Simple as ABC – a public radio/TV licence

 

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Chart: ABC annual report 2016-2017

At first glance, Treasurer Scott Morrison’s plan to slash $83.7 million from the ABC operating budget seems mean-spirited. At second glance, when he tells reporters ‘everyone has to live within their means’, it still seems mean-spirited.

The Budget proposal comes at a critical time for the ABC, which has been dealing with cumulative cuts of $254 million since 2014.

The Federal Treasurer, having painted the picture large, sent a hospital pass to Finance Minister Mathias Cormann to handle the outrage. Mr Cormann defended the decision to freeze indexation for three years (which amounts to $83.7 million), saying that all taxpayer-funded organisations have to find efficiencies.

The national broadcaster has been tightening its belt so much there is no room left for another notch. Managing director Michelle Guthrie sent an email to all staff saying as much, which she amplified in a press release. Ms Guthrie said the impact of the decision could not be absorbed by efficiency measures alone, as the ABC had already achieved significant productivity gains in response to past budget cuts.

She referred to Budget measures starting in 2014 with a 20% cut to the operating budget. The ABC was told to slash $254 million from its operating budget within five years. The broadcaster began to make cuts which were expected to save $207 million in 2015.

Jobs were lost, through natural attrition or redundancy, and the ABC also started reviewing its property portfolio and transmission network. As I have written previously, there was a general hubbub of protestation about this, circa November 2014.

“Petitioners were petitioning, GetUp was getting up, the ABC Friends group was lobbying and raising funds. They should have seen it coming,” I wrote.

A graph in the ABC’s latest annual report (above) shows how its operational budget has waxed and waned, dropping 28% from 1985-1986 to 2017-2018. As the graph indicates, the ABC has weathered some very lean years, particularly 1997-1998, under John Howard and Peter Costello.

The ABC annual report says 2017–18 was the third year to reflect previously announced Government-funding reductions. As part of the ABC/SBS Additional Efficiency Savings measure, there was a year on year increase of $7.7 million in the cut to the ABC’s base funding, bringing the total decrease in base funding to $55.2 million per annum.

This week Ms Guthrie said the ABC was continuing to implement various savings initiatives to address funding cuts, comprising efficiency savings in support functions and transmission (to cover the previously budgeted reduction of $12.5 million required in 2018–19).

Back to the drawing board, then.

Ms Guthrie said the decision came at a critical time for the ABC, as it starts triennial funding negotiations with the Government.

“The ABC is now more important than ever, given the impact of overseas players in the local media industry and the critical role the ABC plays as Australia’s most trusted source of news, analysis and investigative journalism.”

There is also a risk that the Enhanced Newsgathering initiative will not be renewed (at a cost of $43 million). The ABC acknowledges a decision on this funding is yet to be made by the Government. Considering the hullabaloo that followed economic reporter Emma Alberici’s analysis of the government’s plan to cut corporate tax rates, these financial constraints must be seen as ideological and punitive.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said the ABC was “one of the pet hates of the Liberal Party”, and it’s hard to disagree.

“Because the ABC occasionally asks questions of the government they’re going to wind back $83 million,” he told the ABC.

But Finance Minister Mathias Cormann says the ABC will still receive $3.2 billion over those three years.

“This is effectively equivalent to the efficiency dividend that applies to nearly all other government taxpayer-funded organisations,” he added.

One of the early victims of successive budget cuts was the ABC Fact Check Unit, which was closed down in May 2016. ABC news director Gaven Morris said at the time “Unfortunately, having a standalone unit is no longer viable in the current climate.”

In March 2017, however, the unit was revived as a joint venture between RMIT University and the ABC. The unit’s brief, as it was before, is to ‘test and adjudicate on the accuracy of claims made by politicians, public figures, advocacy groups and institutions engaged in public debate’.

Which governments taxed us the most?

You may have seen an infographic on social media which the Fact Check Unit verified. It shows which governments taxed us the most, spanning the years between Whitlam and Turnbull. Tax as a percentage of GDP peaked in the Howard years at 23.5%. The Whitlam years averaged 19.4%. The Abbott/Turnbull years thus far average 21.7%. Interestingly, the turbulent years of Rudd/Gillard/Rudd averaged 20.9%.

