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Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Page: 288

Ms REA (6:15 PM) —I rise with pleasure to speak to the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009 and emphasise that I think it is a very important piece of legislation. The fact that the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy has finally brought this legislation before the House demonstrates not just that we as a government are honouring some very important election commitments but reflects very much on the differences between the government and the opposition towards many of our public institutions, in particular, the national broadcaster.

The speech just given by the member for Mayo probably very succinctly outlines the fundamental differences between the view we have on this side that the public broadcaster is an independent media source for providing free and accurate information to the Australian community and for contributing significantly to the development of arts and entertainment in this country by being able to provide more cutting-edge, challenging cultural views and perspectives through television and radio as opposed to the view that was very clearly pronounced by the member for Mayo that the public broadcaster is some sort of benign institution that has been part of the fabric dating back some 78 years, and that the board is one of those suites of opportunities that provide the spoils of office where it is okay to be biased as long as the bias is balanced and that it goes with government that it is accepted and is okay.

Instead the government have a very different view and that is why this piece of legislation is one of the most important pieces of legislation that we have debated in the last couple of days. I do not say that lightly, having contributed to the debate on climate change and to the debate on private health insurance, with both issues being prominently in the media at the moment. This legislation is essential because it restores independence to the board of the public broadcaster. It allows an independent process to produce board members who not only are independent of government and of media barons and private ownership but who are actually selected based on merit and who will provide a broad range of expertise, skills and experience that will bring the ABC into the media world that we live in now which is very, very different.

We cannot ignore or dismiss that the way we gain access to information has changed. The digital era, more significantly the online era, has created a whole new world in which we get information. No longer is it controlled by editors, or media barons or those that own the presses. With the internet the information is now everywhere. Anyone can produce a video, anyone can create a website, anybody can start blogging. It is important that we as a government acknowledge that our public broadcaster, which is such an essential part of communications in this country, is aware and understands the challenge that whole new regime produces for us. It must have the skills and expertise to take important information that the ABC wants to deliver to the community into that online environment in a modern and effective way. This is not just about saying that you want to do this because you did not like the people who were put on the ABC board. I think that is a fairly futile and frivolous argument and does not address the core principles on which this legislation is based.

It is also very important that we acknowledge the process that the minister has put in place for this legislation and that there are quite significant changes. We will have a merit based selection process. An independent panel will interview and make assessments about individual nominations based on merit. It also means that anybody can nominate to be on the ABC board. Taxpayers who fund this very important institution will now have an opportunity to be a significant part of it. If they, like anyone else, have the skills and expertise that are required to make the board work then, of course, they will have an opportunity to be a part of it. It means that no longer does the minister via the Governor-General appoint who they want. If the minister does not like the recommendations put by the independent panel then they have to justify that to the parliament. That is a significant change.

I think it is important that we realise the significance of this legislation and I think it is important that we realise the role that the ABC has played throughout Australian history. I think we should acknowledge the role it has played in contributing to our identity as Australians, the cultural gains that have been made and the careers that have been launched by the public broadcaster.

But, as I said, most importantly in this day and age, in the way that information is changing and the way that it is gathered and disseminated, it is so important that we have an independent communications broadcaster that is there to provide accurate, objective and independent information in an era when we are bombarded. We are bombarded with opinion. We are bombarded with a whole range of views and perspectives. We are bombarded with instantaneous news that changes every five minutes. In that sense, what we need is our good old ‘Aunty’ to be there to provide that level of independence, accuracy and expertise in communications that we have always relied on.

Of course, that begins with the board. We cannot have an independent broadcaster or an effective communications medium that does not have a board that is driving the changes that are needed to meet those challenges and is providing leadership, direction, expertise and skills that will see the ABC move into the future—into this new digital and online age.

I want to address a little bit some of the comments that were made by the opposition and the member for Mayo—in particular this almost paranoid fear of the reinstatement of a staff-elected director and this view that putting in someone who actually works in an organisation as one of the people who will make decisions about the future management and direction of that organisation can only be purely some sort of ideological slap on the back to your political mates. I find it astounding that people who would pretend to be an alternative government do not acknowledge that workers in an organisation have as much legitimate knowledge and expertise and as much intellectual prowess to contribute to how you make that organisation work better as someone who was appointed from outside or, more importantly, someone who was appointed by a minister. Someone who may well have been a political operator or a minister in the past somehow is a more legitimate member of the ABC board than someone who has actually worked for that organisation.

