Chris Kenny on Sundays > Mitch Fifield, Liberal Senator for Victoria

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21-May-2018

Interview with Chris Kenny
Sky News Studios
7pm
20 May 2018

E & OE


KENNY:

Often in the news we hear about the ABC and certainly we’ve looked at some issues here, when it comes to the ABC over recent weeks. So there’s always plenty to talk about when it comes to our national broadcaster. And I’m joined tonight via our Canberra studios, the Communications Minister Mitch Fifield.

 

FIFIELD:

Good to be with you, Chris.

 

KENNY:

Now I want to ask you firstly about the pause in funding that you announced in the Budget for the ABC. It’s effectively a three-year pause in their funding. That amounts to, of course, when you take inflation into account something of a budget trim. They’re about $80 million worse off. Not a big number for your budget, is it worth the pain, the grief you’re getting from the ABC and their journalists?

 

FIFIELD:

Chris, the last time that we looked at the ABC’s funding was in 2014. We had an efficiency review. And we found that the ABC was able to make significant savings without affecting what went to air. It’s been four years since we last had a review. And in the fast evolving world of media organisations, that is an eternity. And what we simply want to see is that the ABC is as efficient as it can be. That it’s the best possible steward of those precious taxpayer dollars that it can be.

 

KENNY:

Well the director of news at the ABC, Gaven Morris responded very bluntly, as did most others in the organisation, suggesting these cuts were pretty severe. Let’s just have a look at Gaven Morris here, he says that there’s nowhere to cut, nowhere to save money at the ABC:

 

Make no mistake, there is no more fat to cut at the ABC. Any more cuts to the ABC cut into the muscle.


There you go, no fat to cut at the ABC. Mitch Fifield that’s clearly not correct is it?


FIFIELD:

Well I have yet to see a Commonwealth government agency that has achieved a state of perfection. There should be a process of continuous improvement with all Commonwealth agencies. And I was a little perplexed by what Gaven had to say there. Because we should all be trying to make sure that when taxpayer dollars are involved, that we are making them go as far as they can. And that’s simply what we want to do. 

 

KENNY:

Well the other thing we’ve heard from the ABC, from Gaven Morris in fact, was that because there’s no fat to cut at the ABC, that where we would see cuts now, because of the government’s funding pause would be in local news at Geelong, at Parramatta, at Gosford and at Ipswich. Why is it that the ABC, every time there’s a bit of pressure they threaten, they take hostage, those regional services, when clearly if there’s going to be savings made at the ABC, it’s got to be in head office. Most likely in downtown Sydney in Ultimo, or on Southbank in Melbourne. 

 

FIFIELD:

Gaven Morris cited ABC News. ABC News I think is about $200 million a year. That means there’s about $800 million a year elsewhere in the organisation. The other error that was made, on his part, was the suggestion that we had already taken a decision about what’s called the Enhanced News Services. And these are extra journalists in regional areas. ABC haven’t put a proposition to us. So no decision has been made. 

 

But you make a really good point Chris, about the ABC’s regional and rural responsibilities. And one of the things that I have before the Parliament is to put in the ABC’s Act, specific mention of the ABC’s obligation to rural and regional Australia. That’s something that people assume is already in the ABC’s Act. It’s not. We want to legislate to put it there.

 

KENNY:

And as we’ve said in this instance, it’s always the first threat from the ABC is to cut those regional services because they know that’s where most Australian’s and middle Australia really wants to see them put their focus. I notice from the latest annual report at the ABC that 53 per cent of their workforce, of the entire national workforce of the ABC, is based in NSW. Obviously the overwhelming majority of them in headquarters at Ultimo. That’s just not good enough is it, for a national broadcaster? Aren’t they supposed to be servicing the whole of the nation, not just the Sydney CBD?

 

FIFIELD:

That’s a very important part of the ABC’s role is to service rural and regional Australia. So, as I said, we want to enshrine that in legislation. We also have before the Parliament legislation to guarantee that at least two members of the ABC Board are from rural and regional Australia. Now we would already meet that criteria because I’ve appointed Georgie Somerset, who’s a beef producer from Kingaroy, to the board of the ABC. And I’ve also appointed Vanessa Guthrie, who is the Chair of the Minerals Council of Australia, to the board of the ABC. 

 

So they’re important things. But we also are intending to legislate that the ABC provides much greater detail about where their resources are deployed in rural and regional Australia. In terms of dollar and in terms of their staff. So again, that’s something we want to legislate to make crystal clear and transparent where the ABC put those important dollars.

 

KENNY:
Now just after the Budget we had reporting of a bonus scheme at the ABC where $2.6 million is being paid out to public servants at the ABC in annual bonuses. Now, you’ve made it clear that you’re opposed to this, that you don’t think this is a good idea. What sort of situation is it when we have more than a billion dollar budget, you’re the Minister responsible but you can’t even tell them via their board or whatever, that they should not be paying bonuses to people who are already well-rewarded with taxpayers salaries?

