary to at least put it up on your website?

Mr Sunderland : We generally don't do that. The normal approach is that ACMA handles the publication of its own findings. The regulator would do that across all of its findings.

Senator ABETZ: Do we have any reason or rationale why, like with the John Stephens case, this matter was not reported?

Mr Sunderland : Again, I would refer you to my earlier comments that we tell our ABC content teams to cover stories about the ABC in the same way that they cover stories about any media organisation—on their editorial merits. That's the advice we provide teams. That's what we tell our teams to do, and that's the approach they take. For example—and you would know this from Media Watch's coverage—there have been findings against a range of media organisations by regulators in recent times about a number of breaches on a number of issues. Generally speaking, they're not the kind of stories, whether they involve the ABC or not, that find their way into news bulletins.

Senator ABETZ: It's not about storytelling, is it?

Mr Sunderland : I don't really understand what you're getting at.

Senator ABETZ: We might find out about that later with your little video broadcast to the ABC and how you want to change the 7 o'clock ABC news to be more story telling rather than telling people what actually occurred on the day.

Mr Sunderland : I don't think that's accurate in the slightest.

Senator ABETZ: We will get to that later. The ABC determined for itself that a finding by ACMA against its chief political reporter was not worthy of broadcasting.

Mr Sunderland : As I said, it was broadcast on our program which is dedicated to looking at the media; it wasn't part of our daily news broadcast.

Senator ABETZ: Media Watch was highly critical, was it not? Didn't Mr Barry make comment about the fact that it was not broadcast and that no apology had been forthcoming?

Mr Sunderland : I know that he referred to the fact that it wasn't included in news programming. As I said, I do not consider that that is a problem. From memory, I can't recall if he took a view on apologies.

Senator ABETZ: But I thought the ABC was a model broadcaster and believed in transparency. If I am a follower of the ABC news and a reader or viewer of your websites, I would not have come across this finding of the ACMA other than if I had somehow stumbled across Media Watch?

Mr Sunderland : If you watch the ABC, you would have heard it discussed on our media program Media Watch. You would not have seen it on our nightly evening news bulletin as a separate news story in its own right, that's correct.

Senator ABETZ: Has any action been taken as a result of this ACMA finding?

Mr Sunderland : The ACMA media release that you referred to earlier noted that the ABC had advised ACMA that the ABC news would incorporate the ACMA finding into its editorial compliance training, and ACMA accepted this as an appropriate action in the circumstances. We have done what we would normally do in these circumstances. Whether it is findings made by our own complaints investigators or findings made by the regulator, we look at the outcome, we take cognisance of it and we incorporate it into the advice we provide and the training we deliver to our content teams.

Senator ABETZ: So you accept that as being the standard of the model broadcaster funded by the public?

Mr Sunderland : I accept, as does the regulator, that that action was appropriate in the circumstances.

Senator ABETZ: I am not sure that that is exactly the case.

Mr Sunderland : In relation to the regulator?

Senator ABETZ: Yes.

Mr Sunderland : Let me quote from the same press release that you were quoting from a moment ago: 'The ABC has advised the ACMA that ABC news will incorporate the ACMA finding into its editorial compliance training programs. The ACMA accepts this as an appropriate action by the ABC in the circumstances.'

Senator ABETZ: Of course it is 'an' appropriate action.

Mr Sunderland : That is what I said.

Senator ABETZ: But that does not say it is the only action that should be taken. It is 'an' appropriate action, which suggests that there might have been other actions.

Mr Sunderland : I didn't read that into the finding. I do not think that is a reasonable interpretation of the finding.

Senator ABETZ: Of course the ABC wouldn't. Is there anything the ABC does wrong and is willing to admit?

Mr Sunderland : Yes, on a regular basis, sadly. I wish it were not so.

Senator ABETZ: Like Jon Stephens and Mr Probyn?

Mr Sunderland : I wish it were not so but, from time to time, the ABC does make errors. I think we commit more time and resources to investigating and being publicly transparent about those errors than any other broadcaster.

Senator ABETZ: You have given us a great display of transparency this evening with this ACMA case not being broadcast at all!

Mr Sunderland : That's not true; it was broadcast; I think we had reached that point where it was broadcast.

