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774 ABC Melbourne—Interview with Jon Faine

E&OE

Jon Faine:
Closer home though, it seems some sort of internal brawl is breaking out, not just in branch meetings of the Liberal Party in New South Wales, as you've been hearing about in our news, but internally at a bigger level within the Coalition. Famously, last week the Liberal Party at their national conference passed a resolution with no one speaking against it at all, passed a resolution for this organisation, the ABC, to be sold or disposed of from government hands, privatised or whatever it might be. The National Party, their Coalition colleagues, though, in power in the Federal Government, very much think differently. Senator Bridget McKenzie is a Victorian Nationals Senator and Deputy Leader of the National Party. She's also the Minister for Regional Communications as well as Sport and other things in the Turnbull Coalition Federal Government.

Jon Faine:
Senator McKenzie, good morning to you.

Minister McKenzie:
Good morning Jon.

Jon Faine:
So is there a split between the Coalition partners over the relevance, the importance, and the sustainability of the ABC?

Minister McKenzie:
Absolutely not, Jon, and I think it's mischievous to suggest otherwise. Yes it's clear that the National Party does not and has no intention of ever supporting the privatisation of the ABC, and we very quickly, post our party room yesterday morning released a statement to that effect. We are from the regions, the ABC, and particularly our local radio, is so essential to our everyday life. It keeps us connected, it keeps us on top of our sale yard prices, our weather, and it connects our communities with events and essential services and emergency service provision information during those times of need.

Jon Faine:
Now you're not a member of the Liberal Party, you're a member of The National Party. But if you'd been at that meeting, would you have spoken against the motion?

Minister McKenzie:
Absolutely. But I think Jon, to suggest this is splitting the Coalition on this issue really is mischievous. We've had the Prime Minister be emphatic, the Treasurer, [the Communications Minister] Fifield, you name it, on mass it's a consistent and clear message from the government that irrespective of the decision of a Liberal Party branch meeting/state council.

Jon Faine:
Well it's much more than a branch meeting or a state council, these are federal council meetings.

Minister McKenzie:
Our government is absolutely committed to a publicly funded national broadcaster, and appreciates the work the ABC does right throughout Australia.

Jon Faine:
Well thank you, I appreciate that. Now can you riddle me this though then, why is there such a disjoin, such a gap, between the Federal Liberal Council on the one hand, and the Parliamentary Party on the other?

Minister McKenzie:
Well that's a question for the Liberal Party.

Jon Faine:
Well you're the Coalition partners.

Minister McKenzie:
But even in the National Party. Jon, give me a chance. Even in the National Party, there's often times where, for instance, the organisation may have a view about certain things, certain branches, councils, etc, and the Parliamentary Wing has an alternative view. That's democracy in our party. But I think to run out there and suggest to ABC listeners out in the regions—we trust our ABC, and indeed we've developed policy around ensuring the ABC internally focuses increasingly on resourcing their regional service provision, rather than the cuts we've seen to regional service provision over the past decade. So, we highly value the ABC and to suggest that the government has anything other than a full commitment to its ongoing sustainability is mischievous.

Jon Faine:
It's kind of bizarre on a whole other level, it's been described by a number of commentators, Michelle Grattan, and a whole bunch of commentators in newspapers, online, not ABC people I might say, people from private sector media empires, as being tantamount to electoral suicide for the conservative side of politics to start making the ABC an issue. I guess one of the things I don't really understand is how can no one even speak against the motion? Are people so angry over I'm not even sure what to do with the ABC? Let me give the family court as a parallel example without being to lateral about it Senator. Over years and years and years people are angry about the family court, it's starved of funds, judges retire and are not replaced to the point where people get even more angry, and then people say, 'Ah, there you are, look see, it's not meeting its purpose, it's not delivering,' and Pauline Hanson says, 'I want the family court done over.' So it gets done over. Something similar perhaps with the ABC? You starve it of money so if it fails to meet various needs in the community, then the people who hate the ABC for whatever reason can say, oh look it's not really that valuable anyway, and there's Pauline Hanson again, demanding the ABC be brought to heel. It's the same script, isn't it?

Minister McKenzie:
No, Jon. That is such a conspiracy theory! You know as well as I do, you know as well as I do there's been a consolidation over the past decade of resources, out of regions, out of smaller capital cities, to Ultimo. We've got less than 9% of staffing in the ABC located outside of the Melbourne and Sydney capital cities. That's a real problem when you think of the importance of that radio, particularly the radio footprint, to those communities. We've extended the footprint, we had one producer go down in Wodonga, and we're streaming out of Ballarat, which is half of Victoria having to have the same service, there's nothing like a local radio service. So to somehow suggest that the ABC is not responsible with its billion dollar budget per annum to make sure that regional and rural Australians have an adequate service, that that is somehow the government's fault—it is actually a decision of management, and a decision of the ABC board to redistribute resources to Sydney and Melbourne, over regional Australia. And I will not stand for it. That's why we've got a bill before the Senate right now which ensure we make sure when the board and management make decisions around ABC service provision to regional Australia, that they will be held accountable publicly. We're going to change the charter so that it's explicit around the need to provide services to rural and regional Australia, because everyone out there thinks that's in the charter, and that's what all our Senate inquiries showed. They had an expectation that was the role of the ABC, however, when you go to the charter itself, there is no such level of accountability around service provision to the regions. So these are sorts of things as a government, as a Liberal-National Party Coalition, we are committed to seeing. We don't want to be telling the ABC what to do, but we do want to make sure they fulfil their obligation and the public expectation about the role of a public broadcaster, which has got about a billion dollars per annum to play with on behalf of the Australian taxpayer.

