It took the offer of a Chinese company to bring better telecommunications to the Solomon Islands to remind our government of the value of soft diplomacy.
After years of savage cuts to the Foreign Aid budget, ironically accompanied by huge increases in the defence and arms industry budgets, all of a sudden we can find a lazy $100 million plus to stop what is perceived to be an attempt by the Chinese to gain influence in the Pacific region.
Some would have us believe it is an attempt to hack in to our communications. Perhaps so, though I rather think that is something that could be achieved far more easily another way.
This newly remembered responsibility to help our near neighbours (by means other than paying them to house our refugees or offering to build casinos) was not prompted by recognition of a friend’s need but in hasty reaction to someone else’s offer – more a PR exercise designed to remind them that they should be our friend, not China’s.
Whilst building needed infrastructure in poorer countries is commendable, there are other opportunities this government has deliberately thrown away for what seems little more than ideological spite.
One of the first actions of the Coalition after winning government was to axe the ABC’s $220 million 10-year contract with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to run the Asia Pacific television service, Australia Network, despite them being in the first year of the contract.
It may come as no surprise to find the IPA had “Cease funding the Australia Network” at number 47 on their infamous wish list.
While countries around the world are expanding their international broadcasting services as key instruments of public diplomacy, our government chose to give up one of the most powerful communication tools available to it to talk to our regional neighbours about Australia presumably just because they hate giving money to the national broadcaster.
Calls from the IPA to demolish the ABC (#50 “Break up the ABC and put out to tender each individual function” and #51 “Privatise SBS”), followed obediently by the Liberal Party Federal Council, ignore the crucial help they could, and do, provide to the government.
It was a Four Corner’s story, Unholy Silence, that finally prompted the Royal Commission into the institutional response to child sex abuse.
It was the Four Corner’s expose of the cruelty at Don Dale that led to another RC into juvenile detention.
And their coverage of water theft in the Murray-Darling has prompted the SA government to hold its own RC (to which the Federal government are desperately trying to avoid giving evidence).
It was not the police or the regulators who initiated these investigations or uncovered the wrongdoing. It certainly wasn’t the government or their departments.
Congratulations and thanks must go to Walkley Award winning ABC researcher/producer Mary Fallon who was involved in all of these stories, with others, and who then spent hundreds of hours compiling and providing evidence for the Royal Commissions.
And then there are the stories the government won’t allow the ABC to tell.
Like the allegations of Australian authorities paying people smugglers to take asylum seekers somewhere else and the mistreatment of asylum seekers by defence personnel.
Or how we monitored the mobile phone activity of high-ranking Indonesians including the President’s wife.
Or the plight of refugees in offshore detention.
Or the real state of the NBN.
Or the lack of evidence of any benefit from company tax cuts.
Mitch Fifield smiles at us as he assures us that the government has no plans to privatise the ABC but his message to the party is that they have ways and means of keeping the ABC in line.
Aside from the savage cuts to base-funding and the constant stream of complaints and accusations of bias, Fifield outlined some of their plan to further contain and control the national broadcaster.
“In the budget, we announced an indexation pause for the ABC funding in its next triennium. We have paired that with an efficiency review to make sure that the ABC is being the best possible steward of taxpayer resources that it can be.
I’ve also initiated something called a Competitive Neutrality Inquiry, which has the purpose of assessing whether the ABC and SBS are using their position as taxpayer-funded entities to compete in ways which are not fair with the commercial broadcasting sector.
We also have a range of legislative measures which we have before the Senate. One of those, is to put into the ABC’s Act, specific and explicit reference to its obligations to rural and regional Australia.”
I wonder how the unexplained $30 million gift to Fox Sports would fare under competitive neutrality scrutiny.
A recent survey showed that the majority of ABC employees were left-leaning – greenies even. Is it so surprising that those who work for a national broadcaster, rather than a commercial enterprise with an agenda, are more motivated by social justice and environmental protection than profit, greed and personal ambition?
The Treasurer said many people think the ABC is biased but, as those of us who actually watch it rather than whinge about it know, opportunity is given to all sides to present their view. The IPA have resident status and we are regularly forced to endure people like Gerard Henderson, Michael Stutchbury and Nick Cater. Liberal politicians, current and former, abound. Amanda Vanstone and Tom Switzer have their own shows. Extraordinary lengths are gone to to ensure a cross-section in the Q&A audience and panels.
I think the accusations of bias come from people who don’t like listening to actual evidence. Let’s face it, no-one subscribes to pay tv for the news.
Finally, ABC head Michelle Guthrie has been stirred to defend her charge as her predecessors have so often been forced to do.
“[Australians] regard the ABC as one of the great national institutions [and] deeply resent it being used as a punching bag by narrow political, commercial or ideological interests.
Inherent in the drive against the independent public broadcaster is a belief that it can be pushed and prodded into different shapes to suit the prevailing climate. It can’t. Nor should it be.
In a complex world it is too easy for the powerful to do their work in dark corners: to cynically use so-called narrowcasting messages that have a direct appeal to certain targeted audiences, while conveying an entirely different message to others – to rely on rhetoric that doesn’t match actions. Good journalists call that out.”
She further referenced a soon-to-be-released report by Deloittes which shows that the broadcaster contributed $1 billion to the national economy last financial year. In addition to its 4000 employees, the ABC helps to sustain more than 2500 full-time equivalent jobs across the supply chain.
The ABC is not just there for entertainment or to regurgitate government media releases. It is a priceless asset that plays a pivotal role in our society in many different ways. Attempts to strangle it of funds, to erode its independence, to censor coverage, or to dumb it down, must be resisted strongly by politicians and the community.