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Budget 2018: Transcript of interview with Raf Epstein: ABC Drive with Raf Epstein: 10 May 2018: ABC funding; Victorian infrastructure funding; ABC board position



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TRANSCRIPT

Media contacts:

Geraldine Mitchell | 0407 280 476 | Geraldine.Mitchell@communications.gov.au Guy Creighton | 0438 815 302 | Guy.Creighton@communications.gov.au

Authorised by Senator Mitch Fifield, Liberal Party of Australia, Parliament House, Canberra

Interview

ABC Drive with Raf Epstein 5.05pm 10 May 2018

E & OE

RAF EPSTEIN:

One of the losers in Tuesday’s Federal Budget is the radio station you’re listening to. The ABC received a freeze on its funding. The ABC receives about a billion dollars a year. Normally that funding goes up with inflation that will not happen for the next little while. The ABC and the Federal Government agree that is worth something like $80 million. The ABC says there is no more fat to cut, they will have to cut into muscle. That means programs or jobs will go. Let’s ask the Communications Minister why it’s all happening.

Last night we spoke to former ABC staff-elected board member, he’s also a veteran of the ABC. This was Quentin Dempster’s interpretation of the Government’s funding freeze.

“It’s punitive because the ABC was blindsided, they had no idea. And when you looked at the Budget papers and saw that Mitch Fifield is redirecting the $83 million over three years to other areas of his portfolio and to Budget repair, it becomes quite pointed and I think everybody’s entitled to come to the concluded view that it’s punishment.”

It’s punishment? Senator Mitch Fifield is a Liberal Senator from this state, from Victoria, he’s also Minister for Communications and the Arts.

Thanks for joining us.

FIFIELD:

Good to be with you Raf.

Subject: ABC funding, Victorian infrastructure funding, ABC board position

EPSTEIN:

Is it punishment?

FIFIELD:

No.

EPSTEIN:

Then why do it?

FIFIELD:

Every Commonwealth organisation needs to be the best possible steward that it can be of the taxpayer dollar. And every Commonwealth organisation needs to live within its means. Yes, the ABC has had efficiency reviews before and we’re pairing a new efficiency review with this indexation pause so that we can identify the areas where the ABC can further improve its stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

EPSTEIN:

If you give Foxtel $30 million if you give the free to air stations something like a $400 million discount on their licences and you give extra money to SBS in this Budget but then you take money away from the ABC, that sounds like punishment doesn’t it?

FIFIELD:

Raf, it’s important to look at the numbers. And the ABC over the next triennium of funding will have $3.16 billion. The ABC will continue to receive in excess of a billion dollars a year. And what that means is that the ABC has greater funding certainty than any media organisation in the nation. The ABC does good work. It does important work. It will continue to do that. But there should be no Commonwealth Government agency that is above looking at itself and seeing if it is doing as well as it possibly can in the way that it expends taxpayers’ dollars. I think that’s a good thing.

EPSTEIN:

Does it have anything to do with our coverage of politics?

FIFIELD:

No. Absolutely not. The ABC…

EPSTEIN:

The freeze would still happen I mean you’re allowed to and you’re entitled to and it’s your right to complain about things like the report about Tony Abbott,

but if all of our politics coverage was exactly as you wished it to be and unbiased as you would like it to be would the freeze still happen?

FIFIELD:

This Budget decision has nothing to do with the way the ABC covers news and current affairs. Whenever I’m asked about the ABC, and whether it is an organisation that tilts one way or the other - I always cite the Parliament House bureau of the ABC as being a very straight down the line operation. And I think they do good work.

EPSTEIN:

Can I ask if any of the Cabinet or sub-committee meetings of Cabinet talking about the funding freeze. Anybody mention the ABC’s politics coverage in those discussions?

