Ads for breakfast cereal, cars or banks on the ABC – unthinkable? Using 1984 and 1985 Cabinet records recently released by the National Archives, Canberra writer Philip O’Brien reveals how the Hawke government considered some controversial changes to the ABC and SBS to help ease budget pressures.
For Australia in 1984 and 1985, the most significant trilogy was not the popular Star Wars films of the time but a three-pronged approach to Commonwealth budget restraint. The Hawke government’s ‘Trilogy’ pledged that Commonwealth revenue, Commonwealth expenditure and the budget deficit would not increase as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
It was against this background that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), under its fresh team of chairman Kenneth Myer and managing director Geoffrey Whitehead, found its requests for increased funding to support new activities met with less than enthusiasm.
But Cabinet had even more surprises in store for the ABC – and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) – in 1984 and 1985. Cabinet papers reveal that Cabinet gave serious thought to alternative means of funding the ABC and SBS, including corporate sponsorship and privatisation, and even considered amalgamating the two broadcasters.
Bêtes noires and sacred cows: funding the ABC and SBS
As Archives historical consultant Dr Jim Stokes notes, the search for budget savings in 1984 and 1985 meant that scrutiny fell on ‘bêtes noires and sacred cows’. The ABC and SBS were both.
The Hawke government frequently expressed irritation at aspects of the ABC’s political coverage, as historian Ken Inglis observes in his book Whose ABC? But the Hon Susan Ryan AO, Education Minister from 1983 to 1987, noted at the Cabinet release media event: ‘[there was] day to day annoyance with the ABC’s coverage of some issues, particularly from [Prime Minister Bob] Hawke and later [Paul] Keating, but in my memory [there was] never a Cabinet view that we were out to get the ABC.’
In Cabinet Submission 3011 of 3 July 1985, Communications Minister Michael Duffy noted that there was a desire among ministers to ‘examine options for wholly or partially eliminating the increasing demands of both ABC and SBS on public funds’. He offered Cabinet five options for funding the ABC and SBS: corporate underwriting of television programming, advertising, privatisation, licence fees for radio, and commercial activities.
However, the Minister argued that privatisation, advertising and corporate sponsorship would be ‘political madness’ that would destroy the national broadcasters. He rather colourfully described privatisation as ‘the Golden Ass of the Opposition’.
Duffy favoured ‘a moderate [radio] licence fee … combined with an increased entrepreneurial approach and improved management with a clearer definition of priorities’.
Grasping the nettle: merging SBS and ABC
A submission on the independence of the two national broadcasters was just as controversial. In 1984, a committee chaired by the Hon FX Connor QC had recommended that SBS remain a separate entity until 1990 when the question of a merger with the ABC would be considered by a public inquiry.
In Cabinet Submission 3264 of 17 September 1985, Duffy described the Connor Committee’s recommendation as ‘a soft option’. He argued that Cabinet should ‘grasp the nettle’ and merge the ABC and SBS, ‘with multicultural broadcasting to be integrated into the mainstream of broadcasting programming as an identifiable, visible and strong component’.
This approach, Duffy argued, would ‘help to counter both the perception of multicultural broadcasting as a second rate service and the segregation of minority groups’.
Postscript: Aunty strikes back
Neither set of recommendations was adopted in full. In July 1985 Cabinet rejected ABC and SBS privatisation, advertising and sponsorship options, instead directing that both organisations produce detailed five-year plans to show that their spending would not increase in real terms. Then, in November, Cabinet rejected the prospect of merging the ABC and SBS.
But a surprise merger was announced in the 1986 August budget, as an urgent savings measure, before finally being quashed by Prime Minister Hawke in March 1987. Arguments for ABC/SBS amalgamation have reappeared from time to time since, most recently by departing ABC chairman Maurice Newman in 2011.
While the SBS Act 1991 sanctioned the introduction of ‘advertisements or sponsorship announcements’, the ABC Act 1983 specifically prohibits advertising. The ABC continues to be funded primarily from the federal budget. However, revenue from ABC Shops and program sales has risen substantially since 1985 when Communications Minister Michael Duffy argued that the broadcasters should ‘increase activities in the market place’. It was a far-sighted recommendation – and perhaps helped save us from ad breaks on ‘our’ ABC.
What else did Cabinet consider in 1984 and 1985?
Each year on 1 January the Archives releases the Cabinet records that document the decisions which have shaped the social, cultural and political life of Australia. Following changes to the Archives Act 1983, the closed period for Cabinet records is gradually being reduced from 30 to 20 years. On 1 January 2013, Cabinet records from 1984 and 1985 were released. This video provides an overview of the issues considered by the Hawke Cabinet in 1984–85.