SUBJECTS: Liberal Party vote to privatise ABC; Labor’s plan to reverse $83.7 million cut to the ABC.

HAMISH MCDONALD: The Federal Government is in full damage control over the future of the ABC. It's being accused of harbouring plans to completely dismantle the public broadcaster after the Liberal Party passed a motion to privatise the network. The Treasurer Scott Morrison, though, says the ABC will continue to be funded by the taxpayer: 

"But I should be very clear; the government has no plans to privatise the ABC. I know some out there may think the Labor Party already owns it but certainly not the government and it's important that people understand that position."

Scott Morrison speaking after the Liberal Party's Federal Council on the weekend. Michelle Rowland is the Shadow Minister for Communications. Good morning to you.


MCDONALD: You heard the Treasurer; the government has no plans to privatise the ABC. He's been backed up by other Cabinet Ministers. Why then is Labor saying that the government is on a mission to destroy the national broadcaster?

ROWLAND: Well, the government can deny or try to play down this all they like and they're furious denials from a party that apparently voted on a 2:1 basis that their own conference adopted a policy to privatise the ABC. And the real question here is whether Australians really trust them. I think the record of the Liberals on the ABC speaks for itself. They lied about the ABC before the 2013 election and they've proven that they simply can't be trusted. And the message is now quite clear: you can have a strong and independent ABC or you can have a Liberal Government, but you can't have both. So Australians will have a very clear choice at the next election.

MCDONALD: Can you name for me a single Minister in this government that wants to sell the ABC?

ROWLAND: I think it's very clear that we have members of the government who certainly don't believe in public broadcasting. And I think that has shown in the debates in the Parliament. It really makes a difference when you see a lack of belief in public broadcasting from those opposite and it really is a clear contrast. And I know terms such as that an election victory by the Liberals at the next election would embolden the Liberals to privatise the ABC, Bill Shorten said that, and I think there's a very strong narrative here.

MCDONALD: But can you name a single Minister in this government who wants to sell the ABC?

ROWLAND: Look, I can't name a single Minister because I believe the ABC is an organisation and an important national institution that needs to be kept in public hands, whether everyone on their side of the Parliament feels the same way is another matter. And I'll point this out too Hamish: you've got the Minister for Communications who is a card-carrying member of the IPA, he says he doesn't want to privatise it but clearly the defence that he gave over the weekend is one which just demonstrated the ability and the intent of this government to continue undermining the ABC and I think that's a question you'll have to put to those Ministers. If you put to those Ministers or members of the government and say 'is this what you want', maybe ask them how they voted over the weekend? I wasn't there but that would be a very interesting analysis.

MCDONALD: Isn't the difficulty though, in running on this, that at the last election Labor ran pretty hard on the so-called Mediscare campaign. You were warning that the Turnbull Government was out to privatise Medicare. Why should people believe you now that there is some secret Coalition plan to do this to the ABC?

ROWLAND: Because I believe we need to look at this government's record. Not only did they promise not to cut funding to the ABC, we even had Malcolm Turnbull when he was Communications Minister saying there was no greater defender of public broadcasting than him. And where is he in all this? This is the person who was the Communications Minister under Tony Abbott when Tony Abbott had promised the night before the 2013 election not to cut the ABC's budget and then went ahead and did it by a quarter of a billion dollars at the first opportunity. I think people will make their judgements based on facts. 

MCDONALD: Mathias Cormann says Bill Shorten is a liar who knows that the government has absolutely no intention of privatising the ABC. Is he lying about this?

ROWLAND: Well, I think Mathias Cormann should ask some of his own Ministers. You ask me who I can name, I'm pretty sure that if Mathias Cormann asked some of his Ministers maybe he'd get a very different result, because it's clear that there are people in high echelons of this government who do not support the ABC, who seek to undermine it and would seek to undermine it to its eternal detriment. 

MCDONALD: Do you think, if you step back from this for a moment, that by running hard on this issue at the election or even in the by-elections, Labor may in fact further politicise the ABC? They will turn this into a partisan question, you know, turning it into a totemic La0bor issue that ultimately will do more to diminish the identity of the ABC as an independent national broadcaster.

ROWLAND: I don't accept that characterisation. I would say two things in response. Firstly, I think people will judge this government on its record when it comes to the ABC. And that record is clear. That record is clear when it comes to funding, that record is clear when it comes to the sustained attacks on the ABC, that record is clear when it has had an impact on the ABC being able to do its role as a public broadcaster. Have a look at some of the trade-offs the ABC has had to make, including just as an example, cutting shortwave radio transmission in the Northern Territory. So that's the first point, to look at the facts.

The second point is, we are offering a very clear choice at the next election. You can either have a strong, independent public broadcaster, where Labor has committed to restore the $83.7 million of cuts in this budget, and you can have a guarantee of a commitment to stable triennial ABC funding. 

MCDONALD: But that's exactly the question I'm asking you. By turning this into a Labor-owned issue, as you're trying to define it there, don't you acknowledge that you are going to make it harder for the ABC longer term to be seen in any way as being independent?

ROWLAND: Look, I think one thing you need to keep very clear is that this is not solely something that the Labor Party is pursuing as a matter of policy. This is something that the community at large feels very strongly about and just judging from the amount of –

MCDONALD: So if there's no evidence that this is a Liberal Party policy that they're taking to an election, that they have any intention of doing, and you're saying well you can either have a Liberal Government or you can have the ABC. Aren't you going to damage the reputation of the ABC as this independent voice in the community?

ROWLAND: I don't accept that and I think the way in which the ABC has been damaged under this government certainly speaks volumes of the very little care that it takes when it comes to preserving an important national institution under the Liberals. And look, I think it's important that people are aware of the facts. They're aware of the facts of what has happened so far, they understand the implications of everything from this government's series of legislation that they have before the Parliament, to its Competitive Neutrality Inquiry, and I'm ready to argue those in any forum, anywhere.

And as I said, this is not an issue on which solely Labor voters or Labor values shine through. This is one in which a large number of people from across the community feel strongly about, irrespective of who they vote for. And I think that the government has really misjudged the way in which people feel about the ABC and what they have been doing to it.

MCDONALD: Do you think privatisation would necessarily mean that the ABC could no longer provide the public service that is does? Qantas is another Aussie icon, if you like, that has continued to be a big national brand, continues to deliver the same services. Why couldn't the ABC?

ROWLAND: Well look, a public broadcaster is something that's very different to an asset of the nature that you described. I mean, public broadcasting and the media in general is about reaching wide communities, it's about a diversity of views. It's not –
and we have never seen the ABC in Labor as – another state-owned service that you can dispose of. And I think the evidence is there that the public feel that way. There is a high degree of trust in the ABC. There is certainly a government we see today that seems to know the cost of everything and the value of nothing when it comes to the ABC. But look, let’s consider – 

MCDONALD: Should the ABC, though, consider perhaps not competing so strongly in the digital market, for example, where many of the commercial broadcasters and publications are struggling to get audience. 

ROWLAND: Look, the ABC is required to participate in that digital space. And to suggest that the ABC shouldn't be doing that, I think is a complete misnomer. The ABC needs to go where audiences are and we know that the reason why this government has set up this faux Competitive Neutrality Inquiry is so that it can try and convince people that public taxpayer funds are somehow being used inappropriately. But certainly the ABC needs to remain relevant to its audiences. The ABC needs to ensure that it's accessible and I think that's what certainly sets them apart from any other institution. 

MCDONALD: Michelle Rowland, thank you for your time this morning.

ROWLAND: My pleasure.