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Policy wonk Rudd’s grand vision for regional diplomacy: The Australia Network

By Malcolm Colless - posted Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Kevin Rudd may no longer be Australia’s Prime Minister (perhaps, in his mind, just a temporary aberration) but he has clearly not surrendered his role as the country’s leading political control freak.

His strategy to dramatically upgrade Australia’s standing in middle power diplomacy through a rebirth of the Government owned international television service, Australia Network, puts this beyond doubt. Rudd has overseen a highly complex revision of the operational base for this service which, should we be surprised, involves positioning himself as Foreign Minister, at the centre of day to day programming.           

The successful tenderer for a new ten-year $223 million contract to operate this service, which is funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is scheduled to be announced publicly next month. This comes at the end of a tortuous evaluation process, marked by long periods of policy inaction that began when Rudd was Prime Minister and the current Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, had the Foreign Affairs portfolio. Since then Rudd has been knifed by Julia Gillard. Rudd in turn unseated Smith to take his Foreign Affairs role: all in a peace deal Gillard proffered in the wake of Labor’s narrowest of wins in last year’s general election.


The ABC has managed Australia Network for the past ten years with a five-year contract renewed in 2005 when former Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard, was in power. “Aunty” ABC has her hand up to continue to operate the service claiming that only the national broadcaster can guarantee to deliver Australia’s image to the world without “conflicting commercial objectives.”

This salvo is aimed directly at the partly News Corporation owned SkyNews which is contesting the ABC’s claim to on going management of Australia Network.

But complying with the management demands of “Rudd TV” is going to be so arduous, frustrating and potentially unrewarding that it is puzzling to understand why anyone would want to commit themselves to the new contract, which, apart from anything else, is non-exclusive.

Australia Network provides three separate transmission signals on an around the clock basis through 45 markets in the Asia Pacific region and the Indian subcontinent broadcasting a mix of news, current affairs and business, English language learning, education, documentaries, sports and children’s programs. Rudd’s overhaul of the existing service is aimed at creating a service that will meet the Government’s diplomatic objectives to provide a “credible, impartial and independent voice to an international audience through innovative as well as conventional media platforms.”

Rudd wants priority from the start to be given to driving open new markets in China, India, Japan, Malaysia, the Republic of Korea, Thailand and Vietnam with the Australia Network contractor providing detailed business plans along with marketing and branding policies to support this strategy.

His target audience is decision makers, the emerging middle class and young aspirants. He also wants the service to focus on students particularly those who have graduated from Australian universities.


Rudd, ever the policy wonk, clearly believes that sport is a distraction from the real public diplomacy objectives behind the service. As such he wants weekend sports broadcasts heavily cut back and replaced by documentaries and education programs with education guaranteed a two-hour block each day.

At the same time he expects the network to rapidly achieve an aggregate five per cent annual increase in the 30-day viewership ratings in the Asia-Pacific and maintain a top 25 channel ranking in the most popular international channels in the region. The network will also be required to ensure that the quality of its overall service, particularly in relation to breaking news, is at least on a par with CNN and the BBC.

For all of this there will be no effective increase in the current annual DFAT budget of $20 million. In fact the operator will now be required to make a yearly “contribution” to the department based on an estimate of annual advertising which in the past has depended heavily on the sports programming Rudd now wants junked.

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About the Author

Malcolm Colless is a freelance journalist and political commentator. He was a journalist on The Times in London from 1969-71 and Australian correspondent for the Wall Street Journal from 1972-76. He was political editor of The Australian, based in Canberra, from 1977-81 and a director of News Ltd from 1991-2007.

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