21 June 2021

Matter of Public Importance - ABC


I, too, rise to speak on this matter of public importance. I wasn't quite sure, just then, if I was sitting here in the Senate or in a Young Liberals branch meeting or even in Senator McGrath's living room, listening to him shout at his television. Perhaps it's best to let Senator McGrath's contribution speak for itself, rather than me unpacking it line by line.


The ABC has a long and proud history at the heart of the Australian media landscape. It is consistently one of our most trusted institutions, with 72 per cent of Australians agreeing that the ABC is their most trusted source of news and current affairs. During the depths of the COVID pandemic, 61 per cent of Australians tuned into its digital platforms, showing that when accurate, timely information really matters Australians turn to the ABC. It's an incredibly valued and impactful institution. Its flagship current affair programs have shaped news coverage and driven significant policy change. Children's content, like Bluey, has become an international phenomenon.


Despite the assertions of some of those opposite, the ABC is not some ivory tower in the inner cities. In regional Australia, including regional South Australia, it is more important than ever. Often the ABC is still the only provider of vital local content. It keeps Australians connected with their communities and the broader nation, as shown by their weekly reach among regional Australians being 49 per cent.


The ABC also saves lives in times of disaster. We've seen it time and time again, and we saw it also during the Black Summer bushfires in my state. South Australians tuned into the ABC to get the vital and critical information they needed to keep their families safe. If that's not relevance to regional South Australians, I don't know what is.


Despite the clear importance the ABC holds for Australia and Australians, including the regional South Australians that Senator McGrath was talking about before, it has been subject to burdensome efficiency measures and ideologically driven cuts under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison/Truss-Joyce-McCormack-Joyce governments—I think I've got them all there. In 2020, the ABC were facing an $83 million cut in funding, forcing them to operate on increasingly fine margins and putting enormous strain on their staff, systems and programs. I sat there in estimates as the minister tried to deny they were making these cuts, but they were; the cuts were in black and white, and they were confirmed by the CFO at the time. Those cuts meant that 250 staff could be facing the sack. There was an enormous amount of talent, passion and knowledge on the line for our national broadcaster. Of course, it's not just staffing which is under threat. When the Liberals enforce these brutal cuts, it's programs like the flagship 7.45 am radio news bulletin, which was cut after 81 years on air. Many other iconic programs have faced reduced episodes and resourcing. In every one of the eight long years that have passed since Tony Abbott's false promise of 'no cuts to the ABC', this Liberal government has embarked on brutal cuts which leave Australians with less and less service from their loved and cherished national broadcaster.


Senator McGrath has come in here today and openly called for the ABC to be privatised. He has openly made that call. It's not veiled, it's not hidden; that's what he wants to see—a member of the Liberal government, quite high up on the Senate ticket, if my memory serves me correctly, calling for the ABC to be privatised. These are calls which go deep within their ranks.


But let's imagine if the ABC were privatised and their board were suddenly responsible for delivering a profit to shareholders. Would they still broadcast the important emergency information, ad free, that keeps Australians safe? Would they invest in valuable Australian made TV over cookie-cutter television content produced overseas? Would they still have local journalists in regional areas or, like some of the commercial networks have done, would they just have centrally produced news grabs filmed in other states? A privatised ABC would be a disaster. It would be a disaster for all Australians.


Of course, something that is often lost in these discussions about the future of the ABC is triple J and how these absurd calls from Senator McGrath to see it privatised would impact young Australians. It's no real surprise to me that these calls to privatise triple J are coming from those who haven't been particularly relevant to triple J's target market for several decades. Triple J is the incubator of unique and experimental Australian music. South Australian artists like George Alice and the most recent Unearthed High winners, Teenage Joans, all featured on triple J, leading to broader commercial success. It's not just those on Unearthed; it's also the other Australian musicians, bands and artists who get that valuable airtime on triple J which leads to other commercial opportunities which wouldn't have been there otherwise.


And it's not just music. Triple J is also home to exceptional reporting through the Hack program, which is reported, produced and broadcast by young people for young people, covering topics which impact young Australians—Australians who often feel ignored by this Liberal government and often feel ignored by the other networks. In just the past few months, the team at Hack has produced stories on consent reforms; the failure of online dating platforms to address sexual harassment and assault; and in-depth reporting on how the federal budget impacts young people. These stories matter to young people. Having relevant content produced for them and by them matters to young people, and, without triple J, it is unlikely they would be able to access it. Particularly under a privatised Triple J it's hard to see how this content would continue or how this support for our budding Australian artists would continue. Very few institutions in Australia have the reach and impact amongst young Australians that Triple J can boast. Most of us would have tuned into it when we were young. Maybe I'll reflect on that, looking around the chamber. Certainly some of us would have tuned into Triple J when we were younger.


An honourable senator: I did.


Senator MARIELLE SMITH: There we go—a broad cross-section of this chamber tuned into Triple J when we were young. So shouldn't we stand up for them now, when they continue to provide that vital service to young Australians?


Of course, it's not just the youth who would be affected but kids, too. Ads on the ABC would be a disaster for the children who tune in afternoon after afternoon. Do we really want our kids exposed to ads while they're watching Play School or when they put on The Gruffalo after school and having a snack, being exposed to advertising for anything from junk food, games, toys and gambling to ads from the private sector that we can't necessarily control? Corporate advertising on the ABC would be a slippery slope, and our kids could be some of the most affected.


The ABC produces some of Australia's—actually the world's—best children's programming. For countless families across Australia, as in my household, Kangaroo Beach and Bluey are absolute staples. I'm grateful that my three-year-old can turn on the TV and find age-appropriate, educational and engaging content. It's hard to imagine any of these shows getting the investment required and, therefore, the reach if it weren't for the ABC. Developmentally appropriate content on television is absolutely critical. It's particularly critical for vulnerable kids who don't have access to some of the commercial content, who can't afford Netflix and who can't afford other pay-per-view providers. It matters to those kids. It matters that that's on the ABC.


Of course, it's not just our ABC which is under attack from this government. Community television in my state of South Australia and in Melbourne and Geelong is also being systematically attacked by the Liberal government. Community television is incredibly important to South Australians and Victorians. It contributes so much to our communities, but it's facing a rapidly approaching end, thanks to this Liberal government. During the pandemic, community TV was there for South Australians and Victorians, especially people of faith in my state, who couldn't go to their services because they were closed down due to the pandemic. Community TV provides incredible training opportunities and job opportunities. I've spoken to people from Channel 44 who got their start as volunteers at that station and were then able to use that to get work commercially. Instead of valuing this asset, the Liberals want to kick it off the air. They want to kick it off the air when it costs them nothing to keep it on the air, and they have no plans to replace it. They're kicking community television off the air to replace it with static. It is absolutely unacceptable. It's an ideologically driven attack on community TV from a government and a minister who hold a callous disrespect for those who make it and watch it, just as they do for the ABC. They attack precious community assets that matter to Australians, and we won't stand for it.