A pre-Budget announcement by the Minister for Communications committed funding of $3.3 billion for the ABC over the next triennium, with additional amounts over the period of $45.8 million – to extend the ‘Enhanced New Gathering’ program – which employs staff to undertake reporting on regional issues, and $3 million to extend work on audio description of television programs to assist the vision-impaired and the blind. Budget papers show that ABC staffing is expected to remain at the 2021-22 level of 4,130 in 2022-23.
Since 2014 the ABC has experienced reduced functions (loss of the Asia Pacific Broadcasting Service), cuts to funding, and (in 2018) loss of funding indexation. The ABC told a Senate Estimates Committee in February this year that an additional $41.6 million per year would be needed to compensate for the loss of indexation alone. In an answer to a question on notice, the ABC said that its cumulative funding loss since 2013-14 amounted to $526 million and had resulted in a reduction of 640 average staffing level from its 2013-2014 level of 4,704.
The Australian Broadcasting Commission remains a highly trusted source of news, particularly during an emergency, and is the country’s most popular digital news medium. Although indexation has now been restored to funding in the next triennium, the ABC’s resourcing remains substantially below what it would have been had it not been targeted for such savage cuts.
An Australia Institute poll found that a majority of Australians (52%) supported restoring the $84 million cut from the ABC just over the last three-year cycle, compared with only a quarter (25%) who opposed it. More than six in ten Australians (61%) agreed that a strong, independent ABC was critical to a healthy democracy, with only 19% disagreeing.
In November last year the Chair of the ABC Ita Buttrose accused the government of attempting to interfere in the independence of the ABC when it launched an inquiry into the organisation’s complaint handling process prior to the completion of an investigation commissioned by the broadcaster itself.
When ABC investigative reporting raises issues of government integrity, accountability, and competence, the Australian public is entitled to view this as an important contribution towards the health of our democracy: a view that governments do not necessarily share. The independence and resourcing of the ABC needs to be protected from governments who want to remove the spotlight from their less glorious exploits.