Alex Mitchell’s Weekly Notebook – ABC-SBS merger: Turnbull borrows policy from Labor

Keen supporters of the ABC and SBS were up in arms this week when Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition government revealed its clear intention to merge the nation’s two public broadcasters.
Those wishful souls who turned to Bill Shorten’s Labor Party for resistance were sorely disappointed. The truth is that an ABC/SBS merger has been on Labor’s “bucket list” since the 1980s.
The last Labor politician to show any consideration for public broadcasting was prime minister Paul Keating – and he used it as a bargaining chip in his prickly relationship with media barons, Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer.
However, history records that in his Federal Budget speech on Tuesday, 19 August 1986, Keating announced the ABC-SBS merger as one of his “money-saving” initiatives.
“Keating knocked a million dollars off each organisation to prove the amalgamation would save money,” recalled Keith Jackson, then general manager of ABC corporate relations.
Keating’s blow was delivered during a tumultuous time in the corporation’s history. David Hill, a former Neville Wran adviser, NSW State Rail supremo and right-wing Labor hatchet man, had just arrived at Gore Hill as ABC chairman.
A few months later managing director Geoffrey Whitehead finally succumbed to relentless internal and external pressures and resigned. Right on cue, Chairman Hill stepped into the managing director’s job.
According to Jackson, on Hill’s first day in the chairman’s office on the 13th floor, he spotted a meeting of the Ladies’ Orchestra Support Committee and wandered over to introduce himself.
“You’re David Hill,” fluttered one of the ladies. “You only look 18.”
Jackson remarked: “The new ABC chairman immediately disappeared into a flurry of blue rinse, talcum powder and Chanel No 5.”
Whitehead called a special meeting of his executive team to discuss the threatened merger and its impact on the corporation’s charter responsibilities, future staffing, management and financing.
One of the other attendees was Max Walsh, an editor-in-chief of The Australian Financial Review who was a paid ABC consultant.
“Max Walsh proposed we go for broke,” said Jackson. “Full absorption of the SBS – and be upfront about it. I argued against.”
By now, opponents of the merger were beginning to get organised. They were led by SBS chairman Sir Nicholas Shehadie, former SBS managing director Brian Johns, Hawke government cabinet minister Mick Young and former Fraser government minister Ian McPhee QC.
Their lobbying of Labor, Liberal and National MPs was devastatingly effective. Hawke took fright at the electoral consequences – particularly in ethnic communities – and the merger project disappeared without trace.

World record

World events are moving at such astonishing speed it’s difficult to keep up. In 12 months’ time the world could be turned upside down: Donald Trump in the White House, Boris Johnson in No 10 Downing Street, Tony (“The Revenant”) Abbott in The Lodge and a rejuvenated Cardinal George Pell in line to be the next Pope.
Many post-war “certainties” are crumbling. The United Kingdom is no longer united or a kingdom; the Common Market, now called the European Union, is a collection of bickering nation states falling apart; the United States empire is on its last legs and its internal stability is fraught with angry divisions over extreme wealth and poverty, race hatreds, homophobia, guns and Christian fundamentalism; China and India are rising from rural backwardness; the great Southern Hemisphere continents of Africa and South America are stirring from centuries of savage exploitation.
Whoever said – “History does not unfold: it piles up” – was right.

Turnbull unmasked

The most successful establishment politicians are invariably people with driven personalities and great ambition for people other than themselves.
On the other hand, those born with a silver spoon in their mouth are rarely successful political leaders because they have a second silver utensil stuck up an orifice at the other end of their body.
They believe in themselves to the exclusion of almost everyone else. As a result they are trapped in a cocoon of vanity, privilege and self-delusion.
As I write these lines I’m thinking of Malcolm Bligh Turnbull.
After replacing fellow Rhodes Scholar Tony Abbott last September, Turnbull received overwhelming goodwill from an electorate that was embarrassed by Abbott’s swaggering manner and his bullying approach to politics and diplomacy.
But in a few short months Turnbull has managed to lose the public’s goodwill. Today he is more likely to be regarded as a smirking egotist who seems incapable of making up his mind about anything.
Does the federal Budget have a revenue problem or a spending problem? If spending is out of control why are they allocating $30 billion on 12 submarines, new armoured vehicles and 5,000 extra soldiers? If the treatment of refugees is cruel and indefensible why are children still being held at Nauru’s hellhole?
Cabinet ministers are at odds, backbenchers are confused and the voters are saying: “I told you so – he’s just another politician.”
Suddenly, momentum has shifted in the most unlikely direction – to Bill Shorten and the Labor Party. Their numbers are up and the Coalition’s are down. According to the latest polls, the election contest is now balanced on 50-50.
The truth is out. Turnbull is not the messiah after all: just a very rich bastard with big tickets on himself.

Bye, bye Times Square

It was once said that if mainstream Republican or Democrat candidates did not enjoy the support of the “grey ghost”, The New York Times, then they didn’t have a hope in hell.
However, in the current US primaries, America’s foremost establishment paper is demonstrating how out of touch it has become.
Since the beginning of the year its august editorial board has been interviewing all the candidates and it has now delivered its verdict.
On the Democrat side, the NYT has endorsed Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. That wasn’t a surprise; it reached the same conclusion in 2008 when she raced against the eventual winner, Barack Obama.
When it came to Republican candidates, the board could not stomach Donald Trump or Ted Kruse and it was leery of Marco Rubio of Florida (probably because of his Latino name).
Surprise, surprise, the editorial board came down in favour of Ohio Governor John Kasich who “is the only plausible choice for Republicans tired of the extremism and inexperience on display in this race”.
However, Kasich hasn’t looked like winning a single primary and after “Super Tuesday” on March 1 when 11 states will be decided, I suspect Kasich will pull the plug and go back to Ohio and obscurity.

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