Not our ABC

With Sinclair Davidson

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is a $1.04 billion piece of public policy and we treat it as exactly that: a government intervention into the market for news, entertainment and communications. Policy interventions are financially costly. Policy interventions are also costly in a non-monetary sense. They can have unintended or counterproductive consequences. They can crowd out non-government activity, stifle entrepreneurship or technological innovation, distort the marketplace, systemically favour particular political interests and ideologies, and create fiefdoms of unaccountable bureaucrats.

The ABC was established in a moment of history significantly unlike our own, facing a cultural and political environment greatly different to our own, with technological and economic challenges completely opposite to those we now face. Over the course of eight decades the ABC has embedded itself in the Australian political system and public consciousness. But the original rationales for the ABC have long since expired. Technology has made the concerns of Australian policy makers in the 1930s – or even the 1990s, when the ABC was last subjected to a major review – redundant or anachronistic. Economic justifications for a state-owned media broadcaster simply do not fit the modern media landscape.

The arguments for public broadcasting in the twenty-first century are simply not compelling. It is certainly the case that the ABC has bound within it an enormous amount of cultural capital as a consequence of its eighty years of pre-eminence in the Australian media industry. But that should not be confused with either a claim that a publicly-funded broadcaster was necessary to build that cultural capital or that Australian culture would suffer in a world where the ABC had been reformed or privatised.

The ABC is an Australian ‘icon’ in the same sense that the Commonwealth Bank was an icon before its privatisation, and in the same anachronistic sense that Qantas, the ‘national carrier’, is imagined to be an essential part of the Australian psyche. We can celebrate the achievements of the ABC, its cultural significance, and its role in Australian history. But that should not prevent us from looking sceptically – as we should with all costly government interventions into the economy and society – at whether the ABC remains good public policy. Does it have a good reason to exist, now?

That question invites us to speculate as to the rationale for the ABC. The ABC itself denies that it is a market failure broadcaster, while the notion of it being independent is difficult to pin down. Independent of whom? It is publicly funded and its management are required to appear before parliament and answer questions posed by politicians. True, the ABC is independent of the demands of commercial reality, but it is not independent of its political paymaster. Of course that undermines the argument that the ABC is a bulwark of democracy. A free press may well be a necessary condition of democracy but that does not necessarily imply that the government should subsidise the press. To the contrary, many non-democratic nations have maintained very high levels of government ownership and subsidy in the media. A further argument undermining the ABC’s claim relates to the large and obvious political bias in its reporting and news coverage. A 2013 survey revealed that ABC journalists are almost five times more likely to be Greens voters than the average voter and twice more likely to vote Greens than the average journalist.

Other arguments for the ABC include quality programming, Australian content, and rural subsidy. What constitutes ‘quality’, however, is a value judgement. Australian content and rural subsidy can be provided for much less than $1 billion per annum. That is the challenge; the ABC is a massive government program with no clear objectives and no clear accountability.

Few Australians would realise that the ABC charter does not include the word ‘fair’ nor does it include the word ‘balanced’. The charter is at best only a loose guide to what the ABC does. Nor is it any constraint on ABC operations. While the charter is spelled out in legislation, section 6(4) explicitly states that ‘Nothing in this section shall be taken to impose on the Corporation a duty that is enforceable by proceedings in a court.’ Additionally, there is nothing in the charter that could be described as an enforcement mechanism, nor any penalties detailed for potential breaches. The charter is in law – insofar as it exists on the statute books – but it is not law that the ABC has to abide by.

What should be done about the ABC? It is certainly the case that doing nothing and muddling through is very much underrated as a government policy. Yet lower-cost alternative public policies are available and clear savings can be made. One possibility would be to refine the charter. In the first instance, the ABC could be redesignated to be a market-failure broadcaster. Alternatively, it could be required to be self-funding, i.e. commercialised. Here the ABC could be required to finance its activities through advertising revenue and then pay dividends to the government. A further option would be to reform the governance of the ABC.

Then there is privatisation. The ABC could be sold off to a single bidder or consortium. Or it could be listed on the stock exchange. Our preferred option would be for shares in the ABC to be given away, either to all Australians or to existing and previous staff. The staff are the best people to realise the value of the ABC – and they would pay for their shares over time through the capital gains tax as they sold their shares.

In this sense the privatisation of the ABC would proceed much like higher education is currently funded. ABC employees would receive their shares at zero-price and only pay for them when they disposed of the shares and only then if the shares had increased in value. The proceeds of the privatisation would be realised over time and would not constitute a ‘sugar-hit’ to the budget. Nor can the privatisation be characterised as a stunt to balance the Budget in the short term. Rather, it is a program to establish a newly-private ABC on a firm footing, vesting it with a cohort of new owners who have the most interest in making it a commercial success.

