Prime Minister Tony Abbott has conceded he regrets making his election-eve commitment to make no cuts to the ABC.
Mr Abbott made his comments after Labor again used Question Time to pursue him over the commitment and the Government’s decision to cut $254 million from the national broadcaster’s budget.
Earlier South Australian Liberal MP Rowan Ramsey told reporters he thought Mr Abbott would probably now regret making the promise that there would be “no cuts” to the ABC or SBS if he was elected as PM.
“The words of the Prime Minister on the day before the election I think are unfortunate … and it puts us in a difficult position,” Mr Ramsey said.
In Question Time the Opposition asked Mr Abbott whether he agreed with Mr Ramsay.
“He and I are pretty much always on a unity ticket and I can certainly agree with him,” the Prime Minister told Parliament.
In a Liberal party room meeting held before Question Time, backbencher Craig Laundy challenged the Prime Minister to stop denying the government had broken its promise on ABC funding.
One Coalition source said Mr Laundy also asked the Prime Minister to stop using “verbal gymnastics” when discussing the cuts.
Despite the statement, Mr Laundy also urged Mr Abbott to do more to take the fight up to the Opposition on the issue.
In the rowdy session of Question Time, Mr Abbott accused Mr Shorten of arrogance and hypocrisy.
“The Leader of the Opposition just said across the table, ‘You’ll find out where our cuts are when we come to government’,” he said.
“That’s exactly what he said, ‘You’ll find out what our cuts are when we come to government’. What arrogance, what incredible arrogance.”
But Mr Shorten denies ever making the remark.
“Madam Speaker, I said no such thing,” he said, in a personal explanation when Question Time had finished.
“We oppose the PM’s unfair budget and his cruel cuts.”
The Manager of Government Business in the House, Christopher Pyne, said he heard the remarks and accused Mr Shorten of lying by denying it.
Speaker Bronwyn Bishop agreed to Mr Pyne’s request to review the audio and vision of Question Time to see if what Mr Shorten may have said was recorded.
Coalition MPs angry at nature of cuts, job losses
On Monday Mr Scott announced the ABC would also have to sell property and change and cancel programs in response to the budget cut.
As part of the savings the ABC will scrap the state-based Friday editions of 7.30, axe Radio National’s Bush Telegraph, close five regional bureaux, reduce the size of its Newcastle office, shut its Adelaide TV production studios, and move Lateline to a new timeslot.
Liberal Member for Grey Rowan Ramsey criticised the closure of the Port Augusta office, one of the five regional bureaux to face the axe, saying the broadcaster should instead look for savings at its larger sites.
“This is an organisation after all that has had the funds to take Q&A to Indonesia, to India, to China to be a major sponsor of The Festival of Dangerous Ideas which paid for the Sydney Opera House and can take out advertising space on Fox Television and yet [ABC managing director] Mark Scott in his wisdom has decided to inflict as much pain on the Coalition as he can by reaching into our regional heartland,” Mr Ramsey said.
Liberal National Party senator Ian Macdonald, an outspoken critic of the ABC on a number of occasions in the past, suggested the ABC was targeting its budget cuts at regional areas as political payback to the Government.
“Some might say that it might also be a payback,” he said.
“Most of regional Australia is, of course, represented by members of the Liberal and National Party and it looks if the reported cuts are accurate, that … regional Australia is being picked upon by the ABC management.”
During Tuesday morning’s Coalition party room meeting LNP backbencher George Christensen expressed anger at the decision to cut regional services rather than what he described as the “bloated” Sydney headquarters.
Mr Christensen told colleagues he thought the Government should have considered bigger cuts.
Labor plans more cuts to the ABC: Abbott
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten attacked the Prime Minister for cutting the ABC and SBS budgets, accusing the Government of taking an extreme and ruthless campaign towards the ABC.
On Tuesday, Mr Shorten told a Parliament House rally the Prime Minister promised there would be no cuts to the ABC in an act of “desperation”.
“He said before the last election, in that last desperate thrust to the finishing line where he wanted the public to vote for him, he said there would be no cuts,” he said.
However, Mr Shorten said he could not commit to restoring the public broadcasters’ budgets should Labor win the next election.
“We don’t know what damage Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are doing to the Australian budget. They’ve got an out of control deficit, a budget that no-one wants,” he said.
“We are committed to increase funding to the ABC, because we have no doubt that Tony Abbott will cut too hard and cause too much damage.”
Mr Abbott hit back, accusing Labor of planning cuts to the ABC’s budget.
“Mr Shorten is not being straight and upfront with the Australian people,” Mr Abbott said.
“He is talking about something he intends to do himself. He has his own cuts in mind for the ABC.”
ABC spending review should be made public: CPSU
The union representing many ABC workers says it will lobby the Government to release a review of ABC spending to see what budget savings were recommended.
The Government-commissioned report, undertaken by Former Seven West Media chief financial officer Peter Lewis, identified ways the organisation can cut costs in the name of efficiency, but its contents have not been fully revealed.
The Government said the scale of the cuts was derived from the Lewis Review but has resisted requests to make the report public on the grounds it contained commercially sensitive information.
Nadine Flood from the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) said without its release, the review cannot be scrutinised and the cuts cannot be justified.
“We are calling on the Government to stop these cuts and only the Government can reverse them,” he said.
“They need to release the Lewis Review to give the community and Parliament a genuine opportunity to look at the future of the ABC and have their say.
“We’re calling on the Government to put the cuts on hold, listen to the community, release the secret report which these cuts are based on and have a serious rethink.”
Communications Department deputy secretary Nerida O’Loughlin told a Senate committee the ABC has not commissioned any additional reviews on how to find savings inside the organisation.