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Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Page: 285

Mr BRIGGS (6:01 PM) —In following the shadow minister for transport, who was speaking on the ministerial statement about the National Road Safety Council, I welcome that announcement by the government as well. There have been 18 deaths since New Year on the roads in my electorate, including a mother and two daughters in Mount Barker, where I live, and three young guys, 17- and 18-year-olds, in Mount Compass last week on, of all days, Australia Day. It is just a horrific waste of life. Anything we can do in this and another place to reduce that waste of life is to be commended. Thank you for your indulgence in allowing me to speak on that matter, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Before question time interrupted my remarks about the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009 I was commenting that the opposition has proposed sensible amendments to this bill. The need for reform of the ABC Board could be described as questionable and seems to be largely driven by political biases, rather than any great desire for reform. The ABC under the leadership of Mark Scott, the managing director, is doing an outstanding job. At this point in its history it is clearly delivering better services than it ever has before. It now has three TV stations, one of which is watched quite regularly in my home and delivers children’s TV, something in a previous role I was very supportive of being developed, against the wishes of others who did not want such a service established with government money—but we won that in the end! It is a very good service and is being delivered because the leadership being shown by Mark Scott is outstanding. He is doing a very good job as the Managing Director of the ABC.

It would be very difficult to argue that the ABC has ever been stronger. I am sure there are areas where people will always be critical, but there are not the great complaints about overt bias that we had in the past. The coverage of news and current affairs on the ABC now is as good as it has ever been. Of course there are pockets and patches where people will disagree, and that is always a difficult balancing act for the board of the ABC and, in particular, the managing director. I think the current state of the ABC comes down very much to the direction set by Mark Scott and his team at the ABC, and they are doing a very good job. In South Australia the ABC leads the ratings in the morning slot with the Matt and Dave show. Probably the most difficult political interview that any politician could go through is with Matt Abraham and David Bevan. A great indication of the job they are doing is that both sides of politics allege that they are biased to the other, which is probably a reasonable indication that they are difficult for both sides.

The premise of my contribution to the debate on this bill is that the ABC is not desperately in need of reform at the board level. The bill before the parliament is more about historic battles and the culture wars than it is about a genuine need for reform. That particularly relates to the position of the staff elected director, which is clearly and utterly a conflictive position, as was found by the Uhrig review. Since it was removed in 2006, members on the other side have commented that there was great outrage in the community, that it was a disgraceful move and that it was made because of the great bias of the Howard government. The ABC has never been stronger. There has been no great reduction in services. In fact it has gone the other way—the services have increased. You can get the ABC in more places today, with more specialist new services. The online news delivery by the ABC leads all other news organisations. The news services through digital TV are outstanding. They are about to launch a 24-hour news service. Yes, there is contention amongst other media organisations about that—what a big surprise!

The ABC is leading the way, so what is the great need to reintroduce the staff appointed director to the board again? There is no great need, and it is being driven by the ideological approach taken to this issue by Senator Conroy, which is disappointing from Senator Conroy, who does not usually strike me as someone all that interested in fighting ideological battles. He is more interested in getting himself involved in other, internal battles in the Labor Party than those based on ideology. But on this one he is wrong-footed. It was a bad decision of his to pursue this agenda but it is a very Labor bill, in that it is rewarding supporters and friends of the Labor Party. It is a mistake.

The ABC board is working well; it does not need a staff elected director introduced back onto it. That is why this side of the House has proposed quite reasonable amendments and we hope that the government during this debate is able to come to its senses on this issue and recognise that the ABC has never been stronger. It is stronger, I think, because of decisions and reforms taken over the last 10 or 15 years. It was not all that long ago that we had constant battles about the ABC being biased with respect to one side or the other. We had leaks from the board; we had upheavals with the directors and with the leadership of the ABC. That has not happened recently. We have a good managing director there doing a good job in a well-structured organisation that is—he will disagree with me on this point—well funded. They will always argue that they should get more funding I am sure, but they are doing a good job. That indicates that there has been no great desire or need by the ABC itself to have this reform, instead we are seeing a move from those on the other side for a bit of ideological pleasure.

