It is budget season already, and not a Canberra autumn leaf in sight.
Omicron has ended early March election speculation, meaning the early budget in March will go ahead instead. So much of the March 29 budget will already be in place, and some final decisions are being made right now.
Much is made of the political opportunity that budgets provide governments to give away money to key constituencies and to reset the debate. Conservative governments also see it as a chance to play on what is supposedly their turf: economic management.
In this of all years, the Morrison government is going to be keen to seize the opportunity a spending budget provides. There will be little talk of budget repair, the debt burden or fiscal conservatism until after the election.
But this year’s budget also represents a threat to the government. With democracy and accountability issues prominent, the government’s funding decisions for the Auditor-General, the Information Commissioner and – particularly – the ABC will be closely scrutinised.
Independents and minor party parliamentarians have made restoring the ABC’s funding a priority. Rebekha Sharkie was the first politician to be named a “Defender of the ABC”, and Helen Haines has made ABC funding an issue in her pitch for election. Zali Steggall has tied increased funding for the ABC to her broader push for honest politics, which also includes truth in political advertising laws. The Greens have consistently called for ABC funding lost in earlier cuts to be restored.
The ABC will likely be a priority for the new crop of independent candidates as well. Allegra Spender, running against Liberal Dave Sharma in Wentworth, has included preserving the ABC in her policy platform. Other independents, including Zoe Daniel (Goldstein), have made integrity a key issue in their campaigns.
With Labor promising to restore the ABC’s funding, the Coalition’s position of funding cuts for the national broadcaster is making it look increasingly isolated. Liberal moderates in key seats will be under pressure to guarantee no cuts to the ABC – the same oath that undid Tony Abbott when he broke it within months of becoming prime minister.
Here in Canberra, ACT senator Zed Seselja, a minister in the Morrison government, will be under enormous pressure to be loud and vocal to ensure his government guarantees ABC funding.
No doubt moderate Liberals are lobbying the Treasurer behind the scenes to ensure this budget contains no further cuts to the ABC, or indeed to ensure a restoration of lost funding for the broadcaster. If they are unsuccessful, independent candidates will have a clear point of difference between themselves and the Liberal and National incumbents they are hoping to unseat.
The reality is that the government has been too ready to attack the ABC when it does not like its reporting. This reached a nadir in 2018, when the Liberal Party Federal Council voted four-to-one to privatise the ABC except for some regional services. Options included selling the ABC to “a media mogul” or listing it on the stock market. No delegate spoke in defence of Australia’s most trusted news broadcaster, although the mover of the motion did admit to enjoying Bananas in Pyjamas as a child.
The ABC has suffered years of undue pressure from communications ministers who confuse the term “public broadcaster” with “government broadcaster”. As the public service gets more pliable and deferential, the ABC’s independence and free-thinking sticks out more and more.
The ABC copped sustained – and unjustified – criticism from government MPs and ministers for its coverage of the Christian Porter historical rape allegations (which he strongly denies). Nationals MP George Christensen called for the government to “strike while the iron is hot”, starting with chair Ita Buttrose – comments that Barnaby Joyce, then a backbencher, supported.
This political strategy is dangerous. Australia Institute polling finds the ABC is the most trusted source of news in the country. An overwhelming majority support more funding for the ABC to reflect its emergency broadcaster role.
Sadly, it is not just Australia where public broadcasting is under threat. The Conservative government in the United Kingdom has just announced a two-year freeze of the BBC’s licence fee, a major cut for the broadcaster in real terms, with more upheaval to come. The decision apparently followed a request from Rupert Murdoch to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “get rid of the BBC”.
The reality is that the ABC is one of the greatest pieces of accountability infrastructure in this country. It protects and strengthens our democracy with its free, fair and independent reporting. Countless royal commissions, inquiries and audits owe their existence to investigative reporting by the ABC, sometimes called the “Four Corners effect”. The ABC is not perfect, but its strict complaints handling processes and codes of conduct set the standard for the rest of Australia’s media – as does its emergency reporting in times of pandemic, bushfire and flood.
With the ABC’s three-year funding arrangement ending this June, the government could neutralise a key issue for its independent challengers by restoring the ABC’s funding. In fact, now would be the time for a significant investment in the public broadcaster.
That said, the electoral consequences of an anti-ABC strategy are less significant than the democratic and cultural consequences. Attacking the ABC as a political stunt or slashing its funding weakens the ABC, and by extension our democracy. There is still time for this year’s budget to correct the course, but not as much as you might think.
Luckily the ABC is as widely loved as it is widely trusted, which means that attacks on it are a risky political strategy. While it is not clear whether Zed Seselja will stand up for the ABC’s funding in the lead-up to the budget, it is clear he and other Coalition MPs will likely lose even more votes to independent challengers if they do not publicly defend our public broadcaster.