Sober liberal

A review of Sir Joseph Carruthers: Founder of the New South Wales Liberal Party by Zachary Gorman, Connor Court, Qld, pp.425, $59.95

Australia has a rich heritage of nineteenth century classical liberalism. But that history has been almost completely lost in the flood of historical work focusing on either federation or the labour movement. Zachary Gorman’s new biography of Sir Joseph Carruthers, the nineteenth century free trade liberal and founder of the Liberal party of New South Wales, helps balance the ledger – recovering the tradition of free market liberalism that has been so significant in Australian history.

In many ways, Joseph Carruthers embodies that tradition, with its strengths and flaws. In the colonial era liberal political thought was one of the dominant strands of public life, and Carruthers’ career reflected its dominance. Born in 1857, he entered NSW politics in 1887. Carruthers was a father of federation, a minister under Henry Parkes and George Reid, and after the establishment of the Commonwealth became premier of New South Wales. He only left politics when he died in 1932.

Like his university friend George Reid, Carruthers was a great admirer of William Gladstone. He believed in balanced budgets, individual liberty, and that ‘we should encourage commerce in its freest sense’ (as he once informed a branch meeting of the Labour Electoral League).

Carruthers was a liberal, but not a radical one by the standards of the time. Gorman positions him as a moderate, or pragmatic liberal within the free trade movement. On one side was Bernard Wise, whose support for free trade was matched with a pro-government intervention and regulation program. On the other side was the radical free market liberalism of Bruce Smith, whose 1887 book Liberty and Liberalism was a full-frontal attack on the left-liberalism advocated by people like Wise. A working politician has to satisfy multiple constituencies. Carruthers was no exception, balancing both liberal and conservative supporters, as well as managing coalitions with the progressives.

Histories of political life can sometimes be a little deadening. Much drama in politics consists of a stream of legislation and amendment, which can be both complex and (in the hands of poor biographers) dull. Gorman does not fall into this trap: he is able to very clearly explain the significance of each well-chosen controversy in a way that makes the relevance to liberalism and Carruthers’ life obvious.

Gorman is also sensitive to instances of where Carruthers’ thought deviated from classical liberal ideas. These are worth detailing, because classical liberals have not always lived up to their underlying belief in the inherent equality and political dignity of all people. One philosophically minor but historical significant example was temperance. His father had struggled with alcohol and was ultimately involved in the temperance movement. Likewise many of the Liberal party voters were motivated by temperance. Gorman writes that Carruthers believed ‘liberalism could bend on this issue’. Carruthers ended up supporting the so-called ‘local option’ which handed the regulation of liquor licences to electorates and municipalities – not always a win for liberty.

More serious to modern readers was Carruthers’ opposition to female suffrage, for which he believed the case had not yet been made. His was perhaps a half-hearted opposition, and he later supported the suffragette movement in Britain when he visited there in 1908. But his stance compares poorly with some contemporaries like Bruce Smith, who actively called for universal suffrage in Australia.

Carruthers’ attitude to immigration presents a similar story. While being supportive of high immigration levels, he also backed the white Australia policy on the grounds that a multiracial society could harbour ethnic tensions. This view changed when he began to visit Hawaii, as he did regularly late in life. He saw there a society in which Americans, native Hawaiians, Japanese and Filipinos coexisted prosperously, helped in no small part by American free trade relationships.

Carruthers’ views were more admirable when it came to the relationship between colonists and the Indigenous population. As a child growing up in Macleay he had spent much time playing with Aboriginal children, and he maintained a sympathy with Indigenous people his whole life. He wrote later of the ‘ruthless indifference [of] the whites, who have invaded their homelands, bringing with them new diseases and vile habits, and sometimes unspeakable cruelties that have unnecessarily wiped out millions of so-called inferior and backward peoples’. Carruthers’ language often betrayed a paternalistic or patronising mindset but he was more wide-eyed than most about who bore the costs of colonialism.

For the most part, Carruthers was a needed defender of liberal values. During the First World War he refused to get too caught up with the anti-liberal sentiment of wartime Australia, and opposed the NSW government’s sedition bill (which had been mainly targeted at the labour movement).

