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Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Page: 297


Mr MURPHY (6:48 PM) —I rise this evening to speak in support of the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009. Since I was elected to this place in 1998 I have spoken many times about the important role the media plays in our democracy. I have also spoken many times about the important role the ABC and SBS play in Australia’s democracy.

For nine years—from 1998 to 2007—I watched from opposition as the Howard government repeatedly attacked the heart of our democracy through a series of concerted and disgraceful measures that were simply designed to undermine the strength of our national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, and at the same time sell out our precious democracy and hand more power and influence to the media moguls. At the last federal election, the Labor Party promised to redress this damage. For example, we promised to implement legislation to create a process of appointing non-executive directors to the ABC board on the basis of merit rather than political allegiance. We also promised to strengthen the ABC board by reinstating the position of a staff-elected director, a position that was cruelly cut by the Howard government in 2006. By amending the Australian Broadcasting Act 1983 and the SBS Broadcasting Act 1991, this bill ensures that we are meeting the promises that we took to the people of Australia at the last federal election.

One can never understate the role played by the media in democracies such as Australia, particularly when commercial media ownership is so concentrated in our country. Commercial media companies have a serious responsibility to act in the national interest by providing balanced and fair reporting rather than simply creating sensational news for the purpose of maintaining an audience and ensuring that advertising revenues continue to flow to those companies. We have seen on far too many occasions that media moguls will prioritise a strong balance sheet over a strong democracy.

That is why independent, national broadcasters are so vital to the health of Australia’s democracy. It is their duty to ensure that Australians are well informed and able to access balanced reporting. Governments have a duty to ensure that the national broadcaster meets this obligation. We need to ensure that public broadcasters, such as the ABC and SBS, are led by suitably qualified, independent and experienced individuals. The best way to ensure that this happens is to develop a selection process underpinned by the principle of merit.

Typically, the Howard government showed a total disregard for this principle. Time and again the Howard government stacked the ABC and SBS boards with its political mates. The former government appointed people who had little broadcasting experience but were very well qualified in supporting John Howard and the Liberal Party. I think it is important to consider some of the appointments made by the Howard government to the boards of the ABC and SBS. One of the first decisions taken by the Howard government was to appoint Mr Howard’s very close friend Mr Donald McDonald as chairman of the ABC. In 1998, well-known Victorian Liberal Party stalwart, Mr Michael Kroger, was appointed by the former government to the ABC board. It seemed to me that, in order to be appointed to the ABC board by the Howard government you needed to be a very close friend of Mr Howard or the former Treasurer, Mr Peter Costello.

From 2003 to 2006, the independence of the ABC was further undermined when the Howard government appointed a number of conservative supporters to the board—namely, Ms Janet Albrechtsen, Mr Ron Brunton and Mr Keith Windschuttle. In 2007, Mr Morris Newman, another very close friend of Mr John Howard, was appointed to the board. SBS was also a victim of the former government’s political interference. The former Prime Minister’s speech writer, Mr Christopher Pearson, was appointed to the SBS board as a non-executive director. I ask: how was appointing openly partisan individuals to the boards of the ABC and SBS providing the independence required of our national broadcasters? How was that good for our democracy?

This bill puts an end to this disgraceful practice employed by the Howard government when it came to ABC and SBS board appointments. The legislation ensures that all non-executive director vacancies on the ABC and SBS boards will be advertised, which means that all Australians have the opportunity to apply. Significantly, an independent nomination panel will proceed to shortlist suitable candidates, ensuring that applicants are subject to proper scrutiny. I very much doubt that this independent panel will make the same partisan appointments as those made by the Howard government. In other words, had a process of merit selection existed during the life of the Howard government, Liberal sympathisers would not have been on the ABC board. The ABC and SBS would not have been subjected to the unprecedented level of political interference that took place during the Howard years.

In stark contrast to the Howard government, the first series of ABC and SBS appointments made by the Rudd government highlight the strength of a merit selection process. The Rudd government appointed two individuals to the ABC board and two individuals to the SBS board from a short list of several names selected by an independent panel after more than 300 people applied. Dr Julianne Schultz and Mr Michael Lynch were appointed to the ABC board. Dr Schultz was a senior executive in charge of strategy at the ABC, whilst Mr Lynch is a former head of the Australia Council and was chief executive of the Opera House. These people are outstanding appointments to the ABC board and reflect the importance of a merit selection process for board appointments. As Senator Conroy, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, said at the time:

Dr Schultz has made a valuable contribution to the conversation about Australia’s future.

and—

Mr Lynch’s experience in arts administration … will be invaluable to the ABC …

The Rudd government also appointed Ms Elleni Bereded-Samuel, a former presenter on Ethiopian TV and chair of the SBS Community Advisory Committee, and Mr Joseph Skrzynski, a Sydney Film School’s board member, to the SBS board for five-year terms. Again, these appointees are highly qualified for their positions on the SBS board.

Some could argue that these outstanding appointments mean that there is no need to legislate a process of merit selection because the Rudd government will follow this process anyway. However, should the coalition one day form government, this legislation will help prevent a repeat of the dark clouds which gathered over our democracy during the life of the Howard government. This legislation seeks to secure the independence of the ABC and SBS and protect them from political interference by any future coalition government. Moreover, this legislation will help protect the strength of our democracy from future Liberal Party attacks.

