Senator Brian Burston: Mr President, I thank the Senate for the opportunity to introduce the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Regional Australia) Bill 2017. The purpose of the Bill is to make three changes to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983. First, the Bill adds a provision requiring the ABC to ensure that at least 35 per cent of the Corporation’s expenditure in a financial year is applied in making payments to people in regional, rural or remote parts of Australia.

Second, the Bill adds an additional item to be included in the annual report of the Corporation, namely, the amount of money applied in making payments to people in regional, rural and remote parts of Australia. Third, the Bill includes a transitional provision that applies if the Act does not commence on the first day of a financial year. In that event, the period from the commencement of the Bill to the end of the then current financial year is treated as if it were a financial year for the purpose of the amended provision.

At present, the ABC spends just 17 per cent of its revenue for the benefit of people working outside the capital cities where 35 per cent of the Australian population resides. Consistent with that imbalance, the ABC reflects the concerns and interests of people living in our capital cities at the expense of the population in regional, rural and remote Australia. The Bill seeks to restore the balance at the ABC between the city and the bush by requiring the ABC to direct 35 per cent of budget expenditure to the places where 35 per cent of the population resides.

Restoring the balance between the city and the bush at the ABC is not just a matter of justice and equity, Mr President, but also of recognising the unique contribution of the bush to Australian culture and values. Why should the cities get the lion’s share of ABC funding when so much of our history and cultural identity is represented by the bush? It should also be said that the unique character of rural, remote and regional Australia owes much to the talented people who live in communities outside the major cities. The ABC would benefit from the creative input of those people, as would the audiences who support the ABC.

It seems to me that the national broadcaster should defend our national values and ABC management will be much better placed to achieve this objective if its programs reflect the values of a broad cross-section of the community, and not just the hopes and aspirations of people who live in the capital cities. Much of the material broadcast on the ABC is produced in rural, regional and remote parts of the rest of the world, especially in the United Kingdom, and it always struck me as rather odd that our national broadcaster has no problem recognising the appeal of this material except on its own doorstep.

One reason the national broadcaster fails to reflect a broad cross-section of the community in its programming is that increasingly the ABC is dominated by city people who naturally enough project city values. I was hardly surprised to learn just a couple of weeks ago from Jennifer Oriel at The Australian that research at the Sunshine Coast University found that 41.2 per cent of ABC staff surveyed voted for the Greens. While this figure may be representative of Greens voters in privileged parts of our capital cities, the Greens vote struggles to get to double figures in rural and regional Australia. This lack of diversity at the ABC is the reason that the bush is deprived of broadcasting funds.

If the ABC were a commercial broadcaster there might be some small justification for the failure to apply funds proportionally between the bush the capital cities. Commercial broadcasters need to make a profit which is impossible in areas of low-density population. For example, free-to-air television news and current affairs budgets in the bush are just 10 per cent of capital city budgets. But the national broadcaster is supposed to serve the public interest as articulated in the ABC Charter, not commercial interests. The ABC should broadcast programs that contribute to the national identity and reflect Australia’s cultural diversity. I contend that directing just 17 per cent of revenue to rural, regional and remote areas representing 35 per cent of our population is contrary to the ABC Charter and against the public interest.

Mr President, I wonder whether the ABC is ignoring the bush as part of a wider agenda to compete with commercial broadcasters. Just last week Darren Davidson reported in The Australian that the ABC outbid the Australian Associated Press for a lucrative contract to supply an outdoor advertising company with syndicated news feeds. In the same article, the journalist reports other television broadcasters complaining that the ABC, with its $1.04 billion in base funding, is outbidding Channel Seven and Channel Nine networks and Foxtel for programming more suited to pay television services and commercial networks. If the ABC has so much money to spend, why not spend some of it in the bush?

The importance of a strong and independent public broadcaster cannot be overstated. People trust the ABC especially in times of emergency. We assume that what we see or hear on the public broadcaster has not been compromised by commercial interests. In the same vein, we expect to see or hear important news and to be entertained and educated without the frustration of interruption from commercial advertising. It is often said that the ABC is a public service we are entitled to access without direct cost. We value the fact that our ABC broadcasts programs that are not determined by advertisers looking for large audiences to sell their products and services. ABC content is not subject to the dictates of commercial interests, and commercial interests should not be allowed to starve regional, rural and remote Australia of the funds required to serve the public interest recognised in the ABC Charter. I commend the Bill to the Senate, Mr President.

Chamber Senate on 9/08/2017Item BILLS – Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Regional Australia) Bill 2017 – Second Reading Speaker: Burston, Sen Brian / Parliment Transcript used for reporting news