Senator ABETZ: It was not broadcast on the news bulletins—

Mr Sunderland : No, of course. But let's be clear—

Senator ABETZ: which is where the egregious statement was made.

Mr Sunderland : Let's be clear, Senator, that the ABC is alone in the Australian media landscape in having a program every week which is dedicated to openly and transparently looking at issues and problems in the Australian media. Let it also be noted that they are as likely to critique and criticise the ABC for its performance as anyone else, and that is also unique in the Australian media landscape. And let it also be noted that in this instance, as with other recent errors by the ABC, this was noted and publicly discussed and critiqued on an ABC broadcast.

Senator ABETZ: Once.

Mr Sunderland : Yes, of course.

Senator ABETZ: Once, on Media Watch.

Mr Sunderland : It was covered—and I thought covered well. I didn't agree with everything Mr Barry said. I don't always agree with everything Mr Barry says, but one of the great things about the ABC is that we set up that program to fearlessly and frankly critique us and everyone else.

Senator ABETZ: Has the reporter being counselled?

Mr Sunderland : I have spoken to Mr Probyn, yes.

Senator ABETZ: Did you express satisfaction with what he had done?

Mr Sunderland : What I tried to do in my discussions with him—as I have done with other reporters when other issues need to be followed up—was appropriately and fairly represent what the finding was and talk to him about the implications of that and how—

Senator ABETZ: Did you agree with the finding?

Mr Sunderland : This was a question about whether one line in a report had crossed the boundary from appropriate analysis into comment and opinion. Our investigator looked at it very closely—independently of me, I might add—and they formed the view that they thought it hadn't crossed the line, and we have to stand by that. It then went to ACMA. ACMA felt that it had crossed the line. We accept that and we're looking at that and we will adjust our advice accordingly. But it really is important to acknowledge that ACMA also said—and you know this, because it is in their media release—that the report generally demonstrated fair treatment and open-mindedness in the way it represented Mr Abbott's views on climate change. When you read the whole report, and I think it is very important to do that, you will see that most of the report was found by ACMA to be fair, detailed and accurate, but one line in it crossed that line into opinion. We accept that finding. It was an error we regret. We have learnt from it and we have dealt with it, I think, appropriately and transparently.

Senator ABETZ: And has Mr Probyn got a bonus this year?

Mr Sunderland : That is not information I have, Senator.

Senator ABETZ: I am sure it is with the chief financial officer but, as if their wont, they won't disclose. What are the consequences for ABC journalists when they breach the guidelines?

Mr Sunderland : Every time a breach is made of any of our editorial standards, we look at that breach, we look at the reasons for it and we ask the content teams to advise us of what actions they will take in response to that. The most common action by far, of course, is to sit down with the staff member involved and to talk to them about it and look at the implications more broadly. There is always a range of things that happen. We always look into that and see what we need to learn from the errors that are made.

Senator ABETZ: Wouldn't it be appropriate for there to be an acknowledgment through the program where this egregious error was made? If the error occurred on the 7 pm news wouldn't it be appropriate that the 7 pm news then, even at the tail end of the news, acknowledged that ACMA had made a finding and that the ABC had acknowledged that finding?

Mr Sunderland : Sometimes we do do that. It depends entirely on the circumstances—how quickly the error is identified, the nature of the error, how easy it is to make that correction and when it's relevant. I think the thing that you have to keep in mind—sorry, you don't; I do—in relation to this report when you weigh these things up, is that the detail of the ACMA finding made it very clear that, for the most part, ACMA considered the report demonstrated fair treatment and open-mindedness; provided the audience with a number of the views Mr Abbott expressed over the last eight years; and that Mr Abbott's views were clearly presented, primarily in his own words, with limited additional commentary. It went through a whole range of the details and then it found that there was nonetheless one sentence that crossed the line. I know you've described it as an egregious error. Although, we felt that it hadn't crossed the line, ACMA felt that it had. We have acknowledged that, we have learnt from it, and we have incorporated it into our thinking, our training and our future advice to people. In those circumstances that I have outlined with a little bit more context and background, I am comfortable with the way the ABC has handled that, both in learning from it and also in having it raised very publicly nationally in its media program that looks quite frankly at these issues and discusses ABC's blemishes every bit as much as it does anyone else's.