So isn’t it satisfying to publish information like that and know it has been fact-checked and found to be factual? In this era where fake news and what I’d call ‘sponsored news’ leaves us with a skewed perspective, it is refreshing to see the ABC has found a new way to maintain standards.

There were some moments in the Federal Budget one could choose to laud; tax cuts, better reverse mortgage opportunities for pensioners and more funding for the homeless, albeit dependent on State contributions. But there was no respite for people on NewStart and no real plan to address housing affordability.

And, as the Climate Council pointed out, there was nothing at all in the Budget to address climate change – the words were not even mentioned.

For perspective, take a moment to think about the Federal Treasurer’s $50 million plan to redevelop the Meeting Place Precinct in Botany Bay (including a $3 million statue of Captain James Cook). Yes, it’s in Mr Morrison’s electorate, but surely that’s a side issue, Leigh?

If I may revisit an idea from Simple as ABC in 2014, the budgetary travails of the ABC and the ideology motivating it could simply be avoided. All it would take is an annual public radio/TV licence; $35 per household per year would (now) raise about $300 million. If the government of the day would guarantee indexed funding of $1 billion a year, the ABC could plan, rebuild and restore quality for the long-term.

Let’s be reminded that we all paid a radio licence from 1920 and continued doing so until colour TV was introduced in the early 1970s. Not every household in Australia would be happy about paying this licence fee. Some would see it as subsidising those dangerous lefties and bleeding hearts at the ABC and SBS.

But something radical needs to happen, to arrest the decline in quality (e.g. ABC online), restore transmission to remote areas (try getting an ABC station on your car radio when travelling in country areas-Ed.) and ensure money can be found for important investigations.

Every week since 1961 the award-winning Four Corners has continued to unearth important stories. Investigative journalism is an expensive business which requires reliable funding and a relatively free hand.

If we want more important stories like the live sheep export scandal, the solution is simple as ABC: We need to consistently fund the national broadcaster and guarantee its editorial independence.

Further reading: Mr Denmore thinks the media should boycott the Budget Lockup:

http://bobwords.com.au/simple-abc/

http://bobwords.com.au/simple-abc-part-2/

 

Censorship, guns and the right to arm bears

 

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This image is classified (S) for satire under FOMM’s censorship guidelines

I was idly wondering if I should have a go at George Christensen for pulling that silly, anti-greenies gun stunt at the firing range but self censorship kicked in. What if he knows where I live? I blanched. The process known in journalism school as ‘self censorship by osmosis’ still kicks in, even 18 years down the track.

You may have assumed I was about to jump into the very deep pool of acrimonious discourse about mass shootings, guns and gun control. Actually, no, there are enough rabid views out there from one side and the other. Perhaps you will have seen Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s repost of the kind of vile trolling one can attract by advocating for the environment (if not, don’t bother looking it up – Ed.)

Instead, I thought we should look at a worrisome instance of censorship; where a respected economic analyst/journalist had an article taken down by the national broadcaster, the ABC. Emma Alberice’s reasoned piece about corporate tax cuts was removed by ABC management, reportedly after complaints from on high about its alleged lack of impartiality. Alberice’s article argues there is no case for a corporate tax cut when one in five of Australia’s top companies don’t pay any tax.

After public criticism, the ABC deflected cries of ‘censorship’ saying removing the analysis and an accompanying news story were ‘entirely due to concerns about Ms Alberici’s compliance with ABC editorial policies that differentiate analysis from opinion’.

The analysis has since been scrutinised by experts and given the seal of approval. It has even been re-posted at a public affairs website owned by the eminent Australian, John Menadue, AO. You may recall Menadue. He started his working life as private secretary to Gough Whitlam (1960-67), before forging a career in the private sector then returning to public service in the mid-1970s. He has since led a distinguished career in both public and private life, most notably as an Australian diplomat.

Mr Denmore, one of Australia’s more incisive commentators on media and economics, wrote this in Alberici’s defence:

Mr Denmore (the pseuydonym of a former finance journalist), sees this issue as plain old-fashioned censorship.

