Crispin Hull / Alarm bells for ABC funding

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This week’s report on ABC funding should alarm Australians.

The death by a thousand cuts of the ABC and the slow strangulation of Medicare has become woven into in Liberal Party’s DNA since John Howard turned Robert Menzies’ broad church of a liberal-conservative Liberal Party into a purely conservative one by shutting out almost everyone left of the nave.

A different liberal-conservative Liberal Party, on the other hand, would have recognised them as essential Australian institutions to be nurtured and supported. After all, the ABC has been around since 1932 and Medicare (in one form or another) since 1973.

The Liberal Party’s desired outright abolition of both has been impossible because of the two institutions’ ingrained popularity. So the onslaught has to be cunningly dressed up as measures to “improve” Medicare and to voice support for the independence of the ABC and promise “no cuts” while ever trying to bully the ABC; sway its board to the right; and to apply cuts to stifle its voice.

This week’s report by the independent think tank Per Capita says that the ABC has lost $783 million in funding since the Coalition came to power in 2013, starting with $245 million in the 2014 Budget, despite Tony Abbott’s promise before the 2013 election that he would not cut the ABC.

More cuts in staff and programming will come before the end of this financial year. They follow seven years of program and staff slashing, critically a 50 per cent cut in the hours of scripted Australian drama.

The Per Capita report concludes that real funding per year since 1985-86 is down 30 per cent or $370 million. Per head of population, the ABC’s funding has been halved in that time. The cuts have come despite the ABC having to provide extra services to keep up with the digital age.

Very likely the Government will cut more as it seeks to claw back from the Covid-19 crisis, even though the ABC – especially the excellent Dr Norman Swan – did so much to inform Australians about the pandemic, as it always does in times of crisis.

What can be done? The ABC itself is down to the bone, though perhaps it could cut out all sport which the commercials to well enough. It is doubtful a Coalition Government would ever increase real funding for the ABC. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that Labor makes some suggestions that the Coalition feels obliged to match or that they become reality with a Labor Government (whenever that might be).

Until 1974 Australia imposed licence fees on households to receive television. When abolished, the fee was $26.70, or about $200 today.

Britain has a licence fee the equivalent of $A300. It provides three-quarters of the funding for the BBC. The fee is easily enforced through the database of addresses with a licence (which therefore highlights those without one) combined with detection vans.

However, licence fees would be too unpopular in Australia for any political party to contemplate, that is why their abolition was one of the sillier decisions of the Whitlam Government. Once a Government hands out a freebie – free TV, free tax breaks etc – it is extremely hard to claw it back.

Further, given virtually every household has television, a special licence fee seems more inefficient than just raising the money through taxes.

But there is another funding solution used in Britain, New Zealand, and only Western Australia among the Australian states to fund culture which could help fund the ABC – a lottery. The Federal Government should set up its own national lottery to boost ABC funding.

In Britain the National Lottery was launched in 1994 and has since raised the equivalent of $A80 billion and handed out $A120 billion in prizes. The money goes to cultural and worthy causes, not the BBC (which is well-enough funded through licence fees). But an Australian National Lottery could be used for the ABC, given the Government’s reluctance to use taxpayers’ money.

Australian lotteries have all been privatised, except in Western Australia. Gambling taxes provide a lot of money for the states, but nothing goes to the Federal Government, even the GST on tickets gets funnelled back to the states.

There is a good precedent in Australia – the Opera House lottery.

The original cost of the Opera House was estimated in 1957 at $110 million in today’s money. It blew out almost tenfold to $1.05 billion by the time it was finished in 1973.

Raising money directly by public appeal proved elusive, so Labor Premier Joe Cahill set up the Opera House Lottery. Tickets were five pounds ($165 today) and the first prize was 100,000 pounds ($1.65 million).

Cahill stressed that the building was not purely for opera. “The ordinary working man from the day will be able to go there just as well as those in more favoured circumstances,” he said.

The first tickets were sold in 1957 and lottery ran for nearly 30 years.

It might require a bit of massaging, jackpotting and diversity of product to make it competitive with the array of lotteries we have these days. But it would have an attraction for some people that existing lotteries do not have – the profits would be funding the ABC not a private company.

Of course, the Opera House Lottery was tainted by the kidnapping for ransom and subsequent murder of eight-year-old Graeme Thorne whose parents had won the lottery in 1960. But in those innocent days lottery winners’ names were made public and stories run in newspapers to help publicise the lottery. Winners these days wisely stay anonymous.

The BBC is well-funded and broadcasters throughout the world line up to pay for its product. The result is a lot of soft-power dividend for Britain. Australia, too, would get a lot of benefit from properly funding the ABC, not least a better-informed community.

Silly me. It’s that last bit the Coalition detests more than anything.

[This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 9 May 2020]


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