FOXTEL and Rooty Hill:

Adam Suckling, Director Policy and Corporate Affairs, FOXTEL, writes: Re. “The press club v Rooty Hill: what constitutes a public forum?” (12 August, item 5). The ABC’s reaction to the Rooty Hill RSL “People’s Forum” so extensively covered by Margaret Simons last week is throwing up a smokescreen that obscures the contribution to the public good made by subscription-media — which Crikey also was the last time I looked.

The fact is that FOXTEL, and Sky News with The Daily Telegraph created a powerful television event last week that for a time became the centrepiece of the Federal Election campaign. And the ABC did not like it.

ABC Managing Director Mark Scott says he wants the ABC to be the nation’s “town hall” for citizens to have their say. In practice the ABC behaves like there’s only one town hall in Australia and it should have the only key to it  But it is unhealthy and thankfully impossible to have a monopoly on ideas and initiative in a democracy.

The ABC’s Director of News Kate Tourney issued the incendiary press release that started a public fight between the ABC News24 news channel and Sky News over the ABC getting a live feed of the “Peoples Forum”.

After the forum, Mark Scott “twittered” a misleading comparison of the audience ratings for the ABC’s comedy programs on its main free-to-air channel last Wednesday night with a single program event on a specialist subscription television news channel, Sky News. A crude attempt to say Sky News is irrelevant.

Why didn’t Scott compare Sky News with his ABC News 24 news channel? Probably because Sky News had more viewers than ABC News24. For the record, an average of over  86,500 people watched Sky News forum while around 16, 500 people watched ABC News24 during the forum nationally across capital cities. Five times more people watched Sky News than the ABC’s comparable channel: ABC News24.

Kate Tourney roared with outrage that the ABC couldn’t have a live, clean feed of Rooty Hill. But what Sky News and The Daily Telegraph created was a “TV program” just like the ABC does with Q&A. The ABC does not make feeds of Q&A available live and free of their branding to other broadcasters.

Tourney by the end of last week was laughing off the stoush with Sky News. Maybe the ABC noticed all the publicity its indignant attitude was giving to Sky News — inadvertently showing what ABC News24 was not doing by comparison.

While ABC News24 rejected Sky News’ offer of a full, clean feed of Rooty Hill on one-hour delay, the event was given massive national coverage by press, radio and other TV, ironically including ABC TV and radio news. The Fairfax press also covered it extensively.  Was ABC  News24’s response that of a responsible public broadcaster?

Importantly for the public interest, the ultimate “audience” for the Rooty Hill event, and the debate it generated, was many times the immediate audience that watched it live on Sky News. Sky News Mulitiview enabled others to “catch-up” with the debate later in the evening and the Sky News Election channel made it available for a full 24 hours. Further, the Rooty Hill debate has echoed far and wide to many millions of Australians through all forms of other media that are not churlish about its origins.

For Scott to personally dismiss our audience on Wednesday night and gloat about his comedy numbers tells us that Sky News is connecting with the community in a way that irritates the ABC and that the echo-effect of what we are doing beyond our immediate audience is having a real impact. There needs to be more than one town hall in Australia.

The election:

John Kotsopoulos writes: Re. “Small government? Public service will expand under the Coalition” (Friday, item 1). “The Liberals have, true, committed to a public service staffing freeze for two years, a clunky and unworkable way of trying to cut public service numbers,” notes Bernard Keane.

If the Libs think that capping PS numbers with a “freeze” on recruitment will placate public servants they have another think coming. As someone who experienced this inane policy in a past life I can assure you it creates immense problems of efficiency, morale and therefore staff retention.

Freezes block the filling of important and highly skilled positions or result in less able people being laterally transferred from less critical but still important roles. In some cases attempts are made to fit a square peg into the proverbial  round hole. In one past instance I know of the State bureaucracy tried for several months to laterally transfer a road construction engineer into a top building related  job of State and national importance on the basis that both job descriptions listed the word “engineer”.

The gaps that are left if internal transfers  are also allowed create unplanned dislocations and more work for those left behind. Ambitious and competent people are not going to wear extra work pressure or a two year block on advancement. If the Libs want to de-skill the PS then this brainless proposal is a cracking way of doing so.

Ava Hubble writes: During this election campaign the major parties have literally snowed journalists with an avalanche of press releases. “Media Alerts”, statements and transcripts of speeches have often flooded in at the rate of 10 or more an hour. Reporters don’t have the time to study so much information. So politicians are not always closely quizzed about the detail of their policies — and the devil, so very often, is in the detail.

