The federal government and the ABC: an ongoing tension

Tension between federal governments and the ABC is inbuilt because the ABC is a statutory authority bound by its charter to provide an independent broadcasting service.

Its editorial policies require it to follow “fundamental journalistic principles of accuracy and impartiality” and reports on Australia and the world “without fear or favour, even when that might be uncomfortable or unpopular”.

This includes the government of the day, whose activities are routinely covered by ABC news and current affairs. This sounds like a statement of the bleeding obvious but is rarely stated — which means most forget or don’t understand what is at stake in government-ABC relations.

The tension surfaces on the government’s side in various overt and covert methods of controlling the public broadcaster, and on the ABC’s side in routine proclamations of independence from government, whether Labor or Liberal. ABC managers and journalists are at pains to say they report without fear or favor and often insist that if government is annoyed by their reporting they must be doing something right.

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This is an important half-truth. Every government has been irritated, upset or outraged by the national broadcaster’s journalism, and every government has sought to use the levers at its disposal to persuade at best and punish at worst.

What this half-truth skates over, however, is that the Liberal-National Party Coalition has been substantially more hostile towards the ABC, both in outlook and in action, than Labor.

This has important implications, but they are rarely discussed publicly. It is not really in the major political parties’ interests to do so, nor is it in the ABC’s, nor is it in the media’s. Some sections of the media are unabashedly hostile to the ABC and others couldn’t care less about it.

The upshot is that everyone stays quiet and the public rarely gets a full picture of what is actually going on.

One way of seeing that fuller picture is to compare how different governments have treated the ABC.

The act of Parliament changing the ABC from a commission to a corporation came into effect in July 1983. In the 39 years since, the two major parties have been in power for almost the same period: just under 19 years for Labor (1983-96 , and 2007-13), and 19-and-a-half years for the Coalition (1996-07 and 2013 to now). This provides a good basis for such a comparison.

Which governments have increased funding, which have cut it, and by how much?

Analysis of the ABC’s budget is tricky. Nominal funding must be separated from real funding levels. Nominal funding of the ABC has increased from $274 million in 1983-84 to $881 million in 2021-22, but in real terms — that is, adjusted for inflation — funding has actually fallen 4% in that period.

(Transmission costs, which account for about 20% of the ABC’s budget, are unavoidable and for many years were included in a government department’s budget rather than the ABC’s. Hence the difference between $881 million for 2021-22 and the oft-touted $1 billion figure for the ABC’s funding.)

You need to look at operational funding because that is what the ABC needs to produce its programs. The following graph shows the level of ABC funding in real terms ($ millions, 1983-84 dollars) at the end of each of the past five Australian governments.

The Hawke/Keating government’s last budget allocation of $281 million (real) in 1995-96 was 7% higher in real terms than the allocation of the Fraser government in 1982 ($264 million).

The period of the Howard government (1996-07) showed a decline of 5% in real funding, from the $281 million to $268 million (real) in the budget for 2007-08.

Funding increased during the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government to reach $296 million (real) in 2013-14, an increase of 10% over the term of the government.

The Morrison government’s record shows the steepest decrease in ABC funding, dropping by 11% from 2013-14’s figure of $296 million to $263 million in 2021-22. (2021–22 budget papers show ABC funding declining further to $257 million in real terms in 2022-23. See: 2021–22 Portfolio Budget Statement, accessed July 22, 2021.)

The government’s recent budget announcements hardly alter that trajectory. It has trumpeted the restoration of indexation of ABC funding, but this is only a reversal of a “cut by any other name”, made in 2018, when the ABC lost out on about $84m.

Moreover, the funding increases offered over the next three years are well below growth projections for the Consumer Price Index (CPI). In real terms, then, the ABC is likely to be worse off than it is now.

This is an edited extract from Who Needs the ABC? Why taking it for granted is no longer an option by Matthew Ricketson and Patrick Mullins. Historical analysis of ABC budget figures is by Michael Ward, a former ABC executive who is doing a PhD about the ABC at the University of Sydney.

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