He concludes that Alberice was merely offering insights, which have got the nod from some serious-headed economists, as ‘uncomfortable truths’, which those in high government office and boardrooms found too confronting.

Now, a week later, the ABC has reinstated* Emma Alberici’s analysis, albeit with some passages removed. As former ABC journalist Quentin Dempster reported in The New Daily, the author and her lawyers negotiated an agreed form of words for the reposted analysis.

The removal of Alberici’s original analysis coincided with a planned US visit by a high-level delegation of Australian business and government leaders.  The latest advocate of global  of ‘trickle-down economics’,+ President Donald Trump, will meet with PM Malcolm Turnbull today. No doubt Mal will be taking notes on the US president’s ‘open for business’ approach of slashing corporate tax rates from 35% to 21%. Australia’s more modest proposal, which is currently blocked in the Senate, is to reduce the corporate tax rate from 30% to 25%, over a decade.

+A term attributed to American comedian Will Rogers, who used the term derisively, as did later opponents of President Reagan’s ‘Reaganomics’.

The nation’s top business leaders, under the umbrella of the Business Council of Australia, will also meet with US governors and top-level US company executives. Australian State Premiers, including Queensland’s Annastasia Palaszczuk, will also attend.

Business Council head Jennifer Westacott told the Sydney Morning Herald she feels that Australian business is “in the weeds of politics” and

“Meanwhile in the US they’re getting on with it.”

Westacott and Council members support the Australian corporate tax cut proposal as the only policy that can deliver jobs and growth.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten is taking the hard line – a corporate tax cut cannot help ordinary people, at a time when companies are using tax havens and keeping wages low. Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen admits there is a case for company tax cuts, but said the LNP’s plan is unaffordable when the budget is in deficit.

The attempt to gag debate on this subject is, however, more worrying than the toadying going on in Washington. Australia ranks 19th in an international survey of countries judged on press freedoms. Reporters without Borders (RSF) maintains the list of 180 countries, many of whom oppress the media in far more serious ways than plain old censorship.

Australian media freedoms pursued by stealth

At first glance, 19th from 180 sounds good, but Australia has some issues, not the least of which is concentration of media ownership. The risk of self censorship is high, given the lack of job opportunities elsewhere. The 2017 survey notes that new laws in 2015 provide for prison sentences for whistleblowers who disclose information about defence matters, conditions in refugee centres or operations by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization.

I sometimes fret about a FOMM I wrote before these laws were introduced – an eyewitness account of US Marine movements after a chance encounter at a Northern Territory roadhouse.

“Aw shucks, we all just stopped to use the latrine, Ma’am.”

There’s more: a new telecommunications law has opened the door for surveillance of the metadata of journalists’ communications. Federal police raids on Labor Party parliamentarians in 2016 violated the confidentiality of sources. The Reporters without Borders report says the latter showed that authorities were “more concerned about silencing the messengers than addressing the issues of concern to the public that had been raised by their revelations”.

Meanwhile, a new draft national security bill seeks to restrict foreign interference in politics and national security. It contains secrecy and espionage provisions that could result in journalists being sent to prison for five years just for being in possession of sensitive information.

Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, called the draft bill “oppressive and ill-conceived”.

“If this bill were passed, journalists receiving sensitive information they had not sought would automatically be in violation of the law. If this law had existed in the United States in 1974, the Watergate scandal would never have come to light.”

The free-wheeling nature of social media ensures that dissenting discourse does not stay banned for very long, though often exposed to a much smaller audience.

You may censor me, but never my T-shirts

I suppose now you want me to explain the relevance of the Right to Arm Bears T-shirt, eh? This now threadbare item was bought from a tourist shop on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls in 2010. I have been trying to find and purchase a replacement online. The manufacturer (Gildan) has similar T-shirts but none as fetching as the grumpy-looking bears wearing hunting jackets.

Wearing a shirt that makes a political point, however ironically, is an individual’s right in a free country to express an opinion. In my case it succinctly states my position on American gun laws, just as another T-shirt bought from a stall at Woodford, depicting a full-masted, 17th century sailboat (”Boat People”) says a lot about my attitude to refugees. Perhaps I should replace it with a Save the ABC shirt. Seems like the ABC needs all the friends it can find.

