What to do about the ABC and its shameless indulgence of in-house ideological bias at public expense is right under our noses - at least if we look at an atlas it is.
The pragmatic Germans have already solved the problem. They have found a way for citizens who disapprove of their national broadcasting service, the catchily named Arbeitsgemeinschaft der offentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland or ARD, not to have to pay for it. Germans who are fans of the ARD pay to keep it going.
Here's how it works. ARD viewers pay a voluntary tax, collected by the government along with their income tax and passed direct to the broadcaster. Those who for whatever reason wish to disavail themselves of the ARD's services have only to register as non-viewers or listeners and they pay nothing. This seems to suit everyone. The ARD - the second biggest public broadcaster in the world after the BBC - is publicly funded but no one who objects to its output (or just finds it boring - a considerable constituency, I should have thought, when it comes to our own national broadcaster) has to subsidise it. One consequence is that the ARD takes a close interest in the demographics of those who do not pay the broadcasting tax and conducts surveys and designs programmes to try to attract them back. If you've opted out one year you can always opt back in the next.
What a difference the German system would make to the ABC. No more poll tax to keep it on air. And even better, an ABC eager to win as many subscribers as possible might quickly revise its present not so thinly veiled contempt for those who have the cheek to challenge its self-anointed status as impartiality personified.
Before proceeding to the fine print, a quick clarification. The account above is, as the late Edgar Lustgarten used to say in the 1950s at the start of his masterly little crime films Tales of Scotland Yard, "a true story with only the names changed to protect the innocent." Here it's not so much to protect the innocent as to make a point. For ARD substitute religious institutions in Germany. All churches in that country are financed by a tax exactly as described, which no one has to pay. And that would be the best thing we could do with the ABC.
If, once he has control of the Senate, Tony Abbott's saintly patience with the ABC's sniping should snap, he should go the ABC's hip pocket. As it is, ABC audiences never amount to more than a quarter of the nation. If every one of those viewers and listeners paid an ABC tax it would not be nearly enough to maintain the national broadcaster in the style to which it has become accustomed. Economies would follow, but also a determined effort to bump up income by finding out what more people would like to watch or listen to, rather than what the ABC staff association prescribes for them.
A user-pays system is an extension of democracy. How could any socialist or Green, committed to implementing the Will of the People, object to that?
Leaving aside the perfectly reasonable view that there is no justification in a free society for having a state broadcaster at all, if we must have one - and it is difficult to imagine even a hard-right government dismantling the ABC - the question of its reform is going to become more pressing. The ABC has wandered too far from the principles of its charter not to have to be reined in. Though only a Coalition government is likely to attempt this reform, the matter is no longer, if ever it was, a party-political affair. The political, cultural and ideological assumptions entrenched in the ABC, and most evident in its current affairs and news programmes, are not those of most of the citizens who have to pay for their expression. Election after election shows this.
A voluntary tax would make the ABC responsive to a wider range of opinion by tying it into a direct relationship with the community in a way it at present feels no need of. It would still have some funding of its own. It could supplement its audience's contributions, as it already does its huge annual subsidy, with its sundry publishing activities and ABC shops. Its endless on-air commercials for itself, which are irritating without telling you anything you want to know about or don't already know, could be made to pay by advertising real things, as on SBS, without any further loss of programme time.
If making the ABC dependent on a voluntary tax were not enough to induce its management to stand up to the inherent culture from which all bias and arrogance in programming spring, a change in programme-makers could work wonders. ABC news and current affairs programmes should be put out to tender. Other newsgathering organisations could bid to run them - even the Murdoch media (Vite, mes sels!) might win a tender. If News Limited could do the job to the satisfaction of viewers, and bring more in, why not? Pace the media censorship enthusiasts who gave us the Finkelstein report, Murdoch biases are nowhere near as evident in The Australian and other papers as the ABC's are in its output (or the Fairfax press's in its, come to that). And if bringing in outsiders were objected to as wasting all that staff programme-making talent and expertise we're always hearing about from ABC apologists, there'd be nothing to stop current ABC staff forming consortiums and bidding to make the programmes themselves.
Besides, much ABC non-news programming is already contracted out so the principle is established within the corporation as it now exists. (Inviting a wider range of tenders might also help lift the quality of the ABC's drama and "comedy" from its present tragic depths, though probably not. ABC ineptitude, sadly, is beyond fiscal reform. It's a national characteristic. A small population like Australia's has limited reserves of genius.)
A voluntary tax would have the additional virtue of giving those who are most vocal in support of the ABC the pleasure of paying even more for their revered institution. For an additional annual amount they could be singled out for recognition as corporate benefactors. Imagine the pride Friends of the ABC would feel driving around in their elderly Volvos with "ABC Platinum Taxpayer On Board" on a sticker in the back windscreen.
24 February 2014
In these times when we are all concerned about national reconciliation it's sad to see there's been a bit of a spat in the Welcome to Country industry. A lady invited to deliver the welcome for the opening of Parliament in Canberra has been told she is not of the right persuasion. The lady, with the quintessentially Aboriginal name of Matilda House, was to have welcomed MPs to Parliament on behalf of the Ngunnawal people, on whose land, supposedly, our national capital stands. But Matilda has now identified herself with a different tribal group, the Ngambri, with whom the Ngunnawal folk are in dispute about Canberra's pre-colonial proprietorship. A spokeswoman for the latter, one "Auntie" (what's Auntie in Ngunnawal?) Agnes Shea, says she is "distressed" by the thought that what she dismisses as "a Ngambri person" should "speak for her people".
