Originally published in The Australian Financial Review on July 23, 2018

By Richard Denniss – Chief Economist at The Australia Institute. 

 [This article originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 24 September 2018]

Wars are expensive and culture wars are no different. Indeed, the opportunity cost of Australia’s culture war is enormous as it comes at the expense of developing meaningful energy, broadband and tax policy. But while our Constitution spells out how government should be formed, it makes no mention of what kind of issues we should debate. We are free to waste as much time and money as we want.

Take the ABC. The endless right-wing attacks on the ABC, and the inevitable progressive determination to “save” the ABC, prevents meaningful debate about how to fix the ABC in the short term — and how to design a new ABC that will serve Australians in the 21st century.

The ABC was founded in 1932, when there was no “online presence” to worry about nor any TV or mobile phones to factor in. But rather than debate the best way for a national broadcaster to support and enhance everything from Australian culture to regional development, the political class has instead dedicated significant time to the issue of whether the ABC should be privatised or not.

Let’s clear this up. It is impossible to privatise the ABC because it loses about $1 billion per year and is not allowed to collect revenue from advertising. And if a privatised ABC were allowed to advertise, then the loss of revenue for the commercial TV stations would be enormous. Talk about sovereign risk.

The overwhelming majority of Australians do not believe the ABC should be privatised nor that it is biased. In fact, while journalist continues to languish towards the bottom of the table of most trusted professions, the ABC soars as one of our most trusted institutions. A recent Australia Institute poll of the Mayo electorate makes clear that most voters support their national broadcaster – and far more Liberal voters want to retain or increase the ABC’s funding than want to cut it.

If, as the right-wing culture warriors would have us believe, the ABC is a hot bed of leftists, it is hard to explain why so many Liberal voters are so supportive of their ABC. Similarly, if 12 years of the Howard government and five years of the Abbott/Turnbull government aren’t enough to drive the Marxists out of Ultimo, perhaps those who rage against the ABC suspect Howard and Abbott were soft-pedalling in their opposition to socialism?

While it’s clear that the ABC’s coverage of energy policy is out of step with the analysis of Rowan Dean and Barnaby Joyce (at least since Chris Uhlmann went to join the leftists at Channel 9), any international comparison of the coverage given to climate sceptics would show that the ABC takes such views far more seriously than most mainstream media outlets.

And while it is clear that the ABC’s coverage of equal marriage was quite out of step with the values of the Catholic Church, the results of the plebiscite show our national broadcaster’s coverage was in line with the vast majority of the population.

While it is frustrating that my opinions and my economics training make me too conservative to ever score an invitation to the ABC’s Q&A, I think Australia faces far bigger problems than how panel shows select guests. So-called digital disruption might have reduced the profitability of re-running American sitcoms, but it has increased the ability for our national broadcaster to deliver uniquely Australian news, entertainment and educational programming into the homes of most Australians at any time of the day.

Those concerned with preserving Australian culture should cherish the ability of the ABC to make high-quality programs that citizens can watch at any time of the day that suits them. But instead of driving a debate about choice, diversity and how new technology can leverage the ABC’s impressive legacy, the right obsesses instead about guest selection and depicting renewable energy as a “left-wing” issue rather than simply another new technology with strengths and weaknesses.

We don’t need to save the ABC, we need to fix it to ensure it meets the needs of a rapidly growing population during a period of rapid technological change. Twenty years of right-wing attacks have done little to shake conservative voters’ faith in their ABC, and I suspect another 20 years’ worth wouldn’t either. But the more effort we put into this culture war, the greater the lost opportunities to tell Australian stories will be. It’s hard to imagine a less conservative position than selling a national broadcaster. If we can only trust the market to tell our stories, perhaps we should sell the Australian War Memorial as well. After all, it is free to access too.

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