This is not the first full length biography of Carruthers. Beverly Earnshaw published One Flag, One Hope, One Destiny: Sir Joseph Carruthers and Australian Federation in 2000, which as its title suggests finds interest in Carruthers because of his federation role. (Carruthers’ own memoirs also received commercial publication in 2005.) But for Gorman, Carruthers’ greatest legacy is the New South Wales Liberal party, which he views as one of the crowning organisational achievements of nineteenth century liberalism. While it has repeatedly changed its name, the NSW Liberal Party is still, organisationally, the same entity today as the one Carruthers established as the Liberal and Reform Association in 1902.

For modern classical liberals the post-Federation decade has a somewhat melancholy tone. The rise of the Labor party led to an alliance, and then fusion, between the free traders and protectionists under the banner of anti-socialism. Gorman’s book both adeptly navigates this history, and, with his picture of nineteenth century liberalism, underlines just what we lost.

Adapt To Survive

The Labor party once made great fun of John Howard’s distinction between core and non-core promises. Julia Gillard has now added to that taxonomy: a promise so intolerably core it has to be explicitly denied during an election campaign.

It’s damned hard to reconcile August 2010’s ‘There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead’ with February 2011’s ‘The two-stage plan for a carbon price mechanism will start with a fixed price period for three to five years.’

Labor’s goal during the 2010 campaign was to get over the line and govern another term. Just like any political party. But where Labor broke new ground was by being happy to say anything or promote any idea to get there, no matter how divorced from its own philosophy or the wishes of its supporters.

Disavowing a carbon tax is what US political consultants told Gillard to do. So that’s what Gillard did, no matter what she or her party thought.

Of course, the Prime Minister’s reversal of what seemed a pretty explicit promise not to price carbon says nothing about the rightness or wrongness of that policy. But it says a heap about her approach to politics. She’s very, er, political.

Careful policymaking would be a distraction from the important business of political manoeuvring.

The Greens might bear this in mind as they negotiate with Gillard and her ministers. Any deal is one grumpy focus group or James Carville phone call away from being discarded.

Nevertheless, if all the government’s legislative cards fall in place, after July 2012 Australia will have a price on carbon. That’s almost exactly when poor old Brendan Nelson suggested the Coalition under his leadership would implement one.

Nelson’s policy had an important condition: international action on climate change. It was a more innocent, optimistic time. Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull also spent 2008 and 2009 rabbiting on about Copenhagen and international agreements.

Yet in 2011 the closest Gillard comes to mentioning the molasses-like movement to international agreement is a vague ‘the global economy is shifting’. Just vaguely shifting, in general.

This modified rhetoric places the government’s climate policy at one remove from its purpose: to combat global climate change.

For this government, a carbon price is no longer about stopping, reducing or slowing global warming – a task which would require concerted, co-ordinated global action. Now it’s just the season’s most fashionable economic reform.

Gillard has implicitly admitted the chances of international agreement on emissions action in the foreseeable future are near zero. The chances that the unco-ordinated and compromised carbon initiatives now being introduced in some countries will have a significant impact on the global climate are even lower.

Don’t underestimate the magnitude of a transition to carbon-free energy production. Or the economic and social change that transition would cause.

The Australian government’s carbon price will start small. But if it is to make any dent in our carbon emissions it will have to be steadily raised, year after year.

Even during the ‘fixed-price’ period which Julia Gillard announced would precede the full emissions trading scheme, the carbon tax will still increase ‘annually at a pre-determined rate’.

Any government facing complaints about the cost of living – justified or unjustified – will find that very challenging.

A Galaxy poll commissioned by the Institute of Public Affairs last week showed that 66 per cent of Australians were unsure about the relationship between human-induced carbon emissions and global warming. This figure has remained steady for at least 12 months.

Combine this finding with survey data revealing that even people who fully accept the dangers of anthropogenic climate change are unwilling to pay the extra money a modest carbon price would demand, and you have quite a political pickle.

Gillard may initially win some political points for a courageous and aggressive stand on climate action. But those points will disappear when higher energy bills are mailed out. Especially since the Prime Minister has effectively taken personal, political responsibility for everybody’s electricity costs.

Hers is a pickle shared by every government which wants to act on climate.

The situation is even more serious in the developing world. Energy poverty is a serious development problem. Traditional home methods of producing energy (burning wood, agricultural residue and animal dung) are a major health hazard for the world’s poor. Economic growth is held back by unreliable or inaccessible electricity.

So no responsible developing world government would penalise large-scale energy production significantly enough to have an impact on the global climate.

The only policy position sensitive to these political realities is a focus on adaptation. Adapting to climate change – whether natural or anthropogenic – is the only approach which accommodates questions of political economy.

