Grattan on Friday: Abbott government has the trumpet out, and not just to blast the ABC

The Government has sent messages to business and the ABC, this week. AAP/Alan Porritt

The Abbott government has been firing rhetorical bullets at friends and enemies alike in the last few days. Some employers are weak-kneed. The ABC is unpatriotic.

On the face of it, there’s little in common between the Coalition’s industry policy salvoes and its assault on “Auntie”. Look more closely and you’ll find a couple of threads.

Both are attempts at strong-arming. In each case, there’s internal division on the issues.

As the political year begins in earnest, the economic “dries” have again shown they are in the ascendancy, with Thursday’s decision to refuse SPC Ardmona’s bid for a $25 million handout. Coming on the heels of the government’s tough line on Holden, Liberals who feared Abbott would be a soft touch for companies must be reassured.

The Prime Minister did indicate early on that his government wouldn’t be inclined to corporate welfare. Saying no still comes hard. In the news conference on the SPC Ardmona decision he went on and on without actually spelling out that there wouldn’t be any money. That was left to Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane – who’d been sympathetic to the company.

Abbott declared the decision laid down “an important marker”. The government would set the best climate for business but business itself must lead restructuring.

The government has done the right thing in resisting the cannery’s call for aid; it has made a convincing argument that parent company Coca-Cola Amatil has the responsibility and wherewithal to deal with the situation. But the hard line is politically difficult because the fruit cannery is an iconic Australian brand.

It wasn’t just on SPC Ardmona that the government sent out its stand-on-your-own-feet message to business. It announced it would intervene in court to back Toyota workers being given a vote on changes to their conditions.

And Workplace Relations Minister Eric Abetz bluntly told employers generally they need to do more of the heavy lifting in industrial relations.

Addressing the Sydney Institute, Abetz said that as shadow minister he’d been disappointed “to see weak-kneed employers caving in to unreasonable union demands and then visiting me, advocating for change in the system. And now as minister this phenomenon has unfortunately become even more frustrating.”

The government not only believes in principle that employers should take greater responsibility and say no more often. Having promised to make only limited changes to the workplace law in its first term, it also needs them to behave more robustly in an effort to lift productivity and employment.

As it tries to stiffen employers’ backbones and influence their behaviour, the government praises as well as exhorts and criticises.

Abbott dwelt at length on what Coca-Cola Amatil had already done to restructure SPC Ardmona, while also saying the cannery workers’ over generous conditions (but not their wages) needed to be cut back by redoing the enterprise agreement.

It was rather ironic to hear Abbott more than once put the weights on David Gonski, chairman of Coca-Cola Amatil, to get things sorted. That would be the David Gonski whose school funding scheme has given the Coalition some grief.

“David Gonski is not going to let the workers of SPC Ardmona down,” Abbott said. In other words, if everything goes wrong and people lose their jobs, it won’t be Tony’s fault. It will be David’s fault. It’s a nice try but politics doesn’t quite work like that.

With the ABC, where the government would also like to see a change in behaviour, there is no encouraging talk, just what amounts to sledging.

“A lot of people feel at the moment the ABC instinctively takes everyone’s side but Australia’s,” Abbott said on Wednesday, when sympathising with shock jock Ray Hadley’s dubious claim that he had to endure tougher rules than the national broadcaster.

“You would like the national broadcaster to have a rigorous commitment to truth and at least some basic affection for our home team, so to speak,” Abbott said.

The government is still furious at the ABC partnering Guardian Australia to publish the revelations about Australian spying in Indonesia, as well as angry at its recent reporting of asylum seeker claims that they had been mistreated by the Navy. More generally, there is a strong anti-ABC feeling in sections of the Coalition, with critics condemning it as left leaning. This is despite the high level of community trust in the ABC shown in surveys.

So what can the government do? It can cut the ABC’s funds. It can seek to cancel, as it is signalling it wants to do, the ABC’s Australia Network contract to televise into Asia.

Beyond that, with jawboning it can try to affect ABC editorial decisions by creating a climate in which the decision makers and journalists become more cautious.

Crudely put, it can try to get change by intimidation. Its efforts are backed by a virulent anti-ABC campaign from Murdoch’s News stable in particular. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported Abbott’s comments under the front page headlines “The ABC of Treachery. PM brands national broadcaster un-Australian”.

Now the ABC and SBS are to face a study of their efficiency, announced on Thursday by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull emphasised that this would not be looking at editorial matters but at cost effectiveness and the like. It will be done by the Communications department assisted by Peter Lewis, who formerly worked for Seven West. Turnbull has had the review – to report in April - in mind for some time.

Turnbull does not agree with the Abbott public onslaught on the ABC. He made that clear in comments to Fairfax Media and told the 7.30 program: “I’m not going to be drawn into a discussion about the Prime Minister’s remarks yesterday,” although he did note “there is nothing in [provisions governing the ABC] that says it should be nationalistic”.

Although he has been critical of some editorial decisions, especially the ABC partnering on the spy story, Turnbull is a friend of the ABC – its most highly placed friend.

Superficially, the review looks like the prelude to a funding squeeze, and it may well end up being that. Turnbull concedes that the broadcaster would be caught up in an across the board government cut.

On the other hand, if the review comes out basically favourable to the broadcaster, it could strengthen Turnbull’s hand against those in the government who would like to give the ABC a big haircut. That is, if he is up for the fight.

Help combat alt-facts and fake news and donate to independent journalism. Tax deductible.