SUBJECT: Labor’s plan to reverse $83.7 million cut to the ABC.

SHERIDAN STEWART: The Labor Party this week promised to reverse cuts to the ABC's budget announced in the Federal Budget recently. We're joined now by Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland. Good afternoon.


STEWART: Ms Rowland, media organisations across the world are having to endure deep cuts. Why do you feel the ABC should be any different?

ROWLAND: Well the reality is, Sheridan, that the ABC has demonstrated that it is an efficient organisation. It has endured a large amount of cuts since this government was elected. And its first budget included somewhere in the vicinity of a quarter of a billion dollars of cuts in that budget, despite the explicit promise of no cuts to the ABC. So it has demonstrated it’s a highly efficient institution which is why this latest round of cuts in this budget are so damaging. As the ABC itself has said, whilst it recognises it has a priority to minimise the impact on its large and loyal audiences, the cuts in this case will compel them to consider all options in an effort to find further savings.

I think it also should be noted that the future is digital. The ABC doesn't receive separate funding for its digital functions but it needs to produce digital content that is accessible. It needs to ensure that it is in that digital space. And I think we also need to recognise that the ABC exists for a different purpose, as opposed to online or over the top platforms and commercial media. The shareholders of the ABC are the Australian people and the ABC doesn't have what seems sometimes to be the unlimited resources of organisations like Netflix. So the ABC needs to have a distinctive quality, a distinctive content production. It needs to keep its content relevant to Australians and at the same time we know that the costs of content are high and they are growing. So they are all significant challenges for a comprehensive public broadcaster. 

STEWART: We often hear that commercial media feel that the ABC is competing with them and hurting their business models. Does that play into things for you?

ROWLAND: I think it plays into things for the government, which is why it has launched this Competitive Neutrality Inquiry. But I think we need to recognise the ABC is part of that landscape, the public broadcaster in that landscape, and commercial media has a role. They indeed operate in a sphere which services different needs and indeed the ABC performs a lot of functions that are not necessarily specifically funded but they believe are very important and they'll continue to do; things like emergency broadcasting, but also being in that digital space as I mentioned. But we need to recognise that they are serving different functions, and whilst the audiences may cross over at some point, we have a public broadcaster to service the Australian people as its shareholders, not commercial interests, and that shouldn't be lost on anyone.

STEWART: On this program Shadow Minister, we broadcast across a large section of regional Queensland. How do the cuts affect regional Queensland?

ROWLAND: Well, the ABC itself has said at recent Senate Estimates that it can't rule out what impacts will end up being. So that's something that's very concerning and it's concerning when you recognise that the ABC has always valued that localism element. And I would point out that the ABC's commitment to serving regional and rural Australia has been enhanced over the past few years, even in the face of cuts. In July 2015, for example, they established a dedicated regional division so that regional issues and news and information would be covered locally and on a national level across all platforms. And that didn't require legislative or regulatory change. This was brought about by the ABC's own initiative, by this inherent obligation to serve rural and regional Australians.

And when you bear in mind that the ABC has high fixed costs that it can't dissipate, things like transmission and distribution, when you've got those fixed costs you really have to start looking at other areas like staff and content and it's no wonder that in the face of these cuts expenditure on areas like drama, for example, and documentaries has declined over the past few years. So that's extremely concerning for regional Queensland. 

STEWART: A cut, a further cut I should say, of $84 million, that's a lot of money. It comes on top of more than $250 million in cuts that have come about since 2014. Is Labor planning to reinstate any of that funding?

ROWLAND: Well, we announced earlier this week that, if elected, we'll reverse this government's $83.7 million cut in this budget and we'll also guarantee funding certainty over the next ABC budget cycle. And we don't take that decision lightly. Indeed we take that decision because of the value that we place, and we know the value that the Australian people place, on our public broadcasters. But also the need for the ABC to continue to meet its Charter requirements. It's important that we have some stability at the ABC in the face of the cuts that have been endured since 2014 but we also need to ensure that, as I said, they continue to adapt to the digital age.

So this reflects our commitment to the ABC's independence. We believe in a comprehensive national broadcaster and it's no wonder that the ABC continues to be the most trusted news source in Australia. And at a time I think, Sheridan, when trust in our public institutions is at an all-time low, it should be the responsibility of governments to enhance that trust in institutions which already enjoy a high level of trust and enable Australians to be re-engaged in their democratic processes, and that's what we believe in Labor. We all believe, in Labor, in the ABC and we're very much united in ensuring that it continues to be a strong comprehensive national public broadcaster. 

STEWART: And just for those who've perhaps just turned their radio on, I'm speaking with Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland on the back of the Labor Party this week promising to reverse cuts to the ABC's budget which was announced in the recent Federal Budget, $84 million. Shadow Minister, the role of the ABC: how do you think it's changing? What do you think the ABC needs to do to meet some of those changes? 

ROWLAND: Well, for example, the ABC needs to continue to service its Charter but in doing that it needs to do, I believe, three things. It needs to have a strong staff base, because you need people in this space who are brave and who are creative. And when you erode those things as has happened over the past couple of years - we’ve had something like 800 staff lost - when you erode that ability for an organisation to let people thrive then that certainly does have a detrimental impact on the public broadcaster. 

I think the second thing is to examine what I discussed in terms of the technological disruption. It's well established, as I said, that the media sector is facing those challenges but it certainly doesn't help that there's been this level of ideological attacks by the government, not only in terms of the financial side of it but also we see quite a coordinated attack on the ABC's independence and that is one which certainly can't be tolerated. 

And I think the third thing is to really fight against this notion that the ABC should be some sort of market failure broadcaster, that it should only be servicing areas that the commercial media sector wouldn't serve. And that, I think, has inherent problems. Whilst a lot of people use that term when they're attacking the ABC, I don't think they realise what a market failure broadcaster would actually look like. It would mean you would be servicing some of those regional areas that otherwise wouldn't be served but it would also mean, you know, you've got this argument that the ABC can simply redirect funds away from digital and to other activities to address commercial broadcasting market failure in those pockets. It portrays a lack of understanding about the ABC's history, its production, its programming and its Charter. And I think it really ignores the fact that those regional audiences, like your own, enjoy the same programming as in metro areas in many respects, although of course localism is very important. But they also expect access to the same services like digital services that their metropolitan counterparts have.

So the ABC's never been, nor will it ever be, a market failure broadcaster. It was created, as I said, to exist alongside commercial broadcasters in that ecosystem, to provide that range of quality programming and maximise diversity within the sector. And I think that role is well understood and appreciated by the community at large.

STEWART: Thank you very much for your time this afternoon.

ROWLAND: My pleasure.