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Federal government ends ABC funding freeze, accused of trying to neutralize political headache

The federal government will end a highly contentious decision to freeze millions of dollars of ABC funding as it pours billions of dollars into the national broadcaster over the next three years.

The move has prompted accusations from Labor that the government is trying to neutralize a political headache ahead of the upcoming election.

From July, the ABC will receive almost $3.3 billion over three years, while SBS will receive more than $950 million.

As part of that funding, the government has decided to end its controversial decision to impose an indexation freeze on the ABC’s annual funding in 2018 which ultimately meant the broadcaster’s funding did not keep pace with inflation.

The ABC said that decision amounted to a budget cut of about $84 million, forcing it to slash 250 jobs and cut back programming.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has consistently denied the indexation freeze amounted to a funding cut.

“The indexation pause was a decision taken in the context of the previous three-year period reflecting a particular set of budget priorities at the time,” he said.

“These decisions are always made in the context of the various factors that the government weighs up.”

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said the Government wanted the ABC and SBS to report how much of their content is local.(ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

ABC managing director David Anderson said the announcement brought funding certainty to the national broadcaster.

“The triennial funding announcement is an important recognition that the ABC is needed now more than ever, and this funding is required so it can continue to its vital role in our democratic society,” he said in a statement.

He also welcomed almost $46 million for the ABC’s enhanced news-gathering (ENG) initiative, which bolsters resources for regional and outer-suburban news gathering and national reporting teams.

“ENG funding has delivered more tailored news to local communities and has seen the ABC invest more in specialist resources that provide vital context and analysis about issues that matter to all Australians.”

ABC chair Ita Buttrose echoed that sentiment, saying she was “delighted.”

The government has also issued statements of expectations requiring the ABC and SBS to report on how much of their content across various categories is local, bringing them in line with commercial broadcasting requirements.

“What this will let us do is be able to consistently measure Australian content, be it news or drama or documentary, across both the commercial free-to-air broadcasters and ABC and SBS and that will give us a better picture of Australian content being broadcast,” Mr Fletcher said.

The ABC will be asked to provide a report each year detailing staff numbers in regional and remote Australia, as well as hours of programming tailored to those audiences.

Labor issues timing of announcement

The move is the latest in Australia’s long-running political debate about the role and funding of the ABC, and follows criticism of the UK government for its plans to radically overhaul the way the BBC is funded.

Federal Labor has already begun pushing the nation’s broadcasters into its election pitch to voters, promising to provide greater funding certainty for the ABC and SBS if elected.

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