This is a guest post from my friend Richard Laidlaw that was originally published in The Bali Times on December 3 2010. Richard lives in Bali and worked for many years in Australian media and politics. He also helps out his old mate Hector the Cockatoo from time to time.

If Australia is serious about having a satellite television service that reflects the country – unique in the region and vitally important to Indonesia and especially to Bali – it needs to resource the project properly. A$20 million (US$19.2 million at today’s depressed greenback value) a year won’t do the job.

To that extent, then, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd’s decision to put Australia Network up for tender next year, when the ABC’s current five-year contract ends, is neither here nor there. Current funding limits Australia Network to grace-and-favour programming, to endless repeats of serial entertainment and drama shows, and to piggy-back screening of major sport. It stands out in news and current affairs, where it can – as it should – put a regional perspective into Australian and world events.

Australia Network is funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but operates independent of that official source. It is not a propaganda machine, even if from time to time it seems a little too cosy. That’s often a misreading of the situation: regionally there are issues that deserve far greater exposure than an Australian audience would care to bother with.

And therein lies the rub with the tender trap. The ABC, itself government funded as one of Australia’s two national broadcasters (the other is SBS), needs more money anyway if it is to avoid going fully down the commercial road. It cannot put forward a new contract proposal for Australia Network that, on the $20 million annual budget available from DFAT, could possibly match a commercial proposal.

It’s early days – one or other of Australia’s commercial free-to-air TV networks could also enter the contest – but the front runner at this stage seems to be Sky News, the World According to Rupert tabloid network whose breathless (and breathlessly inaccurate) broadcasting might entertain the masses but would do nothing for considered presentation of Australia to an overseas audience.

These are of course straitened budgetary times. Foreign Minister Rudd knows why government funding is far short of ideal for many projects. He spent all the money when he was Prime Minister. The fiscal imperative now is to consolidate and rebuild. Forget all the rosy forecasts and heroic claims: the world economic situation – no longer crisis perhaps but not far from the lip of that precipice – precludes flights of fancy.

A better way forward, therefore, would be a wholesale review and reallocation of public broadcasting resources in Australia. Within a revised framework that drew the ABC and SBS together – something already long overdue in any case – there would be plenty of scope for a real international presence.

Radio Australia, while it is occasionally amateur, again a function of under-resourcing, has a long and proud history of international broadcasting. SBS, originally set up to cater for non-English speaking migrants to Australia, now frequently outguns the ABC in terms of programming clout in the very area of deepest interest to Australia Network and its viewers outside Australia. The target audiences are not Australian expatriates – though they watch the channel too, for a taste of home if nothing else – but national populations in other countries for whom knowledge of Australian affairs and society are important.

Rudd’s announcement that the Australia Network contract will go to tender next year – presumably on an indexed-for-inflation $20 million basis – therefore misses both the point and a historic opportunity. That should be no surprise, but it is a pity. If he and the government of which he is the overseas face wish to retain public broadcasting – and there is not a single sensible reason to abandon it, after all, or for that matter any sentient public constituency in Australia that would support so craven a retreat – then here is a chance to redefine its foreign reach that it would be sad to miss for lack of vision.

With the advance of digital broadcasting and the wide and growing use of computerised information technology in Asia, such a proposal could easily capture new audiences and – on an opt-in basis – even justify the creeping commercialism that is the inevitable result of changing viewing and listening patterns.

Such a shift would require funding for Australia’s international broadcasting to be removed entirely from the Foreign Affairs vote and placed within an expanded budget for both the ABC and SBS (hopefully as a merged single entity). At present Australia Network is an addendum, an add-on that deserves to be far better treated both as a medium and as a funding destination.

It is not, of course, in one of the most self-absorbed and inward looking countries on earth, an issue upon which any politician would willingly die in a ditch. Out there in voter land there is surprisingly little sympathy for “foreign aid” and even less for spending taxpayer dollars on influence-enhancing promotion.

But if Australia is serious about reflecting itself as a society, and as a liberal polity, to vital partners in its neighbourhood, now would be good time to start doing something about it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey