In 2018, the federal government announced a three-year freeze of ABC’s annual funding indexation, which took effect last July. This will force cuts of around $28 million in 2020-21 and more than $41 million the following year.
“As I have said previously, the indexation pause the ABC is faced with in this current triennial budget cycle has – and will continue to have – significant effects on ABC content and services,” Anderson says. For this reason, he is urging the government to lift the freeze.
ABC chair Ita Buttrose has put the same request to Prime Minister Scott Morrison. “I did have a very constructive conversation,” she told Radio National on Monday. “The ABC is making the case for funding to be fully restored so we can deliver all of the services and meet all the expectations of our Australian audiences.”
[The ABC] has more financial certainty than any other media organisation in the country.
Spokesman for Communications Minister Paul Fletcher
A more likely outcome, according to ABC executives, is the government allocating a special grant for emergency broadcasting while keeping the freeze in place. “We’re hoping for an answer soon but it could be months away, which could delay our final plans for job cuts,” says one senior manager.
A spokesman for Communications Minister Paul Fletcher says the ABC’s $1 billion-plus annual budget gives it “more financial certainty than any other media organisation in the country”.
“Many television and radio broadcasters, including the ABC, worked tirelessly during the recent devastating bushfires to provide timely news and information,” the spokesman says. “ABC local radio is extremely important to regional communities and our national broadcaster should prioritise emergency broadcasting during crises.”
A plan to expand ABC’s presence in outer suburbs and increase its coverage of “bread and butter issues” is a major part of the five-year blueprint, sources say. This includes a new bureau in the Sydney suburb of Parramatta, with the number of permanent staff doubling to six. Headed by Kathleen Calderwood, it will house two local community journalists and serve as a base for other other ABC staff such as police and court reporters.
In suburban areas without the population density to justify a stand-alone office, cheaper solutions will be sought. These may include more flexible working arrangements, journalists embedding themselves in communities and public events. (One such event in Melbourne’s Box Hill led to a report about the suburb’s reputation as a “mini-Shanghai”, which drew a large readership and a Quill Award nomination.)
“Pretty much everyone in the ABC agrees with the critics who say we should decentralise out of inner-Sydney and Melbourne,” says a veteran journalist. “But that costs money and you can’t have it both ways. Every cut to our budget puts pressure on us to centralise even more.”
Michael Lallo is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.