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May 24th 2013 print

Roger Franklin

The ABC in a sorry state

When Tony Abbott painstakingly explains why, even if he wanted to, he cannot gut Tasmania's share of GST revenues, and the ABC asserts he is "avoiding" giving a straight answer. Could a rote adherence to Labor talking points have something to do with it?


Earlier this week Tony Abbott journeyed to Devonport, where he visited a towel factory, met reporters and took questions, many inspired by Labor assertions that he plans to revamp GST revenues and diddle the Apple Isle of its rightful share. The ABC duly reported the conference, which at times was rather testy.


Here is how the ABC’s southern outpost presented the gist of what its reporter claims to have witnessed:


In the screen grab above, notice the related video footage to the right of the text. For technical reasons having to do with Quadrant Online’s primitive publishing system it is impossible to embed that video on this page, but it can be viewed by going here. Ten seconds into the video, reported by locally based journalist Emily Bryant,  the talking head who introduces the clip says this:

“The Opposition Leader Tony Abbott again ruled out reducing Tasmania’s GST take”

So, the website headline says Abbott dodged questions about GST reductions and the video directly refutes that assertion. The national broadcaster consumes around $1.2 billion per year (and rising) in taxpayer funds, but that is evidently insufficient to hire editors competent to reconcile directly contradictory accounts of the same event, even when presented side-by-side on the same page.

But there is more to the ABC’s “coverage” of the Devonport event than that, starting with the first paragraph shown in the screen grab above:

“The Federal Opposition Leader has refused to detail a conversation he had with Western Australia’s Premier about possible changes to Tasmania’s GST.”

What follows is the transcript of the exchange between Abbott and the ABC’s Jackson Vernon, who came all the way from his base in Hobart:

QUESTION: In terms of GST, I know Mr Abetz touched on that briefly. Can we just get some clarity? When Colin Barnett said that he’s had discussions with you saying that you will not prop up weaker parts of the states by the stronger economies. Is he misquoting you there?

TONY ABBOTT: Well again, I think you’re putting words into the Premier’s mouth.

QUESTION: These are direct quotes. He says he made comments along the lines that I don’t think it’s sensible to hold back strong parts of the economy to simply prop up weak parts of the economy. That’s a direct quote from Colin Barnett.

TONY ABBOTT: Well I’ll put that to one side. Let me just say and I’m pleased that Joe and I are here together with Eric today. We want to make it absolutely crystal clear that Tasmania will never be worse off under the Coalition.

QUESTION: But in terms of that discussion though, is he misquoting you with that?

TONY ABBOTT: You’ve had your say.

QUESTION: But I’m just asking you about this direct question, because I don’t think that you’ve addressed this statement that he’s made, because doesn’t that kind of contradict what you’re saying about Tasmania if he’s saying this?

TONY ABBOTT: No. Let me if you wouldn’t mind. Have you got anything else that you would like to say?  Let me just repeat. Tasmania will never be worse off under the Coalition. Tasmania will never be worse off under the Coalition. We have no plans to change the GST, no plans whatsoever – no plans whatsoever and I point out that nothing can ever happen in terms of the GST without the agreement of all the states and territories. I also point out that nothing will ever happen in terms of the Commonwealth Grants Commission unless all of the states and territories agree on change. So this is as Eric has said, purely and simply a scare campaign without foundation, without substance by a Labor Party which has no record to run on and no plans for the future.

QUESTION: Why do you think Colin Barnett’s saying these things though? Is he saying this?

TONY ABBOTT: I’m relying on your quotations and I would respectfully prefer not to do that. The fact of the matter is, I give Colin Barnett, I give Denis Napthine, I give Barry O’Farrell, I give Campbell Newman a respectful hearing and if Lara Giddings rang me up, I’d give her a respectful hearing……

QUESTION: Are you saying that the WA Premier is lying with regard to these comments?

TONY ABBOTT: No, I’m just saying that Tasmanians can be absolutely certain – absolutely confident that they will not be worse off in respect of the GST under a Coalition government. What we can also be certain about under a Coalition government is that we will do what’s necessary to unleash the economic potential of this state. We will do what’s necessary – unleash the economic potential of this state. So instead of arguing about its GST share, it will be focused on making the most of its potential, it will be focused on getting ahead…..

