Last week Tony Abbott effectively turned off the microphone tuned into rural and regional Australia. His Government has taken the axe to Auntie.
In country Australia, the ABC is much more than a media outlet – it is an institution. One which provides us with our independent news and current affairs, stimulates local debate, protects and promotes our local interests, and produces quality rural-based programing. It also acts as our emergency broadcaster in times of trouble.
A strong and well-resourced public broadcaster ensures that firstly, it is void of the influence of the media moguls which allows for the production of independent editorial comment. Secondly, public subsidies allow the provision of services in areas which would not be commercially viable, typically in the bush. Thirdly, public backing allows it to promote and nurture Australian content and local talent. These all represent sound investments.
When the Abbott Government launched its attack on the ABC, it also declared war on rural and regional Australia. Don’t take my word for it, ask any Coalition MP or Senator hailing from a rural area. Indeed, their constituents have been lining up to tell them.
Sadly though, Government parliamentarians have tried to deflect criticism of the Government and themselves by blaming the ABC Board and management for the cuts. These have been shocking acts of cowardice. Just as the cover-up always causes more hurt than the crime, so too does trying to blame someone else.
The fact is the Abbott Government has cut around $500 million from the public broadcasters (ABC and SBS) budgets. When it did so it knew there would be substantial consequences. Indeed there have been. Five rural and regional communities have lost their local radio stations. News bulletins will now be shorter so we'll hear less local news and local sports coverage is likely to be a memory only. Iconic rural programs like Bush Telegraph will disappear and many others will be culled.
In the Hunter region, one third of the staff at ABC 1233 radio have been jettisoned. One half of the station's programming team have left the building. Hunter residents who have always enjoyed tuning in to the local afternoon program with all its local content will now be listening to a program originating from Sydney. A good program no doubt but not one on which Newcastle or any part of the Hunter region is likely to rate a mention.
On election eve last year, Tony Abbott said there would be “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS". Now he tries to tell us that $500 million is not a “cut”, it's an "efficiency dividend". These are just weasel words.
I know the ABC well, I've been into dozens of its studios around the country and overseas. I've never seen any fat or inefficiencies. In my experience, staff are more often than not multi-skilled, undertaking a range of tasks which would be shared in a commercial setting.
The Abbott Government's first Budget hit hard, nowhere more than in rural and regional Australia. For many in the bush, the ABC debacle will be the final straw, a confirmation that the Government has abandoned rural and regional communities.
This article was first published in FARMONLINE on Monday the 1st of December 2014.