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ABC must put national values first

The public broadcaster is in breach of its charter to promote the Australian identity to other countries

THE ABC treats Australia like a bag of mixed lollies. The public broadcaster is strong on many key Australian values; others are discarded like a licorice-flavoured jellybean. It is unambiguous in its support for liberal democracy. It has taken a strong position in favour of democracy and the institutions that support it. But its support for the free markets that ensured our prosperity leaves a lot to be desired.

The ABC is usually strong on human rights, regularly producing news editorials scathing of the injustices inflicted by government against individuals. In September last year, Lateline compiled a report on the state executions of innocent Chinese prisoners and showed unequivocal support for due process and a fair trial.

On the other hand, the ABC has produced critical reports that questioned the rights of the individual in Australian society. A report into industrial relations reform and the choice of workers to take responsibility for their conditions reflected a very different attitude to Australian values. The concept that workers and employers could come to a mutually agreeable arrangement without government interference is reported as a fait accompli.

This is where the ABC's ambivalence towards Australian values is most glaring. It has produced segments on the operation of the free market that hold it in contempt. Late last year stories on Lateline and The 7.30 Report flouted the benefits of media ownership deregulation. Segments were framed with a tone and structure that argued that where the market operated, Australians lost. Credibility was given to baseless speculation. Support for free markets was limited.

A story on foreign investment presented a similar scepticism of the operations of the free market. The message was clear: foreign business is bad, and where it invests its money, ordinary Australians lose. The tone of the segment reinforced narrow-minded, Hansonite prejudices against foreigners, an unfortunate position considering Australia has always been reliant on foreign capital and we benefit enormously from it.

Ultimately, it is no surprise that the ABC opposes free markets. Its very existence is anathema to competition: the public broadcaster is protected from the creative destruction that characterises the market economy.

Australians should not be afraid to unequivocally promote the superiority of its values. Our commitment to liberal democracy, human rights and free markets should be resolute and firm. They are a package deal, intrinsically intertwined and mutually supportive. They are the framework for Australia's success as a nation.

Our strength comes from the framework of our society that unleashes the maximum potential of each individual. These are the values we wish for ourselves. They should be the values that we wish for others.

And they are the values espoused by the main political parties. Although there is often legitimate disagreement, there is a remarkable level of consensus: free markets, liberal democracy and human rights animate Australian public policy.

Each year, Australians pay tax dollars to the ABC to promote our values in the region. But instead of promoting these values, it insists on redefining them and promoting its own interpretation.

The consequence is a distorted message promoted to our neighbours, who would benefit from an unequivocal message: Our values created our prosperous society; adopting them will ensure your prosperity as well.

Societies formed in opposition to one or more of these values have always failed to achieve a similar standard. Failure to recognise the importance of these values to the establishment and maintenance of societies is to turn a blind eye to history.

The 20th century was a testament to the failures of societies that did not adopt these values. Instead of enjoying stability, dignity and prosperity, they suffered under tyranny, injustice, servitude and scarcity.

The failure to achieve prosperity through central planning and control ensured those societies brought conflict to Australia and its allies. They also ensured our prosperity was stifled.

It has become trendy to believe that these values are not universal, do not suit or are not the ambition of each society. History shows that every time people have a choice, they have voted with their feet. Just ask the refugees who risk their lives to get from Cuba to the US, or the North Koreans who seek out South Korea or Japan. There are few who make the return trip.

But when we try to ask the ABC to deliver this message to our neighbours, it is being lost along the way.

Under its charter, the ABC is charged with responsibility for promoting Australia's identity abroad. For instance, Lateline is broadcast to the region as part of the satellite Australia Network.

Criticism of the ABC's role in public diplomacy should not be grouped as part of a broader chorus of the failings of the ABC. The ABC often attracts criticism. Complaints of bias by the Government, Opposition and think tanks are common. It asserts its claim to be independent but, if we are to be honest, the best it can hope for is to be non-partisan.

But the rules are different in its responsibilities for public diplomacy. To fulfil its charter, it should not be merely neutral on Australia and its values. It should actively promote our interests and project our values to increase their appeal and adoption in the region.

The ABC is failing this mandate. In public diplomacy it is time to put the national interest and the values that support it first, and the ABC's role last.

Tim Wilson is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne and made a submission on Australian values and the role of the ABC in promoting them in the Asia-Pacific to the Senate inquiry into public diplomacy.

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