Cuts to the ABC are of critical concern to rural health advocates.

Gordon Gregory, chief executive officer of the National Rural Health Alliance, writes below that “Australia’s rural and remote people are yet again being denied access to essential services by centralised decisions which show every sign of being uninformed by the reality of rural and remote circumstances”.

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Trimming the ABC: no dividend for country people

Gordon Gregory writes:

ABC radio is ‘the channel of choice’ for many people in rural and remote areas. For many more, an ABC radio station is the only one available. 

And for people in even more remote areas, there is no regular radio reception at all. This is the case for instance on cattle stations east of Marble Bar. Depending on the weather conditions, there is intermittent but crackly ABC radio reception from Port Hedland.

In many households in places like the Wheatbelt of Western Australia, on the Eyre Peninsula, in the Gippsland, and in Western New South Wales and Central and Western Queensland, ABC radio is on in the home continuously.

Depending on the program and the time of day, it may be from two sources. In the case of the Northern Wheatbelt of Western Australia, some of the programming is from Perth and some from Geraldton. The Geraldton programming is as ‘local’ as it gets, with no radio station at all in the small towns in the area except for one part-time community radio station playing music.

If you live at Cunnamulla you’re spoiled for TV reception – as long as you don’t mind the fact that all the ads are for Alice Springs. But unless you want to try through your computer, there are just two radio stations to choose from: the ABC out of Toowoomba or 2WEB out of Bourke. (Our correspondent tells us that radio reception is pretty good in the car and in the bedroom, but no good in the kitchen. And there is no Radio National or ABC-FM.)

A great many families in such regions rely heavily on the ABC. It is their lifeline for national and international  news and current affairs, and for regional news. ABC radio also provides essential services such as storm alerts, cyclone warnings, information on harvest bans and vehicle movement bans, on bushfire updates (on the quarter hour when needed) and market prices (for cattle and sheep, for mining products).

If everyone living in these areas was technically proficient and had fast, reliable and affordable internet download, they could no doubt tune into any radio station they chose. But this is not the case on either of those fronts – personal aptitude or infrastructure.

It is therefore of considerable concern that, due to the imposition of an ‘efficiency dividend’, the ABC management has decided to close five regional radio stations. The five are in Wagin, Morwell, Gladstone, Port Augusta and Nowra. People in the Wheatbelt of Western Australia are not impressed with the notion that their evening news and current affairs bulletins come out of Perth – never mind Sydney.

In considering these damaging changes, one needs to be careful not to shoot the messenger (ABC General Manager Mark Scott), who undoubtedly has a perfect understanding of the importance of regional radio to the families and communities of rural and remote areas.

Instead, the blame needs to be sheeted home to where it belongs: with a national government which is attempting to resolve a medium-term budget issue by putting all of its eggs in the ‘savings’ basket.  

It is now understood that a number of TV and radio programs are to be axed, including Radio National’s Bush Telegraph. When combined with the loss of five regional radio stations, this might be interpreted as meaning that more than their fair share of ‘efficiency dividend lifting’ is being done by country people. (This possibility may seem to be mitigated by the fact that people in quite well-settled rural areas cannot receive Bush Telegraph anyway.)

Usually the NRHA’s work is around seeking ‘a one-third fair share’ of access for the people of rural and remote areas to various goods and services deemed to be essential for quality of life.

Right now, however, our concern is that Australia’s rural and remote people are yet again being denied access to essential services by centralised decisions which show every sign of being uninformed by the reality of rural and remote circumstances. 

• Gordon Gregory is chief executive officer of the National Rural Health Alliance

• For more detail about the cuts, see the Public Interest Journalism Foundation’s statement. (Declaration: Melissa Sweet is chair of the Foundation).

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