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We Don't Want to Seem Ungrateful, But...

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The Federal Budget is in, and the news for the ABC is promising. No more cuts, no more freezes, and some modest improvements. But as Alan Sunderland writes, the biggest problem – the long-term significant underfunding of the ABC – remains.

What the Federal Budget means for the ABC

The first thing to say about the 2023 Federal Budget is that it’s a relief not to have a government hell-bent on cutting, freezing and starving the ABC into submission.

There have been a series of positive measures in the budget that deliver some longer-term certainty to ABC funding, and some real improvements in a few modest areas. All of these deserve to be recognised and welcomed.

As foreshadowed, the Government has announced five years of funding for the ABC instead of the usual three. This delivers increased certainty for the organisation and allows it to engage in longer-term planning, although it needs to be kept in mind that there is nothing to stop future governments changing that funding any time they like. Nonetheless, the ABC has welcomed the announcement, saying that it ‘provides financial stability and allows the ABC to continue delivering on its charter.’

The Budget also indexes this funding against rising costs, although we are unlikely to know how effective that indexation will be until a promised review into ABC funding mechanisms finally takes place. In the past, the ABC’s indexation has been woefully inadequate, not even keeping pace with the CPI, let alone the ballooning costs in the production sector. Let’s hope that improves.

Last October, the Government announced a review of options to support the stability and independence of both the ABC and SBS. One obvious way to do that is to ensure that the funding of both broadcasters doesn’t get eroded in real terms every year by inadequate indexation, especially at a time of rising and persistent inflation. The review is yet to release its terms of reference, and we eagerly await them.

In terms of specific Budget measures, an extra $8.5 million has been provided over four years to allow the ABC to extend its transmission into the Pacific. This is on top of the $32 million announced last year for expanded Indo-Pacific programming. In effect, the new money won’t allow for any new programming, but it will allow the ABC to commission more FM transmitters to broadcast across the Pacific. This is a major step in filling the gap left by the loss of shortwave broadcasts in the region.

In other news, $1 million a year has been provided for audio description of television programming, and the Government has finally agreed to roll the annual $15 million of funding for enhanced news gathering coverage into the ABC’s base funding. While this money is already fully committed, the decision means the ABC will no longer need to bring out the begging bowl every few years and hope that it gets extended.

So far so good, but it is not time to put away that begging bowl.

As ABC Alumni has pointed out before, the damage inflicted on the ABC budget in recent years means the broadcaster would need at least an extra $80 million a year, every year, just to bring us back to the real level of funding it had in 2013.

Today’s announcements go nowhere near addressing that structural damage. The bleeding has been stemmed, but the wound remains.

Certainty of funding is all very well, but certainty of inadequate funding is a recipe for ongoing cuts, program closures and the all-too-familiar process of ‘getting by with what you have’ rather than building a future-focussed public broadcaster that all Australians can be rightly proud of.

Despite this year’s budget, ABC management is already committed to another round of redundancies and cost savings, a necessary step if the broadcaster wants to remain relevant and effective. But make no mistake – good content will be sacrificed, good people will lose their jobs, and tough decisions will be made by an organisation that is simply not funded to do all the things that it should be doing.

There are many competing demands on the Federal Budget right now, and there are many good reasons why other priorities deserve attention, not least the need to deal with the impact on lower income families of rising costs, rising rents and inadequate wages and welfare payments.

But a healthy, connected and informed community needs a news media it can trust, and broader programming that reflects our nation and our culture. It needs reliable information at times of national emergency, and it needs a place where important local, regional and national conversations can be held. The tide of disinformation and misinformation is eroding our national unity and replacing it with polarising and ill-informed content.

One solution to that trend is to commit to properly funding our most trusted source of public news and information – the ABC. Today’s budget suggests that we are at the starting line of that process, but the real journey is yet to begin.

Alan Sunderland is a director of ABC Alumni and a former Editorial Director of the ABC.

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