The view from Billinudgel

Picking on Aunty
Why the latest push to privatise the ABC is not new or surprising


“They don’t hate us for what we do, but for who we are.”

This was the formula developed by various prime ministers in the days of defending the indefensible Australian policy of hanging on to the coattails of American troops in the Middle East.

Nowadays, of course, it hardly matters; the damage has been done and the course established. But the old line has been refurbished and reversed in the latest episode of the hard right’s culture wars.

The problem with the ABC, the Liberal Party zealots insist, is not what it is, but what it does. If only it were not so big, or if only it would butt out of the internet and leave the field to the commercial stations, or if only it were less leftish and more mainstream, it would be perfectly acceptable.

Except that it wouldn’t be. Certainly, the right loves to bash up Aunty for its largely imagined Greens–Labor agenda, but that is little more than a convenient excuse. The ABC’s real sin is not what it does but what it is: a public broadcaster, the key word being “public”.

This becomes clear whenever its private competitors become nervous, which is why the trolls of the Murdoch media have become so frenzied in their campaign to return their master’s voice to its rightful supremacy.

It just isn’t fair, they rail: the ABC gets a billion dollars a year from the taxpayer and we have to stand on our own feet – unless, of course, we can bully a complacent government into a handout or two, which is not all that uncommon. Unfair competition, free enterprise, this is what society (or at least the righteous of the Institute of Public Affairs, both in and outside the parliament) is all about.

And it was ever thus: in the dim dark ages the then health minister, Earle Page, devised the private insurance system to make sure Australia should never emulate the United Kingdom in implementing a genuine public national health scheme. And he inveighed against “socialisation of medicine”, which he regarded as unfair competition for private hospitals.

The Liberals and their allies have always favoured the private over the public, whether in hospitals, health, schools – and broadcasting. The Liberal Party council’s push to privatise the ABC was neither new nor surprising. It was just more honest than the (private) musings of their parliamentary peers, most of whom would do it like a shot if they thought they could get away with it.

And as for Malcolm Turnbull? He’s seemingly not so enthusiastic – which may be why the party room still regards him with suspicion. Perhaps there is hope for him yet.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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