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Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Page: 218


Mr CRAIG THOMSON (1:06 PM) —I rise to support the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009. This bill will amend two acts, the Australian Broadcasting Corporations Act 1983 and the Special Broadcasting Services Act 1991, to establish in legislation the new merit based appointment process for ABC and SBS non-executive directors and to reinstate the staff-elected director of the ABC board. The staff-elected director position cannot be reinstated to the ABC board until the legislation is amended.

Under the provisions of the bill: the position of staff-elected director will be restored to the ABC board; non-executive director vacancies on the ABC board and SBS board will be advertised; an independent nomination panel will shortlist suitable candidates; and there will be a clear merit based selection criteria for non-executive director positions. Where the government does not appoint a shortlisted candidate, they will have to provide reasons to parliament. The Prime Minister must consult with the Leader of the Opposition prior to recommending to the Governor-General the person to be appointed as the ABC chairperson. The appointments of current or former politicians or senior political staff will be prohibited. The government committed to these initiatives prior to the 2007 federal election. They were part of the platform that we took to that election. We are intending to honour those election promises with this legislation.

In relation to merit based appointments of non-executive directors, it is important to note that strong and independent national broadcasters are an essential pillar in our democracy. It is incumbent on the ABC board and the SBS board to be able to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the emerging digital and online environments. To this end, both organisations must have transparent and accountable governance processes. 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 board or the SBS board and that 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. 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 ultimate responsibility for appointments remains with the minister.

This bill reinstates the role of the staff-elected director, which will further enhance the governance arrangements on the ABC board. The position of staff-elected director is an important enhancement of the ABC’s independence, 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.

The changes to the board process are needed to ensure the future independence of both boards as media technology evolves. For too long the process of appointing directors to the ABC and SBS boards has been open to political interference. It is time to restore the independence. The new appointment process will ensure that all future appointments to the ABC and SBS boards are conducted in a manner that fosters independence, transparency, accountability and public confidence. Former politicians and political staffers will not be eligible to apply and, to make it clear that the government is serious about independence and balance, the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition will have a hand in deciding the appointment of the boards’ chairs.

When the changes were publicly proposed in a discussion paper last year, the ABC’s then most recent staff-elected director welcomed the government’s decision to reinstate the role, saying it was vital to the independence of the public broadcaster. Broadcaster and journalist Quentin Dempster said at the time that the ABC audience would be better served by board members who were not appointed on the basis of politics. That is important, because that is why the national broadcasters are there—for their audiences. We need to make sure that their independence is an essential part of Australian viewing. Mr Dempster said:

We’re really looking forward to seeing that merit selection comes through and the public gets an understanding that they as taxpayers are the ones who own the ABC, not the staff, not the Labor Party or the Liberal Party.

One of my staff is himself a former journalist who worked with one of the two national broadcasters, and he recognises the importance of independence. He tells me of the times when there was strong solidarity within the staff ranks of the TV and radio stations of the ABC and SBS while either was having a dispute with management and/or the board over political appointments or the question of staff-elected directors. To come to work every day in the knowledge that somewhere at the top of a national broadcaster’s food chain there was the possibility that a story or program could be interfered with because of an executive decision made with one political bias or another was a very disturbing feeling for many a working journalist, editor or programmer.

In a dramatic example of how circumstances can turn, that same staff member of mine was once a part of the media in the Pacific Island country of Fiji. Fiji, as many of the members here know, no longer has an independent media. The newspapers, radio and television in that popular destination for Australian tourists have virtually been shut down by the country’s military leader. It is probably true to say that Fiji’s national broadcaster was never as strong and independent as ours, but now any independence ever enjoyed by the media over there has virtually been put aside. Thankfully, the chances of that ever happening in Australia are practically impossible. And through this legislation I am speaking on today, any threats to the integrity of the independence, transparency, accountability and public confidence of the two national broadcasters will be no longer.

The ABC and the SBS are both recognised throughout the world as quality program makers. The current affairs segments and hard-hitting documentaries of both have at various times had major impacts on the lives of not only public affair conscious Australians but also on people in various other countries. These programs have also been screened on some of the world’s leading in-depth news and current affairs channels operated by the likes of the BBC and ITV. And the growing popularity of travel documentaries and lifestyle shows, especially when they involve food, is ever so evident. Our national broadcasters have had a major hand in these new brands of reality TV shows.