*Read Emma Alberici’s revised analysis here:

More on press freedom.

Keeping Cabinet secrets safe

Keeping-Cabinet-Secrets
Keeping Cabinet secrets, image by Ricky Lynch

Zounds, it’s only the ninth day of February and some records have been set, including the biggest ever accidental leaking of Cabinet secrets. In un-related news, the weather bureau said last Saturday (the 3rd) was the coldest February day in 100 years. We didn’t have a fire on because we had no dry wood, but some Hinterland folks were better organised. BOM said it was 18 degrees but with the rain, fog and all-day and all night drizzle, it felt like 16.

Our New Zealand, Canadian and UK friends and relatives would no doubt scoff at 16-18 degrees being described as chilly. But this is the sub tropics after all, and a week earlier we were enduring temperatures in the mid-30s.

Although it was comparatively balmy in Canberra last weekend (25/10, 27/14), the atmosphere was decidedly chillier. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull turned up for the ABC’s Insiders programme on Sunday vowing that “heads would roll” over the accidental disposal of two filing cabinets full of Cabinet secrets.

The cabinets went to a Canberra second hand office furniture store and were purchased by a citizen who later drilled them open. The (Parliamentary) Cabinet papers dating back 10 years, many marked Top Secret or AUSTEO (Australian Eyes Only), were handed to the ABC. The national broadcaster published nine stories based on the Cabinet secrets over the following days before explaining how they came into the broadcaster’s possession. The ABC deemed some material too sensitive for publication because of national security issues.

In the meantime, Australia’s spy agency ASIO visited ABC headquarters in Sydney and Brisbane and negotiated secure storage for the documents and eventually reclaimed the Cabinet secrets.

Patrick Weller, Griffith University’s Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, judged that the use of the papers by the ABC seemed random. “The ABC was probably aware they had limited time to play the story before it became public and everyone else jumped aboard,” he wrote in The Conversation.

“The story was more about the filing cabinets than the cabinet papers, about the carelessness rather than the content,” Prof. Weller said.

Prof. Weller argued that the leaking of (historical) Cabinet papers is not such a disaster for governments in that they are often time specific, advising about matters long forgotten and maybe even now seen as minor incidents.

As the rules go, historical Cabinet papers are made available after 30 years; once a year in January we get to see another batch. They make for interesting reading if you are a historian or a political academic, but rarely anything more than that. Prof Weller says most Cabinet papers could be released within five years. Only a few would matter.

International eyes on sloppy Aussies

Nevertheless, the story caught the attention of the world’s media and Australia’s international allies – the US, Canada, the UK and New Zealand. The Washington Post commissioned a piece from Australian writer Richard Glover, who pithily summarised the Cabinet secrets affair as “Deep Drawers”.

As Glover observed, the key problem with the sale of unchecked government furniture is that anyone could have bought them, then handed their contents to a foreign agent or government.

He quoted Andrew Wilkie, a former intelligence analyst now sitting MP: “It sends a signal to our intelligence partners and allies that Australia might not be trustworthy when it comes to sharing information and intelligence with us.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Sunday the “shocking failure” would be fully investigated and the people responsible held accountable.

The idea that public servants, entrusted with highly confidential documents, would put them in a safe, lock the safe, lose the keys, and then sell the safe without checking what was in it – it beggars belief,” he told Insiders

It’s not just governments. Forbes magazine guest writer Mark Emery, director of a document management company, cited examples of big organisations mishandling confidential data. They included paper documents from four hospitals in Massachusetts found un-shredded in a public dumping facility. Another hospital in the same state admitted that personal records of 800,000 people were “missing”.

In Dallas, Texas, prisoners on parole were allowed to work off community service hours by sorting and shredding confidential documents, such as birth certificates and medical records. The practice was scrapped in 2012.

Richard Glover mentions similar circumstances in the 1990s when diplomatic bags were sent to be laundered at Wandsworth prison in the UK. In 1991, Canada’s diplomatic bags (full of top-secret NATO documents)  were mistakenly sent there too, and went missing soon after.