Secondly, this bill deals with merit-based appointments to the board which sounds, when talking about board appointments whether it be to the ABC, to any other government board or in fact to a public company board, as though you would want people appointed to a board who are of merit. We commonly hear from those on the other side, we have heard it in this debate, references made to Janet Albrechtsen and Keith Windschuttle being appointed to the board of the ABC as if there were some outrageous bias and they were appointed because they are so-called right-wing warriors or whatever else. Always when it comes to these appointments and these debates no matter who is in government and from which side of the perspective it is viewed, bias is in the eye of the beholder. I am sure there are appointments that have been made to the ABC board already and which will occur in the future where members on this side of the House and on our side of politics will allege that they have been made because they are great Labor supporters or, dare I say it, former union officials.

When it comes to a merit based approach to board appointments, it is all very well to put provisions in the act; however, I think governments do make merit based appointments to board positions. They do so because if they do not, they end up with bad boards which become a political embarrassment to them and cause them all sorts of problems. I do not see again a great need for this to be implemented other than giving some cover for appointments that the Labor Party may want to make in the future.

This leads to the final issue in this bill which relates to the banning of former political staff and MPs which seems like a very strange piece of legislation given that there is on other boards, as I understand it, an 18-month cooling-off period applied, which has some merit. There has been debate in the past about former members of this place, particularly where they have had some responsibility, being appointed to boards whether they be government boards or public boards. In fact, the former member for Higgins has recently been appointed to the Future Fund board, which is a great appointment because no-one would know more about the Future Fund than the man who set it up. There are some, I understand, in the Labor caucus who are so not happy about it, but it makes sense that the former Treasurer, the man who came up with the idea for the Future Fund, implemented the Future Fund and believes very strongly in the Future Fund has been appointed to the board. We all welcome that sort of expertise.

Equally for people who participate in public policy in their job for a period of time, I would have thought that after a cooling-off period there was some merit in former members of parliament or, in fact, former senior staff members being appointed to the ABC board to add their experience if that were the decision of the government of the day. The government would of course face criticism if it were someone from their political persuasion and they would probably face criticism from their own if it were someone from the other political persuasion. Banning these appointments seems to be an attempt to get some pats on the back for little purpose. In fact, I think there is a danger of reducing the quality of people who can serve on the board. It would make no sense at all. Where do you stop? You could stop former public servants who have worked closely on media policy from being appointed to the board as well. I am sure some people would not want that sort of restriction on them either.

I do not understand the purpose or the necessity for this decision or the background to it in this country. It seems a strange decision by the government to pursue this line in this legislation and therefore it is a good amendment that has been proposed by this side again to change this provision and make it consistent with the 18-month cooling-off period. I think people who serve in the parliament of this country and move on, as some members have decided to at the next election, have obviously got skills and they should not be disregarded. Too often we jump; as a group, we panic at criticism. In Australia no-one loves anything better than belting into their local MPs, former ministers or prime ministers; it is a great Australian sport. We should be very reluctant as members of this place to encourage that by providing legislative proof that we do not think we are actually worthwhile enough to serve on these sorts of boards. It is a mistake to do that; it adds to the perception that there is some great problem with being a politician. This piece of legislative amendment is a mistake.

With those few remarks I will conclude by again commenting on the strength of our media sector in this country and, certainly, the ABC plays an important part in that. There are those on our side and on the other side of politics who criticise the ABC and criticise particular individuals from time to time. That will forever be thus. The ABC plays a very important role in our media landscape and it does a good job. I am sure many members in this place would be up most Sunday mornings at 9 am watching the show that is probably watched only by people who work in this place, but it provides an important service to our country. I do not see the great need for reform to its board or to its structure. I think this probably highlights that in this case the bill is more about ticking a couple of boxes for election deals done than it is about any great forward thinking by the government.