Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (16:50): I haven’t seen the opposition amendment yet, but I support the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Measures) Bill 2019 as it is put forward. I was just listening to the member for Greenway. She would seem to blame all the shortcomings of the ABC on a lack of finance. The ABC receives over a billion dollars a year from the Australian taxpayer. That’s not an insubstantial amount. I’m sure the member for Greenway, as the shadow minister for communications, is in touch with commercial media outlets. There wouldn’t be one in the country that wouldn’t like to swap budgets; I can guarantee you that.
The ABC is extremely well funded, and it has used those funds in recent years to expand its platforms—to amplify its reach, if you like. I even remember when it took a whole program, Q&A, to India. I wonder what that cost? That’s the issue with the ABC. It’s a little hard to find out a lot of these things. With most organisations, if you do a bit of a hunt around you can get a reasonable amount of information on them. The ABC is a fairly opaque organisation. There was some publicity about two years ago—maybe 18 months ago—where, through some really heavy work, the salaries of a number of the top earners in the ABC were exposed. Of course, your salary and my salary, Madam Deputy Speaker Wicks, are easy to identify. We are in the payment of the Australian taxpayer, and it’s not very hard for them to find out what you or I earn. It would be very difficult if you or I worked for the ABC, I can guarantee you.
That is one of the concerns that we have in rural and regional Australia. The member for Greenway comes from within the Sydney metropolitan area. I represent 92.4 per cent of South Australia, and it’s all rural and regional. We rely on the ABC service. In many cases it’s the only service. There are a number of other commercial services. But I can tell you—and this is not just in rural and regional South Australia but in South Australia generally—on the weekends there is no South Australian news service. There are sports updates within the national bulletin, but the national bulletin itself, both on radio and on television, is basically a Sydney or Melbourne based news service. So when really important things happen unintentionally—emergency situations—the news is fairly scant. It is those concerns that people like me, who live in rural and regional Australia, bring to this parliament, to our ministers. We want to see some recognition of our place in Australia.
This legislation has been brought forward before, in the previous parliament, and it is unfinished business. This time around, as I did back then, I’ve had a good read of the ABC Charter. It’s a very non-specific piece of advice, the ABC Charter. It’s probably more notable for what is not in it than for what is in it. I’m not a lawyer and I can’t always read incredibly well between the lines as to what might be inferred and what might not be inferred, but it is silent—and I think the Australian population would be quite surprised about this—on balance, on presenting unbiased views within the community. The ABC Charter doesn’t say anything about that at all. I reckon most Australians probably think it does. But, of course, that’s not the point of our legislation today.
What it is also silent on is regional Australia. That doesn’t get a beep out of the charter. I can understand why that is. The ABC was formed in 1929. It’s 90 years old. When the charter was first drawn up, the idea that regional Australia might not get as fair a deal as perhaps metropolitan Australia gets would have been preposterous. The population at that stage—I don’t have the figures from that period, but I would suggest there were more people living in rural and regional Australia than there were in metropolitan Australia.
The reverse of that is well and truly the case today. So, while the charter was decided on that, in 1929, it is probably time that it reflected the fact that rural and regional Australians have become a minority in this nation. In that case, as many other minorities are recognised in many places within legislation I think it only fair that my minority, the minority that I represent, being rural and regional Australia, should have recognition as well. We want to make sure that the people who run the ABC actually understand that we are out there and that there are a whole host of things that affect our lives that are different to those that affect the city.
The ABC employs somewhere around 5,000 people. We were talking about population and about where their people are employed. The figures I’m pretty sure I saw about 18 months ago would suggest that well over 50 per cent of those are employed in Sydney. I think the figure is quite a bit higher than that but I can’t lay my hands on it as it is not one of those things that are easily available on the internet—the ABC seems to hold this stuff pretty close to its chest. In the interests of transparency, I think it would be a good idea if we knew where their employees were. It would also be a fairly good idea if we knew what some of them were being paid. So, as part of the legislation we are asking the ABC board make available each year the figures on where those employees are, and as a result of that I think perhaps we can make a value judgement on how well we’re being serviced.
It’s not just about the stories that are mentioned on radio or television or in the ABC remit; it is about the lived experience. Unless you have people who actually live in the communities, live in the surrounds—if you are just talking about reporters racing out from the city for the latest disaster and then going back to the city again you’re unlikely to get the real story. We need people who live in and amongst us to report on us so that we get a fair kind of representation.
It is quite a concern to us, in South Australia at least, that the ABC used to have a regional current affairs program: 7.30. I go back a bit, but I think the first incarnation of that program, in the 1960s, was as This Day Tonight. That name seems to have moved somewhere else in more recent years. That became the 7.30 Report and the 7.30 Reportprogramswere, of course, state based programs. In the last 15 years of its existence—maybe it’s longer—it turned into a Sydney based program or eastern states based program with a one-day feature on the state, on Friday, and that pretty much has gone as well now. So, we don’t really get an opportunity to get our stories front and centre in front of the nation or even in front of the state. That’s a great concern to us, and country areas feel like they are further removed from that again.
The legislation we are putting forward addresses these issues—the first one being the establishment of a regional advisory council, which the board will, of course, consult with. That is a good thing. Firstly, it says that there is a job to be done here, that there is information to be had here, and that there are reports to be put together here. We want to know what kinds of services regional Australia is getting, whether they are adequate and whether they are providing the kind of information that regional people need. We want the ABC board to have that direct connection with rural and regional Australia. That is in the legislation as well. It also requires the ABC to have at least two appointed non-executive directors who have a substantial connection to or substantial experience in a regional area, through business, industry or community involvement. I think that’s only fair and balanced. It’s a good thing. Why on earth would it not happen?
As I said, I’m quite disappointed that those on the other side of this chamber can’t see any merit in this legislation. It seems to me to be pretty well put together and with a good reason. I grew up on my farm, where the ABC was pretty much the only radio we received. When we got television it was one of only two television services. I guess in those days it was 50 per cent of the content or more. A number of commercial stations feed in now, certainly in radio, but their resources are pretty skinny on the ground. Rural Australians reach out to their local ABC. They like their local ABC. They certainly like them to be at events and around the place.
I make the point—as I have done every year since I got to this place, when the ABC representatives come around to see me and ask, ‘What is our service like?’—that the biggest city within my electorate is Whyalla. Around 23,000 people are there at the moment. There is no ABC representative in Whyalla. That would seem to be a fair hole to me. That’s getting towards 15 per cent of the population in my electorate. Whyalla is very idiosyncratic. It’s an industrial city that sits in a semi-arid zone—almost a desert, some people would say. Because of those lengths it has little in common with those communities that surround it. Where the ABC is located there’s quite a focus, as you would imagine, on farming. There is no great interest in farming in Whyalla. This is a very dynamic place. It is home to 40 per cent of the Australian steel industry, yet there is very little focus on that, because we don’t have a local ABC office situated in that town. On all those things I hope that the advisory council will feed good information to the board, which will have at least two representatives from rural Australia on it, and we see a better performance in the future. I commend the legislation.