Australia's National Film Agency Faces Steep Budget Cuts Under Audit Proposal

Australia's Commission of Audit has recommended cutting Screen Australia's funding by 50 percent and eliminating the country's pan-Asian public TV network altogether.

SYDNEY -- Screen Australia, the government agency responsible for backing several Australian films each year, could face stiff budget cuts along with a forced merger, according to a new government audit.

Australia's National Commission of Audit has recommended cutting Sceen Australia's budget by 50 percent and merging the agency with other arts bodies, while also suggesting axing the country's pan-Asian TV public network, Australia Network, and ordering a benchmark study into the efficiency of public broadcasters the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS).

The report, published Thursday, comes just two weeks before the conservative Liberal government is due to hand down its first budget, which is widely expected to contain major cuts to government expenditure and programs.

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However, the government has yet to respond in detail to the report's recommendations, and it is unclear how many it will take up directly at this stage.

Australia Network is operated by the ABC's international arm under contract from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade at a cost of AUS$223 million ($207 million) over 10 years. It provides Australian TV programming -- both ABC and commercial programming -- and news and information services via satellite to 46 countries, reaching from India to China, Japan and Korea.

The National Commission of Audit report says the Australia Network is "an expensive option for meeting its diplomatic objectives given its limited outreach and small audience."

"Funding directed toward the Australia Network would be better directed to other areas or returned to the budget," the report recommends.

The recommendation to kill the Australia Network comes just a day before ABC managing director Mark Scott is to fly to Indonesia to launch the network's week of Australian programming on Indonesian TV and as ABC International continues to negotiate a new broadcasting cooperation agreement with China's Shanghai Media Group.

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Elsewhere, the report says that spending on the national film agency, Screen Australia, should be halved as part of cuts to a range of industry assistance programs.

"Programs which should continue but with reduced levels of Commonwealth funding include Screen Australia, where funding should be halved and focused on areas of Australian content, including those with an historical perspective that might not otherwise be funded," it said.

It also recommended that Screen Australia be merged with the Australia Council, Australian Business Arts Foundation Ltd., and Bundanon Trust to form a single arts council to "reduce administrative costs and support closer collaboration within the arts community."  

At the same time, it said the Australian Film, Television and Radio School could be transferred to a university or vocational education institution with an option for the Arts Council to fund scholarships.

The Audit Commission also looked at funding to national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, recommending benchmarking the broadcasters against each other and commercial broadcasters in order to find savings.

The report states: "There is no 'right' level of funding that should be provided to the ABC and the SBS, or 'right' level of services that should be provided by the public broadcasters."

"The Commission considers the ABC and SBS should be independently benchmarked against both each other and the commercial broadcasters to see whether efficiencies and savings can be achieved without compromising their capacity to deliver services, including to remote and regional Australia," the reports reads.

"Future funding decisions for these organizations should be informed by the outcome of this benchmarking exercise," it adds.

Currently, the ABC receives $1 billion a year in government funding while SBS gets $251 million.

The federal minister for communications, Malcolm Turnbull, initiated an "efficiency review" of the ABC and SBS in January. The results of that review are expected to be released ahead of the federal budget on May 13. Reports have suggested that the government could cut $23 million from the ABC in the upcoming budget.