Interview with Peter Van Onselen – Sky News PVO News Hour – Wednesday 12 November 2014





SUBJECT / S: Cuts to the ABC; media ownership; Free Trade Agreement.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Jason Clare thanks very much for your company.


VAN ONSELEN: Malcolm Turnbull has all but admitted that there are cuts to the ABC but he does say that they are cuts that will be back of house rather than affecting programing. Do you accept that?

CLARE: No I don’t, I’m glad he’s admitted there are cuts, he couldn’t keep that charade going for much longer. There were cuts on the Budget and there’s more cuts to come. What they constitute is a broken promise, that’s the first point that is important to make here. The night before the election Tony Abbott said there would be no cuts to the ABC. Well there were cuts in the Budget, there’s more cuts coming soon and it will be about half a billion dollars’ worth of cuts. Malcolm Turnbull’s argument that this is just back of house is falling apart as well because we’ve had the head of the ABC say that you can’t just cut back of house without having an impact on programing and I suspect we’ll see that when these cuts come that we’ll see hundreds of people get the sack at the ABC and lots of programs hit the cutting room floor as well.

VAN ONSELEN: Do you accept though that perhaps the ABC has gone beyond its remit? The 24 hour news channel that may be a good thing, obviously I’m speaking as someone who’s sitting here now on a 24 hour news channel but I’m more interested in and I guess I’m conflicted here too because I write for a newspaper, I’m more interested in the virtual newspaper that they have online. Is this really the sort or resource allotment that should be happening with the national broadcaster?

CLARE: I strongly think that’s the approach that they need to take. That’s where all news is going, online. Whether it’s a website, where you can read what’s happening in the news or whether it’s something like iView, this is where commercial broadcasters are going as well. If ABC doesn’t go there then it just won’t keep pace with what people want, with what people want to see and what people want to read.

VAN ONSELEN: And I guess where that then takes us, we’ll come back to the ABC in a moment, but that sort of extends the debate into whether cross media ownership laws need to change or not. We are living in a multiplatform, multimedia age and the argument increasingly coming from the big media players, the latest being Seven of course, is that those laws are archaic and they need to be scrapped. I know you will wait to see what the Government comes up with but is Labor on board with the principle of making adjustments to these cross media laws given the modern age we are in?

CLARE: We’ve got an open mind. We do need to see the whole package. What Seven has said is what I’ve said, you can’t just look at media ownership laws in isolation we also need to see what the Government has planned in terms of broadcasting sport – whether some of that will move from free-to-air to programing on Foxtel. We also need to see what they are doing on fees as well.

I’d make the general point that whilst the internet has changed things, it hasn’t transformed the media in the ways Malcolm Turnbull would suggest. The best way to illustrate that is the fact that the top five news websites are all owned by traditional media companies, by News, by Fairfax and by the ABC and so people are still getting their news information online from the traditional media outlets and if like me you think that diversity of media ownership is important then you do need to factor that into any decisions you make.

VAN ONSELEN: Just going back to the ABC and the cuts, the Minister has admitted that they are cuts that lead me to accept your comment that it’s a broken election promise. That said however, the ABC does have fat that can be shed, I wouldn’t be surprised sitting there in our Sydney studio at Sky News if you had to set yourself up, we are a much leaner operation. I wonder whether you think that there is an expectation that the national broadcaster also becomes a leaner operation, like a commercial operation, like Sky News or do you see it as more understandable or acceptable that a broadcaster that is the national broadcaster perhaps has a few more bells and whistles then we do here at Sky News?

CLARE: Any organisation can be more efficient, the ABC is no exception, same with SBS. My argument has been that for Tony Abbott to keep his promise he needs to make sure that where he finds efficiencies, he should reinvest that money in the ABC to do the sorts of things Labor did, create things like ABC3 or iView.

To your broader point, yes I think there is a bigger role for the ABC and the best evidence of that are the foreign correspondents that it places around the world, in places like Indonesia or Japan, New Zealand, China, the United States to make sure that Australia understands what’s happening in other parts of the world and Sky can’t always do that or it does it in different ways, through the contracts that it has with international media organisations.

VAN ONSELEN: Do you worry though that a national broadcaster can crowd out the market, I mean you want at one level, it’s a catch-22 isn’t it? At one level you want a challenged media commercial environment, you want a national broadcaster that ensures certain levels of quality media and investigative reporting but by the same token the stronger and the bigger they are they have a distorting effect on the market as well. It really is a bit of a catch-22.

CLARE: That would be a legitimate argument if you think they are crowding it out, I just don’t think they are. The reverse is often true, I was up the Central Coast and in Newcastle in New South Wales today and in many parts of Australia the only place that you can get the news on the radio is through ABC – ABC regional radio, which provides an essential service, a service that often no one else provides. We are coming into bushfire season and it reminds us all about the important work ABC does in those circumstances. I would hate to see cuts that are now being contemplated and soon to be announced having an impact on regional radio services for example.

VAN ONSELEN: I’m sure the National Party will keep a close eye on that one. Just finally Jason Clare, before we run out of time, I wanted to ask you about what you’re potential expectations are I suppose around the Free Trade Agreement with China. It looks like it’s going to be signed early next week, it’s all but finalised apparently.

Labor of course was heavily involved with this over the years before now, so as a senior Minister in that Government you would have had some awareness in that area yourself. Are there concerns or are there potential areas that are being looked at here that impact on the Communications portfolio, I’m particularly thinking about some of the issues around China as a non-democracy in that space of service provision around the NBN, have you got any wind of concerns there?

CLARE: No I haven’t been told of any areas that might be of concern. Certainly there was the prospect about twelve months ago of Huawei being allowed to provide infrastructure as part of the NBN. There was a split in the Government, Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop wanted to include them in the NBN, George Brandis and Tony Abbott said no. Malcolm Turnbull was rolled. I think that was the right decision that the Government made.

More generally on the Free Trade Agreement I’d say this, we’ve been reflecting on the work of Gough Whitlam, he helped to build that formal relationship with China back forty years ago. Two-way trade between Australia and China was less than a hundred million dollars a year, now it’s worth more than a hundred billion dollars a year. A Free Trade Agreement will help to build on that. We need to see the details of it but these sorts of agreements are key to Australia’s future.

VAN ONSELEN: Jason Clare appreciate your time, thanks very much.

CLARE: Thanks very much Peter.