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Thursday, 26 November 2009
Page: 13265

Mr TREVOR (3:34 PM) —I rise today to speak on the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009, and I do so very proudly as, with its introduction and passing, the Labor government will deliver on yet another promise made prior to the 2007 federal election. That promise was to free both the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Special Broadcasting Service of potential political interference. The changes in the bill will achieve better long-term outcomes for both boards by improving governance in our national broadcasters.

As the situation currently stands, ABC and SBS board appointments are made by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the government of the day. This is, of course, in accordance with provisions in the ABC and SBS acts, which require the minister to write to the Governor-General recommending the appointment of a selected candidate. While there are generic criteria specified in these acts which candidates are to be assessed against prior to their appointment, there is no formal process established for appointments and absolutely no degree of transparency required in relation to how candidates are selected. This means that, while there are some generic criteria, there is no formal process to select a candidate and there is no requirement that any information be divulged as to why a candidate was selected, meaning that the government in power at the time could influence the Governor-General and subsequently appoint, ultimately at their own discretion, anyone they want to positions on the board.

This is an outrageous state of affairs. The government in power can effectively hold control over decisions of who gets appointed to the board of two major broadcasters in Australia, which effectively means that they can control two of Australia’s larger media outlets and thus a large percentage of the information consumed by the public. If the government can control who gets appointed, they can control, through the candidate they select for appointment, the portrayal of information in the media and thus control the public’s perception of events and people.

Just imagine the grisly outcome if a government chose to manipulate this situation to grasp power over their country’s national broadcasting services. It would mean a very biased skew on any issues of political interest. Despite the potential for this, when you consider that the ABC is one of the most trusted media sources in the country, it is quite daunting to think that a government could effectively control it. To prevent this potential situation I am delighted to acknowledge the good fortune we have as a government to remove the temptation to manipulate this power, which is something the Labor government committed to prior to the last federal election and something we are delivering on with this bill.

The delivery on this promise began when the government released guidelines in October 2008 pertaining to a new merit based process which was used to appoint four excellent candidates in March 2009. An independent nomination panel was convened to assess the applications and provide a short list of recommended candidates to the minister from an exceptional field of over 300 applicants from across the community. With so many applicants the quality of the appointments increased, resulting in four exceptional new directors; two each for the ABC and SBS. This practice run of the new merit based selection process showed that, by using the new model, better quality directors can be appointed and that the nomination panel can work effectively and independently of the government for the short list process.

This bill will formalise this new merit based selection process and will fulfil two very important and longstanding commitments made by the Australian Labor Party. It will effectively end potential political interference in the ABC by introducing legislation that formalises a new transparent and democratic board appointment process in which non-executive directors are appointed on the basis of merit. It is important to note that it will change the system to allow people to be appointed on the basis of merit. In any system, merit is the most effective tool that can be employed to ensure a fair and unbiased outcome. It allows the most deserving person to be given the position and completely eliminates the influence of any parties looking out for their own interests. Appointments to the SBS board will be handled in the same way and the staff elected director will be restored to the ABC board.

To remove the potential for political interference by way of appointment on the basis of merit this bill will introduce a number of provisions. It will formalise a new merit based appointment process in the legislation of both ABC and SBS and ensure it is used consistently to fill all future non-executive director vacancies, free of control of the government in power at the time. Under the bill the new process will ensure that all non-executive director vacancies on the ABC and SBS boards be advertised widely. This will include, at a minimum, advertisement in the national press and/or in major state and territory newspapers. It will also be a requirement for it to be advertised on the website of the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy.

An independent nomination panel will be established to short-list suitable candidates, free of government influence, with its role being to invite written applications by persons seeking to be appointed as a director of either the ABC or SBS board and to conduct the merit based assessment process for all applicants against the selection criteria. Under the legislation the panel will be appointed by the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and will have the processes for its operation dictated by this legislation, which specifically states that the panel is not subject to direction by the government.