Mistakes happen, in business, in government and in our private lives. Who has not sent a sensitive email intended for one person to many people? The digital data system is just as prone to this kind of mishap as the traditional paper file system.

When computers first started becoming dominant in business (in the 1990s), we were sold the myth of the “paperless office”. Twenty years later, even a micro-business like mine goes through a couple of reams of paper per month. Most people I know who run any kind of consulting business buy a shredder and keep it working (don’t forget to take staples out first!)

Last year in Sydney and Melbourne there were reports of medical files and legal papers found dumped in unlocked kerbside recycling bins. When stories like this make it into the media, they should at least make individuals aware of the need for safeguarding sensitive information.

In the 1980s, I’d been court reporting in a country city for several years. I always archived my jumbo-size reporters’ notebooks – filled on both sides with untidy scrawl – a mix of shorthand and my unique form of notetaking. The second time we moved house, I looked at the four archive boxes full of musty notebooks and decided I had to get rid of them.

I found a waste recycling firm which offered “secure disposal”. They dropped off a big wheelie bin at my place, the lid secured with chains and a padlock. Once I’d filled it up, I called the firm and they picked up the bin. The firm assured me the notebooks would be “burned or pulped”. This exercise cost $75, but what a salve for my conscience. The majority of matters heard in court never make it into the news or are briefly summarised. More importantly, magistrates and judges may decide to supress reporting. There was an example of a district court trial where I took copious notes only to find out that the defendants’ and plaintiffs’ names could not be published. Later a blanket ban was issued and we couldn’t print anything. Notwithstanding, a good court reporter will write everything down – better to have too much than not enough.

So that’s why I was feeling suitably smug, all these years later, when the strange case of “Deep Drawers” hit the news. It’s hard enough to keep secrets secret in the era of digital ‘cloud’ storage, super hackers and whistle-blowers. But Richard Glover’s oblique reference to “Deep Throat” (nickname of the Watergate source), nevertheless reminds us that if we want to discard sensitive paper files, dispose of them as I did.

If that was all a little heavy for an early autumn Friday, here’s a few songs about February to help you cope with the cold (or the heat).

The list did not include February, a poignant tune by Dar Williams, but here it is anyway.

 

King decrees universal basic income

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King decrees universal basic income Image by Jason Train, Flickr https://flic.kr/p/f1BBQu

The question for the week is, what, apart from introducing a universal basic income, would you do if you were King, President or Prime Minister for a day? The term ‘King for a Day,’ which has inspired more than a dozen pop songs and an obscure opera by Verdi, implies that for 24 hours you get to be loved by the masses. You can loll about in a high-backed chair, gold orb and sceptre in hand, and be fawned over – mint juleps and the like.

In the Silly Season, media outlets tend to ask people questions like this, for a news slot or an inconveniently empty news hole next to a couple of ads. The ABC North Queensland asked a bunch of 11-year-old kids and some senior citizens what they’d do if they were Prime Minister for the day. Some of the answers were predictable enough. Sophie, 11 said, “Give everyone a day off so adults can take their kids out (and make theme parks free).” James (10) said he’d employ more scientists so Australia can get its research skills up (reserve that kid a cabinet post, circa 2030). Keira (11) wanted more national parks; Charlotte (11) wanted a program for kids to do work experience and be taught something they want to do.

If I could be King for a Day, I’d single out the dysfunctional tax and welfare systems and propose the following reforms:

Introduction of a universal basic income for all adults: $25k a year, indexed, no strings attached. Adults are free to earn money over and above the $25k, but it will be taxed on a sliding scale to the maximum rate for anyone earning more than, say, $150k.

Hypothetically, a previously unemployed or under-employed couple could, with a tax-free household income of $50,000, find jobs, start a business, renovate the spare bedroom, and join Airbnb and ramp up their annual income in a myriad of ways. Their only duty would be to the Tax Office.

Treasury boffins would be responsible for reforming the tax system to ensure the universal basic income could be funded and that as few people as possible are disadvantaged. Treasury could find ways to encourage business to work with this new system, for example offering generous tax rebates for research and development.