Jon Faine:
Have you met with the managing director?

Minister McKenzie:
Yes, several times.

Jon Faine:
What have you said to her?

Minister McKenzie:
I've said exactly that, and I've also said it to Fiona [Reynolds], who heads up the regional division.

Jon Faine:
Who's leaving…

Minister McKenzie:
Well that may be the case, but over many years, under the previous Managing Director, Mark Scott and I had this debate. Estimates in, estimates out, every single time because there was a significant ... You know, you're setting up ABC 24, you've got another TV digital channel competing for eyeballs in Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane, meanwhile, decreasing the radio footprint right across the regions, shutting down the shortwave in the Northern Territory which meant that there's essential information that is not getting out to regional communities. Now they're not decisions of government, they're the decisions of the ABC board. We trust and value the ABC in our regional communities, but want to see more of it, and we want to encourage the board and the managing director to focus on the regions.

Jon Faine:
Well it's certainly, business as usual for this organisation to be tugged and pulled in every direction simultaneously, that's just part of being the ABC. We have always been like that, it's just not possible to keep everybody happy all the time. We will see whether or not this particular board and this Managing Director are able to come to grips with the leadership challenges that have been laid out for them. Are you optimistic?

Minister McKenzie:
I think we've made some tentative steps in the right direction with the additional 80 positions being allocated out to the regions. We're doing everything we can as a government to make sure that it's clear in our expectations. The legislation makes sure there's a rural and regional advisory committee so when the board is making decisions that will affect service provision to the regions, such as them shutting down the short wave, that they'll have to go out and actually ask people—the station owners, the fishermen, the grey nomads that use the ABC shortwave facility, for instance—ask about the impact before they make the decision, and then publish that. If they want to ignore rural and regional Australia's advice, that's fine—put it in the annual report so we actually see you bothered to ask.

Jon Faine:
Oh no, it's just the issue from the bigger ABC perspective is that 80 positions in regional Australia doing, so far we're still not quite sure what, are 80 positions that aren't doing some of the traditional work that used to be done, particularly in news and current affairs, which therefore means there are stories that aren't reported, crews that aren't available, and follow ups that aren't made to other areas.

Minister McKenzie:
Well with respect Jon, you've got-

Jon Faine:
Because there's not enough money to do everything.

Minister McKenzie:
Well and truly, close to 5000 employees across the organisation-

Jon Faine:
Nationally.

Minister McKenzie:
Yeah, nationally, around 9% outside of capital cities, now we all know in emergency times, people turn to the ABC, even though it's not mandated that they are the emergency service provider, again, it's the expectation, particularly for those out in the regions, that this is a mandated requirement, but it's not. Now when we get information, when it's beamed back to Melbourne and somebody can't pronounce the district name, we've had actual examples in our own state, in Victoria, Jon, where names weren't pronounced right, districts were falsely called, and that results in putting people's lives at risk. We need ABC regional to be resourced properly.

Jon Faine:
If there are funding cuts then they fall and they impact across the board. You can't have the funding cut, but regional services boosted. That's got to be somewhat, some other department's expense.

Minister McKenzie:
Well that's a false argument, Jon, because with respect, ten years ago when decisions were made to reduce staffing in the regions and reduce our programmes to the regions, and to focus on building a new business in Sydney so that we've got four brekky programmes on TV, meanwhile our footprint out in the regions-

Jon Faine:
Four? Sorry, there aren't four breakfast programmes on TV.

Minister McKenzie:
Back then there was, back then there was. Now there's not, I agree, but I'm talking a decade ago, decisions were made by the management about how to resource the ABC, it's how you cut up the pie, Jon.

Jon Faine:
A decade ago there weren't any breakfast programmes on TV, but let's not quibble around the edges.

Minister McKenzie:
Jon, Jon—Today and Sunrise existed a decade ago...

Jon Faine:
If you cut funding to the ABC, you can't expect regional to grow, it'll be cut as well.

Minister McKenzie:
Jon, whilst the ABC was getting a billion dollars a year, per annum, cuts to regional services and resources, humans and programmes, existed. So, for me, this is how you run your business, right? You have to make decisions about where your priorities lie, and as the National Party's Deputy Leader, I would argue the ABC needs to focus on regional Australia rather than increasing eyeballs and ears in urban centres.

Jon Faine:
Prime Minister's fond of saying, a red hot go. I appreciate your time this morning, thank you.

Minister McKenzie:
Yeah, always a pleasure, Jon.

Jon Faine:
Senator Bridget McKenzie, a Victorian National Party Senator, Regional Communications Minister and Deputy Leader of the Nationals.

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