I do not think that anybody should be frightened by a board that has there a person who was elected by the staff. They must conform to the rules for directors like any other director of that board. They are not there to represent the staff. It is not about an industrial position; it is actually about acknowledging that the people who work in the ABC have an enormous amount to contribute and that there would be somebody from that vast number of people employed across the country who would be well able to contribute many good ideas and much significant understanding. They could contribute greatly as to how the board can operate and therefore how the ABC can operate better.

I am really a little bit confused as to how that can be seen as such a problem. I know the member for Mayo is terrified of unions, I know that he wants Work Choices back and I know that that is because he does not value the role of workers in this country and sees them just as hands, as has been said by other members of his party. On this side of the parliament we actually value the contribution of people who work in this country. We do not just value what they do to produce goods; we actually value the skills and expertise that they gain. I cannot think of a better institution to have the contribution of staff on its board. As I said, I am quite surprised by their level of opposition to this.

I am also surprised by the fact that they have some concern about ex-politicians and ex-senior political staff not being able to be on this board. As I said, it sounds to me more as if they see the ABC as a nice old institution where you can give a few mates the spoils of office rather than seeing it as a vital part of not just the democratic institutions of this country but the cultural and artistic identity of this country. It is actually an organisation that plays a very, very significant role, and as a result you want the best people on the board.

There are many ways in which ex-politicians and people involved in the political process in the past can be involved in public policy in this country. There are many boards; there are many organisations; there are many ways. All of us know of people who have made very successful contributions to public life and public policy in this country after they have moved out of the parliament. It does not seem to me that the ABC board therefore has to be one of those places where you can put people. It does not seem to me that we are losing the skills and experience of people who move out of this place just because we have decided that there is one institution that we will not put them in.

I think it is a fairly spurious argument to oppose a significant piece of legislation that will contribute wonderful advances to the culture and communications industry in this country to simply say, ‘We’re not supporting it because you won’t be able to put ex-politicians on it.’ Again, I think it is a frivolous attitude to the ABC. I think it is a shame that they have that frivolous attitude, because the ABC, as I said, is a key part of the fourth estate. It is the independent public broadcaster. It maintains free content. It is not subject to profits. It is not subject to biases from advertising or other sponsors. It is truly an independent communications body that we have all relied on all our lives to give us accurate, up-to-date and objective information.

I would really just like to reinforce my support for this legislation and to commend the minister. As I said, I do not think that bills like this get the prominence that they deserve, because I guess it is not attractive enough for the media to pick up on the reforms that are contained in this legislation. Nevertheless, for the democratic processes and cultural advancement of this country and for us as a community to embrace the opportunities of the online environment in a way that provides people with an alternative, independent and objective source of information, it is a fundamental change in the way that we are constructing our broadcaster and it will contribute greatly to the future of this country and its prosperity.

In closing, I would like to refer that wonderful organisation who put in a submission to the inquiry that was conducted in 2006, the Friends of the ABC. I know that, whilst they may operate in the background many a time, when they want to get motivated they can. They have made a very important contribution to maintaining the integrity of the ABC over so many years. In response to the opposition in 2006, when the structure was being changed, they said:

The existence of a democratically elected staff member on the ABC Board contributes to good governance. The present system by which government appointments are made to the Board runs counter to good governance - both in the appointment process and its outcome. It does not ensure that across the Board there exists the range of skills, interests and perspectives needed to govern a national public broadcaster. It has resulted in a number of appointees who fulfil neither the criteria of merit nor independence, let alone both.

The method and outcome of Government appointments to the ABC Board are resulting in a lack of public confidence in the competence, integrity and independence of the ABC Board. As the politicisation of an important public body occurs, public trust in our institutions generally declines. Respect for the politicians who make the appointments, people perceived to be political appointees, and the institutions which they direct is eroded. If not addressed, this practice could ultimately threaten the public’s belief in the legitimacy of government.

I think that sums up my argument better than I did, and I hope that the opposition will reconsider their position.