Sure, it’s easy to imagine an ideal world where a mechanism can be developed which prices the externalities of pollution efficiently, consistently and effectively – where the best legislators can team up with the best scientists and the best economists to write the best laws which take into account the best research, unimpeded by politics and democracy and the mendacities of self-interest.

But that’s not our world.

If you fully accept the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s dire scenarios, there’s still reason for optimism. The economist Indur Goklany, poring over the UK’s Stern Review, found that human and environmental wellbeing in the foreseeable future will be, on balance, higher in a ‘richest-but-warmest’ scenario. His argument should carry weight: Goklany has been a long-time delegate to the IPCC. He argues that tackling the consequences of climate change is far more efficient than trying to prevent it.

That is, a rich world is better able to cope with the adverse effects of any climate change than a poor one. When it comes to climate change, it is far more efficient, and far more practical, to treat the symptoms.

And it’s the only approach which takes into account the raw, unforgiving logic of political action.

Spurious notions of ‘national character’ aren’t helping

Are Australians racists? Well, yes. And no. Some are, some aren’t. It’s a mind-numbingly circular question, but just the sort of mind-numbingly circular question that those in the social commentary business love. (Six idiots dress up in blackface on Hey Hey it’s Saturday, and that’s the first half of Q&A over with, two weeks’ worth of columns in quality broadsheets, and a comfortably full switchboard on ABC radio talkback.)

Let’s try to wrap up this question now. It would be fair to assume that somewhere between one and 22 million people within Australia’s territorial borders are racist. It’s faintly ludicrous to attribute any sort of character to a collective group of people. Either the characterisations end up as utterly banal — Australians like barbecues! — or completely nonsensical.

A columnist trying to get to the bottom of the recent spate of attacks on Indian students in Melbourne writes that Australia ‘has a cultural tradition that in large part is underpinned by aggressive opportunism’. Michael Leunig reckons: ‘Our culture has thrived on the stabbing impulse.’ But on the other hand John Brumby has argued that ‘Victorians are committedto tolerance’ in an article condemning racially motivated attacks by some of those apparently tolerance-committed Victorians.

Maybe ‘we’ are racists, but ‘we’ also must be pretty cluey. A recent article discussing the Howard government’s environmental policies says that ‘the Coalition’s new-found eco-friendly initiatives were deemed greenwash by the electorate’. Very perceptive. Makes you wonder why a full 22 per cent of the electorate believe in witches, at least according to a Nielsen poll late last year. Headlines in the National Times declare that ‘we will forget Haiti’, that ‘we give our kids names fit for puppies’ and that ‘we love to click on’ Naomi Robson. I don’t plan on doing any of those things.

The idea that Australia has any sort of national character obscures our understanding much more than it facilitates it. Individuals, actions, and laws can be objectively racist. Nationalities cannot. After all, even the clearest example of racism in this nation’s history, the White Australia Policy, had its opponents, particularly among the free trade movement.

Of course, national circumstances — politics, history, geography, religious belief, sheer bloody luck — can influence the cultural attitudes of individuals within that nation. But you only have to watch our Prime Minister’s awkward attempts at Australianisms to see how artificial these national tropes can be.

Personalities do not change at national borders. How many times have you been told by recently returned overseas holidaymakers that ‘the people were just so friendly’? There are more than 3,000 hits for ‘the people are friendly’ on the Lonely Planet website. There is just one for ‘the people are unfriendly’ — you won’t want to go on holiday to Rome.

A 2005 study in Science sought to test views about national character against personality traits of individuals within that nation. The study found that ‘Perceptions of national character are not generalisations about personality traits based on accumulated observations of the people with whom one lives’; in other words, there was no correlation between a belief that Australians are extroverts, and the number of Australians you’ve met who are actually extroverts. And the study found that people vastly exaggerate what little differences do exist between countries. There is much greater variety of character within a nation than between nations. If you don’t believe that, compare Mark Latham with Kevin Rudd. Hard to believe they’re from the same party, let alone the same country.

It would be nice to believe all Australians recognise that democracy should be tempered by the common law, political power and judicial power should be in constant opposition, and human rights need constant and aggressive defence. But once again: 22 per cent of Australians believe in witches. This isn’t just a complaint about vapid rhetoric. When faced with reports of attacks on Indian students, it would probably be better to avoid all this empty navel-gazing about the possibility that racism is inherent in our national character, and focus on what concrete political failures may have tolerated those attacks.

Victoria has the lowest number of police per capita in any Australian state. That is surely more a factor in the state’s urban violence problem than any ‘cultural tradition [of] aggressive opportunism’. A psychological profile of Australia’s national character — if it’s even possible — is of absolutely no use when we can’t get basic policing right.