Senator ABETZ: What is the audience of the 7 pm evening news?

Mr Sunderland : It varies from day to day, as it does for Media Watch, if that is where you are heading.

Senator ABETZ: But, generally, we have numbers, do we not? About 770,000 down to 660,000 now—that's the correct figure, isn't it?

Mr Sunderland : For the 7 pm news?

Senator ABETZ: Yes.

Mr Sunderland : That sounds about right, but I don't have those figures.

Senator ABETZ: And for Media Watch?

Mr Sunderland : I don't know. I'm sorry, but I don't have—

Senator ABETZ: You're the editorial director and you don't know the ratings? Take it on notice, and you might be surprised that a lot more people watch the 7 pm news than watch Media Watch. Take that on notice.

Mr Sunderland : I will take that on notice, but I will say to you again: as the editorial director, I am very comfortable with the lessons we've learnt and the way we handled that.

Senator ABETZ: As the ABC is always comfortable with all its errors that it never wants to admit to. But let's go to Al Jazeera and ABC NewsRadio. Has the ABC stopped broadcasting content from Al Jazeera on the ABC News 24 channel?

Mr Sunderland : My understanding is that we no longer broadcast Al Jazeera programs but that they are still a potential source of news content for us, as are a number of international media organisations.

Senator ABETZ: So I am clear: you still use Al Jazeera audio content on NewsRadio?

Mr Sunderland : My understanding of it—and, again, I will correct myself if I'm wrong, because I don't have a specific brief on this issue—is that in the past we have had Al Jazeera programs running, I think, late at night on the TV news. We no longer do that, because we have replaced that with other programming. I'm not sure if it is as a matter of course that we run Al Jazeera stuff, but potentially it is available to us, as is stuff from a number of broadcasters.

Senator ABETZ: During the Gaza-Israel border clashes earlier this month, NewsRadio broadcast reports from Al Jazeera a number of times; is that correct?

Mr Sunderland : I'd have to take that on notice, but they may well have.

Senator ABETZ: If you could, include the day of the most dangerous border clashes, being 15 May. Were you aware that Al Jazeera content was being broadcast on this subject matter?

Mr Sunderland : I am not specifically aware of that, as I've said, but I will happily look into that and confirm it for you.

Senator ABETZ: If the answer to that is yes, which I believe to be the case, do you think it fits within the editorial guidelines for the ABC to broadcast reports on this event from a Qatari government owned media company given that the government of Qatar is known to support Hamas and called Israel's recent self-defence activities 'a brutal massacre' and 'systematic killing'?

Mr Sunderland : Again, without going to the detail of what happened on that occasion and what those reports may have been, we take editorial responsibility ultimately for any material from any other broadcaster which we broadcast on the ABC. Whether it be from Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC or whoever they happen to be, any material we take from another broadcaster we have to accept editorial responsibility for.

Senator ABETZ: Of course you do.

Mr Sunderland : Of course we do. And so, if there are any issues with that, that is an issue for us. In terms of the reliability of Al Jazeera as a source, Al Jazeera English is, in my view, a reputable media organisation that provides content which, provided it meets our editorial standards, we are happy to broadcast in the same way that we broadcast from a range of other sources.

Senator ABETZ: Sticking with the Middle East but moving onto Q&A, who selects the questions that go to air on the Q&A program?

Mr Sunderland : My understanding of how that program works is that the audience contributes the questions.

Senator ABETZ: We know that. Who selects them?

Mr Sunderland : Sorry, yes. There are three steps, as I understand it. Step No. 1 is that the program team will send out emails to the people attending, saying there are a range of issues happening.

Senator ABETZ: Yes, we know. Who selects the questions?

Mr Sunderland : Then ultimately the program team sits down in the lead-up to the program, goes through the questions that are open to them and selects from them the questions that will make up the program.

Senator ABETZ: Who takes ultimate responsibility for that?

Mr Sunderland : The executive producer of the program would ultimately take responsibility, but the whole team decides. I've been in those meetings. They sit around the table—

Senator ABETZ: It's always an iterative process and nobody takes responsibility.