For example the nine-page Delivering for Seniors release issued earlier this month by the ALP suggests that Labor, if returned to power, it will re-introduce the Centrelink rule that enabled aged pensioners to earn up to $6,500 a year before their pensions were reduced.  But a closer reading of the statement reveals that under Labor’s proposed revisions to its Work bonus scheme, pensioners will only be able to take advantage of this revision after they have built up a notional Centrelink credit “bank”, capped at $6500, at the rate of $250 a fortnight.

If, in the meantime, they earn more than $250 a fortnight, they will continue to have their Centrelink payments docked at 50 cents in the dollar for every dollar they earn in excess of $250 a fortnight. The new rules are scheduled to be introduced next July. Needless to say there are any number of befuddling provisos. But who dreams up these confusing regulations — and are they cost effective?

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures reveal that Australia has nearly three million residents over 65. Yet according to the ALP’s Delivering for Seniors statement only 30,000 of these old folks are members of the workforce. Furthermore, as a result of age discrimination in the workplace, it’s unlikely that many of these 30,000 old timers are employed on a regular basis. Most pensioners consider themselves lucky to get three or four weeks’ seasonal work a year.

So isn’t it time we examined the cost benefit of employing a small army of comparatively highly-paid Centrelink staff to record and police the relative pin money earned by a few thousands aged pensioner casuals?  New Zealand and most other countries allow their pensioners to retain any money they earn from employment without loss of pension, particularly as their earned income is taxed and helps to stimulate the economy.

Many Australian pensioners, including those who lost their jobs during the 1990s recession, are now dependent on the current aged pension of about $350 a week (for a single person). So if they are lucky enough to get a casual engagement, they tend to quickly spend their earnings.

Meanwhile, Tony Abbott has yet to comment on the ALP’s Delivering for Seniors statement. But if he believes we can afford up to $150,000 for six months paid parental leave, surely we can allow pensioners to earn up to $6,500 a year without loss of pension.

Margaret Kerr writes: Tony Abbott’s response to climate change is so laughable it’s a wonder he’s still in contention. No carbon tax and no super profits tax, so the miners are free to carry on polluting and enjoying their windfall profits. Who fixes up their mess? Why the rest of us, of course, with the great big new taxpayers’ expense of a Green Army.

This sums up everything that’s wrong with the Liberals. Refusing to accept a reality that doesn’t fit their mindset. A leg up for the already wealthy. Their military obsession, they’ve just got to have their armies.

And Crikey, you and the rest of the press really should be highlighting how much money the mining companies are shovelling into the two major parties.

Denise Marcos writes: Tony Abbott seems to have misunderstood details of the government’s NBN project involving installation of fibre optic cable. On ABC’s Insiders programme he told Barrie Cassidy he was not in favour of “high fibre” cable. The Shadow Communications Minister should explain to his leader that neither party’s network will be edible.

Jim Hanna writes: Re. “Not a matter of if, but when” “Richard Farmer’s chunky bits” (Friday, item 13).  Amusing piece by Richard Farmer on the Coalition’s “outrage” that the costing of one of its policies might have leaked. No such outrage from them about the integrity of the public service when Godwin Grech was leaking material to them.

Peter Kemp writes: The people of Australia want national (public?) transport policy not a couple of quick fixes. They want action on greenhouse gases not more talk. They want a solution to boat people, though I don’t envy any politician here because the refugees are mostly quite genuine and would make good citizens but guess what? — there are millions more and unless we make it seem hard lots of these will come.

Both major parties are handing out sweets and applying band aids in marginal seats and I for one can’t bear to look or listen any more.

Dick Smith:

Greg Williams writes: Re. Friday’s editorial. Crikey’s editorial on Thursday night’s Dick Smith Population Puzzle on the ABC, commented “Labor’s rail line from Epping to Parramatta — the single biggest election promise in this campaign…”. But not a mention that this particular “election promise” is worn bare, not to mention very frayed around the edges, after being dragged out of election campaigns’ promises cupboards so many times over the years.

One can but wonder what adjectives would have preceded the description of the “election promise” by Crikey if it had been put forward by the other mob!  “Tired old”, “resurrected-yet-again”, and “moth-eaten” come to mind:  not to mention the inclusion of a “hoary old chestnut” thrown in there somewhere!

Marcus L’Estrange writes: Dick Smith, Bob Brown and others have missed a point in wanting to curb the population growth and have in reality embraced a culture of death. Birth rates worldwide have already declined by more than 50% since 1980 so population growth has already been checked. How low do Dick, Bob want it to go? Low enough so that we are not replaced?

