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Consistent attacks against the ABC by Communications Minister Mitch Fifield point to a man on a mission to destroy the independent authority of the national broadcaster. By Mike Seccombe.

Mitch Fifield, the IPA and the ABC

Somehow Margaret Reynolds managed to emerge, after 16 years in the Australian Senate, still a notably civil, patient and uncynical person.

“I must be something of a political Pollyanna,” says Reynolds, who is these days the national president of ABC Friends, “but I never give up on anyone.”

Mitch Fifield is pushing her close to it, though. The government’s unrelenting hostility towards the national broadcaster, spearheaded by the communications minister, has certainly made her reconsider her views of the man.

About a decade ago, when she was working for Disability Services and advocating the establishment of the NDIS, and Fifield was the responsible shadow minister, Reynolds developed what she calls “considerable personal admiration for Mitch”.

On the occasions they met, she found him receptive, with a good grasp of the issues. He had a “pleasant, reasonable manner” and she took him to be a moderate, “small l” Liberal.

Back then she was oblivious to Fifield’s hardline, small government ideology. Reynolds knew nothing, for example, of the speech he gave on October 7, 2008, with the evocative title “Fiscal Contraception: Erecting Barriers to Impulsive Spending”.

“My thesis,” he told his audience, “is we need to make life harder for government. Fewer ministers, fewer programs, fewer areas of government activity and less tax revenue.”

Fifield argued for a flat-rate income tax, or at least fewer rates than the current system. At rather greater length, he argued for a radical downsizing of government. The whole notion of government ownership and operation of “various enterprises” was, he said, an “obsolete proposition”.

He lauded the Howard government’s record of privatisation, including Telstra, Australian Defence Industries, the airports, the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL), the national electricity transmission network and RailCorp. And he advocated more sell-offs: Snowy Hydro, Medibank Private and the Bureau of Meteorology.

He went on: “Conservatives have often floated the prospect of privatising the ABC and Australia Post. There is merit in such proposals.”

But Fifield conceded it would not be easy politically. He anticipated “widespread misunderstanding of the consequences by the public” and acknowledged that “any government prepared to go down that path would need to prepare the ground…”

Not knowing any of that, Reynolds says, her first reaction when Fifield was made minister for communications in September 2015 was to think: “Oh, good, someone I can talk to.”

For “the first year or so”, the ABC champion tried to build bridges. Latterly, though, she’s realised there’s not much point. She and other supporters of public broadcasting are up against an implacable ideological opposition.

“In the last six to 12 months,” Reynolds says, “it’s become clear he’s got no understanding of what the role of a public broadcaster is.”

That’s an arguable proposition. One might equally suggest, on the available evidence, that Fifield has a clear understanding of the role of a public broadcaster – including the provision of independent news and analysis – and opposes it for that very reason.

Fifield claims he no longer supports the flogging off of the ABC – he recently told a Senate estimates committee hearing that his previously expressed views were those of a “slightly frisky backbencher”. Yet he, as well as others in government and its associated entities, including the Murdoch media, have embarked on what is widely seen as a long campaign to cow and weaken the ABC, and damage its standing with the public.

At the extreme end, the Institute of Public Affairs – less a think tank than a training ground for right-wing politicians, an organisation of which Fifield is a proud member – released a new book last month arguing that the government “shouldn’t simply defund the ABC” but give it away “to either the Australian public or a group of people”.

Reynolds gives Fifield credit for having rejected the IPA suggestion. Others, however, do not. In that estimates hearing Labor senator Kristina Keneally noted his 2008 speech, his continued membership of the IPA, and questioned the minister’s commitment to public broadcasting.

“You’ve regularly complained about ABC programming, you’ve lined up another round of budget cuts to the ABC, you’ve lined up a second efficiency review, you’ve launched a competitive neutrality inquiry and you’ve put three bills before parliament to change the ABC Act to satisfy a deal with Pauline Hanson,” she said. “With this multipronged, long-scale intervention, do you genuinely expect Australians to believe that you simply want the ABC to be more efficient?”

Fifield said the public should have confidence that the Turnbull government would always support the independence of the ABC and ensure that it was “appropriately” resourced.

By “appropriately” he apparently means “less”. The May budget included a freeze on the indexation of ABC funding, calculated to cost the broadcaster $84 million over three years. It came on top of a cumulative $254 million in cuts imposed by this government. The ABC has suffered a reduction in staff numbers of some 600 since 2013.

“Make no mistake, there is no more fat to cut at the ABC. Any more [will] … cut into the muscle of the organisation,” said news director Gaven Morris in an appearance at the Melbourne Press Club shortly after the budget.

With due respect to Morris, the organisation has been losing muscle for some time. Lateline is gone. The flagship radio news programs The World Today and PM have been cut in half, to just 30 minutes each.

It’s hard to argue with Reynolds’ assessment, when those cuts were announced last year, that the national broadcaster is being “dumbed down”. In place of the second half of The World Today, she notes, listeners now get a pop culture show.

As Keneally noted, the assault on the ABC by Fifield and the government is more than budgetary. The indications are that they are trying to complain it into submission, if not partisanship. There is now quite a long list of this, ranging from the trivial to the profoundly disturbing.

At the trivial end, Fifield complained about a segment on the satirical program Tonightly with Tom Ballard, which examined the push to rename the Melbourne electorate Batman, so called after the early settler John Batman, who was involved in the genocide of Indigenous Tasmanians.

Cast member Greg Larsen, pretending to be a representative of the Australian Electoral Commission, suggested the electorate’s new name would be “Batman-Was-A-Cunt”.

The segment featured photoshopped campaign material for various candidates for the seat, incorporating the new electorate name. In the case of Australian Conservatives candidate Kevin Bailey, the name of the electorate did not appear, so the epithet was applied to the candidate.

