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Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Page: 221

Mr LINDSAY (1:20 PM) —Madam Deputy Speaker Vale, I thank you for being such a wonderful colleague over so many years as a member of the class of ‘96. There is a quaint title on this bill, the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009. As is so often the case with bills in this place that have these quaint titles, you would have no idea of what it is really about, what it might do and the dangers lurking in the legislation. It is right that there is a debate in the parliament, and this side of the House suggests that there could be ways that the government could improve the legislation—or that the legislation should not be passed at all.

It was back in 2006 in the time of the Howard government that an effort was made by the then government to improve the corporate governance of the ABC. Many of us have had views about the ABC and its role within Australia and whether or not it fulfils its mission and objectives. Those views have often been substantially correct. There are parts of the ABC about which members of parliament are very unhappy; other parts of it shine—for example, the ABC newsroom in Townsville. It is the most professional newsroom that we have in the north. It is terrific to be able to say that our national broadcaster has the most professional news service of any of the media outlets in North Queensland. Congratulations to the people in the ABC newsroom in Townsville for the work they do and the way that they accurately and impartially report the news. At the end of the day, that is the mission of the ABC: to be accurate and impartial. You cannot say that about certain other sections of the ABC nor can you say it about certain other sections of the Australian media. From time to time, we have all seen glaring examples of that. I will shortly make some more observations in relation to that.

The reason I raise this is to lay out my views on this bill. The coalition amended the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 to remove the staff-elected position from the ABC board. The rationale for the removal of the staff-elected position was that it was inconsistent with other government agency boards and inconsistent with the Uhrig review of corporate governance, statutory authorities and officeholders. The Uhrig review concluded:

The Review does not support representational appointments to governing boards as representational appointments can fail to produce independent and objective views. There is the potential for these appointments to be primarily concerned with the interests of those they represent, rather than the success of the entity they are responsible for governing.

In other words, expressed simply, there would be a conflict of interest.

In the face of an independent review with a very powerful and logical conclusion, I fail to see how the government can come back to the parliament and say, ‘We intend to reinstate a staff director on the ABC.’ This is basically pressure from the unions on the government. There can be no other explanation as to why the government would put such a foolish piece of legislation before the parliament today. Any fair-minded person could immediately see the conflict of interest of having a staff member on the board of the ABC. They could see the threat to proper governance of the organisation. It does not happen in other statutory bodies. It does not happen in the private sector. Yet the ABC is singled out, and of course SBS too, for this rather special situation.

We all know the various problems that the ABC have had in relation to objectively reporting the news. We know that so often material is produced on the seven o’clock nightly news program which is presented as news but is actually editorial opinion in the way that it is presented. That is wrong. There is nothing wrong with editorial opinion provided that it is presented as such. The 7.30 Report is basically an editorial opinion slot. To present editorial opinion as news is wrong. The ABC board needs to be strong enough to be able to address that particular situation. How can it be strong enough if a staff member is on the board? What is the staff member’s view going to be? Obviously, the staff member is going to side with the staff and their political views are going to prevail. The ABC was designed to be an independent broadcaster with a mission that the Australian people want to see fulfilled.

The clause in this bill that seeks to reinstate the staff-elected director position to the ABC board is simply creating a conflict of interest. It undermines the system of checks and balances that exists within the ABC. There is no need to introduce an inherent risk that could pose a conflict of interest. The idea of reinstating a staff-elected position is nothing more than a move by the government to please the unions at the ABC. Since the election of the Rudd government, all of us have seen the power and influence of the union movement. More importantly, we have also seen the misuse of that power and influence. Look at what is going on in the north of Western Australia right now: $50,000 a year salary increases for no productivity gain—for nothing in return. How can that be justified? How can the government condone such an outcome when they talk continually about improving Australia’s productivity? Of course they cannot, but they do. Here we go again: the power of the unions getting the government to put in place something that is not in the best interests of Australia or its people.

ABC directors, including the staff-elected member, are legally bound to put the interests of the ABC first and foremost. The role of the staff-elected board member is to represent ABC staff at board level. What will happen when the overall interests of the ABC differ from the interests of the ABC staff? What will happen if there is a pay dispute between ABC staff and the board? The staff-elected member will be placed in a predicament whatever way they vote, and they will not be performing their duty as required by the normal governance rules of boards in Australia today.

It is my strong view that the minister has got it wrong again. According to Senator Conroy, this is not an inherent conflict of interest. I do not know what the minister’s definition of ‘conflict of interest’ is but it differs from all other conventional meanings and it differs from what ordinary Australians would see as the definition of ‘conflict of interest’. The SBS does not have a staff-elected member on the SBS board, yet the government only wants to introduce one to the ABC board. There should not be any staff-elected member on the ABC board—or the SBS board, for that matter.

