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Thursday, 26 November 2009
Page: 13256


Ms LIVERMORE (2:54 PM) —I will start by saying I do not agree with the previous speaker’s assessment of the bill. In fact, I rise to support the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009. The ABC has a long and proud history of providing an independent, high-quality broadcasting service to the people of Australia. It has always been the ABC’s job to nurture our sense of national identity, reflect the richness of our society and give people the accurate and unbiased information they need to fully participate in the life of our nation. In more recent times, SBS has joined the ABC in filling that crucial role.

In recent years there have been genuine concerns that governments on both sides of politics have sought to put their own views of the world or political stamp on the ABC. This kind of political interference, however it is imposed on the ABC, threatens the independence of the ABC and the important and unique role it plays in Australia’s cultural life.

There has been particular criticism of the way in which appointments have been made to the ABC board. It is difficult to defend many of the appointments under previous governments because of the lack of proper process and transparency. Whatever other attributes and experience the candidates had, they invariably had some connection to the politicians who appointed them. This has fed into perceptions of bias that undermine the ABC and lead to poor decision making. The management and editorial teams at the ABC are not doing their job as independent broadcasters if they are constantly looking over their shoulders and worrying about which of their masters they might offend.

There is no doubt that the media world is changing rapidly, and the challenges and opportunities for the ABC in the very near future will be enormous. We need a top-class board whose focus is on the future of the ABC and how it can best fulfil its obligations to the Australian people. The ABC should in no way be a political battleground.

The Labor Party therefore went to the last election, in 2007, with a promise to end political interference in the ABC, and this bill puts in place one of the key mechanisms to achieve that aim. The bill introduces a new transparent and democratic board appointment process in which non-executive directors are appointed on the basis of merit. The government promised to deal with SBS board appointments in the same way and to restore the position of staff-elected director to the ABC board. This National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009 will amend the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 and the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 to establish in legislation the new merit based appointment for ABC and SBS non-executive directors and to reinstate a staff-elected director on the ABC board.

A strong and independent national broadcaster is an essential pillar of our democracy. It is incumbent on the ABC and SBS boards to be able to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the emerging digital and online environments. The ABC and SBS cannot function to their maximum capacity without excellent boards. This legislation will ensure that all Australians will have an opportunity to nominate for a place on the ABC or the SBS board and all claims will be considered on their merits by an independent panel. All future appointments will be governed by the overriding principle of selection based on merit. Individuals who, through their abilities, experience and qualities, match the needs of the ABC and SBS will be selected.

The policy makes explicit the exclusion of certain people with political backgrounds from eligibility for board appointments. Current or former members of the Commonwealth parliament, state and territory parliaments or legislative assemblies and current or former senior political staff are not eligible for appointment to the ABC or SBS boards. All future appointments to the ABC and SBS boards will be subject to independent scrutiny by the nomination panel. The process promotes the principles of equal opportunity, and gender and geographical diversity.

The reinstatement of the staff-elected director will further enhance the governance arrangements on the ABC board. The position of staff-elected director is an important enhancement to the ABC’s independence by providing the board with a director who has a unique and important insight into ABC operations. The staff-elected director may often be in the best position to critically examine the advice coming to the board from the ABC’s executive, given their knowledge of the daily operations of the broadcaster.

I began this speech by describing the unique role the ABC plays in our community. The value that people place on the ABC, its credibility and the trust people place in it comes out of the fact that it is part of the community. The ABC is the national broadcaster but its national status is built on its network of local stations. People trust the ABC because the ABC has a presence in their local community. People see themselves and their stories reflected in the programs of the ABC because those programs are produced locally and presented by ABC broadcasters who live in the local community. Nowhere is this better illustrated than by my local ABC stations —ABC Capricornia based in Rockhampton and ABC Tropical North based in Mackay.

