Dr Chris Back - Liberal Senator for Western Australia

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

November 25, 2014

Senator BACK (Western Australia) (20:42): It gives me absolutely no pleasure at all this evening to reflect on the ABC and the way it has lost its way. My family, since we are a rural-regional family, has grown up with the ABC. I often laugh at the fact that we wake up every morning with Eoin Cameron in Perth on the early morning breakfast show—in fact, he has the highest-rating breakfast program of anyone in Australia—and at the fact that my wife goes to sleep every night with Tony Delroy, and has done so for donkey's years. We cannot wait for Sundays when Ian McNamara, with Australia All Over, presents such a wonderful program. There are the likes of John Barnett in his time in ABC rural radio in WA; Paul Thompson; Owen Grieve, and now Tara de Landgrafft; in her time, Geraldine Mellet, and now Gillian O'Shaughnessy; Verity James—a friend from years ago—and Russell Woolf.But it is deeply disappointing to me that the ABC now has got itself to the stage where it is so city-centric that it has lost its original brief, and that was its relationship with rural Australia. And that is what I unfortunately want to reflect on this evening: the value of the ABC, for example, in terms of the provision of information, particularly with emergency services and other information—but with the current management and the current so-called leadership of the ABC, I wonder indeed whether they are even going to stick to that.I am terribly sorry to have to say it to you, but the crocodile tears that I have heard from the Labor Party, including Senator Anne McEwen tonight, are an absolute disgrace. When the Labor government cut 10 per cent out of the Defence budget, apparently we were not allowed to complain about it. When there has been a five per cent efficiency dividend over five years—merely $200 million in a $5½ billion budget—we are all supposed to throw our hands in the air and we are all supposed to feel sorry for the senior management of the ABC. As a person who has run businesses all my life, I say to you, Mr Acting Deputy President: if Mr Mark Scott and his senior executive team cannot achieve an efficiency dividend of five per cent, they should submit their resignations and get out. There has been much said about the leadership of Mr Tony Abbott in this regard. Let me tell you that Mr Tony Abbott has simply responded to the litany of sad Labor lies associated with the budget we were presented with when we came into government in September 2013. As a person who has managed, run and led businesses all my life, let me tell you: if you are confronted with a situation in which you are borrowing a thousand million dollars a month—$33 million a day—you had better make some changes. You do not sit around for three years; you use good leadership and you make changes at the time. I say again: if the management of the ABC today is so impoverished they cannot accept a five per cent efficiency dividend, they should not be in the game in the face of competition from commercial sources which themselves have suffered vastly more than that.I look at the history of the ABC in our state—6WF, as it was; now 720. Where does the 'WF' come from? It comes from 6 Wesfarmers, in its hundredth year. Why was it established as a commercial radio station? To provide information to farmers on markets and the various activities associated with agriculture—a proud history based in rural Australia. In 1972, one of my colleagues joined the ABC. He said to me they used to receive messages and the messages from the ABC read: 'Sydney, Melbourne and BAPH states'—that is, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart states. That goes back to 1972. We are not talking about something recent—that goes back over 40 years, during which we have seen the attitude of the ABC.The simple fact of the matter is the ABC is an essential service in rural and regional Australia. Yet what have we seen in recent times? Only this morning, in fact, I heard an interchange between Ross Solly in Thailand and Eoin Cameron, who I mentioned earlier runs the best breakfast radio program in Australia. Eoin made reference to the Wagin ABC. It has not operated for donkey's years. Eoin made the point they built a new studio there in 2003. All the bigwigs flew in from the east, he said; there was a gala opening and they spent millions, but no-one wanted to work there. There has been no staff. He said they bought equipment for the AM stereo for over $1 million at that time. Do you know what happened to it? It remained in crates and was then sent to the dump. So do not talk to me for one minute about the capacity of ABC management going back a long time. Eoin Cameron made the point: 'I have been in the ABC studios in Perth as indeed, I am sure, you have. The top floor in East Perth is vacant. If it was our own business, would we have the top floor of a building in East Perth vacant? No, we wouldn't. We would be commercial; we would be renting it out.' It is, as Eoin Cameron said this morning, empty. I could carry on. I wish he had carried on.In Morwell in Victoria they pay $220 a month rent for a shopfront. We are being invited, around Australia, to believe there have to be massive cutbacks in rural and regional services—that there have to be cutbacks, as Senator Nova Peris said today, in the provision of services for women's sport. Why should there be? If there is any competence or capacity in ABC management, let them get into Sydney and make some changes to Sydney radio.I had the vast misfortune recently to be watching the Australia Network in Singapore. In the face of the BBC, CNN and everyone else, do you know what was on the Australian network? Bananas in Pyjamas, endlessly—and there has been a complaint as to why that should stop!We have heard commentary in the last couple of days about the ABC board. We heard a statement, apparently attributable to an eminent Western Australian who is on the board, that the role of the ABC board is to support management. It is not to support management. They should go and do an Australian Institute of Company Directors course or an Australian Institute of Management course and learn, as Senator Fierravanti-Wells knows very well, what the role of a board is. The role of a board is to set policy. The role of the board is to direct management. The role of a statutory board is to ensure that the statutes—the requirements under which that organisation runs—are being met, and then to judge management. No board is there to support management; it is there to direct management and, in the case of the ABC, to judge management—to assess compliance and ensure there is editorial balance and equity. Heavens above, doesn't the ABC need a board capable of doing that?In terms of the ABC and SBS: why aren't they using shared facilities? Why aren't they using shared IT services? We learnt only recently that SBS bid $750,000 to cover the Asian soccer games—all sponsored, with no cost to the taxpayer. But no, that other Australian taxpayer owned entity, the ABC, gazumped them—not for three-quarters of a million dollars but for one and a half million dollars, taxpayer funded. There are some questions that have to be asked by the ABC board of its management.In the few minutes left available to me I want to speak about the area that concerns me the most: that is, the very much widening gap between urban and rural Australia. It is being driven by the Sydney-centric ABC itself. I refer to the 2011 ban on the live export trade to Indonesia. What the community does not understand is that footage by animal activists—and I will not comment this evening on the validity or otherwise of that footage—was hawked around the commercial television stations in Australia, none of which wanted it. It eventually got to the ABC, which picked it up. Between February and May-June of 2011 that case was built and, as we all know, the industry was nearly destroyed. At the Senate inquiry the journalist Sarah Ferguson lied to me at least five times, possibly six times, when she denied that she had named a cattle station whose livestock were shown in that program. She went on to win a Walkley Award as a result of lying to me, under oath, in a Senate inquiry. There are some very serious questions that need to be asked of the ABC—its board, its management and its administration.



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