This legislation also bans former politicians and senior political staff from being appointed to the boards of the SBS or the ABC. This is not a sensible move as it locks out a valuable resource for these boards, that being former politicians and senior political staff. These people have a wealth of knowledge and experience in dealing with government, legislation, representation, governance, management and public accountability. I believe it is not appropriate to single out former members of parliament or their senior staff to be excluded in this way.

I also believe that it is not appropriate for this class of people to be appointed immediately after they have left the parliament or the public service. I, along with the opposition, am of the opinion that there should be an 18-month cooling-off period for former MPs, senators and senior staff before they become eligible to be appointed to the boards of the ABC or SBS. That does not mean to say that any will be appointed—there is a merit selection process—but they should not be excluded either.

It is hypocritical of the government to appoint former politicians and senior political staff to some boards but not to the boards of the ABC or SBS. Clearly one approach is at odds with the other. It is unfair to deny the SBS and the ABC access to the valuable skills and experience that these people possess. Certainly former members have made an important and valuable contribution to the board of the ABC and to other government bodies, but, of course, they have also made important contributions, and still do, to boards of many public companies in this country today. In fact, in 1994 the Labor government appointed former South Australian Labor Premier John Bannon to the ABC board. In more recent times, we have seen Mr Rudd appoint John Kerin to the CSIRO and Steve Bracks as an adviser for the car industry. There is ample precedent to show that these appointments are valuable and useful appointments. So why the government would present this proposal to the parliament today mystifies me. It just goes against common sense. It defies logic, as does the reinstatement of a staff-elected board member position.

I would like to finish with an observation in relation to something I said earlier in my contribution to the debate on the motion on truthfulness in the media. More and more, particularly in the print media, we see sensationalism being presented as news. It gets to the stage where you have to say, ‘You can’t believe anything you read in the newspaper any longer.’ That is not true of some of our quality publications. The great newspapers of this country strive to produce an honest reporting of the facts, but then there are those which strive to maximise circulation by being sensational with no regard for the facts.

I would point out today’s Townsville Bulletin, which has a story about a long-running issue in the Coronary Care Unit of the Townsville Hospital. It involves a doctor who was stood down and the government being forced to reinstate that doctor. The story was misleading and the impression that it left with the reader was entirely untrue. It is a shame that readers in Townsville are left in the situation of no longer being able to believe what they read on the front page of the Townsville Bulletin.

I remember an instance last year, when the city council was looking at some significant rate rises because the former Labor council had so badly affected the finances of the council. In March last year, the Townsville Bulletin reported on its front page that ‘the rate rise for Townsville City Council ratepayers will be’—note that it said ‘will be’—‘nine per cent this year.’ The budget was not due to be brought down until June, so I rang the general manager of the paper and I said, ‘How could you report that the rate rise will be nine per cent when the council has not even formulated its budget yet?’ The response was, ‘Well, we’ve got good information from inside the council.’ The damage was done, because the rate rise was, from memory, 6.7 per cent. It was not determined until quite late in the piece, but the readers in Townsville were completely misled.

I also suffered at the hands of the Townsville Bulletin. There was a front-page story: ‘Member takes a study trip estimated to cost the Australian taxpayer $100,000’. I rang the editor and I said, ‘Well, that is news to me; where did you get $100,000?’ He said, ‘Oh, we tossed it around and we estimated that’s what the cost would be.’ The cost to the taxpayer was $15,000 and, incidentally, I personally put in $17,000 myself on that trip, but there was no mention of that. There was just the sensationalist ‘$100,000 the member slugged the taxpayers of Australia’. That kind of reporting has to stop. The print media in this country have to accept more responsibility than they currently accept and the residents of Townsville have to be able to believe what they read on the front page of the Townsville Bulletin.

I am reminded also of a Defence example—which you will understand, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott. There was claim made by the Townsville Bulletin that 3,000 marines from Japan were going to be based in Townsville. There was not a skerrick of fact in that front-page story. The Department of Defence had not even heard about the prospect, yet it was reported that 3,000 marines were going to be based in Townsville. That kind of reporting has got to stop and we have to see better standards of reporting and professionalism in our Australian media.

That brings me back to the ABC and this bill. The board of the ABC—and SBS, but particularly the ABC—has got to be a strong, impartial, unbiased, quality board that has no conflicts of interest whatsoever so that the board can exercise its authority and direct the standards that it wants within our great national broadcaster. I utterly reject the proposition that is being put in this bill, and I will vote accordingly.