Speech - ABC management's cuts to regional radio unacceptable
Monday, 24 November 2014
Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (17:48): The hypocrisy! The level of debt that was left and the assumptions underpinning those from the other side who have spoken on this particular MPI are absolutely breathtaking. The assumption is that we on this side do not appreciate public broadcasters and do not appreciate the substantial contribution that a public broadcaster has made over 80 years to our national identity, serving particularly rural and regional communities where others have not been before. They let us know what the weather is going to be so we know when to put the crop in. They let us know about community events and how the national agenda will play out at the local level. To make the assumption that we do not appreciate that in our local communities is an absolute joke.
There is a lot of community concern about the reforms to the ABC and SBS. It means difficult decisions, Senator Ludlam—difficult decisions that you were never prepared to make. You are happy for Indigenous programs to have an efficiency dividend. You are happy for education departments to have a dividend. You are happy for defence departments to have a dividend. But you are not happy for the ABC and SBS to have to be like everybody else across the whole of government and actually be subject to contributing to pay down the absolute mess that you left us.
Change is never easy, but it is almost always necessary. The taxpayer spends more than $1 billion a year on the ABC and the taxpayer is entitled to demand value for money. However, people are less concerned about the dollar amount given to the ABC and far more interested in the level of service that it provided to them and their local community. The government and the Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, have repeatedly stated that they remain committed to maintaining the health and vibrancy of the ABC and SBS but that it must be financially sustainable.
These are choices, and Mr Scott made that point in estimates last Thursday—it is about prioritisation and it is about choices as to how to fulfil their charter obligations in the most efficient manner. For the people the Nationals represent that means the health and vibrancy of services to people living in regional Australia—a principally, ABC local radio and, vitally, emergency broadcasting services. I note in Senate estimates on Thursday that, when I questioned him on this, Mr Scott was quite flippantly about to say, 'Oh, Senator, we can't actually rule in or rule out. We'll wait until Monday when I make the announcement.' The fact is that that was generating very real fear, particularly in regional Victoria, around the provision of the emergency services program. He then very, very quickly decided that that 'was all in the basket'.
So I do not make any apology for putting all my efforts into ensuring that ABC management and the board maintain their regional footprint—and I am buoyed by Mr Scott's public declarations of a regional focus, because it is about prioritisation as a national broadcaster.
As a former member of the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, I have had the privilege of being able to question ABC management in Senate estimates over a number of years. ABC Managing Director, Mark Scott, has repeatedly assured me that the ABC's role as an emergency broadcaster is not under review. But I think his other answers over a period of time have been less reassuring about his commitment to regional Australia, which is why I am buoyed by his statement today.
He did not seem to have a lot of information on hand about local radio in regional Australia and what it costs. In May estimates, I asked Mr Scott how many of the ABC's 4½ thousand employees worked in regional offices. He could not tell me. Apparently it is 501. In estimates last week, I asked Mr Scott how much of the ABC budget goes to local radio—western Victoria, central Vic, Bendigo and Ballarat et cetera. Mr Scott said he would have to check that. I said: 'Well, let's look at trends. Of the $1 billion that Australians give to you as the national broadcaster, has the amount you have actually invested increased over time into local radio?' And the answer I got was, 'No, I think the amounts have actually remained static.' So they have not been investing in the areas that count as a national broadcaster, rather they have been doing exactly what Senator Ludlam said.
And they have been centralising—centralising!—to Sydney. That is exactly what Mr Scott said—
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Through the chair, Senator McKenzie.
Senator McKENZIE: that in a drive for efficiency, they have been centralising. And where have they been centralising? To Adelaide? To Tasmania? To Perth? To regional Australia? No. they have been centralising to Sydney. Today was a classic case of where the options were available—in fact, the options were even laid out for them where they could find efficiency measures—but it went to Sydney. They do not want to do that.
Mr Scott also talked about local radio stations in regional areas. I asked him about staffing costs, because as the footprint gets bigger we collapse local radio into each other, and why we needed to do that. He could not tell me why because the ABC does not keep central records of staffing areas. It is a little hard to look at your business and make serious decisions about efficiencies in the business if you do not actually record the details of how you are doing business, so I think there is a way to go on that. The vagueness is deeply worrying and gives the impression of a lack of transparency in how the resource allocation, via the taxpayer, marries with the charter obligations of the ABC in its role as the national broadcaster. As Minister Turnbull said in his headland speech, we need:
… more granular detail on where the ABC … spend their money and how it relates to their charter obligations.
The minister said: The best cure for suspicion in sunlight.
I could not agree more. Without that sunlight, we are left believing ABC management see regional broadcasting as an annoying distraction from the more exciting areas of prime TV and current affairs and competing in city markets with yet another fabulous brekkie program. But it is not good enough: the ABC charter is to be a national broadcaster and not just another Sydney or Melbourne network.
Government, as I said, identified a variety of options through the efficiency review. The back office or support services function could generate $40 million and make 150 less staff potentially redundant. That was not an option taken. Savings by changing the way broadcasters negotiate the transmission contracts could save $30 million over 10 years. Savings could be made from selling properties: the building that is a car park and for costume storage—that is, not core production facilities—in, oh, hang on, North Sydney is worth around $20 million. There may be another $40 million available in implementation costs, which is why there is a savings program spread over five years with zero money actually required in year 1. It is also worth noting the ABC has 45 senior presenters and managers earning more than $200,000 a year, which is more than 10 per cent of their total staff. The government is confident there is money available without impacting on programming to meet implementation costs and that the long-term gains from modernising the business far outweigh any one-off implementation costs.
I note that today the managing director of the ABC did announce that five regional radio stations would be closing—one in Morwell in my home state. I want to go to some press about that, where a regional ABC source said:
… management's decision to shut down the Morwell studio was a "big mistake" that showed little understanding of how many major news stories were generated in the Latrobe Valley during the past year alone.
"Clearly this decision was made in Sydney,"
the source told Fairfax Media.
"It doesn't make any sense. For Gippsland, it's where most of the news comes from, like the courts. The power stations are there, and what happens if there is another … mine fire?"
Too Sydney-centric seems to be the recurring theme, I could not agree more.
Considering Mr Scott says savings are coming from back office, there should be no redundancies in regional Australia since ABC workers in regional Australia are all on the front line. It is worth noting the comments of ABC Chairman, James Spigelman, as he endorsed his managing director's plans. He said:
The initiatives outlined by Mr Scott comprise a carefully considered response to the twin challenges of technological change and reduced funding. We will keep a sharp eye on Mr Scott's plan for the ABC. It would not have been easy for him to look at the business and work out which areas he was going to prioritise to find efficiencies in and I hope he has chosen to balance competing issues accordingly.
Whether it is a local weather report, local issues, emergency broadcasting announcements or community events, ABC radio has played a core role in country communities for over 82 years and should not be cut by the board or the managing director. While I would urge them to appreciate the important role that the ABC plays in our environmental, economic and social wellbeing, I also absolutely support the government's role in getting the budget under control.