Not Listening

The Australian Senate acquiesced yesterday to the ABC’s decision to ignore its own charter and kill its shortwave service. Nick Xenophon’s amendment bill requiring the corporation to reinstate shortwave died in committee.

At the core of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s decision to cancel the service was the contention that nobody was listening. The corporation’s leaders certainly weren’t.

In the furore that followed the announcement, ABC executives claimed that they were able to find only 500 people in the Northern Territory who were still tuning in to the service. Pressed to provide evidence to back that assertion, the corporation failed to deliver.

And the Pacific islands? That was never the ABC’s business, they contended. Clearly they’ve never actually listened to their own programming.

It was only after South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon’s bill went to committee that there was any substantive debate at all.

In fairness to the ABC and to those Liberal and Labor Senators who voted down the amendment, there is a compelling argument to be made against the government telling the ABC how to do its job.

But that’s not what the bill did. As Australian Strategic Policy Institute fellow Graeme Dobell wrote, “Rather than impinging on ABC independence, the Parliament, which passed the Act, is telling the ABC to meet the first two elements of its Charter.”

“The ABC…” the corporation’s own website says, “was formed by the government as a way to regulate broadcast services and to ensure that audiences had reasonable access to a range and high standard of radio services.”

One of the early successes of the radio network was The Country Hour which, in the words of the corporation, provided “audiences outside of the city centres with vital information such as weather and stock reports and emergency information in times of need.”

The dichotomy between urban and rural life is seldom more evident than when we discuss the weather. For some of us, it affects our fashion choices and commute times. For others, it means life or death.

A similar split exists—and arguably always has—on either side of Australia’s borders. Whatever the reasons, it can fairly be argued that Australia has never seen itself as a Pacific nation.

A nation residing in the Pacific? Yes. A nation whose security mandate extends in an arc across the Pacific? Of course. A nation with unique geopolitical interests in the islands dotting the route between it and the United States? Assuredly.

But a Pacific nation?

Radio Australia, the country’s international broadcast service, was established as war threatened to engulf the region in 1941. The timing was the opposite of coincidental. ABC boss Michelle Guthrie has spoken in the past about the ABC’s mandate and ability to spread soft power throughout its broadcast area. This topic has been discussed at length in numerous forums, but it hasn’t succeeded in actually being factored into Australia’s political calculus.

That’s not because of a lack of understanding at the highest level. Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper explicitly recognises the strategic importance of the Pacific islands. Foreign minister Julie Bishop clearly gets us; she has successfully defended the Pacific from spending cuts, even when everyone else was facing reductions.

She is also the only one who has actually said the words, ‘Australia is a Pacific nation.’

But at the end of the day, Australian foreign policy isn’t a live or die issue in Parliament. And that’s because it isn’t a presence in Australian media. No one’s listening because there’s no broadcaster willing to tell people what’s out there.

It seems to be that as long as the boats don’t bring anyone new ashore, nobody cares what happens along that long blue border.

It’s this city-mouse obliviousness to the ways of life outside their own comfortable confines that has led to decades of short-sighted decisions. The ABC shortwave cut is just one recent example.

Graeme Dobell’s jeremiad on the subject on the ASPI Strategist blog is a refreshingly sharp rebuke of the deliberate, disingenuous myopia practiced by Ms Guthrie and others in systematically dismantling something that saves Australian taxpayer dollars as well as saving Pacific islanders’ lives.

The technical arguments for the cut ring so hollow they don’t even merit debate. As Mr Dobell recounts, listener numbers dropped because “the ABC deliberately degraded the strength and performance of its shortwave signal.”

The brass don’t want the service because they don’t see the need. They don’t see the need because they’ve denied their own staff the means or the mandate to convey Pacific news and culture into Australian homes. And now that vice is creating its own versa.

The only other nation in the world with evening newscasts as blindingly incurious about the world outside is the USA. And we can see what that’s done to their role in the global and regional community.

It’s so bad that even the Prime Minister of a neighbouring country can’t get the time of day.

Charlot Salwai’s warning that the shortwave service can save lives and taxpayer dollars is noted in the Senate committee report—referenced several times, in fact—and never properly answered. Neither Labor nor Liberal cared enough to provide a substantive response.

Let’s put this simply: ABC’s shortwave service costs approximately $2 million a year, but they say the cost would double if the service were actually run at the broadcast strength it’s supposed to run at. So let’s take the ABC at its word and say $4 million.

According to a recent ANU/Lowy report, Annual foreign aid to that same broadcast region has been over $2 billion since about 2010. Australia accounts for almost half of that.

So shortwave operating costs would be equal to 0.4% of Australian development spending.

Now let’s look at other costs, specifically disaster spending. This is generally over and above budgeted expenditures, and the cost of a full-scale deployment is considerable. The UN estimates that between 2006 and 2010, Australia spend almost $115 million on military humanitarian assistance.

One of the key roles the military often plays in disaster response is providing eyes and ears, helping assess and evaluate what exactly is happening. This is often because local broadcasting and communications networks are damaged or destroyed. Shortwave antennas thousands of miles from the epicentre generally manage to avoid that fate.

A single Black Hawk helicopter costs about $2,200 an hour to operate. That’s ignoring the cost of getting it into and out of theatre. An hour of shortwave broadcast across the entire region costs about $465.

I shouldn’t have to do the math here. If shortwave did nothing else but reduce the scope of disaster response, it would still be a cost-effective service.

That’s not all it could do, of course. But going further is pointless. No one’s listening.

And it will remain pointless if our leaders are ignored, reduced to non-entities in the Australian national dialogue by the very same organisation that claims nobody is listening to them.

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