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Parliament House, Canberra: transcript of doorstop interview, 30 October 2000: ABC.



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Doorstop Interview

Stephen Smith - Shadow Minister for Communications

Subject: ABC

Transcript - Parliament House, Canberra - 30 October 2000

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SMITH: Just a few points on the ABC this morning.

Firstly, you would have seen yesterday on commercial television Senator Alston giving the green light for privatisation of the ABC in whole or in part. So, not content with wanting to fully flog-off Telstra, the Government now makes it crystal clear that so far as our independent public national broadcaster is concerned, it would be happy to give the green light for full or part privatisation. That's the first point.

Secondly, I note the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the National Party, Mr Anderson, again saying that so far as ABC news and current affairs is concerned, the ABC should simply do more with less. This is consistent with the National Party's policy in respect of the ABC and also with Telstra, that so far as services are concerned, people who live in rural and regional and remote Australia and the outlying states, should simply content themselves with the National Party policy, which is 'do more with less'.

I also note, on the National Party, that the Managing Director of the ABC, Mr Shier, yesterday effectively skewered the National Party. It was put to him on the Sunday program that the National Party were concerned about news and current affairs in rural and regional and remote Australia. Mr Shier made the point crystal clear: where was the National Party when the Government slashed $66 million out of ABC funding in 1996? And where was the National Party when the ABC came to the Government seeking funds for the transition to digital?

So, we've had enough crocodile tears from the National Party. It's about time the acid went on to the National Party and they became the voices of rural, regional and remote Australia in Canberra, rather than simply being John Howard's echoing voices in the regions.

JOURNALIST: What did the Minister specifically say which leads you to the conclusion that the Government will privatise the ABC?

SMITH: The Minister said on commercial television if a proposal was put to the Government about privatisation of the ABC they'd be prepared to contemplate it. That was crystal clear. He said if a proposal came to the Government about the privatisation of the ABC, the Government would be prepared to contemplate it. The Government should simply have said, 'if you are serious about having an independent national public broadcaster, you

can't contemplate privatisation, and you adequately and properly resource it'.

What do we know that this Government has done with the ABC since it came to office in 1996? It's put the ABC under sustained political and financial pressure. It's failed and refused to adequately resource it to enable it to discharge its traditional functions. It's failed or refused to adequately resource it for the transition to digital. And now you have the Minister for Communications sitting on commercial television saying that if someone came to the Government with a proposal for the full or the part privatisation of the ABC he'd be happy to contemplate it. That's what he said yesterday.

JOURNALIST: The full privatisation wasn't raised and he wasn't talking about … he was clearly not referring to the full privatisation.

SMITH: The question was put to him, 'how would the Government respond to a proposal put to the Government about the privatisation of the ABC'. He said that was a matter that the Government was happy to contemplate. The policy position of this Government is to contemplate the full or the part privatisation of the ABC. That is a position which stands in stark contrast to our policy which is a commitment to a robust, independent, adequately resourced, independent national broadcaster.

JOURNALIST: Does that commitment extend to never selling-off any part of the ABC?

SMITH: Absolutely. Our long standing policy is to have an adequately resourced independent national public broadcaster. Now, so far as resources are concerned, I've consistently made the point that we will have our detailed financial commitment in the run-up to the next election. Mr Shier is here today meeting a range of Members of Parliament. When I see Mr Shier, one of the things I'll say to him first up will be that I regret today I can't help you. I'm not the Government. You need, in the first instance, to put these points to the Government.

So far as our commitment is concerned we are committed to an adequately resourced, independent national broadcaster. We are committed to ensuring the ABC can make the transition to digital. That's why we moved in the Senate to give the ABC the capacity for multi-channelling. You'll recall, of course, that the Government refused to support that position until it was foisted upon them by a Labor-Democrat majority in the Senate.

JOURNALIST: So, what do you make of those allegations of interference?

SMITH: Well, what I've said about the allegations that were aired yesterday, both in respect of alleged interference in the ABC and also alleged executive or corporate largesse, either in the case of salaries or in the case of travel, I've said that these matters now require a formal response from the Board. And, in any event, we will be pursuing these matters in the normal course of events at Senate estimates before the end of the year. So, the allegations that were aired yesterday in respect of political interference, and in respect of largesse, I think a formal response is now required from the Board. In any event, we'll be pursuing these matters in the normal course of events at Senate Estimates.

JOURNALIST: And is your commitment not to sell the ABC extend to the retail arm and the online arm as well?

SMITH: Well, you might recall that one of the reasons it is so crystal clear that this policy position is harboured by the Government is that about 12 months ago the Opposition

effectively led the charge to ensure that the Government was stopped dead in its tracks on the proposal generated by Michael Kroger, a Board member, and supported by Minister Alston, to flog-off ABC Online, to flog-off one of the future media aspects of the ABC. So, of course it applies to ABC Online.

JOURNALIST: What about the retail arm?

SMITH: Well, it applies to the ABC. We believe in an independent national public broadcaster. We don't subscribe to the view that the Government does that you can flog-off the ABC in whole or in part and still have something that resembles an independent national public broadcaster.

Ends

Authorised by Geoff Walsh, 19 National Circuit, Barton ACT 2600.