History tells us that no matter which side of politics – Labor or Coalition – is in power, there is no respite for the ABC from incipient government hostility.
What does change, however, is the nature of the provocations that make governments antsy with Aunty.
Both sides get cross when the ABC criticises what the government does. But, in other respects, the provocations differ depending on which party is in power.
When it’s Labor, the sharpest tensions arise when the ABC’s journalism harms the party or its mates.
For example, during the Hawke-Keating years (1983-1996) there was fury about the ABC’s treatment of a Labor icon, Neville Wran, and Hawke’s mate, the transport tycoon Sir Peter Abeles.
In 1983, when Wran was premier of New South Wales, a Four Corners program, The Big League, implicated him in allegations of corruption in rugby league and the NSW magistracy. Wran was forced to stand aside during the ensuing royal commission. Although he was exonerated, he neither forgot nor forgave the ABC, and neither did the Labor Party.
Four Corners also investigated the business practices and political influence of Abeles, who was credited with playing a critical role in Hawke’s ascendancy to the Labor leadership.
However, under Labor these eruptions tend to be episodic – the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years were relatively tranquil – whereas during the Coalition’s past two terms in office hostility towards the ABC has been relentless.
When the Coalition is in office, the sharpest tensions are caused by allegations of bias and by ideological conflict of the kind typified by the culture wars: Aboriginal issues, Reconciliation and Australian history.
This pattern was already established when John Howard became prime minister in 1996, but he took it to a new level. His senior adviser, Grahame Morris, characterised the ABC as “our enemy talking to our friends”. Howard himself referred to the 7pm ABC television news as “Labor’s home video”.
Within four months of the election, his government cut the ABC’s budget by 2% – breaking an election promise – and announced a review of the role and scope of ABC services.
Howard’s communications minister, Richard Alston, kept up an unremitting barrage of complaints that the ABC was biased. This culminated in 2003 with 68 complaints about the coverage of the second Gulf War. An independent review panel upheld 17 of these but found no systematic bias.
This playbook – repeated funding cuts, relentless allegations of bias, and recurring inquiries into the ABC’s efficiency and scope – has been followed to the letter by the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison administrations.
Howard also fashioned appointments to the ABC board into a new weapon in the culture wars by selecting not just party grandees and reliable allies, but cultural warriors.
This reached its apogee with the appointments of Ron Brunton in 2003, Janet Albrechtsen in 2005 and the historian Keith Windshuttle in 2006.
Brunton is an anthropologist who worked for the Liberal Party and right-wing think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs. He made a name for himself by writing a critical response to the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
Albrechtsen is a columnist with The Australian. She is a longstanding critic of the ABC and in particular its Media Watch program.
Her qualifications were enhanced by the fact that she had written in praise of Windshuttle’s work, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, in which he disputed estimates of the number of Aboriginal people killed in frontier massacres during European settlement. These estimates formed part of what the historian Geoffrey Blainey called the “black armband” view of Australian history, an epithet later adopted by Howard.
Labor also stacks the board but tends to content itself with the appointment of straight-out political mates – ex-politicians, labour lawyers and trade union officials. According to the ABC’s historian, Ken Inglis, in 1992 the then chairman, Mark Armstrong, looked around the boardroom and wondered whether he was the only director who did not owe his place to some connection with Labor.
As this brief history shows, both side of politics are contemptuous of the merit-based process laid down in the ABC Act for board appointments. It requires an independent nomination panel to produce three names, based on stated selection criteria, and then to recommend them to the minister.
Ministers are under no legal obligation to take any notice and, as we have seen, they routinely do not.
Australia saw the climactic results of this shameless jobbery last September when the ABC chair, Justin Milne, and the managing director, Michelle Guthrie, were forced out. This came amid recriminatory accusations about Guthrie’s performance, Milne’s relationship with the then prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and the board’s incapacity to defend the broadcaster’s editorial independence.
Two changes to the ABC Act would go some way towards reducing the likelihood of more crises like this.
First, part VI of the act should be amended to include a mechanism for guaranteeing the agreed level of funding for a triennium. The finance minister would then be obligated to make a statement to parliament explaining any reduction.
Second, the merit-based appointment process set out in part IIIA of the act should be made mandatory. The act should also be amended so that if the minister rejects a nomination panel’s recommendations, he or she must tell parliament who has been rejected and why someone else was preferred.
In the lead-up to the 2019 election, Labor has promised to restore the most recent cuts of A$83.7 million to the ABC budget over three years, but not the other A$250 million taken out, mainly by the Abbott government. The Coalition has kept a decent silence.
The moral of this story is that voters should not be too starry-eyed about how Labor is likely to treat the ABC if it wins the election. And they should be less starry-eyed still about the prospects of a minister giving up the power to manipulate board membership of Australia’s most important cultural institution.