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Monday, 27 June 1994
Page: 2013


Senator ALSTON (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (3.52 p.m.) —This is an important issue, particularly because it raises some fundamental concerns about the direction of government policy making in relation to the ABC. The ABC has now been with us for in excess of 60 years. In fact, it was founded in 1932. Since that time it has been at the leading edge of public debate in this country.

  Despite a number of frustrations that perhaps we all have from time to time about either its coverage or non-coverage, or the slant that we would like to think it puts on issues, the fact is it remains one of our most cherished institutions. We are going into a new, highly competitive era of technology where we will have an abundance of bands and very many options available to people, in terms of both radio and television, as to whether they look at free-to-air services in the future.

Against that background, it is very important that the ABC has some guidance from the government.

  We are not talking about guidance in the sense of telling it precisely what to do or interfering in managerial and administrative decisions. But at the end of the day, like it or not, the taxpayer of Australia funds the ABC to a considerable extent—in this instance, to the tune of about $515 million. Therefore, I think the taxpayers are entitled to know what view the government of the day has on very important issues such as commercialisation.

  It is a matter of great regret to us that there are some very confusing signals being sent out. The government would appear to have concerns about the ABC's involvement in international satellite television, even though, in principle, it supports that involvement. But because of statements that have been made about the extent to which the ABC is already financially indebted, the Minister for Communications and the Arts (Mr Lee) has ordered an independent assessment, which, of course, provoked a furious outburst from the managing director, Mr Hill.

  That investigation is one thing but, as I understand it, the government has even greater concerns about the whole decision to be involved in pay television, particularly as the ABC board is on the verge of deciding whether to sign up with Australis as a satellite pay delivery operator or, indeed, whether it should get involved in cable television at all, given that one needs very deep pockets and one is up against international competitors with enormous experience. The ABC brings to the party only a licence and whatever is left after $12 1/2 million has been allocated by Senator Collins and his friends. On that basis, the ABC will have to go through this charade that we find in cross media these days, whereby the ABC will have 51 per cent of the voting equity but much less in terms of economic interest or non-voting equity. That, of course, raises some very serious issues, yet we have heard none of these debated by the government. All we have had is constant backgrounding.

  We have reached the point where there is a furious war going on between the minister and the managing director of the ABC. That is something which, surely, is not in the best interests of the corporation, the government or the community. What we ought to have are clear statements of intent and approach by the government. The ABC board ought to then take those matters into account and provide a response. Instead, what we have are these sorts of briefings which appeared in the Weekend Australian:

Lee had insisted the ABC chairman, Mark Armstrong, be at the meeting. Now Lee is determined he will not meet Hill on any critical ABC matter in the future without Armstrong's presence. Lee's decision is a direct attack on Hill. It is saying in effect that the minister does not trust Hill to communicate Lee's views to the ABC board or the views of the board to him.

The article in the Weekend Australian also quotes one of Mr Hill's most loyal supporters as follows:

David needs to realise you cannot have total distrust between the managing director of the ABC and the minister.

If the government does have genuine concerns in these areas, the least it owes the taxpayer is an explanation of those concerns, rather than this sort of off-the-record backgrounding which is clearly an attempt to humiliate the ABC's most senior executive officer. In those circumstances it makes the position of the ABC itself almost untenable.

  This, of course, raises the even more serious concern about the imminent appointments to the ABC board. The board of the ABC, when it started out under another name, was one that prided itself on its independence. Indeed, as Professor Armstrong, the chairman of the ABC, says in his commentary on communications law and policy in Australia:

On the ABC's inaugural broadcast, the Prime Minister, Mr Joe Lyons, declared that the government's purpose was to appoint able and impartial trustees for an important national service.

Now, what do we have? We have a board which consists of seven non-executive directors. If we put aside the chairman and deputy chairman, what we have are three whose greatest claim to fame is extensive Labor Party associations and another two with very extensive trade union experience. That, in itself, may not be a vice on a one-off basis. But when five out of five come from either a close association with the Labor Party or a close association with the trade union movement, where is the balance? Where is the independence? Where is the capacity to provide that editorial integrity that is so important to the ABC? The fact is that the terms of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act make it clear—and I quote:

A person shall not be appointed . . . unless he appears to the Governor-General to be suitable for appointment by reason of his having had experience in connection with the provision of broadcasting or television services or in communications or management, by reason of his having expertise in financial or technical matters, or by reason of his cultural or other interests relevant to the oversight of a public organization . . .