FIFIELD:

I would never talk about the deliberations in Cabinet. But I can assure you that the decision that was taken in relation to the ABC’s indexation pause was entirely about ensuring that the ABC continues to be a good steward of taxpayers’ dollars. And was entirely about every Commonwealth Government organisation living within its means and making a contribution to ensuring that we’re in a position where we can balance the Budget. And that’s good for the whole nation. Because when we balance the Budget Raf, we can do things like the $7.8 billion on new major projects in Victoria.

EPSTEIN:

And we might get into income tax cuts as well. But if it didn't happen in a Cabinet or sub-committee meeting, then you can say it didn't happen. I mean if it's completely unconnected, you can assure us all that political coverage wasn't mentioned?

FIFIELD:

Look Raf, I'm not playing word games with you. If you asked me whether the colour of paint on the wall of the Cabinet room was discussed - I wouldn't go into that either. Because the position as a Minister is we never talk about what happened in Cabinet. But what I can absolutely tell you, which I've done already, is reassure you Raf, that we value the work that the ABC does. It's important. The ABC is an organisation, when it comes to news, is one of the underpinnings of media diversity in the nation. It's one of the underpinnings of civic journalism. And it does many things that other media organisations don't do. And that will continue to be the case.

EPSTEIN:

Can I ask about the efficiency review? There's been 10 or 11 external and internal reviews in 15 years, and there's been $300 million in savings in the last three years. Do we need another efficiency review?

FIFIELD:

Well we should always be looking to continually improve. An argument that an efficiency review happened four years ago, therefore, everything must have reached some perfect state of equilibrium…

EPSTEIN:

Just on those numbers, the ABC says ten or eleven efficiency reviews in the last 15 years, do you agree that that's happened?

FIFIELD:

I think you mentioned internal reviews as well. Now, the ABC has legislated independence, so we have no control over the internal reviews that the ABC does. But it's good practice for an organisation to look at itself, from time to time. And that's what will happen again. I've yet to find a Commonwealth Government organisation that has reached a state of perfection. I don't think the ABC has achieved that. It's pretty good…

EPSTEIN:

Mine is pretty good…

FIFIELD:

Well there are rare pockets where there is a state of nirvana, and your show certainly comes very close to that Raf.

EPSTEIN:

I'm going to cut that code out. Mitch Fifield is the Communications Minister. Do you also agree, I mean essentially, the ABC has more radio stations, more TV stations, more digital output with less money. The argument is often put to you that the ABC's funding has been cut in real terms, by about 25 per cent over the last thirty years. There's also the argument that it's been cut more than that, if you compare it to the 1980s. Would you agree, that actually in real terms, we're getting substantially less money and doing substantially more?

FIFIELD:

I would hope that an organisation, such as the ABC, always strives to do more. We operate in an environment of budgets. Every organisation has to operate within a budget. And the way that the system is, is that the ABC has legislated independence in relation to operational and programming matters.

And the government of the day, and the Parliament, legislate an appropriation - a budget - and the ABC is expected to manage within that.

EPSTEIN:

Have you got a good relationship with the Managing Director and the Chair?

FIFIELD:

A terrific relationship. I think both Justin and Michelle are doing an extremely good job, they both…

EPSTEIN:

Forgive my interruption, but if it’s terrific, they certainly seemed surprised by this.

FIFIELD:

I spoke to both the Chair and the Managing Director in the couple of weeks before the Budget. So the inference from Quentin Dempster that in some way the organisation, I think he said was 'blindsided', is not correct.

EPSTEIN:

Well if you tell them a few weeks ago, or on Budget night, it's the same thing isn't it? They certainly didn't see it coming, did they?

FIFIELD:

Well we did have conversations with the ABC in the weeks beforehand. So to say that the organisation was blindsided on Budget night is not correct. And the ABC - I know - always likes to be factually correct. And so I'm happy to assist on that point.

EPSTEIN:

Oh thank God you're live fact-checking us. Can I just ask, there is a $40 million news package - I don't want to get into the technical details - but it's separate to the funding freeze runs out in July next year. It funds things like news rooms or reporters in Ipswich, Parramatta, Geelong, the investigative teams. There are dozens of people in those jobs, if that money doesn't continue next July, those jobs might need to go. Is that money going to continue or will the jobs have to go?

