Managing the Australian Broadcasting Commission and Special Broadcasting Service

Communications Minister Michael Duffy took submissions to Cabinet on the future of the ABC and SBS. The Treasurer's Economic Statement of 14 May 1985 had foreshadowed a review of funding arrangements and the Economic Review Committee of Cabinet had ruled that demands on the budget by the ABC and SBS should be restrained, but without destroying the basic character of the national broadcasters. In relation to the ABC Duffy offered Cabinet five options, ranging from the reintroduction of radio licence fees through management improvement, advertising, corporate sponsorship and merchandising to privatisation. Duffy argued that privatisation, advertising and corporate sponsorship would be 'political madness' that would destroy the national broadcasters: he described privatisation as 'the Golden Ass of the Opposition'. The bureaucracy was divided: Treasury favoured sponsorship and some advertising, Prime Minister and Cabinet favoured sponsorship but not advertising, and Finance and the Australian Taxation Office opposed licence fees, the former because they were inefficient and the latter because it was afraid that it might be asked to collect them. Cabinet rejected the privatisation, advertising and sponsorship options on 24 July 1985 and directed the ABC and SBS to produce detailed five-year plans to demonstrate that their spending would not increase in real terms.

A committee chaired by the Hon FX Connor QC recommended in 1984 that SBS should remain independent until 1990, when the question of a merger with the ABC should be considered by a public inquiry. However Duffy argued that Cabinet should make an immediate decision either to merge the ABC and SBS or that they should remain independent. He told Cabinet that the disappearance of ethnic radio and multicultural television would not be tolerated, but that SBS would become an increasing political embarrassment unless it was put on a firm administrative footing. Duffy envisaged a significant broadening of the role of SBS along the lines of Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, including the broadcasting of news and a wide range of programs. Cabinet decided on 4 November 1985 to reject any prospect of merging the ABC and SBS.

Selected documents

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2018