I now wish to turn my attention to the second element of this legislation—the reinstatement of the staff-elected director to the ABC board. The position of staff-elected director makes a very important contribution to the ABC’s independence by its unique insight into ABC operations. Indeed, the staff-elected director is in a very good position, if not the best position, to critically examine the advice coming to the board from the ABC’s executive, because of that person’s considerable knowledge of the broadcaster’s operations. When Quentin Dempster occupied that position, he carried out his duties with distinction and always in the public interest.

The Howard government, in a disgraceful act of democratic vandalism, abolished this position in 2006. This decision merely served to further undermine the independence of the ABC, as it removed an influential and often dissenting voice from the board. There can be no doubt that the staff-elected director, who was the only board member with the expertise to cross-examine advice coming from the ABC executive, was a colossal thorn in the side of the Howard government. In the face of budget cuts and constant moves to commercially exploit the ABC, the staff-elected director acted as an important safeguard. The loyalty of the staff-elected director was not to any political party or political ideology but to the staff of the ABC and the ABC’s audience.

The Howard government justified its decision to abolish this position by arguing that the staff-elected director would act in the interests of ABC staff rather than in the interests of the ABC. In making its decision, the former government referred to a review of the corporate governance of statutory authorities and officeholders conducted by Mr John Uhrig, AC. I note that many members of the opposition have also referred to this review in this debate. The Uhrig review stated, inter alia:

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 …

An inquiry into the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment Bill 2006 by the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Legislation Committee proved this to be anything but the case. The Senate committee heard numerous examples of where a staff-elected director opposed measures that may have benefited staff in order to maintain the independence and integrity of the ABC. This is perhaps best seen with a staff-elected director’s exposure of the backdoor sponsorship of infotainment programs on ABC TV in the 1990s, in breach of the ABC act. This is further supported by the last elected director, whom I have referred to, Quentin Dempster, who said on that occasion, ‘The staff director is not the shop steward for the unions’. Well done, Quentin. In other words, the staff-elected director will serve the interests of the ABC, free from political and other forms of interference. This can only be a good thing for the independence of the ABC and this can only be good for our democracy.

The measures contained in this legislation before us tonight will strengthen the quality not only of the broadcasting by the ABC and SBS but also of our democracy. The merits selection process will ensure board members are appropriately qualified, whilst the reinstatement of the staff-elected director to the ABC board will add further knowledge and broadcasting expertise. The Howard government made no attempt to appoint board members on the basis of merit. Rather than appoint individuals with an appropriate mix of skills for running a national broadcaster, the Liberals appointed, as I have mentioned, Peter Costello’s best mate. They also appointed a man who denies the Stolen Generation ever took place and, further, appointed John Howard’s former speechwriter.

We are not the only ones to have expressed concerns regarding the current process of appointing directors. A former Liberal Party chairman of the Senate Select Committee on ABC Management and Operations, Richard Alston, once said:

The current ABC is required to make decisions with long-term implications in a time of overwhelmingly rapid transformation of broadcasting technology. The Board’s task may have been made more difficult by the fact that many of its members have little specialist knowledge of either the broadcasting industry or the new technologies.… The Committee believes that the Board as a whole lacks the range of depth of skills and experience which would be necessary to provide adequate leadership for the ABC.

In opposition, Senator Alston believed the ABC board ‘lacked the skills and experience to provide adequate leadership for the ABC’. Unfortunately, when Senator Alston later became the minister for communications, his decisions only made this situation worse. I am pleased to say tonight that this bill acts on the concerns raised by former Senator Alston.

I cannot understand why the Liberal Party would want to amend this legislation to enable former politicians and staff to be appointed to the ABC and SBS boards following an 18 month cooling-off period. We cannot afford to politicise something as vital to our democracy as our public broadcaster. When politicians, past or present, interfere with the operations of the ABC its independence is undermined and Australia’s democracy is weakened. The importance of this legislation cannot be overstated. This is a bill that strengthens the ABC and SBS by enhancing their independence. In so doing, this bill enhances the strength of our democracy.

It is my hope that the debate about media policy continues throughout the life of this parliament and into the future. It is an important debate. It is a debate not only about traditional media and new media but also about the strength of Australia’s democracy. There is still much that needs to be done to reform our media industry: firstly, to repair the damage done by the Howard government and, secondly, to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the emerging digital and online environment. I applaud the ABC Managing Director, Mark Scott, for his pursuit of a 24-hour television news service. Such a television news service will provide greater diversity of news and information, not to mention competition to the commercial networks. This is good for our democracy and our country.

In concluding, I would like to suggest that we have a debate about extending the role of the public broadcaster to produce newspapers. Australia is mature enough to discuss the prospect of an Australian media environment which includes competitive government-owned newspapers where the journalists decide the editorial line, free from political and corporate influence. Whilst I do not foresee this is becoming a reality in the immediate future, it is surely worthy of debate, particularly in our country where, as I have said so often, commercial media ownership is far too concentrated.

In closing, I would like to quote the News and Views newsletter of the Friends of the ABC. It says:

This bill is the outcome of Friends of the ABC’s efforts over many years.

NOW is a critical time to let politicians know that we expect each and every one of them to demonstrate their respect for the independence of Australia’s foremost cultural institution by supporting the legislation.

I could not put it better. I commend the bill to the House.