Pauline Hanson’s latest one notion of forcing a huge cut in the ABC’s appropriation as revenge for the national broadcaster revealing some unpleasant truths about her affairs is not a new idea. Once they’ve realised that the ABC’s editorial independence is protected by statute, aggrieved politicians have often turned to threatening the budget as a way to curb Aunty’s watchdog tendencies.
During the acrimonious 1975 “Dismissal” election, Malcolm Fraser complained often that he thought the ABC was being overly sympathetic to Whitlam and Labor, and far too critical of himself as the caretaker prime minister. At one point in the campaign, during the pre-recording of an interview with the late Richard Carleton for This Day Tonight, Fraser’s well-known temper got the better of him as he objected to a line of questioning and stopped the interview.
It was a tense moment in the studio as these two strong-willed men glared at each other with the videotape still rolling. Eventually the situation calmed. By mutual agreement, the aborted interview was erased and a replacement interview recorded. Minders for Fraser urged the attending press, who’d witnessed the standoff in the viewing gallery, not to report the incident, and they agreed to overlook this telling flash of anger from the Liberal leader.
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A month later, before his first Parliament House press conference as the newly elected prime minister, Fraser’s staff handed out a sheet of dot-point summaries flagging the first executive actions of the incoming Coalition government. Among those announcements was a $250,000 cut to the current affairs budget of the ABC — a transparent act of revenge.
In the following days it was quietly pointed out to the PM’s office that it was not within the government’s power to direct a specific and immediate cut to any part of the ABC’s funding. The only sword of punishment available to aggrieved politicians is the annual appropriation, and that is the weak point at which One Nation is now threatening to strike.
There is much to be said for the British model of public broadcasting in which the amount of the BBC’s funding comes directly from the licence revenue raised, not by the whim of government. It has proved to be a very effective shield against political pressure. Australia also had a radio and TV licensing system, but after 1948 that income went into consolidated revenue and had no relation to the ABC’s funding. It was abolished more than 40 years ago — by the Whitlam government.