Worth noting is that the ABC’s Vernon believes Abbott has been given “a free pass” by the media, tweeting his endorsement of the in-your-face encounter between the Opposition leader and 7.30‘s Leigh Sales in August, 2012. The interview was the subject of complaints alleging bias on Sales’ part – complaints investigated by the ABC and ACMA, which  both concluded the ABC’s compere had done nothing wrong. (The 7.30 segment is here, for those who need a reminder of what the ABC considers fair and impartial)

While that is a side issue, Vernon’s quoting of WA Premier Barnett is not. It is the heart of the ABC reporter’s leading assertions and questions:

1/ “Colin Barnett said that he’s had discussions with you saying that you will not prop up weaker parts of the states by the stronger economies. Is he misquoting you there?”

2/ “These are direct quotes. He says he [Abbott] made comments along the lines that I don’t think it’s sensible to hold back strong parts of the economy to simply prop up weak parts of the economy. That’s a direct quote from Colin Barnett.

3/ "I don’t think that you’ve addressed this statement that he’s [Barnett] made…"

4/ "Are you saying that the WA Premier is lying….?"

Before dashing to Devonport to confront Abbott, Vernon quite likely checked the ABC’s archived news clippings. Indeed, that was almost certainly the case because his “direct quote” from Barnett is on the record and can be found here. This is the relevant section:

Mr Barnett says he has spoken to the federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott in the past week about changes to WA’s GST share.

The Premier says Mr Abbott did not make any firm commitments but he [Barnett] plans to continue campaigning for a bigger share right up until the federal election.

"I think Tony Abbott at least understands the problem," he said.

"He made comments to me along the lines that I don’t think it’s sensible to hold back strong parts of the economy to simply prop up weaker parts of the economy so I take some heart from that.

"My response was that what we are proposing is a gradual transition of the system."

By any reasonable reading, it is nothing like the smoking gun that the ABC headline would have its audience believe. Abbott, as stated by the ABC’s own account, refused to commit to giving WA a larger slice of GST revenues. And, according to the same cherrypicked quote Vernon recited without context, Abbott’s observations were about the economy as a whole, not the GST.

How do we know this? Well an ability to read plain English should be enough, but for ABC types and those not so blessed, by Barnett’s assertion that he takes “some heart” from Abbott’s general observation about the economy, and that he plans to continue pushing for a “gradual transition of the system”. If he has to keep pushing, then it follows that he hasn’t nudged Abbott into agreeing with him.

Also worth noting are three words in the first iteration of the alleged quote that Vernon flings at Abbott as their exchange begins. (emphasis added)

“When Colin Barnett said that he’s had discussions with you saying that you will not prop up weaker parts of the states by the stronger economies.”

For whatever reason, those words about the states appeared out of nowhere – which is perhaps the oddest thing of all about the ABC’s account of the Devonport press conference, the direct contradiction between the website headline and video notwithstanding. While adding a dash of creativity to Barnett’s paraphrased quote, Vernon neglected to report something that was there and obvious all along. Indeed, many might think it is the essence of the very point Abbott was trying to make about economic basket-cases like Tasmania. Here is what the ABC chose not report:

"…if you go through the statistics which we can’t avoid in a discussion like this, Tasmania has the lowest income per capita anywhere in Australia. Tasmania has the lowest gross state project per capita of anywhere in Australia. Tasmania has the lowest Year 12 completion rates of anywhere in Australia. These are a function of relative economic decline and the real focus should not be managing decline. The real focus has got to be on restarting growth…. [which means] we end the ‘let’s say no to business’ attitude of a Labor/Green Governments in Hobart and in Canberra and say to the world, Tasmania is open for business, for jobs and investment once more."

The Devonport press conference took place on the same day Premier Laura Giddings announced her latest budget and projected deficit, this time of $450 million. The ABC still managed to include her attack on Abbott’s alleged plan to harm her state by screwing with GST revenues, as can be seen 47 seconds into the video.

Why would the ABC squeeze in Giddings’ scare and omit Abbott’s observations on the sorry depths Tasmania is plumbing under her stewardship?

As mysteries go, it is a riddle as big as the ABC itself, which is to say no mystery at all.

Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online.