Accordingly, I have written to the Governor-General today asking him to explain, when the matter comes before the Executive Council on Thursday, the reasons that would warrant the appointment of the persons whose names have been foreshadowed both in this place and by the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) in another place because it is fundamentally important that the public at large have confidence in the institution.

  Senator McMullan was at great pains last week to say, `Wait until Monday and you will find that these people aren't simply one-sided', to assure us that these were people with aspirations other than those that we, on this side of the parliament, might not be altogether happy about. He was clearly signalling that there would be some balance and that a decision would be made today. The only explanation I can think of for the decision being put off till Thursday is to avoid parliamentary debate on this matter.

  One only has to look at an interview that John Bannon gave about his role in Saturday's Canberra Times to see how these criteria are on the verge of being fundamentally ignored. It tells us that, when Mr Bannon was contacted by Mr Lee, he said he knew this was:

"an area where I could make a genuine contribution, wanted to make one, and where I already had opinions".

Having opinions is no qualification for anything, certainly not for appointment to the board of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Mr Bannon acknowledges that he has now been muzzled. But the article went on to say, no doubt on the basis of information provided by Mr Bannon:

  Mr Bannon is on the record as a strong advocate of the ABC having a regional presence, being a truly national broadcaster rather than becoming centralist.

At its height that is an argument for having people on the board who do not all come from Melbourne and Sydney. It is certainly not an argument for having Mr Bannon on the board. Indeed, we had on the board a South Australian with acknowledged experience in a very important area.


Senator Collins —John Bannon comes from South Australia.


Senator ALSTON —That is my point. It is not good enough to say that a person satisfies the criteria simply because he comes from South Australia. Mr Bannon is replacing another South Australian, Mr Michael Terlet, who was available for reappointment but was not reappointed. Mr Terlet's background and experiences in technology and management mean that he has sound private sector experience. According to Anne Davies and Michael Seccombe in last Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald:

  Privately, within ABC management, there is apprehension about the lack of financial planning skills on the board, particularly as it is about to venture into a multi-million dollar pay-TV venture.

They go on to raise the question of what signals the government is trying to send by dint of the skills now on the board, and they make the point that Mr Terlet was the only member with an engineering and technology background.

  In those circumstances, it is absolutely critical that the ABC is not compromised in its work and that it does have a genuine and impartial board. I therefore very much look forward to being provided with the reasons by the Governor-General, no doubt on the advice of the government, as to how the appointments to the board come within the criteria. Otherwise we end up with a stacked deck: on one interpretation, simply an attempt to try to circumvent Mr Hill, to turn him into a lame duck, to have people there who will not act in the best interests of the taxpayer but simply in the best interests of the ALP. (Time expired)

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Childs)—Before I call Senator Collins, I point out that various times have been agreed to by the parties and the clock will be altered accordingly.


Senator Alston —Mr Acting Deputy President, on a point of order. I intended to seek leave to incorporate a letter in Hansard. I have given Senator Collins a copy of that letter.


Senator Collins —I would never deny Senator Alston anything.


Senator Alston —I will take that at face value but, on this occasion, all I am asking for is leave to incorporate the letter.

  Leave granted.

  The letter read as follows

27 June 1994

The Governor-General

Government House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

Your Excellency

I write in relation to foreshadowed Government appointments to the Board of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I understand that the matter will be considered by the Executive Council at its meeting this Thursday.

As you will be aware, Section 12(5) of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 provides that a person shall not be appointed as a non-executive director unless `he appears to the Governor-General to be suitable for appointment by reason of his having had experience' in a number of specified areas.

As two of the foreshadowed appointments, namely Mr John Bannon and Ms Wendy Silver, do not appear to come within any of the criteria specified in the Act, I would ask that you ensure that any nominations placed before you not only meet the criteria but that in due course you make public your reasons for any such appointments.

Yours sincerely

RICHARD ALSTON

Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate

Shadow Minister for Communications and the Arts