The Liberals Are Bananas If They Support A Sell-Off Of The ABC

Labor have their next election slogan locked in.

To borrow a metaphor from the FIFA World Cup, last weekend's vote at the Liberal party's national conference to support the privatisation of the ABC is an absolute howler of an own goal for the government, and the Labor party can hardly believe their good luck.

Australia is set for a federal election sometime in the next 12 months, most likely well before that deadline. By voting for such a motion at their centrepiece national summit, the major Coalition partner has handed their opposition an absolutely killer and key election issue on a silver platter.

Labor ran much of their 2016 election campaign on claims the government would privatise Medicare. Considering the government's recent track record on the ABC -- numerous (and sometimes frivolous) complaints about editorial coverage, repeated criticism and attacks on the network's impartiality, budget cuts just this year, Tony Abbott's infamous "no cuts to the ABC" promise that was broken less than a year later -- it takes no big stretch of the imagination to envisage a Labor election campaign built around protecting the public broadcaster.

It is a line of attack that has been used in several recent elections. Labor, GetUp and more have campaigned hard on it already. They have lines and posters and strategies ready to be dusted off, reheated and reused. The Liberal conference just handed Labor an absolute free kick, and the ALP will be looking to hammer it into the back of the net.

Protesters outside Malcolm Turnbull's electorate office in 2014. (AAP Image/Britta Campion)

On Monday, senior government figures wasted no time in trying to smooth over the fuss, to backtrack on the vote taken and carried overwhelmingly by their national conference delegates. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, communications minister Mitch Fifield and finance minister Mathias Cormann all quickly distanced themselves from the motion, saying the government did not support such a policy and had no plans to privatise the ABC. Fifield called it "Labor lies" -- drawing a bit of a long bow, considering senior members of the party voted overwhelmingly for the policy -- and pointed out that he had spoken against the idea at the conference.

Even the Nationals, the junior Coalition partner -- which has had enough strife of its own lately with the Barnaby Joyce saga -- quickly stepped out of the firing line by distancing itself from the Liberal motion.

Like it or loathe it, the ABC is absolutely essential to Australia. Not just from the perspective of its unparalleled local news operations, with bureaus from rural Tasmania to remote Northern Territory, from the Kimberley to Wollongong and everywhere in between; not just for its unique position as the public network for important public interest programs like Four Corners, 7.30, Q&A, the broadcast of parliament and emergency news bulletins.

It is a uniquely Australian institution, able to reach more people more efficiently than any other organisation in the country, bringing them the information they need to know and the content they want to see.

Who doesn't have great memories of the ABC? From children's programming -- shoutout Bananas In Pajamas and Play School -- through to comedy, drama, world-changing news events and crucial political change. Privatising the ABC, no matter the thought bubbles of the imagination-deficient Young Liberals, would be a disaster for Australia.

Malcolm Turnbull will be under pressure to guarantee the future of the ABC. (AAP Image/Alan Porritt)

No other free-to-air network would bother to broadcast an hour or more of live parliament each day; no other network devotes as much resources to important public interest journalism, or has the scope to make those important stories stand out and effect real change where it is needed. The ABC is needed, and as much as some politicians groan and grumble about the way the broadcaster does its work, I wager no respectable politician actually thinks Australians would support privatising the network.

Turnbull knows that. Fifield knows that. Cormann knows that. McCormack, leader of a party whose rural and regional constituents rely on the ABC probably more than any others, knows that. And so does Labor leader Bill Shorten, who jumped on the news like a Brazilian striker on a loose ball in the penalty box. And it didn't take long for him to shoot.

"Labor will never let the Liberal party privatise our ABC", he said in a Facebook video on Monday, following an ALP motion calling on the government to rule out the plan.

The wording of the Labor motion was wrapped up with a criticism of the government's recent ABC budget cuts, so it was never going to pass -- the government was never going to vote for a motion that effectively criticised itself -- and thus Labor locked in their election slogan for the next campaign.

"Believe it or not, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and every Liberal in parliament just turned up to stop Labor from protecting the ABC against privatisation," Shorten told the camera.

You can bet it won't be the last time he says it in the next few months.

The government is trying to mop up the mess, but the ball is already in the back of the net. The election hasn't even been announced yet, and with Labor already leading in the polls, this is an own goal the government just didn't need.