Mr Sunderland : No—absolutely incorrect, Senator. It is always—

Senator ABETZ: So who takes responsibility?

Mr Sunderland : I think I've already answered that question. I am trying to explain to you the process, which is that the entire program team—when I have observed this process—sits around and discusses the pros and cons of the mix, the balance, the time available to them. They argue about the questions, and they come up with a list of questions. As that process is led by the executive producer of the program, ultimately the executive producer of that program will take final responsibility for the shape of the program.

Senator ABETZ: Right. Thank you. What is done when the questions clearly contain factual errors? Why are those sorts of questions allowed to be broadcast?

Mr Sunderland : If you give me an example, I'm happy to—

Senator ABETZ: I'm more than happy to. The question included, 'Last week the Israeli army killed 60 unarmed Palestinian protesters'. We know from Hamas itself that 52 of those killed were Hamas operatives who had knives and other weapons on them. Yet, without any commentary, without any sort of saying, 'Well, this is a loaded question full of nonsense; we'll put that aside', the ABC viewing public gets fed a diet that these 60 poor souls who were unarmed and peacefully protesting were killed—yet 52 of them were Hamas operatives from a terrorist organisation.

Mr Sunderland : I think in circumstances like that, you would generally provide an opportunity for a question to be asked by someone so that it can then be immediately responded to by the panellists who were there and who, as you know, in the program, responded and put their view on exactly that.

Senator ABETZ: The only defender of Israel on that program, if I recall—who was that?

Mr Sunderland : Mr Sheridan?

Senator ABETZ: Yes, Mr Sheridan—

Mr Sunderland : I think Senator Hume was involved in the program as well.

Senator ABETZ: who was continually cut off by Tony Jones while trying to correct Ms Abdel-Fattah. One of the guests on the ABC's Q&A on Monday night was Randa Abdel-Fattah, who openly identifies as a Muslim Palestinian. If you know you're going to be discussing matters of this nature, wouldn't it be appropriate to have somebody—let's say from the Jewish community—to balance out your program so that you could have people who might be full bottle on the topic to actually engage on these issues? Undoubtedly you will tell me that there'll be some Jewish representative on another Q&A program when they won't be discussing the Middle East, but that really isn't good enough when you're dealing with such a sensitive topic.

Mr Sunderland : I might perhaps provide my own answer to the question, if that's okay, Senator. It is always a challenge with a program like Q&A, which covers multiple issues. As you know, the Gaza issue was one of a number covered by that program. From recollection, it was fairly late in the program that it came up. It's the same with a program like The Drum. You can't set up a panel that has levels of expertise for every topic that is likely to come up and that will come up. What I would say, though, is that, as I think you've already identified, there were people on that panel who had diametrically opposed views to the woman you mentioned and were given an opportunity on a number of occasions to respond and engage. I felt the issue—and I confess, I did not see that program go to air, but I read the relevant part of the transcript last night—was canvassed in a very fair, very balanced and very comprehensive way where everyone had an opportunity to raise a number of points from all sides.

Senator ABETZ: The segment on the Middle East—would you be able to provide us with the amount of time that Greg Sheridan was allowed to speak in comparison to the time given to Ms Abdel-Fattah?

Mr Sunderland : I can certainly do that.

Senator ABETZ: And take that on notice. Thank you.

Mr Sunderland : I would point out the transcript and the video are both available online.

Senator ABETZ: But if you can—

Mr Sunderland : do the sums—

Senator ABETZ: provide that, please.

Mr Sunderland : Certainly.

Senator ABETZ: Moving to last Sunday's Insiders program, discussing Australia's decision to vote against the motion to establish an inquiry into Israel et cetera—we once again had a host and two panellists criticising it, with only one defending the government's position on that. Again, do you think that that's a balanced panel to discuss this matter?

Mr Sunderland : The nature of Insiders—and that episode is as good an example as any—is to bring together representatives of media organisations, journalists, to discuss a range of political issues. Again, the purpose of that program is to raise all kinds of political issues and reflect on them. In the circumstances, again, that issue was well debated and well aired in the context on that broader political program. That one I did see.

Senator ABETZ: Did you listen to ABC Radio National Saturday Extra with Geraldine Doogue, where the she presented an interview with Professor Rashid Khalidi?

