“If indexation was restored, combined with savings and efficiencies that the ABC has identified in recent months, the Corporation would be in a position to commit an additional investment of up to $10 million per annum to employ more journalists in regional Australia and generate more content from regions for the local and national stories,” Mr Anderson wrote.
Several government sources have confirmed Mr Fletcher did not reply to the letter, nor did he discuss the proposal with the ABC or his National Party colleagues, who have constantly raised concerns over the future of regional media outlets, following a spate of natural disasters including last summer’s fires.
Several Nationals MPs, including cabinet minister Darren Chester, openly praised the work of the national broadcaster during the summer’s bushfires. Internally they have pushed to ensure any cuts would not affect regional services.
In his letter Mr Anderson also outlined a similar proposal put to the Turnbull government 15 months earlier. A plan for additional investment over three years, rising to $30 million in the third year, aimed to expand and enhance regional services and its emergency broadcasting capabilities.
“This funding would have enabled the ABC to extend its presence to new centres and close coverage gaps, boost state coverage, and expand coverage to more remote areas,” he wrote. “By design, this proposal would also bolster our emergency broadcasting capabilities, support community resilience, especially content around preparing for, and living through drought, fires, floods and other emergencies.”
The issue threatens to turbo-charge next week’s Eden-Monaro by-election, in a region that suffered huge destruction and hardship during the national bushfire crisis. The ABC has covered more than 850 emergency broadcasting events in the past 12 months, compared to 256 events in 2017-18 and 371 events in 2018-19.
The ABC announced $40 million worth of cuts on Wednesday under a new five-year strategic plan. Mr Anderson’s plan includes 250 job losses – 70 from the news division – the end of the 7:45am radio news bulletin and jettisoning ABC Comedy and ABC Life.
Mr Fletcher and Prime Minister Scott Morrison staunchly defended the level of funding provided to the ABC this week, insisting the government has not cut its budget. Mr Morrison and Mr Fletcher backed the national broadcaster’s efforts to be more focused on regional and suburban Australia.
ABC chair Ita Buttrose has since lashed out at Mr Fletcher, accusing him of lying about the national broadcaster’s efforts to collaborate with SBS and the way in which the budget freeze has been handled.
Ms Buttrose posted a statement on the ABC’s website on Friday afternoon reiterating that the cuts were “unsustainable”.
“Without the ABC we would have a balkanised and parochial bunch of broadcasters that are in danger of being compromised by profit and more intent on dividing than unifying,” Ms Buttrose said.
“These funding cuts are unsustainable if we are to provide the media services that Australians expect of us. Indexation must be renewed.”
A spokesman for Mr Fletcher said that it is routine for ministers to receive proposals from agencies in their portfolio.
“With the ABC, as with other agencies in his portfolio, Minister Fletcher aims to have a mutually respectful and trust-based working relationship in which ideas and proposals can be freely discussed,” a spokesman said. “He looks forward to that relationship continuing.”
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra
Zoe Samios is a media and telecommunications reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.