The ABC and our political obsession with capital

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Money, money, money (Image by Dan Jensen)

Decisions made over the ABC, along with other Australian icons, are all driven by the almighty dollar, writes Nicholas Bugeja.

THE LIBERAL PARTY Council’s emphatic vote to privatise the ABC is the latest example of political parties and governments valuing economic considerations above all others. It’s nothing new.

The vote – which garnered 66 per cent of the Council’s votes – was defended by Liberal Party figureheads on economic grounds only.

Speaking to Fairfax Media, one of the federal vice-presidents of the party, Karina Okotel, said:

“The private sector produces content faster, cheaper and more efficiently.”

Her statement has confirmed a suspicion of many since Tony Abbott and the conservative wing of the Liberal Party began regularly attacking the legitimacy of the ABC in 2014: That the Party sees public broadcasting as an evil, an anathema.

The attempts of federal ministers, such as Mathias Cormann, to backpedal on the vote have been in vain. The 2018 budget cut $84 million from the ABC, following years of incremental cuts designed to diminish and disarm the public broadcaster. This vote is the logical conclusion for a party that’s slavishly dedicated to privatisation and the free market.

If the argument over the ABC could only be fought on economic grounds, it’s likely the Liberal Party would have the upper hand. But it’s not.

It’s obvious the ABC doesn’t exist as a commercial entity. Its purpose isn’t to generate profits or improve stock prices. The ABC is supposed to be a body that provides a reliable and comprehensive news service, discussion of current affairs and informed commentary. In a media landscape that is rapidly decreasing in quality, the ABC is a vital national treasure.

At its best, the ABC is one of many organs that guarantees the effective functioning of our democracy and society. This is because of the ABC’s publicness, its protection from pernicious economic forces that act to determine what, and how, stories are run.

It would be depressing enough if this was the first recent instance of a political party preferring economic interests over other legitimate concerns. Unsurprisingly, many have come before it.

The discourse on the Great Barrier Reef has also been reduced to economic buzzwords and statistics by the Coalition Government. Despite pledging $500 million to protecting the Reef, it was the way that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull promoted the policy that was problematic.

Turnbull spoke of the Reef as an “asset” that would deliver billions to the national and local economies, as well as 64,000 jobs. His emphasis was firmly on the economic reasons for providing funding for the Reef.

But this is the wrong way to approach the problem of ensuring the longevity of the Great Barrier Reef. Although economic considerations about the Reef aren’t completely immaterial, the most compelling reason to protect it is on account of its unique beauty.

Listed as a World Heritage site, the Great Barrier Reef represents the best of the natural world. It’s home to many rare fish and aquatic animals such as the clownfish. And the Reef’s ecosystem – the pure blue water, the bursting colour of the coral – is a natural marvel on par with anything in this world. And it eclipses any human-made sight or phenomena.

The Reef should be funded and valued on this basis. Not on one of economics, that fails to capture what is so inherently special about it.

However, it’s not just the Liberal Party and the conservative side of politics that’s guilty of such parochiality. The Victorian Labor Government’s pitch to be the home of Australia’s space agency has so far only been argued along economic lines. The State Government has drawn attention to the likelihood of the program boosting the Victorian economy and creating jobs.

While a beneficial product of such a decision, reducing the project of space exploration to economic justifications is troubling. One would hope that humans don’t develop technology and go into space only to expand profits and provide jobs. Indeed, a bigger vision should be at play — to discover new atmospheres and worlds, to test the limits of human endeavour.

Some of this fixation on economics is no doubt precipitated by the endless search for electoral votes. Although this isn’t an excuse for reducing our political discourse to money, profits and jobs. After all, it’s a deeply unhealthy development that endangers the very act of policymaking. It signals a future where reliable journalism, beautiful natural wonders and space exploration will be judged on the basis of whether they turn a profit or create jobs. This would be to ignore their real, intrinsic value.

Nicholas Bugeja is an Arts/Law student at Monash University. He edited the Monash student magazine Lot’s Wife in 2017 and has written on topics such as film, politics, comedy and theatre for a variety of publications.

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