ABC funding cuts close to $1bn, says Get Up-commissioned study

By 2022, Coalition governments will have stripped the ABC of more than $783m in funding, according to new research conducted for Get Up by think tank Per Capita.

In real terms, that means the public broadcaster is operating with the smallest budget since the Howard government docked 2% from the ABC’s funding in 1996, which amounted to $55m.

“In 1987, [the] ABC famously cost each Australian eight cents a day. In 1987 dollar terms we now cost each Australian just four cents a day,” ABC chief financial officer Louise Higgins said in 2018.

Click to enlarge

In 2019/20, the ABC’s funding is $879m, representing a decrease in real funding of $367m per year since 1985/86.

Tony Abbott’s first Budget following the 2013 election saw a cut of $35.5m for the ABC, and The Australia Network – the government contract, worth $197m to the ABC, which allowed the broadcaster to provide international TV services – was terminated the same year. A further $254m was cut later that year following an ‘efficiency review’ by former Seven executive Peter Lewis.

In 2016, the Turnbull government revealed that funding for the ABC’s enhanced news gathering program – launched in the previous triennial funding round under the Gillard government in 2013 – would drop from $60m to $41.4m over three years. And in 2018, then-treasurer Scott Morrison froze indexation of ABC operating revenue for three years, a decision made outside of the usual triennial funding process which resulted in $83.7m in cuts.

The ABC’s operational revenue throughout the years. (Click to enlarge)

The 2019 Budget renewed the tied funding for the enhanced news gathering program at the 2016 reduced level of $43.7m over three years, but the report noted the budget did not increase base operational funding to alleviate the ABC’s cost pressures.

The broadcaster addressed these challenges in its 2019 annual report, stating: “The ABC is in the process of reviewing a program of initiatives to achieve the savings required to operate within the reduced levels of funding for the next three years and beyond.

“Given that the ABC has already achieved significant productivity gains in response to past budget cuts, the impact of the funding reduction cannot be absorbed by efficiency measures alone, with some initiatives likely to impact on content.”

The accumulated impact of funding cuts from 2015 to 2023. (Click to enlarge)

Among the changes since 2013, Lateline and state versions of 7:30 have been axed. The World Today and PM’s radio current affairs programming has halved, along with the number of hours of original, scripted Australian content on TV. Specialist programming on Radio National has been cut, live concerts on Classic FM have been reduced, more than 100 ABC websites have shut down including specialist disability portal Ramp Up, and local sport is no longer covered on TV by the ABC.

“We need a strong and independent public broadcaster to hold authority to account without fear or favour, without the constant threat of defunding,” said Walkley Award-winning ABC journalist, Quentin Dempster.

“And now as we emerge from one of the worst pandemics in 100 years, we must decide what kind of society we want to rebuild. The ABC is there for us in a crisis, we must be there for it.”

Survey of 1,286 Australian residents, conducted by uComms on the evening of 23 March 2020. Click to enlarge

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher slammed the report and its contents, claiming the ABC has “more financial certainty than any other media organisation in Australia”.

“There are no guarantees in life but the ABC has the next best thing: funding certainty in uncertain times,” Fletcher said.

“Commercial media businesses, in Australia and other countries, have faced declining revenue for years – and COVID-19 has only exacerbated this. These businesses have made many tough decisions, have continued to reshape their businesses, and sadly have endured many rounds of redundancies and downsizings.

“By contrast, the ABC and its journalists enjoy a level of security that private sector businesses and employees can only dream about.”

Fletcher disputed that the ABC has been defunded, and added that the onus is on the ABC to spend its funding wisely.

“Every dollar the ABC saves through its own strategic decision-making is another dollar it can reinvest in programming to serve the Australian people,” he said.

“The ABC has independence in making its editorial, content and operational decisions.  How it spends the taxpayers’ money allocated to it, where it chooses to find efficiencies and the programs it chooses to broadcast, is a matter for the ABC and its board and management.”

The report, authored by Per Capita’s Emma Dawson, also revealed that, according to industry union the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), 1,012 jobs have been cut at the ABC since 2014, 400 of which were a direct result of the 2014 funding cuts.

“The ABC has never been more valued, or more valuable, than during this [COVID-19] crisis,” said Dawson.

“While we are unable to gather together, the ABC represents the ties that bind us together as Australians. It is, quite literally, the voice of our nation.”

Survey of 1,286 Australian residents, conducted by uComms on the evening of 23 March 2020. (Click to enlarge)

Dawson’s report directly criticised the government’s recently announced media relief package, which includes $41m in tax rebates for commercial TV and radio companies. The amount is “almost two-thirds of that returned to the government from the ABC during this financial year as a result of the enforced ‘efficiency dividend,” the report read. “Effectively, the government is taking money from the national broadcaster and using it to subsidise commercial media services.”

Survey of 1,286 Australian residents, conducted by uComms on the evening of 23 March 2020. (Click to enlarge)

“Yet, as part of its support for the economy, the government has provided tens of millions of dollars in public funding for commercial media companies, while doing nothing to restore the funding it has cut from the national broadcaster over recent years,” Dawson added.

“If the constant hostility displayed by this government to the ABC is not arrested, and its funding restored, the implications for our nation are significant.”

The Communications Minister, Paul Fletcher, is yet to respond to a request for comment.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.