The ABC subsequently apologised to Bailey, but Fifield, unsatisfied, complained to the Australian Communications and Media Authority about the language. He also complained about another use of the word “cunt” on the ABC’s Indigenous Facebook page, even though it was bleeped out and ACMA has no jurisdiction.

Fair enough, you might say. The use of the language was puerile.

But other complaints have been more troubling.

On Anzac Day last year Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a part-time presenter for the ABC’s Australia Wide, posted a seven-word message on her private Facebook account: “Lest. We. Forget. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine ...)”

She subsequently deleted the post, but not before it sparked a furore in the right-wing media.

Fifield chose to involve himself, calling her views “appalling” and saying that if he were in charge, “she is not someone that I would be hiring”.

Although he qualified his comment by saying it was a matter for the ABC, the message to her employer was crystal clear: ABC employees, particularly female, Muslim employees, should not express controversial views, even privately.

Then there were the complaints – made both by Fifield and Malcolm Turnbull – about the broadcaster’s chief economics correspondent, Emma Alberici. The first related to an investigation of corporate tax avoidance and the government’s claim that lower corporate tax would stimulate wage rises.

Her commentary looked at the international experience, and concluded that such cuts did not necessarily bring wage growth. Following the complaints, the ABC took down her work, but later put it back up, with minor factual amendments, and rebadged it as “comment” rather than “analysis”. The ABC acknowledged the shortcoming and promised to revamp its editorial processes.

Were there minor factual errors in the piece? Yes. Was the piece strongly opinionated? Yes. But Alberici’s conclusion, that the government’s claims of increased investment, employment and wage growth were not substantiated by international comparison was unarguable.

Only last month, Turnbull and Fifield had another go at Alberici, listing 11 grievances over a piece she did on the shortfall of innovation spending under this government.

After internal review, the ABC rejected these grievances. But the message to Alberici and other senior ABC staff was again apparent: any critical analysis will be persecuted.

There have been several others, but none that matches the most recent, for sheer chutzpah.

The background to it is this: the government announced – allegedly on the advice of the Electoral Commission – that five byelections would be held on July 28. The selection of that date is extraordinary for a couple of reasons. First, because it means an epic, nine-week campaign. Second, because the chosen date just happened to conflict with the Labor Opposition’s national conference.

Coincidence? Labor thought not, and responded with outrage when the date was announced. Deputy leader Tanya Plibersek described it as a “disgraceful delay and a sneaky tactic from Malcolm Turnbull … deliberately designed to disadvantage the Labor Party”.

Labor was forced to reschedule its conference.

On ABC News on May 25, political editor Andrew Probyn made the anodyne observation that Labor was “further squeezed by the prime minister’s decision to time super Saturday with a long-scheduled Labor national conference”.

Laura Tingle, chief political correspondent for 7.30, was tougher, writing in an online comment piece that the choice of the byelection date was “a bit of political bastardry by the government”.

Fifield complained again, and not just about those two. He whinged also about the host of the Insiders program, Barrie Cassidy, and two non-ABC guests on that program, Fairfax national affairs editor Mark Kenny, and Australian Financial Review chief political correspondent Phillip Coorey.

Kenny’s alleged offence was to say that the byelection date was “up to the government to decide and the government has made a nakedly political play here”.

And Coorey, according to Fifield’s complaint, had “asserted the government had compromised the independence of the AEC and the Speaker”.

Fifield’s contention, in his letter to ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie, was that the prime minister did not decide the date for the byelections. It was the call of the Speaker, who by convention is a Liberal Party MP.

Which is technically true, perhaps, but no one with any understanding of the machinations of politics thinks that to be the way it works in reality. Of course it was a decision taken with reference to the executive, including the prime minister. These things always are, and six of the nation’s best political analysts did no more than recognise that reality in their comments.

They recognised also, it should be said, that it might have been a less-than-astute decision, given that the ALP conference would almost certainly have involved ugly fights over contentious policy issues, including asylum seekers.

“It is totally unacceptable for the national broadcaster to report this Labor lie as fact,” Fifield wrote.

More than any of the government’s previous complaints this one was, to be blunt, rubbish.

Which brings us back to Margaret Reynolds who, as it happens, was on her way to the dump when The Saturday Paper called.

She may be a little bit of a Pollyanna, but she is not naive about politics, and she was frankly at a loss to understand what Fifield and co hope to achieve.

“Along with the High Court, the ABC is one of our most trusted institutions. I just can’t see how Mitch Fifield thinks there is anything to be gained by going after the ABC,” she says.

“We’re probably six months out from an election. If I were their political adviser – most unlikely – I would tell them this is one of the things in politics that simply [isn’t] worth the fight. You don’t attack the age pension and you don’t attack the ABC.”

The ABC Friends will fight back. They are about to launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for new online ads. They have sent out a questionnaire for all the candidates in the July byelections, asking for their commitment to increased funding and guaranteed independence for the national broadcaster. They will publish the results. This will be particularly interesting in the South Australian seat of Mayo, where Georgina Downer, another IPA ideologue, is the Liberal candidate.

Rallies are planned for July 8 at the Teachers’ Federation in Sydney, July 13 outside the ABC in South Brisbane and July 15 at Federation Square, Melbourne.

And they will target seats in the general election, whenever that is.

They have, Reynolds says, been planning it for some time, but recent events – the new budget cuts, the blizzard of government complaints, the IPA book – have added urgency.

“We were gearing up for a fight,” she says, “but we didn’t think it would be against people seriously saying the government should privatise the ABC.”

And yet, maybe that actually helps. It simplifies the issue, allows it to be put to the people in starker terms: Do you support public broadcasting, or the IPA and its political stooges?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 9, 2018 as "Communications shakedown". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.