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The ABC is on the IPA's hit list

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The Institute of Public Affairs is determined to privatise the ABC, an organisation they believe is now archaic (Image by Dan Jensen)

The Institute of Public Affairs is determined to go against public wishes and needs and privatise the ABC, writes Mark Buckley.

New book with old ideas published

In 2018, two researchers from the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) wrote a book titled ‘Against Public Broadcasting: Why We Should Privatise the ABC and How to Do It’. The main thesis of the book and the “how to do it” part is that the Turnbull Government should privatise the ABC by giving it away for free, either to the ABC’s employees or if that was not acceptable, to random Australian citizens. They could write off the purchase in tax credits.

One has to wonder, firstly, where they got the idea that “giving something away” equates to privatising it. On reflection, during the neoliberal boom in the 1970s, many state-owned enterprises were sold at knockdown prices all around the world. Many of those transactions would not stand up to scrutiny nowadays, as so many of them discounted taxpayer value and essentially gifted valuable utilities to party donors. Russia, the United Kingdom and Australia, amongst other countries, created whole suburbs of “kleptocrats” from transactions like that and we are still paying the price.

Professor Sinclair Davidson and Dr Chris Berg are the two researchers who came up with this idea. They are both experts in Blockchain Innovation and they work at RMIT. Both Davidson and Berg are also listed as "adjunct fellows" at the Institute of Public Affairs.

Blockchain has been described as a system for validating transactions between people who do not trust each other. The “innovation” part is perhaps just a fancy tag for something about as interesting as devising train timetables.

And yet here they are, experts in an obscure technology that is really just another accounting tool, deciding that one of the most treasured assets still left in the national purse is only fit to be given away.

They acknowledge that the ABC is popular, but in remaining true to their neoliberal beliefs, they argue that there is no value in something merely because it is popular. It is a drain on the public purse and must be divested. The reasons they use to justify their position are contradictory.

Firstly, they argue that the ABC is now an anachronism past its use-by date. How they came to this position is peculiar. They state that when the ABC was founded in 1932, there was a shortage of media available and so the ABC was designed as a stop-gap measure until the media on offer became sufficient to serve the Australian public. At that point in time, where media maturity was achieved, the ABC would pack up its tent and quietly slip away.

Secondly, they argue that the ABC is cannibalising media opportunities by competing too well with the media professionals and shrinking their market. Global monopolies like the Murdoch empire cannot compete and feel that government funding gives the ABC an unfair advantage. This is the actual position put forward by the free marketeers, with access to seemingly unlimited funds, being unable to compete with “the luvvies” of the ABC.

So, on the one hand, the ABC has become redundant, as their charter is now being performed adequately by the corporate media. On the other hand, they are too good at their job.

What does the ABC do?

In Australia, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is legally required to ‘encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia’ and ‘broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity’ with specific emphasis on regional and rural Australia.

According to the history section of the ABC website:

‘The ABC Charter, set down by Parliament, requires the Corporation to provide informative, entertaining and educational services that reflect the breadth of our nation.’

This year, they have covered the bushfires peerlessly. Their staff was spectacularly committed, professional and pushed to their limits. Of course, there were some who accused the ABC of committing too many resources to the coverage. That is easy to say after the firestorm, but I live in regional Victoria and there is no other place I would trust to provide me with accurate, up-to-date information.

Take a look at their coronavirus coverage. During the darkest days of April, they provided us all with straight, professional, uninterrupted coverage of a once-in-a-century pandemic situation.

When researching this article, I went back in time. They were there in the 1930s, broadcasting by wireless about the death of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons and the declaration of war by Robert Menzies in 1939. Cricket broadcasts began.

During the 1940s, the ABC provided war reports from various overseas offices. It attempted to provide an independent news service, but in a precursor to today’s problems, it encountered some early government interference and censorship by way of the newly formed Department of Information, run in 1940 by newspaper proprietor Sir Keith Murdoch. He was Rupert Murdoch’s father, so it seems that the Murdochs have always had a thing about public broadcasting.

The list of disasters, triumphs, royal weddings, funerals, bushfires and floods is too long to recount, but there is not a time when Australians did not know where to look if they wanted fearless, honest reporting. We remember that the ABC is always there and it is not swayed by the views of their advertisers — because there are none.

And if the ABC continues to outshine the so-called “professionals”, then the professionals need to lift their game. Stop asking the umpire for favours and get on with it. The ABC does.

Who wants to get rid of the ABC?

It is part of IPA dogma to defund the ABC. The idea is not new, nor is it homegrown — it is directly taken from the Atlas Network, an American neoliberal organisation dedicated to packing legislatures worldwide with believers. Check out the link to confirm that the IPA are among their partners.

Roughly, they all believe in small government, less regulation, less taxation, less welfare and something of the “survival of the fittest” mindset. Except when they have to compete against quality competition. They do not believe in climate change and they are supported by Big Tobacco, somewhere in the mix.

There is a very simple test which can be applied to our parliamentarians to see whether they are fit for office. It works for the general population as well, but it is in the political context where the test is crucial and necessary. The test shows whether they respect the wishes and the needs of the people. The test asks whether they want the ABC privatised or do they want it preserved in its current form. See this page for a list of who, and how, they voted.

Mark Buckley is a Melbourne based writer with an interest in politics, history and ethics in public life.

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