The developed world, in fighting for an anti-child society and abortion on demand has resulted in a demographic winter. We have overlooked the other side of the ledger: the children of today are the workers, the producers, the innovators, the care givers and the taxpayers of tomorrow — those whose payments keep pension funds solvent, those who empty the bedpans in nursing homes, operate factories and farms and keep the lights on all over the world. The family with four children helps to assure a comfortable old age to the childless.

Dick, Bob et al need to explain who is going to finance the solving of ecological problems that are not really caused by population growth but Government inaction?

John Burke writes: The issues you raised due to planning failures and the like are all matters for resolution but you missed the point of what Dick Smith was about. The fact is that there cannot be infinite growth in a finite world.

If Australia was to grow at the present rate of about 2% pa then in 35 years we shall have 45 million people, in 70 years 90, in 105 years 180 and in 140 years 280 million people — and so on. That is clearly impossible so the real question is by what process will exponential population growth stop.

Are we intelligent enough to confront the issue and to redesign our economy so that we can have stable or increasing per capita wealth with a small population or are we going to carry on until war, famine or some other catastrophe does it for us?

News Ltd:

John Williams writes: Re. Crikey’s editorial, 11 August. Just on your claim last week that News Ltd is not running a concerted and virulent campaign against the ALP — the nonsense of this assertion is once again proven by the stable of Sunday tabloids, all of whom have today have splashed their front pages with bold headlines predicting a poll disaster for Gillard — and all based on a completely distorted interpretation of a Galaxy poll.

Do you still think this is the result of stressed-out editors trying to make a buck in the digital age? Or take a look at The Australian’s home page at 7pm EST — lead story is “Abbott dares PM to face Brisbane voters” — no mention of Gillard’s challenge to debate the economy first.

For this week at least, all supporters of fairness and balance in political reporting should refuse to buy any News Ltd paper. Maybe that’s the only way to get the message across that we are completely fed up with their underhanded attempts to influence the result of this election through manipulation and distortion of the “news”.

Journalism and Julian Assange:

Neil James, Executive Director, Australia Defence Association, writes: Since when, John Highfield (Friday, comments), have inhumanity or treachery been a principle of journalism (although the latter at least was certainly a principal matter for Wilfred Burchett)? Please also explain how any journalist should sacrifice their journalistic professionalism and moral integrity by imitating Julian Assange’s reckless (at best) publishing of leaked documents that threaten human life.

And what core “craft” issue, as John claims, could possibly involve what Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, for example, have strongly condemned as Assange and WikiLeaks’ inhumanity and flagrant disregard for the principles and practice of international humanitarian law?

Moreover, back here in the real world of liberal democracy and the rule-of-law, the only thing wrong with the reporter’s question to Smith and Bishop at their press club “debate” was its odd premise that only the US could or should prosecute Julian Assange.

Under Australia’s reformed wartime treachery laws — where the Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Act, 2002 finally closed the loopholes in archaic laws that allowed Burchett and David Hicks to miss having their day in court — Assange would appear to have a case to answer legally as well as morally.

As an Australian who has needlessly endangered our troops as fellow Australians, Australian law applies to Assange, no matter what US or indeed wider action might be taken to curb Assange’s reckless breaches of international humanitarian law.

This is not just a free-speech issue or indeed a free-speech issue at all.

From the Australian viewpoint, all Australians owe a moral and legal responsibility to the troops we send to fight our wars not to endanger or otherwise betray them — even if some of us might disagree with the lawful government decision to send them or oppose the war involved. Dissent must be targeted at the government not the troops. No other position is fair or tenable in a parliamentary democracy ruled by law and based on reciprocal obligations among its citizens.

Particularly when there are many alternative avenues available for responsible dissent about this or any war that do not endanger our troops, their lawful mission as part of a UN-endorsed force, and the lives of those Afghans standing up against Taliban intimidation, repression and an Islamist return to bigoted, misogynist, medieval-style theocracy.

Not when there are clear alternatives to Assange’s irresponsible bolstering of enemy propaganda, repression of  dissent among anti-Taliban Afghans, and any enemy’s will to fight.

And not where dissent recklessly and inhumanely undermines the universal application and acceptance of international law (and the responsibilities of Australia and every Australian to uphold it).


Jackie French writes: Re. “Last word: the ABC Interpretive Dance Bandicoot” (Campaign Crikey morning edition: Day 27, item 7). Once more an understudy shows true stardom. It made me laugh, it made me cry (though that may have been because my toasted cheese and asparagus sandwich caught fire while I was laughing). Please, let the trilobite  dance again. It exemplifies this election

Maire Mannik writes: Trilobites were truly wonderful and ruled the seas for millennia but they had three lobes — two on the side — and First Dog’s lovely dancer is a monolobite. Also they had the most beautiful crystal eyes made of quartz.