The political stupidity of the ABC cuts

We hardly need to be reminded of it, but the ABC funding cut demonstrates the utter political ineptitude of the Abbott government.

It’s not just that it’s an obvious broken promise (one that Coalition members compound foolishly by denying).

Nor is it merely that the government is picking a fight with the most wide-reaching and respected media organisation in the country. Or that Coalition partners the Nationals will bleed votes as a result of cuts made to regional coverage. 

It highlights the extent to which the government is out of touch with ordinary Australians, preferring the counsel of a small group of right-wing ideologues to the clear-cut research that the ABC is still the most trusted news source in the country. But this isn’t the worst of it, not by far.

Even the ABC critics have angrily made the point that the government has barely attempted to build a case that the cuts could be sustained. It’s an open secret that there are some areas of the ABC that could use some trimming – like any major organisation. But this isn’t an excuse for such major cuts, nor was it used as one; it provided an opportunity for the government to hold a mature debate about spending and debt, about public broadcasting’s role and the virtue of keeping a responsible eye on all government-funded institutions. But as is becoming common, the chance was missed by Abbott et al, and any political capital that might have been gained was squandered. If you listen closely, you can still hear echoes of Coalition politicians fighting the wrong battle.

It’s not even that the government is doing all this at a time when it needs all the support it can get, as even its few remaining boosters – Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt, the Australian – turn on it. The cuts have almost no support on the rest of the political spectrum, apart from two libertarian senators, who feel the same way about all government spending. Christopher Pyne, wily fox that he is, knows the score: recognising the unpopularity of his own cabinet’s decision, he’s campaigning against it. Hopefully he kicks his own arse while he’s at it.

So what’s to gain? The support of a handful of angry old men who would never vote for anyone else anyway. 

The point’s been made over and over that the ABC is essential – in regional areas, in order to prevent the total domination of the likes of News Corp, in order to cover the sorts of community service broadcasting that commercial stations could never afford, and so on and so on. What’s the argument in favour of cuts? No idea, except to shore up a broad, almost ideological point that there’s “too much waste” in government. It comes in the context of a much wider conversation about the budget that the government has already lost. Did Hockey and Abbott think this would help?

If the point was that the ABC is wasting taxpayers’ money, the Coalition has never actually bothered to make it. (If it was that the ABC is an ideological threat to the government, as it prefers News Corp’s support, it would be honourable to say this.) As usual, Abbott has gone silent rather than front up and explain the reasoning behind his government’s stance. Like the recent bluster about shirt-fronting Putin, he’s less than brave when push comes to shove. In this case he’s handed the steaming pile to his good friend and supporter Malcolm Turnbull.

Four hundred jobs will be lost in the ABC alone, five regional radio stations, the TV studio in Adelaide, all non-news TV production outside Melbourne and Sydney and numerous programs and presenters. 

But the most humiliating thing about the campaign to cut public broadcasting, for all of us, is that all of the pain caused, all this traumatic upheaval, all this stupidity and lost political capital is the result of an ineptitude that could be exposed in a single short message on Twitter (@mmccwill): “Politics, apparently, should be understood in context: $254million cut from ABC. Extra $245million found in May budget for school chaplains.”

The Abbott government deserves the kicking it’s going to get over this. 

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.


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