Building a Better Australia

Make Australia Great

Senator BURSTON (New South Wales) (12:30): I rise to speak on, and support, the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017. This bill amends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. In return for our support for this bill, One Nation negotiated with the government for the term ‘fair and balanced’ to be part of the ABC’s charter, increase its commitment to regional areas and to reveal the salaries of its top broadcasters, amongst other things.

At present, the ABC currently spends just 17 per cent of its revenue for the benefit of people working outside the capital cities, where 35 per cent of the Australian population resides. Consistent with that imbalance, the ABC reflects the concerns and interests of people living in our capital cities at the expense of the population in regional, rural and remote Australia. We should seek to restore the balance at the ABC between the city and bush by requiring the ABC to direct 35 per cent of budget expenditure to places where 35 per cent of the population resides. Restoring the balance between the city and bush at the ABC is not just a matter of justice and equity but also of recognising the unique contribution of the bush to Australian culture and values. Why should the cities get the lion’s share of ABC funding when so much of our history and cultural identity is represented by the bush?

It should also be said that the unique character of rural, remote and regional Australia owes much to the talented people who live in communities outside the major cities. The ABC would benefit from the creative input of those people, as would the audiences who support the ABC. It seems to me that the national broadcaster should defend our national values, and ABC management will be much better placed to achieve this objective if its programs reflect the values of a broad cross-section of the community and not just the hopes and aspirations of people who live in the capital cities.

Much of the material broadcast on the ABC is produced in rural, regional and remote parts of the rest of the world, especially in the United Kingdom, and it has always struck me as rather odd that our national broadcaster has no problem recognising the appeal of this material, except on its own doorstep. One reason the national broadcaster fails to reflect a broad cross-section of the community in its programing is that increasingly the ABC is dominated by city people, who, naturally enough, project city values.

I was hardly surprised to learn just a couple of weeks ago from Jennifer Oriel from The Australian that research at the Sunshine Coast university found that 41.2 per cent of ABC staff voted for the Greens. This figure may be representative of the Greens’ voters in privileged parts of our capital cities, but the Greens’ vote struggles to get to double figures in rural and regional Australia. This lack of diversity at the ABC is the reason that the bush is deprived of broadcasting funds.

If the ABC were a commercial broadcaster, there might be some small justification for the failure to apply funds proportionately between the bush and the capital cities. Commercial broadcasters need to make a profit, which is impossible in areas of low density population. For example, free-to-air television, news and current affairs budgets in the bush are just 10 per cent of capital city budgets. But the national broadcaster is supposed to serve the public interest, as articulated in the ABC Charter, not commercial interests. The ABC should broadcast programs that contribute to the national identity and reflect Australia’s cultural diversity. I contend that directing just 17 per cent of revenue to rural, regional and remote areas, representing 35 per cent of our population, is contrary to the ABC Charter and against the public interest.

I wonder whether the ABC is ignoring the bush as part of a wider agenda to compete with commercial broadcasters. Just recently Darren Davidson reported in The Australian that the ABC outbid the Australian Associated Press for a lucrative contract to supply an outdoor advertising company with syndicated newsfeeds. In the same article, the journalist reports that other television broadcasters complained that the ABC, with its $1.04 billion in base funding, is outbidding the Channel 7, Channel 9 networks and Foxtel for programming that is more suited to pay-television services and commercial networks. If the ABC has so much money to spend, why not spend some of it in the bush?

The importance of a strong and independent public broadcaster cannot be overstated. People trust the ABC, especially in times of emergency—and I’ve currently got a fire emergency in the Hunter. We assume that what we see or hear on the public broadcaster has not been compromised by commercial interests. In the same vein, we expect to see or hear important news and to be entertained and educated without the frustration and interruption of commercial advertising. It is often said that the ABC is a public service we’re entitled to access without direct cost. We value the fact that our ABC broadcasts programs that are not determined by advertisers looking for large audiences to sell their products and services to. ABC content is not subject to the dictates of commercial interests, and commercial interests should not be allowed to starve regional, rural and remote Australia of the funds required to serve the public interest, recognised in the ABC Charter.

While not part of this bill, I would like to take this opportunity to advise the government that One Nation is supportive of Blind Citizens Australia’s position and its recommendations regarding audio description. Audio description is a service that provides verbal narration of visual elements that appear on screen during television programs, inserted during natural gaps in dialogue within a standard program. The service provides information about elements such as facial expressions, scenes, settings, actions, costumes and on-screen text, which is otherwise inaccessible to audience members who are blind or vision impaired. I’ve been advised by Blind Citizens Australia that audio description has been available on free-to-air television in all other English-speaking OECD countries for many years, while Australia continues to lag behind. Frustratingly, although iconic Australian programs such as Neighbours and Home and Away are currently audio described for overseas audiences, they are still not accessible to Australians who are blind or vision impaired. It is my understanding that Australians who are deaf or hearing impaired enjoy comparatively high levels of access, with the Broadcasting Services Act now requiring 100 per cent of content that is broadcast between 6 am and midnight to be captioned.

There are currently more than 350,000 Australians who are blind or vision impaired. According to Vision 2020 Australia, around 80 per cent of vision loss in Australia is caused by conditions that become more common as people age. The need for television services that can adequately respond to the needs of an ageing population will only become more pertinent in years to come, with one in every four Australians projected to be aged 65 or over by the year 2056.

One Nation believes there’s plenty of fat in the budget of both the ABC and SBS to provide this service, starting at a bare minimum of 14 hours per week. I call on commercial broadcasters to consider offering this service, especially if this bill is passed. I understand that earlier this year the government announced the establishment of an audio-description working group to explore options to increase the availability of audio description in Australia. The working group will provide a report to government on its findings by the end of this year. I look forward to the release of the report at the government’s earliest convenience.