I will speak a bit more about ABC Capricornia because there is a message about the operation in Rockhampton that I would like to give to the ABC’s senior management and board. But I will start at the beginning. ABC Capricornia is one of the ABC’s original radio stations. Known originally as 4RK, this radio station predates the commencement of the Australian Broadcasting Commission on 1 July 1932. It was also the first radio station in Queensland outside Brisbane. ABC Capricornia (4RK) started as a commercial station, owned by the Australian Broadcasting Co., beginning its broadcasts on the 29 July 1931. According to information received from radio history enthusiast David Brownsey quoting an unpublished book by Doug Sanderson, On Air, the first broadcast was from the School of Arts building in Bolsover Street Rockhampton at 8 pm on Wednesday 29 July 1931. The official program of the evening shows that the local Musical Union Choir, assisted by the Rockhampton City Band, sang the national anthem and Advance Australia Fair to open the proceedings. A photo in the ABC Capricornia foyer indicates the station was also situated for a time at the post office in Rockhampton in its early years. The station has been located at various places around the Rockhampton city centre over the years. It moved to its present location at 236 Quay Street in 1963. The ABC has moved to identify its stations according to the regions they serve; hence, 4RK is now known as ABC Capricornia. The station celebrated its 75th birthday in 2006.

While ABC Capricornia has transmitted programs through its 837AM transmitter at Gracemere since 1931, the relay stations are more recent additions. FM transmitters at Gladstone, Biloela and Alpha came on stream in later years. ABC Capricornia also has a powerful transmitter near Emerald, broadcasting on 1548AM. The station staff tell me they frequently get calls from interstate and overseas listeners who pick up the broadcasts through the Emerald transmitter.

From 1963 until 1985, ABC Television also broadcast regional programs from Rockhampton. In the mid-1980s, the ABC decided to centralise its television broadcasts, ending the regional programs broadcast from Rockhampton and Townsville. In 2007, an archiving project was started in cooperation with Central Queensland University to copy as much of the old television news footage as possible. That will be a great asset for our region in years to come.

The staff at ABC Capricornia cover all areas of ABC radio operations. They have news journalists, a rural reporter, program presenters and producers and an online producer who maintains their website, along with field reporting. ABC has a strong history of community service, which is today demonstrated by the station’s involvement in community and industry events around central Queensland. The main studio of ABC Capricornia in Quay Street was refurbished in 1998. The building is the former headquarters and gold store of the Mount Morgan Gold Mining Co. The wealth coming from Mount Morgan is responsible for much of the heritage architecture in Quay Street and our local ABC are proud to be part of that history.

Just recently Rockhampton suffered some devastating bushfires in the Mount Archer mountain ranges that ring the north side of Rockhampton. The following is an account written by one of the announcers at ABC Capricornia that highlights the enormous value of an ABC radio station to the local community in these kinds of events.

During the recent bushfires the breakfast program opened up the phone lines to thank the firies following the hellish weekend of the 17-18 October and what was a pleasant surprise was that along with the firies and other emergency services being thanked on air, a few of the listeners rang in to thank ABC Capricornia for our coverage of the fires. This meant a great deal to the crew at ABC Capricornia who had dropped what they were doing over the weekend to provide the best coverage they could. The listeners called in to say that ABC Capricornia was the station that they turned to in times of need and emergency.

ABC Capricornia as a part of local radio is a part of the community; we live here, we work here, we identify with the people here and want to do the best by them at all times. It’s a responsibility and a privilege to be invited into people’s homes both literally as well as figuratively over the airwaves and we never take the loyalty of ABC listeners for granted. The ABC now has a more official role as the Emergency Services Broadcaster, but it’s really just formalising what we’ve been doing for 75 years or so, being a lifeline to people bringing news and information.

Mr Deputy Speaker, as you can see from that, the staff at the ABC in Rockhampton are rightly proud of the entertainment and, more importantly in the case of emergencies, the service they provide to our region. Because of their commitment and professionalism, the people of Central Queensland rely on them to give us information and to tell us about the stories and issues that matter to us.

We are also proud in Central Queensland of the job that has been done by the television news team that operates out of the Rockhampton studio. As I mentioned earlier, the local news bulletins ceased in 1985. The job of the television crew now is to film and produce material for inclusion in statewide and national broadcasts. This is incredibly important to us in Central Queensland. Just as we want to know what is happening in our local region, so too do we want the rest of Queensland and Australia to know about the events and issues relevant to us. As a national broadcaster, it is incumbent on the ABC to tell the whole story about this country, not just what happens in the major cities.

