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Thursday, 30 June 1994
Page: 2533

Senator ALSTON (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (9.52 p.m.) —by leave—I move:

  That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent Senator Hill moving a motion to provide for the consideration of a matter, namely a motion to give precedence to a motion that the Senate deplores the blatant politicisation of the Board of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in flagrant disregard of statutory obligations.

This matter is particularly urgent because it is almost 10 days since these appointments to the board were foreshadowed and yet it is only as recently as tonight that the government has finally had the courage to confirm what everyone else in the community has known during that time, and that is that Mr John Bannon, failed national ALP President, failed Labor Party Premier of South Australia and the man primarily responsible for probably one of the largest financial fiascos this country has ever seen, together with Ms Wendy Silver, has been appointed to the ABC board.

  Why this matter is of such concern to the opposition is this: I asked Senator McMullan on Wednesday, 22 June last about these foreshadowed appointments and what Senator McMullan said was this:

When a series of appointments to the Special Broadcasting Service and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that have been put to the Governor-General are announced, those opposite will see that people from a range of political persuasions have been appointed to those boards, as should be the case.

In other words, Senator McMullan was saying that the appointments to the ABC board will reflect a range of political persuasions—but that is certainly not the case.

  As a result of tonight's belated announcement we have a board that consists of five persons with well-known Labor affiliations plus one trade union member. There are only nine members on the board so even ignoring the trade unionist—I suppose some of them vote for the Liberal Party—we have a board with a clear majority of people whose main claim to fame is that they have strong and longstanding Labor Party affiliations.

  That will come as a great disappointment to all those who are looking to the government to take this opportunity to make appointments to the board on the basis of merit and to boost the community standing and reputation of the ABC. Instead, we now have a board in serious danger of becoming a third-rate outfit, the main claim to fame of which is that the majority of its members have Labor Party associations. This blatant board stacking exercise endangers the independence and integrity of the ABC and has the potential to do grave danger to Australia's international reputation.

  I have not yet received any acknowledgment from the Governor-General of my letter to him several days ago expressing concern that the foreshadowed appointments appeared to be in breach of the statutory obligation imposed on the government, which I think makes the case very clear:

  A person shall not be appointed as a Director—

and we are talking about non-executive directors—unless that person:

. . . had experience in connection with the provision of broadcasting or television services or in communications or management. . .

So appointees need either a broadcasting or television background or a communications and management background. It goes on to say for either of those criteria that:

. . . by reason of his having expertise in financial or technical matters, or by reason of his having cultural or other interests relevant to the oversight of a public organisation engaged in the provision of broadcasting and television services.

In other words, a person's qualifications have to be very closely aligned with the job for which they are chosen. Someone cannot simply wander in and say, `I've got a bit of a background in management, a bit of an understanding of community welfare, therefore I deserve to be appointed to the board.' Yet that is what the minister thinks ought to happen. He said that Ms Wendy Silver:

. . . is chairman of a major public sector authority under the auspices of the current Liberal state government in Western Australia. I think she is entitled to be judged on the performance which we expect her to make.

The fact is that she is not chairman of any board; she is not entitled to be judged on the performance we would expect her to make. Her main claim to fame, apart from handing out how-to-vote cards on behalf of the ALP in the last state election—

Senator Faulkner —I rise on a point of order, Mr Deputy President.

Senator Kemp —Frivolous!

Senator Faulkner —Senator Kemp has not heard it yet, so he cannot make that judgment. It is up to the Deputy President to rule. Senator Alston ought to be making a case for the Senate to suspend standing orders to debate this matter. My point of order, and it is a serious one, is that he was debating the issue.

Senator Alston —On the point of order, I indicated at the outset of my contribution that the urgency surrounding this matter was that almost 10 days ago the minister foreshadowed these appointments being made and we have been waiting patiently ever since. This matter should have gone to the Executive Council last Monday. It finally went to the Executive Council this morning. We have been waiting all day for a formal announcement and, as I indicated at the beginning of my speech, we only got the release from the minister's office tonight.

  That in itself, I would have thought, is a flagrant breach of any obligation to keep the parliament informed, but it is also a very clear admission of guilt on the part of the government. In other words, it knows that these appointments will not stand the scrutiny of the public and it is not going to have them raised in the parliament. Therefore, on the point of order, I think it is very clear that the only way in which this matter is going to be raised is right now before the parliament adjourns for a period of some seven weeks.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I think I have heard enough from both honourable senators to come to some sort of conclusion, however uncomprehensive it might be. In the past there has been a generous interpretation applied to debate on suspension of standing orders. I must say it is a generous interpretation that has never found a great deal of favour with me—that is not to say that I am right.

  In my view, the debate ought to be in respect of the reasons for the suspension and not the substance of the debate. With respect, Senator Alston is debating in a way that accords with the convention of the Senate over recent years. However, having said that, I would be grateful, Senator Alston, if you would restrict yourself to the reasons for the sense of urgency for the debate.

Senator Alston —Can I simply say on a point of order—

  Government senators—Time's up!

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! I do not need advice to be able to read the clock. I am sure Senator Alston is capable of concluding his remarks within the next 10 or 15 seconds.

Senator ALSTON —Indeed. I say in conclusion that what we have here is a classic stacked deck of which a Mississippi gambler would be very proud. It is yet another example of Mr Keating's `all spoils to the victor' approach to politics. It has, I think, a serious capacity to undermine the integrity and reputation of an esteemed Australian institution.