Coalition won’t privatize the ABC, but it should allow opt-outs

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Australia’s communications minister has ruled out privatising the ABC. But that doesn’t mean reform can’t be achieved.

Speaking to ABC Radio’s RN Drive, on his first full day in the job, Senator Mitch Fifield stated that he was not seeking to change the ownership arrangements of the ABC.

I was, about seven or eight years ago, a frisky backbencher who sought to give a provocative speech… the key point I was making was that, although people talk about different ownership arrangements, ultimately the Australian public have a settled view on these matters. So changing the ownership arrangements of the ABC is not something that I am seeking to do.

Fifield was attempting to downplay a speech he gave to the Australian Adam Smith Club in 2008.  The wide ranging speech, available on Fifield’s website, included a few brief lines about the merits of privatising the ABC:

Conservatives have often floated the prospect of privatising the ABC and Australia Post. There is merit in such proposals.

But the likely strong public opposition means that any government prepared to go down that path would need to prepare the ground and make the case for the change.

This is hardly a radical statement. If anything Fifield was being overly cautious.

Nevertheless, he is essentially correct. Privatising the ABC is not politically possible with the current climate of opinion.

When the Coalition announced that ABC funding would be “slashed”, as The Conversation described it—yes, I mean the 4.6 per cent cut to their $1.1 billion budget—the proposal was met with outrage.

Simply put, the ABC is too powerful, and too popular, for a government to risk openly confronting it. Any privatisation proposal would bring down the wrath of a well resourced media company with, large audiences across radio, television, and online platforms. The damage done would be made worse by the fact that the ABC has the single largest contingent of journalists in the Canberra press gallery.

Forget about Rudd vs Gillard, or the Whitlam dismissal, fighting ABC privatization, without a change in public opinion, would be the greatest political battle since federation. In inner Melbourne and Sydney, there would be riots on the street.

None of this discounts the many principled arguments for privatising the ABC. The case for privatisation has never been greater, as the IPA’s James Paterson wrote in The Age last year:

Australians have at their fingertips access to more news from more varied sources than ever before.

Unfortunately, the politics don’t yet add up.

But that doesn’t mean the government should avoid all reform. There is at least one principled and politically feasible reform Minister Fifield could pursue. As I outlined in July’s Herald Sun:

The Abbott Government should make funding the ABC an option provided on tax returns.

That would allow Australia’s 11.5 million taxpayers to choose whether the ABC provides value. It wouldn’t require the introduction of commercial advertising and, at the current funding levels, funding the ABC would cost taxpayers less than $2 per week. If support is as strong as the ABC claims, then such a move wouldn’t have any significant impact on its budget. But it will create a level of accountability that doesn’t currently exist.

This proposal, which would be a similar (although voluntary) system to the BBC’s license fee, would keep ownership and funding in public hands. But it would allow people to decide for themselves whether the ABC is a service worth supporting. It would also help increase public accountability and make the ABC more conscious of public demands.

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