In my Kingdom, all forms of social welfare would be replaced by a new regime, overseen by the Office of Financial and Social Opportunity and Incentivisation (NOOFASOI). The office would oversee payment of the UBI and iron out the inevitable wrinkles in a new and untested system.

This is not just a FOMM flight of fancy

Countries as diverse as Finland, France, Ireland, Norway, the US, Canada, New Zealand, Holland, Iceland, India and Brazil are either talking about universal basic income or trialling it in one form or another. Switzerland had a referendum, and while the people said no, it shows how front of mind this issue has become. Indeed, Australia has a university-sponsored programme to research income security.

And the Parliament of Australia published this comprehensive yet concise policy paper by Don Henry, for those who want to find out more.

The media went on a feeding frenzy recently after the end of the first year of Finland’s two-year trial to dole out a subsistence amount (no strings attached) to 2,000 unemployed Finns. The Finnish government (wisely) is letting the experiment run and will only look at it the results when the trial ends.

I would not pretend to understand the complexities of financing a universal basic income and the social engineering required to make it work.

An OECD report in 2017 said that despite well-publicised campaigns for a Basic Income, no country has put a BI in place as a pillar of income support for the working age population.

“The recent upsurge in attention to BI proposals in OECD countries, including those with long-standing traditions of providing comprehensive social protection, is therefore remarkable,” the report says.

It’s not so remarkable when one looks into the growing inequality that is being spawned by job losses as a result of automation and digital disruption. As Oxfam said last week, 42 people hold as much wealth as the 3.7 billion people in the poorest half of the world’s population.

This is clearly not sustainable. 

From where I sit, the domination of the contract or ‘gig economy’ and a part-time, casual workforce has left the welfare system behind. Moreover, the welfare bureaucracy is unrealistically punitive, in that it forces the unemployed to prove they are pursuing fast-disappearing jobs to qualify for support.

Mainstream conservative publications including The Economist and the Financial Times have canvassed the UBI debate. As the FT said, it “strengthens a sense that the traditional welfare state is no longer fit for purpose”.

The advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are threatening many jobs around the world, the FT said, adding that most workers have come to accept that the job for life has gone for good.

But if the intent of a UBI is to lift people out of poverty and ensure wealthier people pay their fair share of tax, it’s not that simple.

The OECD report concludes that introducing a UBI in countries with strong social support systems would not solve poverty and would lead to higher taxes. Others warn against dismantling welfare systems, which, however flawed, are at least a safety net for the poor and disadvantaged.

George Zarkadakis, an AI engineer and writer, outlined some of the flaws in an article for Huffington Post. Zarkadakis dismissed talk of taxing the cash reserves of fully automated companies, saying this would affect their ability to invest and innovate; they would lose their competitive position to low-tax or zero tax regimes. Likewise, he was sceptical about the hi-tech and energy companies that are lobbying for (and prepared to help fund) a UBI, arguing that this would give them undue political influence.

The ancient ideal of a UBI (Thomas More’s social satire, Utopia, published in 1516), frees creative people and artisans around the fringes of the commercial world to develop their skills without financial pressure. The ‘shall we tell Centrelink?’ poser goes into the dustbin of history, along with the often inaccurate stereotype of the ‘goddamn, long-haired hippy dole bludger’. People on disability pensions would no longer have to get stressed about the fluctuating cycles of their illnesses. For example, a person receiving the blind pension (which is not means tested), can lose it if they recover some sight. There is also the travesty where workers made redundant find out that 30 years of paying tax counts for nothing. Unless their payout is locked up in super, they’ll have to spend every cent of it before dipping into the public purse.

Even a theoretical discussion about a UBI should alert us to many of the anomalies in our welfare system, which arise from outdated legislation and an institutionalised idea that people are out to rort the system.

As for my Kingly privileges for a day (you can tell how far along we are with ‘The Crown’), I was so busy hunting grouse, inspecting broodmares, dallying with ladies-in-waiting and whatnot, I never got around to doing anything. Terribly sorry.

More reading: Hardship in Australia