FIFIELD: 
Well, the ABC Chris, as you know, has legislated independence in operational and editorial matters. So I can’t direct the ABC. But the observation that I made was that, in general, I’m not a fan of bonuses in the public sector… 

KENNY: 
But you can’t direct the ABC, what programs they run, but surely something as elementary as that, the financial management of a government funded organisation, you could direct them not to pay bonuses. It’s an insult to the taxpayers who fund them. 

FIFIELD: 
Chris, as I was saying, bonuses were eliminated in 2008 in core government departments. Throughout the Australian public sector, where a particular agency operates in more of a sort of commercial environment, I guess you can make an argument for a bonus arrangement, but…

KENNY: 
There’s nothing very commercial about the ABC, it’s the antithesis of a commercial operation. The ABC are given taxpayers’ money to produce media.

FIFIELD:
Chris, that’s exactly the point I was going to make. The ABC pride themselves on not being a commercial organisation. The SBS, in contrast, who do take advertising and who you could say are a hybrid organisation, they are in the process of eliminating bonuses. 

So look, I’ve made my view clear. The ABC have operational independence and it’s for them to justify the arrangements that they have in place. But as I say, I’m not a big fan of those particular arrangements. 


KENNY: 
You’ve got fix it though if you’re the Minister. Now I think I’ve got to admit I was so angered when I first saw this, I think I tweeted that you should be sacked. I think it was a slight overreaction. I normally stand by my calls, but I thought that one might have been a bit hot-headed. The point is though as Minister surely, even if you don’t have the authority at the moment, even if you have to legislate to do this, or even if you need to just make public calls like this to Michelle Guthrie. Surely you can have a situation where in these stringent fiscal times the ABC which has been shielded from Budget cuts over the years isn’t paying $50,000 bonuses to some middle-ranking executives. 

FIFIELD:
I’ve got a tonne of legislation before the Parliament when it comes to the ABC. As I mentioned, we want to put rural and regional in the ABC’s legislation. We also have before the Parliament to put fair and balanced in the ABC’s Act. We also want to legislate, and have legislation before the Senate, to require the ABC to make public the names and salaries of anyone who earns more than $200,000 in the organisation. 

So what I’m about is enhanced transparency, enhanced accountability and enhanced efficiency. And I will, as I have done before, offer my thoughts when I think the ABC can do something better.  


KENNY: 
Well, tell us about fair and balanced. I think the ABC bias is an issue that I think certainly a lot of people who watch Sky News, a lot of people, anyone on the right of centre I suppose in politics. A lot of mainstream people get infuriated by the constant green-left bias we get at the ABC. We’ve seen recent examples where ACMA chastised their main political reporter for referring to Tony Abbott as the “most destructive politician of our lifetime”. We’ve had Emma Alberici hauled over the coals with confusing revenue and profit when it comes to demonising big business over tax. And we’ve had the coverage last week of the Gaza deaths, the horrible situation in Gaza. But all the blame laid at the Israelis. The portrayal of the Hamas-led protesters as peaceful protesters. We just get this ABC bias all the time. What are you doing to fix it? 

FIFIELD: 

The ABC is an important organisation, but it’s also an imperfect organisation. And when I think that the ABC has let itself down by not meeting its own standards, I raise that with the ABC. The economic coverage of the ABC, particularly our company tax cut proposals, is a case in point. We raised that. The ABC reviewed that. They recognised that they had made errors. So it’s important that we in government, where we see those things happen, that we call that out. 

I do have before the Parliament legislation to put in the ABC’s Act a requirement that it be fair and balanced. Now again, that’s something that people assume is in the ABC’s Act. It’s not. Those who object to it, I don’t quite follow their rationale. Because in the ABC’s own editorial policies it already talks about a need for a balance that follows the weight of evidence. It already talks about the need for fair treatment. And if that’s not enough, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance own journalistic code of ethics talks about the need for fairness on no less than six occasions. So if that’s good enough for the MEAA code of ethics, and it’s good enough for the ABC’s editorial policies, then it should be quite okay to have that in the ABC’s own Act.

KENNY:
But you’re having no impact. Despite talking about this and going down that path, you’re having no impact. The ABC is as biased now as it ever has been. It’s employing prominent left-of-centre journalists. Look and as you know – and I’ll say for the sake of clarity – of course there’re many objective and fair-minded producers and journalists at the ABC. But all those who exhibit any sort of political direction are of the green-left. They haven’t managed to recruit anybody who you’d say is mainstream or centre-right. There’s an obvious structural problem here, that legislation or guidance from the government is failing to correct. Maybe just cutting the funding is the only way to go.  

FIFIELD:
What we’re doing is moving on a number of fronts. We want the ABC to be more efficient. That’s why we have the indexation pause. That’s why we’re having the efficiency review. We want to make sure that the ABC is conducting itself, in terms of competition, in the way it should. Which is why we have the Competitive Neutrality Inquiry. To check to see if the ABC is using its position as a taxpayer-funded organisation to compete unfairly with the commercial media. It’s why we’ve got legislation before the Parliament to put fair and balanced in the Act. It’s why we’ve got legislation before the Parliament to put rural and regional in the Act. It’s why we’ve got legislation before the Parliament to require greater disclosure of what people earn and who earns it, above $200,000 a year. 

