Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Measures) Bill 2019

BILLS - Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Measures) Bill 2019 - Second Reading

House of Representatives

Watch Matt's speech here 

Mr KEOGH (Burt) (17:02): Western Australians don't seem able to catch a break some days, and this fig-leaf legislation is just another example. Whether it's the NBN, grocery prices or staying on top of the news we're constantly left underdone. WA has a proud history of being different. We love quokkas, we're obsessed with shark attacks and, although it's not taught in schools, we all understand that Bali is essentially a northern suburb of Perth. But we're still part of our nation. Just because we're on the opposite side of the country doesn't mean that what happens locally doesn't matter at home or even here in the eastern states.

Since 2013 the Liberals have cut $366 million from the ABC, in direct breach of their election promise, forcing the ABC to cut 800 jobs around the country. Since 2014 hundreds of staff have lost their jobs, the Australia Network has been axed, shortwave radio has been shut down, the number of hours of ABC factual programming has dropped by 60 per cent, drama has dropped by 20 per cent and documentaries have dropped by 13.5 per cent. Journalists, sound engineers, techies, editors and other staff have lost jobs around the country, and the west is the hardest hit. The impacts of this have been dire in Perth and across the state of Western Australia.

'How does this relate to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Measures) Bill 2019?' you may ask. The simple truth is that Perth has been treated like a regional town for years, yet this legislation will do nothing to fix it. Perth is so far from any other capital city that it might as well be in another country. Our issues, our time zones and our climate are so vastly different from the rest of the country. The eastern states have proven time and again that they don't care what happens in Perth, and they dictate to us what they think we want to know.

The ABC, alas, is no different. The ABC has three main divisions. In the past, ABC Perth had production from their site for all three. News production has been heavily cut over the years, with employees now copping a totally unsustainable workload. I've heard that staff are feeling heavily the loss of locally produced current affairs over the years. This capital city newsroom is more news bureau than news production site. ABC Perth has one reporter for 7.30, who I'm told is lucky to get a story up once every three months and even then it must have a national angle, not be a statewide issue—a rule that seems to keep WA stories out but New South Wales-specific stories in. It means issues like hydraulic fracturing regulation don't get the airtime that they need and that the only accessible information to people in WA and across the country is commonly misinformation. WA stories, politics, sport and arts events do not get the time and resources they are allocated in other states.

Due to the media in WA lacking diversity and the consolidation of newsrooms between paper and radio as well as the state's main masthead with its main free-to-air channel, not only are job opportunities for graduates and those in the arts exceptionally limited but also people in Perth and across the WA regions are crying out for content that the ABC should be providing. Traditionally, the ABC offered vital job opportunities for young graduates trained in broadcasting, journalism and editing, for camera operators and for technicians to gain training and essential experience. Unfortunately, in Perth young people in media acknowledge that, in order to get anywhere in the industry now, you must travel east, whether to another capital city or to regional towns, just to get into the industry. Perth simply no longer has the capacity to support the breadth of trainees.

Skilled staff who are lucky to catch a break at ABC Perth are left under extreme pressure and have little opportunity to specialise and build up deep expertise, having to simultaneously be a TV reporter, online content provider, radio journalist and photographer. Then they almost always need to leave the state in order to progress their careers at all. You only have to look at the Parliament House press gallery to see the amazing talent that is leaving ABC Perth: Stephanie Dalzell, Eliza Laschon, Jade Macmillan, Jane Norman and Eliza Borrello, who only recently returned to Perth and is currently in Hong Kong—all fantastic journalists who knew that, in order to succeed in their industry, even in their own organisation, the ABC, they would have to make huge personal sacrifice to move interstate to work in order to succeed in the craft that they love.

It cannot be forgotten that ABC Perth is no orphan in this regard. The media landscape in Perth is so limited yet the talent pool so excellent. You only have to walk the halls of the press gallery to find that west Aussies greatly outnumber journalists from other states. After all, they certainly do have some of the finest voices and sharpest minds.

Amazingly, while WA is the vastest state in both mass and regional audience, there is no Landline reporter based in WA. This is despite every other state or territory having a dedicated Landline reporter. So, while last year WA produced 58 per cent of all agricultural crops nationwide, it is every other state that has a dedicated Landline reporter, leaving WA with none. Granted, WA regional reporters can pitch for or work on a story for Landline, but this is on top of their already ridiculous schedule of work covering our enormous state. They are one-man bands, which means they don't have access to a cameraperson or any other resources that a regular Landline reporter would have access to.

In fact, regional reporters in WA, as much as they are responsible for covering an inconceivable amount of territory, are subject to ridiculous expectations, with the likes of the Esperance newsroom expected to single-handedly cover matters up to 390 kilometres away in Kalgoorlie. How on earth are they expected to be in attendance at each and every local event and issue? Budgets have been cut so fine that these individuals are often forced to drive hundreds of kilometres in a day because the ABC can no longer afford travel allowance to allow them to stay overnight. By way of comparison, Victoria has nine newsrooms covering that 237,629 square kilometre state; WA also has nine newsrooms covering WA's 2.6 million square kilometres. It makes you wonder, doesn't it?