So much for national unity. But whether her gig goes ahead or not, Matilda can console herself that she's done quite nicely out of the Welcome industry already. Last November she collected $10,500 for graciously welcoming legislators into her country for the opening of the 44th parliament. Nice work if you can get it.
Perhaps more interesting is the payment category into which Matilda's welcome fell. It is listed in the parliamentary accounts as "Entertainment services".
What a prospect this opens up. If Welcomes to Country are entertainment, here's a wonderful opportunity to get away from the stale unvarying ritual of aunties and elders reminding the whitefella that he's a guest on their land and brighten up the ceremonies with some real show business. Hitherto being welcomed to their own country has been a supererogatory penance bien-pensants engage in to liberate their wishy-washy consciences from self-generated guilt - one of those dreary things, along with walks for reconciliation, that do nothing to benefit any Aboriginal other than the well remunerated welcomers, who must be the only people to enjoy them. But turn them into entertainment and everyone can have a happy time.
Matilda and Auntie Agnes themselves have a perfect opportunity to start the process of livening things up. Why don't they both share the Welcome to the next parliamentary opening and turn it into a floor show, taking as a cue their difference over who should be conducting the event, and slug their way to a resolution of the dispute by means of traditional ritual combat? If spears and nulla nullas are disallowed on Health & Safety grounds, there's always handbags and high heels or slapping and hair-pulling - as long as the two ladies remember that this is entertainment and don't get carried away into pursuing their claims to the point of spilling blood. Parliament is not the Colosseum. That other traditional method of female contest, mud-wrestling, might also be going too far, even if there must be plenty of male MPs who like watching feminine pastimes of this sort on the Internet. One doesn't want to offend the dignity of the legislature. Just an old-fashioned scratch-and-bite, the kind that used to take place outside the ladies' lounges of working-class pubs after too many shandies, is all that's needed.
For more wholesome entertainment, how about whichever of the aunties emerges victorious from the contest hosting a karaoke Welcome with Pat Dodson in his hat as celebrity guest and MPs singing along? There may not be an extensive repertoire of Aboriginal songs to sing along to but everyone loves "I've been everywhere, man" and "Tie me kangaroo down" - indeed one could think of inviting Rolf and his third leg as additional performers but perhaps not just now when he has so much on his mind.
If Matilda and Agnes are not themselves entertainers, professional that is, thought should be given to widening the entertainment potential of Welcomes to Country by signing up some genuine troupers as welcomers. It doesn't matter if they're not Aboriginal - the degree of Aboriginality in the current corps of welcomers seems pretty exiguous at times. It is a pity that Joan Sutherland is no longer available to sing a soprano Welcome, or Peter Allen to give us his popular patriotic "I Still Call Australia Home" (should Matilda could take singing lessons and adapt his words to: "You Can't Call Australia Your Home"?) A Welcome with pretty Marieke Hardy and her hilarious wit would be a treat - though not in front of children - or for those who prefer the more mature entertainer, Bert Newton.
Entertainer-welcomers seeking artistic inspiration could do worse than follow the prescriptions set out by Judy Garland in the 1952 MGM song-and-dance number "That's Entertainment". Among the things that entertain people there's
A clown with his pants falling down
Who better than Mr Thompson to fill that role? Though sadly no longer in Parliament, there's nothing to stop him being commissioned as a welcomer. Or from the same song:
Some great Shakespearian scene
Where a ghost and a prince meet and everyone ends in mincemeat
Change Shakespearian to colonial and a ghost and a prince to invader and invaded and you'd have a dramatic charade straight out of Henry Reynolds.
A chorus number would be fun, with
The lights on the lady in tights
and a full spangles-and-ostrich-feathers line-up of Matilda and the Welcomettes, the latter recruited from the Children's Coalition Against Climate Change, whose terpsichorean talents were on display in their recent YouTube publicity clip.
A further source of inspiration is the world of gender politics, where, to avoid sexual "stereotypes", role reversal is much in vogue (small boys playing with dolls, lesbians as fathers). Instead of always being welcomed, why shouldn't MPs welcome the welcomers and lecture them on the number of massacres of Anglo settlers by Matilda's forebears?
That mightn't get much of a laugh, but what Welcome to Country does? We need the popular touch of the impresario to lift these events of salutary national self-awareness out of a rut. Till now the only entertaining thing ever known to happen at one of them was at the Melbourne Function Centre last year when the Welcome smoking ceremony set off the fire alarms. But treat them as the entertainment the House of Representatives accounts department obviously thinks they are and every Welcome could be an event to look forward to, rather than to sit through and feel half-guilty half virtuous about.
And if show-biz Welcomes to Country become hot hits, the commercially intelligent next step is to bring them to a wider audience via TV. This would be a natural for the Seven Network. Stand by for My Welcome Rules with Matilda and Agnes as first contenders.
31 January 2014
The main reason for the decline of Christianity in the West, it seems to me, is decline in belief in the soul. If you believe you have an immortal soul, and that, as Christianity teaches, that soul is destined after your physical death to go to Heaven or Hell, you will want to do everything in your power to live your earthly life so that you go to Heaven. If you believe, as most people seem to, that this earthly life is all there is, and are untroubled by questions about how we got here and the origin of existence, you might as well enjoy whatever this life affords and not give Christianity a second thought. Particularly if you're as well off as most people in the West are.
I wonder to what extent belief in the soul has also declined within the Church itself and is substituted by a concern for "social justice".
28 January 2014