30 September 2018

Australians deserve to know the truth about our most trusted institution, the ABC.

As allegations of Liberal interference at the public broadcaster swirled this week, the UN Secretary-General was saying the world is suffering from a bad case of “Trust Deficit Disorder”.

The breakdown of trust in Australia’s institutions must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

To anyone who says they value democracy, free speech and editorial independence, well those words are easy to say. The test of your convictions is what you’re prepared to do to defend them.  

Generations of dedicated ABC staff and quality content have helped earn the ABC a special place in the nation’s heart, a level of trust the envy of so many other institutions.

But trust is also a governance issue. The Roy Morgan Net Trust survey, which measures Australia’s high level of trust in the ABC, notes as much and the governance of our institutions goes to the health of our democracy.

That is why Labor announced a public inquiry into Liberal Government interference at the ABC.

For the same reason Labor called for a Royal Commission into the banks, for the same reason we’re now calling for a National Integrity Commission, a Federal ICAC, to be established to investigate serious government corruption. We know how important it is to restore public trust in our institutions. 

The fact that neither former ABC Chairman Milne nor Minister Fifield moved swiftly to address the damaging allegations head-on, showed a lack of conviction in safeguarding key principles.

Their initial media statements basically said ‘business as usual, nothing to see here’.

The reactive Clayton’s Inquiry belatedly announced by Minister Fifield is a whitewash.

Does the Minister seriously believe that inquiries by his own Departmental Secretary are enough to restore public confidence in the wake of this scandal?

The Prime Minister’s statement on the resignation of Mr Milne tried to pretend it was a routine, mundane issue. 

“Time for the ABC to resume normal transmission” the PM tweeted which, under the Liberals, means ABC staff working under the ongoing pressure of Liberal attacks, both financial and ideological.

This year alone, this out of touch government has cut $83.7 million in ABC funding, launched two damaging public broadcasting inquiries, led a stream of complaints about ABC journalism they find inconvenient and has three bills before Parliament to meddle with the ABC Act and Charter.

What’s more, the leaders in this saga have, by all reports, been behaving like they are from some sort of tin-pot dictatorship.

Former Chairman Milne is alleged to have sought the sacking of journalists because they offended the Liberal Government, with taxpayer funding cited as a source of improper leverage.

The Minister has used the ABC as a bargaining chip in a political deal with a minor right-wing populist party.

The Prime Minister reappointed a card-carrying member of the IPA, an organisation that advocates privatising the ABC, as Minister for Communications.

This Liberal Government cancelled Parliament when it didn’t suit them, and the latest Federal Budget with Scott Morrison as Treasurer capped off $366 million in ABC budget cuts – despite an explicit pre-election promise not to.

Finally the Liberal Federal Council has voted to privatise the ABC.

We are now beyond the pub test.

Contrary to Scott Morrison’s expectations, the footy finals this weekend will not make Australians forget the alarming allegations of political interference at the ABC.

These issues did not materialise out of thin air, nor will they magically dissipate of their own accord.

As the MEAA states, “This is not a one-off attack on the ABC’s independence, but is the culmination of years of inappropriate external meddling in the ABC’s affairs.”

Serious questions remain to be answered and only a full and transparent inquiry will begin to provide the answers the Australian public deserves.

The Prime Minister has another thing coming if he thinks this is going away, or that he can sweep it under the carpet or, like climate change and women’s representation, dump it in the too-hard basket.

This test of our democracy is one we cannot fail.

Labor commends ABC staff for their professionalism and commitment as they continue to perform under extraordinarily testing circumstances.

Australians across the political spectrum trust the ABC and they are watching their elected representatives.

Scott Morrison has seriously underestimated the extent to which Australians care about their democracy and love their ABC. 

This opinion piece was first published in The Sunday Age on Sunday, 30 September 2018.