Notice of Motion
Yesterday the head of the ABC, Michelle Guthrie, said, ‘We’re not your punching bag’.
It has been interesting sitting in here today and listening to the argy-bargy between the political parties, the denigration of each of them and the fights between them.
But what really matters here today is the future of the ABC. There is nothing more important to the communication availability in regional Australia than the ABC.
Should we be worried? I think we should be worried. I am very worried about the future of the ABC, not only because someone like Michelle Guthrie gets up and points out that the ABC is currently the butt of an insidious campaign to try and change it and perhaps sell it off but also because, on the other hand, we see columnists like Andrew Bolt saying it absolutely should be sold off and that Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison are effectively gutless for not following the line taken at the Liberal Party conference.
Now, those sorts of things really worry me. I would like to say that part of the reason that I am worried about what might happen to the ABC is that very fresh in my memory, as a member of the Shepparton community, is what happened to Radio Australia. It is gone. Radio Australia, an icon of broadcasting across this huge, silent country that we live in, has gone. Many people who live in remote areas do not get AM, they do not get FM and they do not get mobile phone coverage, so for them to have had access to Radio Australia, which was a shortwave process that existed and indeed could be picked up throughout the whole of Asia, in America and in countries across the world, was an incredibly valuable service to people in remote communities and in other countries. It was a service that actually relayed so much of the programming that Radio National did. You could listen to really high quality programs anywhere across Australia and anywhere into the Pacific. They have all gone.
If you go to Shepparton and look at the Radio National site there now, it is just locked up and shut up. The weeds are growing around the gate. It is a sad old site. That was a major part of service that the ABC used to provide. That is gone, and it has gone for regional people. When that was happening, Senator Bridget McKenzie in the Senate railed against it. She stood up for Victoria — she is the only National Party senator for Victoria — and she stood up and railed against it. Fat lot of good that did. It has gone.
So I grieve for the future of the ABC and what it might mean. The ABC was set up in 1932, and it was set up in response to the fact that communication across Australia was so hard to achieve. For those of us who live in country areas, the first thing we do in the morning is turn on ABC radio. That is because of its availability. For so many people it is the only station that they can get. They get to listen to the local news, the national news and the international news. They get access to programs like AM and PM. They actually have a right to be informed by being able to listen to those shows. The cuts to shows like The World Today and PM — both cut in half timewise — may not register for many of you, but for people in country areas they were the shows that brought the world to us. They have now been cut short and they have not been replaced by things that matter in the same way.
The fact that even if the ABC were cut there might still be some services to regional areas gives me very little comfort. That just means that some of the small ABC radio stations around the country might still be able to produce their local programs, but what will happen to all those major documentary programs and current affairs programs that will be gone? That will be just such a disaster for people in regional areas because they are the programs that they can access and do access.
The president of the Northern Territory Cattlemens Association bemoaned the fact that the shortwave radio system would go from Radio Australia. He talked very passionately about the fact that on the property he lives on in the Northern Territory there is no FM or AM radio and no access to mobile phones. So where do people like him get their news? What is to happen to people like him when they no longer have access to the local, national and worldwide coverage that they have been getting?
I also think the loss of Radio Australia across the Pacific has been a major one. If we look at what is happening in the Pacific and across Asia in terms of the Chinese influence — it has been talked about every single day in our papers — we have allowed a single voice of the Western world and of democracy to be shut down and no longer heard in any of those countries. In many of those countries while the internet may be available it is expensive. It is hard for people to access and they are no longer getting the opportunity to hear that broad range of information that they were getting access to across shortwave radio.
I think it is not hard to extrapolate. If the ABC has chosen to close down the Radio Australia shortwave transmission completely, then what is next? And who is standing up for regional communities when it comes to dealing with issues like that? As I said, Bridget McKenzie stood up but it did not do us any good. We still lost that iconic Radio Australia transmission that was set up in Shepparton. It was set up in the 1940s, during the war. It was set up because of the flat terrain and the fact that shortwave would be able to be picked up much more broadly, and it was built bombproof because, as you may recall, Darwin was being bombed then.
It was a major piece of infrastructure built in Shepparton and, as I have said, it is now just locked up — the weeds are growing and it is forgotten. But it is not forgotten in regional areas where people no longer get access to the sort of programming that they used to and where the country is now falling silent for them again. It was a silent country when we started. The ABC has been the voice across the whole of Australia for so many people to access. For that to present itself as a real risk to our community in regional Australia is devastating. I do not see this as just something that is fairly trivial; I see it as a major, major issue.
There is a depth to the ABC that comes in regional Australia. We have competitions for young people like the Heywire competition. Kids get to write their stories. They get to visit Canberra. These things would not happen if it were not for the ABC. Access to ABC television also has been an amazing advent across Australia.
In the very short time that I have left I would like to say that I would be one of the first people who has turned off ABC radio in frustration at times because of the particular slant that may be taken on something. I would say that a recent Background Briefing program on the Murray-Darling Basin where all irrigators were lumped into the one box was very frustrating. But on the other hand I have to say that on our local Victorian Country Hour we are all given the opportunity to have our say, and I am often invited to express my view.
Hearing from both sides is very important, and I think it is something that actually does get achieved on the ABC, particularly in regional areas. Yes, it can be frustrating, but isn’t an organisation like that meant to be there to hear from all sides, to give people the opportunity to have their say and to allow people to be heard? Certainly in regional areas there is a dearth of media outlets and opportunities to do that on.
I would like to also talk about the high-quality drama programs that are produced by the ABC and able to be accessed by all of us in regional Australia. I think many of us have had the opportunity to watch Mystery Road recently and to see the unbelievable countryside of the northern Kimberley region, of Wyndham, of the Cockburn Ranges and of the Gibb River Road. To see that country has been outstanding.