On top of having to cover stories on all platforms—radio, TV, photographic and online—the squeeze in additional Landline and 7.30 stories, ABC journos are required to make sure they meet their mandated clickbait KPI for online content that they produce, meaning that important local public interest stories are going by the wayside in favour of tacky clickbait stories. Unlike the government, Labor actually understands that regional newsrooms are vital to bring local communities together and to tell them the news that they need to know. That is why Labor went to the last election with a $10 million commitment to regional broadcasting.

But it's not just the ABC's regional newsrooms that need help; it is capital city newsrooms like Perth that operate more like a satellite bureau than as the pulsing hub of statewide news. ABC Perth has no state director; the person doing that work is straddling two roles. It has no HR manager; instead, staff have access to an HR manager working out of South Australia who comes to town on occasion. The property manager is based in Adelaide, too. There is also—wait for it—no resources reporter. Western Australia produces half of the nation's resources exports—that is a 10 per cent contribution to national GDP right there—and it is a sector quite different to that in the east, being focused on iron ore and natural gas as well as new critical minerals. That's why Labor created a separate WA resources portfolio. Yet the ABC has not seen fit to allocate someone to that beat. One has to wonder whether anyone at Ultimo has any clue what happens west of Glebe Point Road. And did I mention that there is no arts reporter either?

To rub salt into the wounds of ABC Perth from these cuts, there is now no OB van in Perth. When it comes to an outside broadcast, a van is either hired from a production company or driven across to Western Australia from interstate. Yes, that's right. Driving a van from interstate, and putting staff up in hotels to resource it, is a fine use of an already skint budget! And this isn't a one-off. The ABC Perth van operators were told that they were being made redundant due to budget cuts in 2015. Then, when management recognised the historical significance of Anzac Day in Albany that year, they told the operators they had to stay on just for that—and then they would be unemployed! There is no doubt that quite a toxic environment was created. Need I even mention the fact that live broadcasts of WAFL games by the ABC are now a thing of the past as well.

WA people are missing out on WA events and important issues due to this federal government's refusal to properly fund newsrooms—capital and regional. There seems to be a view from ABC management that the east coast is able to reflect the view of capital cities throughout the nation. This, frankly, isn't true. Sydney is not Perth, even if there are a number of Western Australian ABC alumni working there. This approach by the ABC is the 'Brisbane line' of the Australian media. What's important in Perth is different than in other cities. Our make-up of business individuals in our environment means our priorities are significantly different than those on the east coast. In WA, we don't care about traffic congestion on the M4; almost no-one cares about rugby league—or anything to do with Alan Jones! Also—news alert—despite the name, the National Energy Market is not in fact national at all. WA isn't even in it. Neither is the NT. The role of local promotion and publicity has been reduced to two staff in Western Australia, while across the country there are approximately 170 individuals. So much for a balanced ratio across the nation!

Television production in WA is completely gone. Even though there is a custom-built studio to produce shows, the ABC simply hires out the space to entities like Screenwest, hoping to glean a profit and some reflected glory from their shows. The ABC headquarters in Perth consists of a modern three-storey building. Yet, with its current staffing capacity, they are lucky to fill one floor.

In a classic attempt to wedge Labor and distract from the coalition's own failures with the ABC from its cuts and lack of focus on the regions and WA altogether, this bill will 'amend the ABC's charter to ensure that ABC programs contribute to a sense of regional and national identity and inform and entertain and reflect the cultural and geographical diversity of the Australian community with the intention of promoting regional Australia'. Firstly, the ABC should be doing this under its charter already, and we know it tries its best. Tinkering with the ABC charter while cutting their funding certainly doesn't help Australians living in rural and regional Australia, let alone Perth and the entire state of Western Australia. And it certainly doesn't constitute a plan to address the decline in local reporting.

The ACCC digital platforms inquiry in July this year examined ABC funding and found that the public broadcasters are not currently resourced to fully compensate for the decline in local reporting previously produced by traditional commercial publishers. Its major recommendation was that stable and adequate funding be provided to the ABC and SBS. Yet the last federal budget locks in $83.7 million in ABC cuts over three years from this year.

This bill is nothing more than an attempt to deflect blame for Liberal-National ABC cuts in regional media and communication policy failures. Let's reflect on those: cuts to funding the ABC, cessation of ABC short-wave radio, broadband that costs more and does less, media ownership reforms that totally disincentivise regional media acquisition, and the closure and consolidation of regional newsrooms. The people of Australia have a democratic right to know what is going on in our community. The government needs to take our national broadcaster seriously and restore the funding to newsrooms across the country—and yes, that includes Perth and across Western Australia; we do exist, and we have some wonderful stories to tell if you would just let us tell them. We just need the funding to support the great ABC WA staff to make that happen. After all, it's our ABC.