The Liberal Party’s peak council has voted almost 2:1 to privatise the ABC in a call that was swiftly rejected by cabinet ministers amid warnings it would be “total madness” to act on the call.
The overwhelming vote at the party’s annual council in Sydney gained vocal support from conservative think-tank Institute of Public Affairs, which said the company could be sold or given to Australians who already own it.
The vote came in a debate on Saturday where about 110 council delegates, representing Liberal branches from across the country, also voted for an efficiency review into SBS.
The Liberal Party’s peak council has voted almost 2:1 to privatise the ABC, but the treasurer says there are ‘no plans’.
The council also voted, by 43 to 31 votes, to relocate the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a highly contentious move opposed by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop during the debate.
Council delegate Mitchell Collier, the federal vice president of the Young Liberals, said he had enjoyed ABC programs such as Bananas in Pyjamas during his childhood but said there was no economic case to keep the broadcaster in public hands.
“High sentimentality is no justification for preserving the status quo,” Mr Collier told the meeting, which included cabinet ministers, Liberal state premiers and top party officials.
The motion said: “That federal council calls for the full privatisation of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, except for services into regional areas that are not commercially viable.”
The vote has no binding power over Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, federal cabinet or federal MPs, who set policy in their party room meetings in Canberra.
But Mr Collier won the vote on the floor of the council.
“There are several ways we could privatise the ABC – we could sell it to a media mogul, a media organisation, the government could sell it on the stock market,” he told the meeting.
“Privatising it would save the federal budget $1 billion a year, could pay off debt and would enhance, not diminish, the Australian media landscape.”
A story about innovation spending written by the ABC’s Emma Alberici was the subject of the complaints, the second time in a few months the PM has launched a complaint about her reporting.
There was no explanation of how the ABC would have any commercial value to a buyer if the government imposed restrictions on the sale to protect rural services, forcing any buyer to continue operations that might lose money.
Nobody rose from the federal council floor to speak against the motion, but Communications Minister Mitch Fifield spoke from his position as a senior minister to note that privatising the ABC was not government policy.
Senator Fifield told the meeting that he had made two appointments to the ABC board – Minerals Council of Australia chair Vanessa Guthrie and Queensland rural leader Georgina Somerset.
He also said the government was amending the ABC’s governing act to stipulate that it was “fair and balanced” in its coverage and would force it to disclose the names of staff earning more than $200,000 a year.
No other members spoke on the motion and it was carried on a show of hands from delegates, with roughly twice as many voting in favour of the motion as those who voted against. No count was taken. Senator Fifield voted against the motion.
Asked about the vote later, Treasurer Scott Morrison said there was no plan to sell the ABC and the Liberal council did not decide government policy.
“We listen and we consult with our members, all the time, as we do with all Australians,” Mr Morrison said.
“But I should be very clear: the government has no plans to privatise the ABC.”
Mr Morrison quipped that some Australians “may think the Labor Party already owns it” but the government had no plans to sell the ABC.
ABC Classic FM broadcaster Margaret Throsby described the call to sell the ABC as “total madness” while Liberals played it down as a sign of unhappiness among party members that would not lead to a sale.
RMIT University professor Sinclair Davidson said privatisation of the ABC should be “default” Coalition policy.
“After all, the party of small government should be constantly striving to reduce government intervention in the economy and foster private enterprise,” he said.
IPA research fellow Chris Berg said the question should be about the best way to privatise the ABC, with options being a sharemarket float, a sale to a media mogul or the IPA’s preferred option is for ownership to be transferred to ABC staff or Australian taxpayers.