The Abbott government’s cuts to the ABC are neither savage nor indefensible.
Compared with decisions to charge people to go to the doctor, or to withdraw financial support for the young unemployed, they are a mere pimple on the policy landscape.
If, in the pursuit of a balanced budget, pensioners will have to make do with less and families will have to pay more at the petrol bowser, it is at least arguable that the ABC should take a trim.
Yet the cuts are important politically because they are the clearest example of an unpalatable, unavoidable truth: Tony Abbott lied to Australians to help win his way into office.
The extraordinary defence proferred by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Wednesday only served to draw attention to this breach of faith.
In essence, Mr Turnbull argued that, because he and Joe Hockey had already stated that the ABC would not be immune to efficiency cuts should they be required across the board, then Mr Abbott’s promise of “no cuts to the ABC” did not mean that.
This was an asterisk with double twist, even by the standards Mr Abbott set when he told the 7.30 Report that the only statements that should be taken as the “gospel truth” were his “carefully prepared, scripted remarks”.
The point here is that Mr Abbott’s comments the night before the 2013 election were carefully prepared and scripted. In fact they were no doubt focus-grouped to within an inch of their life.
In the space of 25 words, Mr Abbott made six rolled gold promises in a last-minute bid to woo wavering voters.
Looking straight at the camera he said there would be “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS”.
Mr Turnbull’s explanation was so insulting that one wonders if he was playing a double game by drawing further attention to it.
After all, this was Mr Abbott’s broken promise, not his.
Besides, Mr Hockey had already given the game up during his post-budget appearance on Q&A , virtually laughing it off while under sustained attack on heftier issues such as university fees and cost of living. (See 9.42 mins in the video below.)
“In relation to the ABC, I plead guilty,” he said.
“The ABC hasn’t had an efficiency dividend for more than a decade and I’ve asked them to take a one per cent cut in the year ahead. because, frankly, I couldn’t ask every other area of government to take a cut and the ABC not to.”
That one per cent has now become 4.6 per cent.
One problem for the Abbott government is that it cannot easily own up to the broken promise in the way, for example, then Victorian Premier Steve Bracks did in 2003 when he introduced toll roads.
This is because the notion of truth-telling was at the core of Mr Abbott’s otherwise minimalist, slogan-led pitch for office.
He claimed the high moral ground. His would be a no-surprises government that said what it meant, and meant what it said.
Essentially, he painted himself as a trustworthy, straight-shooting antidote to Julia Gillard’s duplicity.
Never mind that Ms Gillard’s big broken promise – the carbon tax – was the result of an unforseen and extraordinary turn of events: a hung parliament in which she struck a deal with the Greens to take office. (Not that this particular asterisk washed with the Australian public.)
Mr Abbott, on the other hand, cannot claim there was anything unforseen about the budgetary predicament that has prompted the ABC cuts.
According to his own narrative, he was voted in to fix the budgetary “mess” Labor left behind.
The ABC, which has long had a problematic relationship with the Coalition, was always going to be part of the mix.
In his election-eve eagerness for office, Mr Abbott was foolish to pretend otherwise.