The selection criteria will be solely merit based, with the assessment of candidates being made against a core set of published selection criteria which can be, where necessary to address particular skill gaps, supplemented by additional criteria. After the selection criteria have been applied, the nomination panel will provide a report to the minister with a short list of a minimum of three candidates for each vacant position. As specified under the ABC and SBS acts the minister will then select a candidate from the short list and write to the Governor-General recommending the appointment. If the government fails to appoint a short listed candidate, they must provide reasons to the parliament in explanation of their decision.

The appointment of current or former politicians or senior political staff will be strictly prohibited. If the vacancy is that of the chair of the ABC board, all aspects of the merit based process would be applied in the same manner as they would to any other position, except the Prime Minister would, in conjunction and consultation with the minister, select the preferred candidate. The Prime Minister would then confer with cabinet about the selected candidate and, once having achieved cabinet approval, would consult with the opposition leader before providing a recommendation to the Governor-General.

By introducing these provisions, we can ensure the appointments of non-executive directors are merit based and free of all potential bias and government influence. This will encourage the growth of strong and independent national broadcasters, which are the essential pillars of our democracy. It is incumbent upon the ABC and SBS boards to be able to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the emerging digital and online environment. To this end, both organisations must have transparent and accountable governance processes. Transparency of a merit based system ensures that appropriate and deserving candidates are appointed to positions on the ABC and SBS boards, which is vital if they are to function effectively. The ABC and SBS cannot function at their maximum capacity without first-rate boards.

By opening up the application process to all Australians and allowing them to nominate for a place on either the ABC or the SBS board, more eligible candidates can be considered based on their merits, and more skills can be presented for selection. The merit based selection process will primarily consider their abilities, experience and qualities as the focus of these considerations. The merit assessment will be based on matching the candidates’ skills to the needs of the ABC and SBS which, combined with transparency of independent scrutiny by the nomination panel, will allow the most appropriate candidates to be appointed.

The merit based selection process promotes the principles of equal opportunity, and gender and geographical diversity. Potential bias will no longer have a place in the selection of candidates. Appointment will depend solely on the merit of the individual candidates and how effectively they match the needs of the ABC and SBS. This system will take politics out of the selection process and put the focus on what should be the priority: ensuring the best candidates are appointed to the boards.

Another important amendment this bill will make is the reinstatement of a staff elected director on the ABC board. By reinstating the position of a staff elected director, which was abolished by the previous government, we can effectively enhance the governance arrangements on the ABC board. The position of staff elected director is vital as an important enhancement to the ABC’s independence as it provides a unique and keen insight into ABC operations. More often than not, the staff elected director is the only member of the board that has the expertise and first-hand knowledge to question the advice coming from the ABC’s executives. The staff elected director is in the best position to critically examine the advice from the executives because of their knowledge of the daily operations of the broadcaster. Despite the fact that their actual duties, rights and responsibilities are the same, the process by which they are appointed provides a fundamental difference and gives them unique knowledge and experience that they can bring to the board to assist with the critical task of ensuring the ABC can operate at its maximum capacity. The reinstatement of this position is good news for the ABC as it means important insight can be added to the pool of knowledge held by the board of directors.

The changes introduced by this bill will formalise a system that has proven to be effective and will reintroduce the position of staff elected director, a position that has been proven in the past in that it brings important knowledge and experience to the board of directors. For regional areas such as my electorate of Flynn, where the ABC is a highly respected source for information about contemporary issues and events, the integrity of our national broadcasting service is fundamental. In Flynn, the ABC is very much a part of the community with local offices in Longreach and Gladstone, to which the people of Flynn look to first for information, in good times and in bad. When there is a natural disaster it is the ABC or other local media outlets that people from my community look to for updates and vital information—a service that is absolutely critical in potentially life or death situations such as cyclones and bushfires. This bill will ensure that both the ABC and SBS cannot be abused and that the integrity that makes them the first port of call for information in regional communities, such as my electorate of Flynn, can be maintained.

It would be ludicrous to deny the passing of legislation that will ensure an important part of Australia’s news and media will never be misused or abused. This bill will formalise a tried and tested system and reintroduce an important position to the board of directors, which will prevent any potential political interference and make certain that the integrity of these national broadcasting services can never be lost. It is for these reasons that I commend the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009 to the House.

Debate interrupted.