But the traditional world of broadcasting as we know it is changing and changing rapidly. Increasingly the digital age is determining how we receive our daily doses of news and current affairs and other programs. These programs themselves are converging and finding more and more niche audiences, and the audiences are trying out new ways to catch up with the world around them on their portable screens and mobile phones or they are investing in higher quality TV sets at home or increasingly turning to their computer screens to update themselves. And while they can more easily see what is going on in the world, there will more demand for services like news and weather to be focused on their local areas.

The wider range of viewing and listening equipment demands programs that are technically superior. That is why this country needs to update, why we need to truly enter the 21st century of communications, and our two national broadcasters will play a major part in the future of digital broadcasting through a far better broadband network. The National Broadband Network will be the single largest infrastructure investment made by an Australian government. It will be a key nation-building project, stimulating our economy, improving health and education services and connecting our cities and regional centres. The government’s $43 billion investment will deliver 90 per cent fibre-to-the-premises coverage at speeds of 100 megabits per second and the remaining coverage through state of the art wireless and satellite technologies.

A range of studies, both in Australia and from overseas, agree on the fundamental bottom line that investment in high-speed broadband leads to billions of dollars in economic benefits across the economy. The NBN is not just about delivering existing internet services to consumers. It will be an enabling platform for a range of 21st century communications, including new applications promoting health, education and energy efficiency and new innovative business applications. A range of studies both in Australia and from overseas, including from Access Economics, the Centre for International Economics and the European Commission, have converged on the view that high-speed broadband will lead to billions of dollars in economic benefits across the economy in the future.

I note Infrastructure Australia’s view in its National infrastructure priorities report, in May last year, which stated:

The importance of an accessible and fast broadband network to Australia’s international competitiveness is almost impossible to overstate.

The government is now clearly focused on the implementation of this policy. That is why the government is conducting a detailed implementation study to work through issues such as, amongst other things, operating arrangements, ownership, structure and ways to attract private sector investments. The implementation study is due early next year.

By taking a leadership role in investment in high-speed broadband, the government is positioning Australia to take advantage of the benefits of the future digital economy. The opposition, on the other hand, are all over the place on this issue. Clearly, they are very slow to move with the technology in terms of broadband, let alone party unity on these issues. What we hear from the opposition is that, first of all, they criticise us for moving too slowly and then they want to reopen the debate about the technology. They have had an opportunity. They had 11½ years to look at what direction they wanted to take. What did we get in those 11½ years? Eighteen failed broadband policies—that is right: 18 different policies when they were in government but not one concrete step forward into the digital economy.

The opposition clearly failed in the past on the digital revolution. They clearly have no plan for the future on this and they should be supporting the government’s role and initiative in the rollout of the NBN. It is the way to go for Australia. It will lead to greater economic benefits for the Australian people and it is something that should be bipartisan. Unfortunately, getting a single position from an opposition that takes multiple positions on almost every issue is very, very difficult.

In terms of international comparisons, the most recent OECD statistics indicate that Australia is in the bottom half of OECD countries in broadband take-up. We are 16th out of 30 countries. Australians pay more for broadband than most OECD countries. We are 20th out of 29 countries. For average monthly subscription prices, Australia is the fourth most expensive for slow speed connections and the fifth most expensive for medium-speed connections. These are important facts that were before the previous government but again they failed to act on them. They failed to make broadband accessible to the vast majority of Australians. They failed to look at technology that would make it available at a much reduced price.

On the other hand, this government is investing $250 million to roll out fibre-optic backbone links connecting cities, major regional centres and rural towns. The first six priority locations for initial investments are Geraldton, Darwin, Emerald and Longreach, Broken Hill, Victor Harbor and the south-west Gippsland region. Tasmania was to be the first state to receive these services, and that has already occurred. On 21 October the Prime Minister and the Tasmanian Premier announced stage 2 of the NBN rollout in Tasmania. The centres of Smithton, Scottsdale and Midway Point will be the first to receive optical fibre broadband connections under the National Broadband Network rollout.

The NBN coverage of rural areas is important for all Australians. It means being able to connect and making sure that Australians get access and that 98 per cent are covered under this important commitment we made before the last election. The remaining 10 per cent of homes and businesses will receive next generation wireless and satellite technology that will deliver them broadband speed.

Clearly, the future of the two national broadcasters, the ABC and the SBS, depends a great deal on how the government supports them. We support them through major investment in technology infrastructure and we are putting in place the foundations of a future of continued high-quality and independent national broadcasting in this country. This particular bill makes sure that both SBS and the ABC are able to have transparent management structures, merit based appointments and the reinstatement of the staff-elected director. It is a good thing that this government continues to support, both in the technology and in their structures, the boards of both the ABC and SBS. I commend this bill to the House.