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February 07th 2013 print

Steve Kates

A modest proposal for balanced broadcasting

There is a better solution than flinging shoes at the screen when ABC talking heads interrupt or SBS yet again exposes Australian "racism". It is called equal time, and a little legislative tickling could achieve it

I see that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 contains a provision which more or less instructs the ABC to provide equal time to the government and opposition when we enter into an election period. The present question is whether we are in an election period?

But why debate this question? We should make equal time a permanent obligation on any publicly financed media outlet in Australia, and not just during an official election period. The Act, as it happens, is pretty clear that, so far as equal time is concerned, we are definitely into that zone.

Here is the key provision that defines "election period" (emphasis added):

(a) in relation to an election to the Legislative Council of Tasmania, or an ordinary election to the Legislative Assembly for the Australian Capital Territory–the period that starts 33 days before the polling day for the election and ends at the close of the poll on that day; and

(b) in relation to any other election to a Parliament–the period that starts on:

(i) the day on which the proposed polling day for the election is publicly announced; or

(ii) the day on which the writs for the election are issued;

whichever happens first, and ends at the close of the poll on the polling day for the election.

I think this provision for equal time provides the perfect answer to the problem that has beset right-side parties in dealing with the ABC almost since its start. However, the ABC is not a privately owned broadcaster, it is a publicly owned, taxpayer-funded organisation. It is we, the people, who are its owners.

What an incoming Coalition Government must therefore do is make this provision for equal time not just a necessity during an official election period, however defined, but a permanent provision that must be adopted at all times and in all circumstances by any broadcaster financed more than 50% by public monies.

It may not appeal to an incoming Coalition government to provide such a forum to Labor, but truth to tell, they have it anyway. Such an amendment to the Act covering the ABC, SBS and Radio Australia would not only appear reasonable, it actually would be. The ABC and SBS could broadcast its left-leaning talking heads to their hearts’ content, but they would also have to balance this with doses of Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones.

That seems fair, doesn’t it?

Steve Kates teaches economics at RMIT University. His most recent book is Free Market Economics: an Introduction for the General Reader