So it has been extremely disappointing to learn in recent months that the management of the ABC has been discussing the possibility of shutting down the television side of the operation in Central Queensland. Instead, the news crew will be relocated to the Gold Coast if this plan goes ahead. This is an enormous kick in the teeth to the staff of ABC Capricornia, and I am angry on their behalf and on behalf of the people of central and western Queensland who deserve to have their stories told. How can anyone tell us that there is not enough happening in this region when it is one of the major hubs of economic activity in this country and when it is at the heart of major developments and innovations in the mining, agricultural, natural resource management and environmental sectors? There are communities going through unprecedented change and growth. I know the member for Flynn, who was to join me in the chamber, knows all about this because it relates to his electorate as well. This all has implications at a state and national level, yet the ABC, the national broadcaster, wants to walk away from being part of this development and does not want to tell those stories. The whispers are that ABC management wants to shift the news crew from Central Queensland so that it can have a full-time news crew at the Gold Coast. The ABC has given assurances that the studio capacity in Rockhampton will remain so that when the need arises a crew can fly in, produce the story and have it broadcast.

I say to the ABC: spare us the weasel words. The truth is that the ABC is considering moving the news crew out of Central Queensland so they can set up at the Gold Coast. What use is studio technology in Rockhampton without a camera person and a journalist to travel to a story in Moranbah or Longreach or Biloela? Those stories about agriculture, mining, renewable energy, clean coal, LNG, rural health, and so on will not be told. Why? So there can be a news crew at the Gold Coast. I mean no disrespect to the Gold Coast. It is a very beautiful part of Queensland. But it is another city and one only an hour’s drive from Brisbane. What about the one-third of Queensland from Bundaberg to Mackay, and west, a centre of economic activity going through enormous change and at the front line of challenges such as climate change, land use, the social impacts of mining and growth? Can the ABC seriously turn its back on those stories so it can run more stories about drunken brawls in Surfers Paradise? To me this is not fulfilling the charter of a national broadcaster. Anyone can tell the stock standard stories of life in the cities, and they all do, but is a news bulletin full of car chases and armed hold-ups telling the whole story of what is important in Australia? I fear that without a news crew based in Central Queensland the ABC news and current affairs programs will look like all the other commercial stations and there will be no-one telling the stories about the Australia beyond the cities.

I am calling on the management and the board of the ABC to reconsider any decision they might have made to go down that path. I want them to recommit to these important parts of Queensland outside the south-east corner by retaining the full television crew in Rockhampton. If the Gold Coast, which I understand is a fast-growing area, needs its own news crew, then work out how to achieve that, but do not do it at our expense. The ABC belongs to all Australians not just those in the city and it must reflect the lives and interests of all Australians. The ABC has always done that by having a genuine presence in, and commitment to, local communities and to change that will undermine the relevance of the ABC and destroy its unique position within Australia’s media landscape.

This bill fulfils an election promise made to those Australians who care about quality independent broadcasting and the unique roles of the ABC and SBS in our social fabric. This bill puts in place the right mechanism to ensure the best possible governance of the ABC and SBS. Those of us in rural and regional Australia especially rely on those board members to honour the ABC’s commitment to be a truly national broadcaster and that commitment must not be surrendered to any other agendas.

I will just return to the central features of this bill and the amendments that we are discussing. Of course the key one is the new mechanism by which directors of the ABC and SBS will be appointed. I think that it is a positive step forward to introduce the notion of merit based appointments. If you look at the guidelines and material that has been published setting out the mechanism, it is robust. There will be advertisements placed right across Australia seeking those who are interested in becoming a member of the ABC or SBS board to put an expression of interest forward. I understand that they have just gone through that process. Expressions of interest closed yesterday. I hope that there is a very broad-ranging cross-section of people from all over Australia who put their names forward to be considered by the nomination panel.

Reflecting on the situation of the ABC in Central Queensland, I would certainly be hoping that there will be a good selection of people from rural and regional Australia. I think that the ABC plays an even more central and important role in telling the stories of rural and regional Australia and providing that link to what is going on in communities and in the world for people living in rural and regional Australia. There are some parts of ABC programming that are particularly geared towards the interests of those people in the country and they have become institutions down the years. I am thinking there of the Country Hour of course on every weekday, and also who could forget Australia All Over with Macca on Sunday mornings?

Some years ago in my first term in this House I was part of the inquiry into regional radio broadcasting around Australia when there were concerns about the decline of regional broadcasting in this country. As we travelled around the smaller rural communities throughout Australia, people told us over and over about that almost personal connection to some of those presenters and programs. Everyone has their favourite stories of where ABC programs and personalities have played their role in our lives. In finishing up, I want to return to the job that local broadcasters do both in Mackay and Rockhampton. They do a terrific job of keeping in touch with our communities and providing that service. (Time expired)