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No-one is talking about ABC funding in this election campaign. Here’s why they should be

The election campaign is well underway and the ABC is barely registering as an issue. Why is that, when according to the Morrison government’s own figures, the ABC’s real funding will continue to decline over the next three years?

Not that the government acknowledges this.

“The evidence is clear,” communications minister Paul Fletcher declared in February. “The Morrison government has provided strong and consistent support to the ABC.”

This is a breathtakingly misleading statement.

Read more: The ABC's budget hasn't been restored – it's still facing $1.2 billion in accumulated losses over a decade

Accumulated losses

Two of us, Michael Ward and Alex Wake, have tracked the Coalition government’s support several times on this site, most recently in February, writing that the ABC’s budget hasn’t been restored – it’s still facing A$1.2 billion in accumulated losses over a decade.

Ward has also conducted research on how much the ABC has lost and will continue to lose in aggregate over the course of a 12-year period. Ward used a number of public financial sources to build the data sets behind the tables and figures in this article, including ABC portfolio budget statements, a 2014 Budget paper, and a 2022 Budget Strategy Paper. He also used Australian Parliamentary Library reports and ABC answers to Senate Questions on Notice in 2018 and 2021.

The evidence is clear: but for a series of decisions made over the nine years of the Coalition government, the ABC would have far more funding at its disposal.

The Morrison government has been neither a strong nor consistent supporter of the ABC. Yes, the ABC benefits from deals with Google and Facebook under the government’s news media bargaining code, but the government initially excluded the ABC from the code and the deals are for a limited period.

As the below table shows, decisions by the Coalition government since 2013 have left the ABC far worse off financially.

There was the axing of the Australia Network, (a service providing soft power diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region) announced in May 2014, at a cost of $186 million.

There was the simultaneous 1% reduction of ABC funding, which has since cost the ABC $72 million.

There have been “efficiency” savings of $353 million, beginning in November 2014.

There have been cuts to tied funding initiatives totalling $122 million, announced in May 2017. (“Tied funding” means grants tied to a specific purpose or project.)

And, since 2019, there has been a freeze on indexation for ABC funding that has cost the broadcaster $84 million.

By 2025–26, we project these all decisions will leave the ABC $1.3 billion worse off.

Meanwhile, the government has sought to trumpet the slightest reprieves and slenderest funding increases as evidence of its commitment to the public broadcaster.

Fletcher’s declaration in February, alongside his announcement of the government’s plans for the ABC’s next triennial funding period, was entirely in this vein.

The government reversed its freeze on indexation for ABC funding and increased the ABC’s operational funding by a total of $38.3 million between 2022-23 and 2025-26.

The budget papers , released on March 29, stagger the funding increases by 0.7% in 2022–23, 2.0% in 2023–24, and 1.6% in 2024–25. This is an average 1.5% annual increase over the next three years.

But those same budget papers predict inflation to be 3%, 2.75% and 2.75% over the same period. And already the first prediction has needed to be increased to 5.1% after the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest Consumer Price Index figures on Wednesday.

What this means is that the modest increases in nominal funding will be outpaced by inflation, leaving the ABC worse off in real terms.

The government’s strategy of anaesthetising the ABC’s funding as an election issue appears to be working because few in the media are talking about it. But they should be.

Reductions over the past nine years have already led the ABC to significant job losses and programming changes. Remember when each state and territory had its own edition of 7.30 on television on Fridays? That level of scrutiny has been sorely missed during the global pandemic when we have all been reminded how important state and territory government services are.

In real terms, analysis of Budget papers and a Parliamentary Library report show ABC operational funding has declined by 12% since the Hawke Labor government. The table below compares average annual funding for each government since 1971.

This historical comparison shows that, barring changes to the plans of whoever is in government, ABC funding in 2025–26 will be at its lowest level in real terms in 45 years.

As we (Matthew Ricketson and Patrick Mullins) show in our book, Who needs the ABC?, the environment in which the ABC operates is profoundly different to that of two decades ago. Apart from sustained Coalition government hostility, the ABC is under almost continuous attack from sections of the commercial news media.

Yet the ABC does more now than it ever has, running six television channels, more than 60 capital city, local, and digital radio stations, four national radio services, a vast array of online resources, and live music.

On funding, one side, the Coalition, is clearly associated with an overall reduction in ABC funding.

The ABC is too important a national cultural institution for voters to be denied a clear picture of how it is being treated by the government, and by the Labor opposition. For its part, the opposition has promised to move funding agreements beyond the electoral cycle, to five years, and to reverse the indexation decisions of 2019.

As we have noted, though, this will not restore the funding lost over the past nine years. Both major parties should commit to restoring ABC funding.

Read more: Is the latest ABC inquiry really just 'business as usual'?

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