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Privatising the ABC: The Liberals' secret agenda

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Kerry O'Brien speaking in Brisbane for Friends of the ABC (Screenshot via YouTube)

Considering the Coalition's blatant dislike of the ABC, an unlikely win in the May election could lead to privatisation, writes Dr John Jiggens.

THE 2019 ELECTION CAMPAIGN BEGAN, as Media Watch’s Paul Barry observed, with “lies, hysteria and untruths about Labor’s electric car policy”, which was dutifully echoed by the Coalition’s friends, News Corp and its coven of climate change deniers.

Nothing to see here, you might think. Surely, this was hyperbole as normal.

But is there a hidden motive behind the Murdoch media’s pro-Coalition frenzy? According to the Friends of the ABC, the secret agenda of News Corp and the Liberals is the post-election privatisation of the ABC.

Given the Coalition’s historical dislike of the national broadcaster, privatisation may well be the fate of the ABC if the Coalition were to win the coming election.

The Liberal Party’s policy wing, their think tank, the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA), argue that privatising the ABC will set it “free”. In June last year, they published a book titled Against Public Broadcasting — Why we should privatise the ABC and how to do it. That same month, the Liberal Party’s peak council voted almost 2:1 to privatise the ABC with vocal support from the IPA, which said the ABC could be sold or given to Australians who already own it.

The motion said:

“That Federal Council calls for the full privatisation of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, except for services into regional areas that are not commercially viable.”

The Communication Minister, Mitch Fifield, opposed the motion, while Scott Morrison said there were ‘no plans’ to privatise the ABC, but with a Federal Election looming within a year, they had to.

All of the current leaders of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party are members of the IPA: Prime Minister Scott Morrison is and so is his deputy, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Mathias Cormann, Senate Leader and Finance Minister and his deputy, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, are also members of the IPA.

Other ministers who are members of the IPA are Mitch Fifield, Minister for Communication with responsibility for the ABC, Michaelia Cash, Minister for Small and Family Business and Kelly O’Dwyer, Minister for Industrial Relations.

Coalition Commonwealth Parliamentary members who also are members of the IPA are Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, George Christensen, Ian MacDonald, James McGrath, James Paterson, Scott Ryan, Tony Smith, Alan Tudge and Tim Wilson.

Speaking in Brisbane for the Friends of the ABC, Kerry O’Brien, former host of Four Corners and the 7.30 Report, detailed the repeated cuts to ABC budget under successive Liberal Governments.

He recalled sitting on the ABC panel on election night in 1996, watching Richard Alston, who was about to become their minister, promise there would be no cuts to the ABC. He reiterated an earlier pledge – a very clear promise – no cuts to the ABC budget.

Yet, says O’Brien:

“It was his recommendation to Cabinet that saw the ABC budget slashed; not cut, slashed!”

Later, Alston privately acknowledged to his Cabinet colleagues (in a draft Cabinet submission that was leaked to O’Brien) that the cuts would be a breach of an election promise. “He actually said that the cuts he was recommending would be in breach of an election promise,” said O’Brien. When O’Brien questioned him about this on the 7.30 Report, Alston kept denying the undeniable, repeatedly saying there was no breach of faith.

In 2013, Tony Abbott similarly promised no cuts to the ABC — next budget, his Communication Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, cut the ABC budget by $254 million.

As Kerry O’Brien rhetorically asked:

“So, how good is their word leading up to the election?”

Given this history, if the Liberal Party plan further cuts to the ABC or to privatise the ABC, they are unlikely to admit it before an election.

The Institute for Public Affairs was founded in 1943 by Rupert Murdoch’s father, Keith Murdoch and friends. On the IPA’s 70th anniversary, his son Rupert was the guest speaker and he praised the IPA for its strong stand against nationalisation and for privatisation and for competition.

While the opinion polls indicate a Coalition win in the next election is unlikely, the Murdoch tabloids are giving “ScoMo” a headline-a-day, and the polls are tightening. For Murdoch and the other big players in commercial media, the ABC must seem, as it is, a great and glorious jewel.

Dr John Jiggens is a writer and journalist currently working in the community newsroom at Bay-FM in Byron Bay.

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