On Wednesday in Canberra, Treasurer Joe Hockey urged his state colleagues to privatise state government-owned assets to fund infrastructure spending. That's a good idea. And Hockey should lead by example. He should sell the ABC.
The Coalition's commitment to the government continuing to own the ABC is like its commitment to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 5 per cent by 2020. It's not a commitment made out of any principle — and it's not a commitment that Coalition MPs are particularly enthusiastic about.
It's excruciating watching a Liberal MP defend taxpayer funding of the ABC in a room full of Liberal Party members and supporters.
In August, Joe Hockey said (on ABC television) that the ABC was not for sale. He said the ABC doesn't make a profit, and it's "a cost centre, so it is not worth anything for sale". The response to this is easy. A company doesn't have to make a profit to be worth something. Twitter has never made a profit but after its float earlier this month it was valued at more than $25 billion. If the only barrier to the ABC being sold is that it doesn't make a profit, then that's easily remedied. The Coalition could allow the ABC to accept advertising, let the ABC make a profit, and then sell it.
The reason the Coalition doesn't want to sell the ABC, and the reason it doesn't even want to discuss the topic, is because the Coalition thinks there are more important things to worry about — other things on which to spend its political capital.
This analysis would be justified if pragmatism was the only touchstone of policy. The Coalition has been pragmatic about the ABC for 50 years.
But if the Coalition considered the issue as a matter of principle, there would be absolutely no way it could support the ownership of the ABC by the government.
A state-owned media company has no place in a free society. A free society requires a free media to hold the power of the state in check. The ABC's so-called "independence" is merely independence from political interference by the government of the day. The ABC is not independent of the state because it is a part of the state. Furthermore, as the ABC grows, it crowds out the private and independent media which are essential elements of a free society.
A media organisation owned and funded by the government will inevitably take an ideological position in support of larger and more powerful government — which is precisely what has happened in Australia and Britain.
The ABC does some very good work and produces some excellent programs. When Coalition MPs defend the ABC they often refer to the high quality of much of the ABC's output. But the good works of the ABC don't defeat the principle that the government should not own newspapers — or television or radio stations.
PERFORMANCE NOT THE KEY
In the same way that the good things the ABC does don't justify it remaining in government ownership, the bad things the ABC does don't, of themselves, justify its sale.
The ABC should be sold as a matter of principle, not because in the past few weeks it has gravely damaged Australia's national security interests. The ABC's disclosure of Australia's spying on Indonesia is not the first time, and won't be the last time the ABC has acted contrary to the national interest. However, if the ABC is going to have a news and public affairs service, then the spying revelations of the past few weeks are exactly the sort of stories a news service would be expected to run. The question is not whether what the ABC did was irresponsible — the question is why the government owns a news service in the first place.
Clearly, the ABC is not going to be sold any time soon. It certainly won't be sold during the current term of the Abbott government, and it won't be sold during a potential second or third-term Abbott government. But, if the Coalition one day becomes a little less pragmatic and a little more principled, the ABC will be sold by the Coalition government that will follow the next federal Labor government.