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Monday, 18 August 2003
Page: 18803

Mr ANTHONY SMITH (9:24 PM) —I rise tonight to also talk in this adjournment debate on the ABC and to address a serious matter concerning the ABC board and its approach to dealing with complaints from the public. On Friday, Melbourne's Age newspaper revealed the extraordinary situation that the ABC board has knowingly allowed the terms of every single member of its Independent Complaints Review Panel to expire. This situation has existed since 1998. It is apparent that it was a deliberate decision by the board to choose not to officially reappoint any of the panellists.

This raises disturbing and critical questions about the approach of the ABC board to complaints and to its complaints process. The confirmation within the article by a spokesman for the chairman of the ABC board, Mr McDonald, that the board now considers the panel members, all of whose terms have expired, to be appointed on what was quoted as `ongoing terms' seems to confirm the worst—that is, that the failure to reappoint every single panellist was a deliberate decision rather than just an incompetent oversight. This action, or should I say inaction, has fundamentally compromised and undermined the integrity of the complaints process and the complaints panel which is charged with reviewing complaints from the public in an independent and arm's length way.

A fixed term is critical to ensuring that the panellists are independent and, more importantly, are seen to be independent. By sitting by and effectively removing the panellists' terms through inaction, the board has managed to dilute and nobble the process. It is simply not good enough for the chairman of the ABC board, Mr McDonald, as the head of that board to sit by and simply ignore a proper appointment process; nor is it acceptable for him and his board to seek to create a virtual, or Clayton's, panel where the panellists are engaged day-to-day, effectively on a probationary basis, and thereby totally stripped of their independence.

The security of a lengthy fixed term for panellists is critical to ensuring confidence that their deliberations are at arm's length and that their decisions are independent. Of course, that is precisely why their terms were laid down in a fixed and lengthy way when the panel first came into being in 1991. It is precisely why almost every other independent appointment you can think of has a lengthy fixed term, whether it is the ACCC, ASIC or any other independent authority.

Can you imagine just for a second if the government of the day decided to allow the terms of every single ABC board member to expire and then announce, when questioned, that they would not replace them with a fixed term and that they would just continue to engage them on a day-to-day basis? Justifiably, there would be criticism of that, but that is exactly what the ABC board has apparently deliberately decided to do with respect to its own complaints panel. This rolling, day-to-day appointment utterly compromises the independence of the panel members. It leaves the ABC board open to the legitimate criticism that the panellists are merely serving at the day-to-day whim of the board.

At its best, this absurd situation indicates sloppy management—that is at its best. At its worst, it indicates an arrogant disregard for a serious and transparent complaints process. Either way, if the ABC is serious about the way it deals with complaints and if it expects the public to believe that it does take their complaints seriously, it must rectify this immediately, at its next board meeting. The chairman of the ABC board, Mr McDonald, must show some leadership on this issue. He must either reappoint all of the panellists if the board is happy with them—which apparently it is—or, failing that, appoint new panellists for a fixed term so that they can have the independence and security that was envisaged in the first place.