Senior members of the government have rushed to deny they intend to sell off the ABC, as Labor signalled it would make protecting the national broadcaster an election issue.
Government frontbencher Josh Frydenberg assured the nation on Sunday the ABC “can never be sold”.
“The Liberal party membership are entitled to their views and are as frustrated as we are from time to time about the coverage on the ABC,” Mr Frydenberg told Sky News.
“But the reality is this is an iconic national institution which will remain in the public’s hands.”
On Saturday, rank-and-file Liberal members passed a motion with a two-to-one majority calling on the coalition to sell off the ABC, except for in regional areas.
Finance minister Mathias Cormann went further, saying the coalition will not be privatising the ABC.
“If that’s the most important issue that the Labor Party wants to focus on, they are voting against more investment and more jobs in Australia,” he said.
Tim Fischer, former Nationals leader and deputy prime minister, also defended the public funding of the ABC.
“Good, bad or interesting, the ABC is part of the core, official fabric of the nation and should never be sold,” Mr Fischer told AAP on Sunday.
Saturday’s successful motion was put forward by Young Liberal Mitchell Collier, who suggested the broadcaster be sold to a media mogul or to its employees.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield was reportedly the only Liberal to speak against the motion. He also voted against it.
The government froze some of the ABC’s funding in the May budget, which Labor has promised to reverse if it wins power.
The opposition went on the attack on Sunday, with leader Bill Shorten branding the proposal “outrageous”, “wrong” and “very Melbourne and Sydney-centric”.
“If you really love the ABC, you certainly wouldn’t trust Mr Turnbull to stare down the right wing of his party,” Mr Shorten told reporters in Tasmania.
“It is important that we fight for a strong public broadcaster and that it shouldn’t be privatised.”
When asked if Labor would make the matter an election issue, Mr Shorten replied that Tasmanians should vote for Justine Keay, the Labor candidate in the Braddon byelection, “to make sure we have a strong public broadcaster”.
Labor’s communication spokeswoman Michelle Rowland said the federal council motion was proof the Liberals were out to destroy the broadcaster.
“It’s official, the Liberals do not support public broadcasting and want to sell off the ABC,” she said.
“The out-of-touch Liberals want to dismantle a vital institution in our democracy and silence the independent voice that has spoken to and of our nation for over 85 years.”
Privatising the ABC could mean advertisements during programming and putting high-quality Australian content behind a paywall, Ms Rowland said.
Labor also called on the National Party leadership to call out their coalition partner over the vote.
“This has everything to do with the Liberals’ obsession with culture wars,” Labor’s regional communications spokesman Stephen Jones said.
“And nothing to do with providing good-quality programming and services to regional Australia.”