Discord is growing in the federal Coalition over the future funding for the ABC, with Nationals MPs calling for regional services to be firewalled from any cuts in the budget.
Nationals MPs Bruce Scott and Mark Coulton have voiced their concern about possible cuts after Fairfax Media reported on Sunday that Prime Minister Tony Abbott could break a key pre-election promise by cutting funding to the national broadcaster.
The government’s powerful expenditure review committee is considering how to trim millions from Auntie’s budget, including through the introduction of an annual “efficiency dividend” that would force the corporation to do more with less.
Mr Abbott said on election eve there would be no cuts to the ABC or SBS, but since then the corporation, the prime minister and hard-right of the Liberal Party have been at loggerheads over perceived bias and misreporting.
It’s understood the ERC is weighing the political feasibility of a range of cuts that would cut into the ABC’s $1.03 billion budget.
Mr Scott said the ABC provided vital services to people in his community, including emergency services information during cyclones, floods and fires, on the whereabouts of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, as well as news and entertainment.
“Forget about twitter and mobile phones, the ABC covers vast areas of Australia and if the power is down you can still listen to the ABC on your radio,’’ he said.
“If they are cut under the efficiency dividend that would be terrible, I don't see any fat out there. I find the thought of any cut to the ABC rural network unthinkable. They aren't running a political line, they are just giving us market information, funeral notices ... it's a unique service where commercial radio just isn't viable.”
Mr Coulton said the ABC could not be exempt from finding increased efficiencies – a separate efficiency review of the corporation is underway – and he was not opposed to the ABC being “looked at”.
“But I certainly would not like rural radio to be targeted because it provides a valuable service. My electorate is covered by four different regional ABC outlets and they provide a valuable service all the time, not just when there is an emergency.”
The comments come after fellow MP John Williams said regional radio was the “heart of the bush” and should be spared.
At a recent senate estimates hearing, ABC managing director Mark Scott could not guarantee any services would be spared if the broadcaster’s funding is cut.
He also said that he – and the ABC audience – would hold Mr Abbott at his word not to cut funding.
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Sunday the budget measures would be become clear in due course.
“If you're asking if there are efficiencies, ask your own management at SBS or ABC, of course they would tell you that any business can be more efficient ... that is a penetrating glimpse of the obvious,’’ he said.
Shadow communications minister Jason Clare said it was “nonsense’’ for the government to argue an efficiency dividend would not equate to a broken promise on ABC funding.
“If it looks like a cut and smells like a cut it's a cut. Tony Abbott said there would be no cuts to the ABC – if they cut the ABC he was lying.”
Mr Clare said any efficiencies identified for the ABC should be reinvested in the broadcaster.
“National Party members should be speaking up right now and telling Tony Abbott not to cut the ABC budget because it would affect the people they represent.’’
Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek said a cut to the ABC would constitute a broken promise from the Abbott government.
“This government came into government promising to be one thing and they've turned out to be very different indeed. They promised not to cut healthcare, they promised not to cut pensions,’’ she said.
“They promised not to cut the ABC – introducing any cuts to the Australia network, to the efficiency dividend, whatever way they try to disguise it, this is simply a cut to the ABC.”
smh.com.au, with Jonathan Swan