Federal government ends ABC funding freeze

The federal government will end a highly contentious decision to freeze millions of dollars of ABC funding as it pours billions of dollars into the national broadcaster over the next three years.

The move has prompted accusations from Labor that the government is trying to neutralise a political headache ahead of the upcoming election.

From July, the ABC will receive almost $3.3 billion over three years, while SBS will receive more than $950 million.

As part of that funding, the government has decided to end its controversial decision to impose an indexation freeze on the ABC’s annual funding in 2018, which ultimately meant the broadcaster’s funding did not keep pace with inflation.

The ABC said that decision amounted to a budget cut of about $84 million, forcing it to slash 250 jobs and cut back programming.

Communications minister Paul Fletcher has consistently denied the indexation freeze amounted to a funding cut.

“The indexation pause was a decision taken in the context of the previous three-year period reflecting a particular set of budget priorities at the time,” he said.

“These decisions are always made in the context of the various factors that the government weighs up.”

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher wearing a suit looking at media at press conference in June 2021.
Communications minister Paul Fletcher says the government wants the ABC and SBS to report on how much of their content is local. (ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

ABC managing director David Anderson said the announcement brought funding certainty to the national broadcaster.

“The triennial funding announcement is an important recognition that the ABC is needed now more than ever, and this funding is required so it can continue its vital role in our democratic society,” he said in a statement.

He also welcomed almost $46 million for the ABC’s enhanced news-gathering (ENG) initiative, which bolsters resources for regional and outer-suburban news gathering and national reporting teams.

“ENG funding has delivered more tailored news to local communities and has seen the ABC invest more in specialist resources that provide vital context and analysis about issues that matter to all Australians.”

ABC chair Ita Buttrose echoed that sentiment, saying she was “delighted”.

“It will allow the national broadcaster to continue doing what it does best — provide information and entertainment to Australians wherever they live,” she said.

The government has also issued statements of expectations requiring the ABC and SBS to report on how much of their content across various categories is local, bringing them in line with commercial broadcasting requirements.

“What this will let us do is be able to consistently measure Australian content, be it news or drama or documentary, across both the commercial free-to-air broadcasters and ABC and SBS and that will give us a better picture of Australian content being broadcast,” Mr Fletcher said.

The ABC will be asked to provide a report each year detailing staff numbers in regional and remote Australia, as well as hours of programming tailored to those audiences.

Labor questions timing of announcement

The move is the latest in Australia’s long-running political debate about the role and funding of the ABC, and follows criticism of the UK government for its plans to radically overhaul the way the BBC is funded.

Federal Labor has already begun pushing the nation’s broadcasters into its election pitch to voters, promising to provide greater funding certainty for the ABC and SBS if elected.

The ABC and SBS currently receive funding in three-year blocks, which Labor argues leaves the broadcasters vulnerable to the electoral cycle.

Instead, it is promising five-year funding periods, and has also committed to reversing the Coalition’s indexation freeze.

Shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland said the government’s announcement was too little, too late, saying the Coalition was only acting now to avoid ABC funding becoming a key election issue.

“Unfortunately, this is cold comfort to the around 200 ABC staff who’ve lost their jobs as a result of Scott Morrison’s cuts,” she said.

“The question here is whether voters are going to be fooled.

“And I think voters understand what has motivated this on the eve of an election.”

But Mr Fletcher defended the timing of the announcement, arguing the government had consistently supported the ABC.

“We’ve taken this decision in relation to the funding of the ABC and SBS on the basis of considering the budget submissions from both organisations, weighing up an assessment of the role of ABC and SBS and their funding needs, as we do with budget decisions that come to government across the board, making a judgement about available funds and the need and arriving at a decision on the basis of that,” he said.

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