So we are moving on a number of fronts. But Chris, as I come back to, the ABC has legislated independence. The ABC Act specifically says that the government of the day can not issue directions to the organisation. But what we are doing is trying to help the ABC to be more transparent, to be more accountable and to be more efficient. That’s what my legislation’s about and that’s what my counsel and guidance to the ABC is about.


KENNY:
Yeah, in the end it’s a staff-run collective and it’s a cultural issue. And I don’t know how you change it, unless you get a Managing Director who’ll really shake it up. I’ll just show you an example that I noticed on Twitter last night. As I was watching, flicking around the channels, including the ABC, looking at the Royal Wedding coverage. Have a look at this from Matt Bevan; he’s with the ABC’s Radio National:

I want a 24 hour TV channel of the Royals looking uncomfortable as we shove the culture of the countries the British invaded in their faces #royalwedding”

Now that’s obviously a bit of a joke about what was going on at the ceremony. But’s it’s this whole jejune, this sort of almost undergraduate idea, of mocking western civilisation, of mocking the British. Because they’ve invaded countries down the ages, rather than actually settled countries and been responsible for many of the vibrant democracies across the planet tonight. I mean, how do you ever change that sort of culture? When it’s so deeply ingrained in these people?

FIFIELD:
ABC journalists should always aim to be their best professional selves. That’s something that every Member of Parliament should want to see. We do have Senate Estimates coming up this week. We will have the ABC before the Senate Estimates committee. I’m sure that my colleagues will be raising a number of these sorts of issues in that forum. 

KENNY:
Look I’m not going to make too much of a big deal about Matt Bevan. I think he got embarrassed and deleted that Tweet, or maybe someone told him to. But it’s just indicative of the sort of mindset there. It’s anti-American. It’s anti-Establishment. I feel like I’m watching ABC journalists on Twitter that I’m back at university in my undergraduate days. But just moving on from that, given the plethora of media options here, domestically and internationally, none of us are short for information these days. It’s incredible the information we have access to. You would never establish a public broadcaster in this current situation – there’s just no need for it. Given that, isn’t it time to gradually start to unwind the funding of the ABC? To gradually shrink the size of the ABC comparatively, because that’s the only way you’re going to get it to focus on the core issues that you might want it to, such as news and current affairs across the country, arts and culture across the country.

FIFIELD:
I think one of the virtues of the efficiency review that will be undertaken is to assist the ABC to focus on what is their core business. Where is it that they should be deploying their precious taxpayer dollars. Also…

KENNY:
If I could just jump in there, why not be prescriptive about that? Instead of giving them a bunch of money and a Charter, that now in recent years says that they can do digital media as well as broadcasting; so they can do whatever they like, effectively, with that billion dollars. Why not actually in the legislation say that they run two national television networks, three national radio networks, an online news service and that’s it? Why not actually constrain what it is, what platforms they’re supposed to focus on?

FIFIELD:
Chris, as I was saying, the efficiency review provides the opportunity to look at what should be the ABC’s core business. Now I should mention that the ABC nationwide, have 42 regional radio stations. Now those are very close to the community. And I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that those 42 local regional radio stations be touched. And I know that the communities that they serve would speak gladly in their favour. 

So there are important things that the ABC does. But what we want the ABC to do, is to ask itself the question, and this review provides that opportunity, where should it put the dollars that it has. As you point out, it’s still very generously funded. But it’s timely for the ABC to take a look at what is its core business.

KENNY: 
Yes, I’m looking forward to the new director you mentioned, the cattle producer. The beef producer from Queensland! He’ll be very popular around the ABC. A cow murderer!

FIFIELD:
She – 


KENNY:
 
She! She’s a cow murderer. Now I just want to move on generally, issues in federal politics and the by-elections. We know we’re facing these by-elections. It’s my view obviously, the Government’s in pretty good shape on the back of the Budget. You’d be eager to get to these contests, especially in Longman and Mayo. Why the delay? Why don’t we have a date named for these by-elections? What’s not lined-up?

FIFIELD:
The setting of a date for the by-elections is in the hands of the Speaker. And the Speaker takes into account issues such as the advice from the Australian Electoral Commission. Obviously, we want to ensure that we have every possible mechanism in place to encourage people, to ensure that they are eligible when it comes to issues such as citizenship. So these are matters for the Speaker…

KENNY:
It’s a matter of sorting something out on dual citizenship. Isn’t it. There’s something going on behind the scenes to get those ducks in a row. Which surprises me because you’ve had so many months to prepare for this.

FIFIELD:
The Speaker takes into account the advice that he receives. And we will hear from Mr Tony Smith in the very near future.

KENNY:
Well Mitch Fifield, thanks for joining us, and good luck as you continue to grapple with your ABC.

FIFIELD:
Thanks very much Chris.

[ends]

 

 


Authorised by Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield, Liberal Party of Australia, Parliament House, Canberra.