Mr Sunderland : No, I didn't hear that one.

Senator ABETZ: During her introduction, Ms Doogue spoke about the clashes on Israel and Gaza's borders and emotively said, '60 unarmed Palestinian protesters had been killed by Israeli forces'. This is simply not true. It is incorrect. Yet your producer, undoubtedly in line for a bonus, is presenting to the Australian public factually incorrect information. When it comes to Palestine and Israel, it is always one-way traffic. It's never that it's too pro-Israeli by accident. It's always too pro-Palestinian. So are we willing to acknowledge at the ABC that that statement by Ms Doogue was incorrect?

Mr Sunderland : Senator, as I mentioned to you earlier, I didn't hear that particular program. I'm happy to go back and take a look at it—have a look at the context, what was said, before, during and after, what was said in response, and at what point in the unfolding story that was done. I will happily look at it, but I won't answer questions on the fly now about certain phrases taken out of context from a program without having the opportunity to look at the program.

Senator ABETZ: How can you take out of context—

Mr Sunderland : I don't know. I would need to have a look at it.

Senator ABETZ: the assertion 60 unarmed Palestinian protesters had been killed when I think the ABC news itself had broadcast that 52 of these people were Hamas operatives, a terrorist organisation?

Mr Sunderland : I will happily have a look at that program.

Senator ABETZ: This is not taking anything out of context; it is just false, false, false. And you wonder where your ABC people get their misinformation from on these matters.

Mr Sunderland : Senator, you're simultaneously quoting us for getting it right and getting it wrong on two different outlets. Let me have a look at the one that concerns you and I will get back to you on it.

Senator ABETZ: I will leave that one. Given the time, I might just quickly turn to this one. On Monday, the ABC reported online about a fire at the Manus Island facility. Embedded in the online report was a Facebook page from a publicly acknowledged refugee advocate. Can you tell us how that happens?

Mr Sunderland : Let me have a look at that for you. It is not uncommon for actuality content, if it's considered part of the news narrative, to be embedded in there. I'd need to understand the context of that.

Senator ABETZ: Because the punter, looking at the heading, 'ABC News', down the side column was confronted with this from Anthea Falkenberg, who amongst other things tells us, 'My shame, anger and disgust at the lies and obfuscations of the Australian agencies involved grows daily'. I understand that someone was actually charged with setting fire to it, but why—

Mr Sunderland : Let me look at the context and get back to you.

Senator ABETZ: If you can explain how this sort of post appears on the ABC News website, it would be very helpful. Did the ABC report that an arrest had been made in relation to the fire? The assertion was made in this that 'the main problem highlights yet again the lack of safety in the accommodation'.

Mr Sunderland : Was that an assertion made by the ABC?

Senator ABETZ: It's on the ABC website—

Mr Sunderland : Who was it attributed to?

Senator ABETZ: courtesy of Anthea Falkenberg.

Mr Sunderland : You're talking about Facebook?

Senator ABETZ: Yes.

Mr Sunderland : Let me take a look at it.

Senator ABETZ: As though the facilities were prone to catch fire because of faults, yet in fact somebody has now been arrested for arson.

Mr Sunderland : I'll get back to you on that.

Senator ABETZ: All right. Thank you very much.

Senator KENEALLY: This is a question for Ms Higgins. Could you tell me how much the ABC spent on Google keywords in the last financial year?

Ms Higgins : It was about $440,000.

Senator KENEALLY: How important is it to the ABC to make that investment? What does it give you in return?

Ms Higgins : The way that we consider it from a strategic point of view is that for Australians to really enjoy the content that the ABC makes—there's the content in and of itself, there's making sure it's distributed on the platforms that they want to consume it on and there's making sure that they're aware that it's available. Part of the challenge we have, of having such a broad diet of content available to Australians, is them having that sense of discovery of what is available to pique their interests. We do know that Google and social platforms are now a way in which most Australians are able to be reached, and so that is a very important way for us to reach Australians as to the content they might be interested in.

CHAIR: I think we will draw a line under it there. The good news is that we're all back here tomorrow morning at nine o'clock. We'll see you tomorrow morning, ABC.

Committee adjourned at 22 : 57