FIFIELD:

Look it's a good point, because I was rather perplexed when I saw Gaven Morris, the Director or News at ABC, tweet yesterday morning that $43 million for that enhanced news service was not continuing. In fact, he said that 'a decision had been taken' to cease it. Now that’s not the case. That funding continues for another year.

EPSTEIN:

So no one in government conveyed that message to the ABC?

FIFIELD:

It is something that is in addition to the base funding…

EPSTEIN:

Can I take you back there because I sense a non-answer, did nobody tell the news division that that money would stop?

FIFIELD:

Raf, it wasn’t a non-answer. It was an answer that I was part-way through giving. So, if I can continue. That $43 million is on top of the ABC’s base funding. It was a proposition the ABC put before the latest triennium funding that there should be additional funding on a time-limited basis. Now, the ABC, in the ordinary course of events, if they think that there is something in addition to their base funding that should be supported, will put a proposition to government.

The ABC have not done that as yet. And I would imagine that they will. But it was completely wrong for ABC News and its news director to say that government had taken a decision to cease that money. Not the case. It continues for another year. And I would assume that in the ordinary budgetary process that the ABC will put a proposition in.

EPSTEIN:

You’ve mentioned Gaven Morris, I want to play a little bit, he gave a speech today in Melbourne about what the cuts might mean. Let’s listen to what he had to say.

Gaven Morris

“At ABC news, almost 96 per cent of our annual budget of about $200 million is spent on journalism and production. Make no mistake, there is no more fat to cut at the ABC. Any more cuts to the ABC, cuts into the muscle of the organisation.”

EPSTEIN:

Is he right or wrong do you think, Minister?

FIFIELD:

Well he was talking about the News division of the ABC and I think he mentioned $200 million. The ABC receives in excess of a billion dollars a year. The purpose of the efficiency review is to look to see if there are areas where the ABC can do better with the resources that they have…

EPSTEIN:

Is he right or wrong to say that, that there’s no more fat to cut?

FIFIELD:

…That is something that is good housekeeping. Gaven Morris, might have the benefit of knowing what an efficiency review will conclude. I don’t, because they haven’t yet undertaken their work. We will see them do that work. They will work closely with the ABC management and with SBS management as well. And we will see what they produce. But for anyone, in any organisation to say; “look, we are the best that we can possibly be, that it’s impossible to manage the organisation better, that there are no ways that we can improve our processes in what we do”, that’s a strange attitude. And I’d be disappointed with anyone in any organisation in my portfolio who took that approach. The general attitude is we should always be looking to be better stewards of the taxpayer dollars. And that’s what we’re looking for.

EPSTEIN:

Look I will get to people’s calls, there’s a quite a few red flashing lights in front of me and I’ll get to texts as well. I think there’s a vacancy on the ABC board to be filled still minister, is that likely to come soon?

FIFIELD:

It will come very soon. As you know, one of my predecessors, Stephen Conroy, legislated an independent nomination panel process at arm’s-length from Government. And what that process means is that these appointment take longer then they might if the government of the day could simply make the appointments. So anyway, we’ll go through that process. We’ll observe it as the law requires. But that is almost concluded. And we’ll have more to say very shortly.

EPSTEIN:

And is the new board member got a membership at the Institute of Public Affairs?

FIFIELD:

You’ll have to wait and see, Raf.

EPSTEIN:

Do you know the answer on that one?

FIFIELD:

Raf, I don’t know. It’s not a qualification to be a member of the board of the ABC to belong to that organisation. But yes, I don’t know if the successful applicant is or isn’t.

EPSTEIN:

But you have chosen the successful applicant?

FIFIELD:

We will be saying something very soon.

EPSTEIN:

Ok, we’ll leave it there, thanks for your time, appreciate it.

FIFIELD:

Good to be with you.

[ends]