Pacific Island leaders will meet at the annual Pacific Islands Forum meeting next week in Palau. Prime Minister Abbott has cancelled his travel plans in order to focus on the response to the MH17 disaster and is sending Deputy Prime Minister Truss in his stead.
Pacific leaders will be disappointed but will no doubt understand. What will disappoint them more is a much greater snub for the region: the decision by ABC management to slash Radio Australia's capacity and services. This decision will diminish Australia's leadership and influence and do long term damage to both political and people-to-people relationships.
As a result of the loss of the Australia Network contract and other budget cuts, ABC management is making swingeing cuts to the Asia Pacific News Centre and ABC International. Correspondent positions in Asia, the Pacific and in Parliament House Canberra will be abolished. The Tok Pisin (PNG) language service will be cut to just three staff — this for a country which has just been elevated in the Australian Government's foreign policy priorities, where the economy is growing at record pace, and where radio remains king.
Editorial and technical staff for the popular Pacific Beat program will be reduced. A six-hour per day television service will be syndicated in the region but its primary news program, The World, is due to be broadcast late at night and early in the morning in the Pacific. Given the television audience in the Pacific is already limited to the urban elite, this is of questionable value.
While ABC management stresses that news services will remain, it's hard to see who will produce the stories that feed the news. By retrenching its most experienced Pacific hands as well as abolishing correspondent positions, the ABC will lose much of its capacity to report. The loss of journalistic legend Sean Dorney, who has the deepest understanding of the Pacific of any Australian journalist, will be felt deeply in the region. Presenters will likely need to rely on social media sources and the internet sites of Pacific newspapers to gather news. There are quality and reliability questions around both these sources and to a significant degree they already rely on the ABC for content.
The impact of the decision will be a terrible blow to Pacific Island populations which rely on Radio Australia to report about not only international news but events in their own country. In an age where domestic news broadcasters across the Pacific are shrinking and in some cases being subjected to increasing political control, Radio Australia provides a vital service. Because Radio Australia provided coverage of criticism of Commodore Bainimarama's interim government in Fiji, he shut down transmission of Radio Australia services in 2009, demonstrating the considerable influence he considered Radio Australia to have. In addition to regular news services, Radio Australia also provides a critical service warning affected populations to prepare for impending cyclones, king tides or tsunamis and advises when help is on the way.
The cuts are a huge diplomatic own goal for Australia. Radio Australia has the single greatest reach of any Australian entity in our neighbourhood. Australia's diplomats are represented in almost every capital in the region but they can only travel out beyond the capital as their limited budgets permit. The approximately $1 billion Australian aid program to PNG and the Pacific has significant reach across the region but is not everywhere and the work of the aid program is often only known to Pacific civil servants. Australian banks ANZ and Westpac have a presence in most countries of the region but their reach is limited to people who bank.
Almost every household in the region, however, either owns a radio or has access to a radio in their village. In many remote parts of the region, where domestic broadcasters cannot be picked up or where shortwave radio is the sole means of access to the world, Radio Australia dominates. Whenever I have traveled to remote villages in the region, I have been struck by how much detailed knowledge the local residents had of Australia. There were hardly any books in the villages and no newspapers, let alone internet. All their knowledge was learned by listening to Radio Australia on shortwave radio. The growing coverage and availability of mobile phones and growth of internet access is changing the media scene but at a much slower rate in the Pacific than elsewhere. Many illiterate Papua New Guinean villagers, for example use their mobile phones to listen to radio rather than sign on to Twitter.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said she wants Australia to be recognised as the partner of choice for Pacific Island countries and is frustrated by the recognition China and other countries receive for much smaller aid contributions. A smaller Radio Australia will struggle to enhance the recognition of Australia's contribution to the region; it will barely be able to fulfil its charter. Radio Australia already has a small budget and provides extraordinarily good value for money. But cuts in the range of 60% will threaten not only the quality but the viability of the service. It is worth noting that China is investing in its international television and radio broadcasting, including in shortwave in the Pacific.
As Australia seeks to step up its diplomatic influence globally, it is not the right time for the ABC to be stepping back from its critical soft power role in the Asia Pacific.
Photo by Flickr user Daniel Lu.