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Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Page: 303

Mr PERRETT (7:19 PM) —I too rise to give my strong support to the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009. I commend the member for Lyne for his contribution. It is always worth while, both in the chamber and on the football field. He said that four out of five ain’t bad. In the hope of making that five out of five, I take him to his suggestion that the government embrace the opposition’s amendment that people such as politicians and the like are ruled out. I think the intent of that piece of legislation is like a sign or symbol in showing how important the impartiality of the ABC is. Even though it might seem like, ‘Why aren’t we treated in the same way as people outside this chamber?’ it is important that we show that the ABC is totally independent—I am not just saying this for the sake of the member for Kennedy, the member for New England or the member for Lyne—and is freed from political influence, because the ABC plays such a pivotal role. It is not just a case of justice being done. Justice must be seen to be done by totally removing politicians’ influence from the ABC. That is, unfortunately, necessary because of the political interference that occurred over the last few years under the Howard government. I thank the member for Lyne for his contribution because I am confident that this bill will put an end to governments on all sides using the ABC and SBS boards to reward mates and push their own agenda. Hopefully, that will move you to five out of five rather than four out of five.

Like the member for Lyne, I too love my ABC. While I have been known to occasionally venture onto commercial stations, it is only from the ABC that I get totally reliable news. I listen to NewsRadio, Glen Bartholomew, whom I know from another connection that I will tell you about on another day. The member for Rankin might be interested to know that he was the manager of the band I was in many years ago.

Dr Emerson —You spotted talent very early on.

Mr PERRETT —Glen moved on very quickly to bigger and brighter things. It is through the ABC’s coverage of local, national and world events—important events and not just whether Brad and Angelina have broken up—that news is brought to the Australian public. People like Fran Kelly would not know me from Adam, but they are like friends in my house. In Brisbane, people such as Spencer Howson, Madonna King, Richard Fidler, Kelly Higgins-Devine and Steve Austin consistently present news in an impartial way. When I worked in the state government, before the federal government, they shone a light that sometimes I was a bit uncomfortable with, and I was sometimes uncomfortable with the heat that came with that light, but I totally defend their right to do so and the good things that flow for democracy because of what they do.

I have known and trusted the ABC since before I could even say ‘A-B-C’. Back when I was a kid, I grew up in a country town where there was only one TV station, and that was the ABC. There was only one radio station, and that was the ABC. In fact, we did not even have a TV then. But when we did get a TV, I think in grade 4, I grew up on Sesame Street and Play School. As for so many people, they played a part in my education. Now, with young kids, I have gone back to Sesame Street 40 years later. The word on the street is that Sesame Street is still fantastic. Sesame Street and Play School still deliver great information for young kids. I commend the managing director, Mark Scott, for his innovations throughout the ABC: the 24-hour news initiative, ABC2 and ABC3—especially ABC3. With two young children, Stanley and Leo, ABC3 helps preserve my sanity and probably that of many parents throughout Australia.

Generally speaking, those on the other side love to bash the ABC because they think it is part of a cosmic conspiracy to keep them out of office. That is true of no-one more so than the former member for Higgins, Peter Costello. In August last year he wrote in the Age:

With the ABC the line of questioning is always predictable. It always comes from the Labor/Green perspective.

…           …           …

I am not now at the mercy of the media so I can afford to say what everyone on the conservative side of politics knows—the ABC is hostile territory.

Former Prime Minister John Howard was also critical of the ABC. He told the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advanced Journalism last year that the ABC’s reporting of issues relating to climate change and the republic was biased. But it was not just the ABC in the former Prime Minister’s sights. This is what he had to say about the media in general:

… I think it is fair to say that … a fairly clear majority of working journalists do tend to be of a centre-left disposition.

The reality is that all governments of all persuasions—and all oppositions, for that matter—come under the scrutiny of the media and we are all the better for that scrutiny. As a member of the government, as I said, I do not always appreciate the heat, but we are a stronger democracy for the light. The ABC, whether it is television, radio or online, has a long tradition of balanced, insightful reporting on a whole range of issues, but especially politics—it is scrupulously so. They count the minutes even, especially during election campaigns. They count the comments and they are infuriatingly balanced. I do not just mean that they have a chip on both shoulders, like the member for Dickson. They are properly balanced.

Nevertheless, for 11 years the Liberal Howard government used the ABC as a political plaything, making political appointment after political appointment to the ABC board. The result was a board completely stacked with Liberal stooges. They included Donald McDonald, Howard’s mate, who served as chair from 1996 to 2006; renowned conservative commentator Janet Albrechtsen; Keith Windschuttle, the right-wing historian; Liberal powerbroker Michael Kroger, who was replaced by Liberal Party member and conservative ideologue Dr Ron Brunton; conservative economist Professor Judith Sloan; chairman of the Stock Exchange and close personal friend of John Howard, Maurice Newman; and former Liberal politician Ross McLean. You would agree, Mr Speaker, that this list reads like a Liberal Party who’s who, or a list of Tony Abbott’s Facebook friends. The way the Howard government used the supposedly neutral ABC board to advance their ideologies is an absolute shameful disgrace. Even though they claimed almost every board member, the Liberals continued to conspire against our national broadcaster, claiming bias at every turn.

Contrast this with the way the Rudd government goes about business. In April last year the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Stephen Conroy, made two new appointments to the board. They were South Australian academic and founding editor of the Griffith Review, Julianne Schultz, and the former chief executive of the Sydney Opera House, Michael Lynch. This might be hard for those opposite to understand, but they did not need to produce an ALP membership card to get the job. The Rudd government appointees had to rise to the top of a merit based selection process. They were selected from more than 300 candidates and interviewed by an independent panel. Darce Cassidy, from Friends of the ABC’s South Australian branch, thinks this is the way to go. He said of Minister Conroy’s appointments:

… certainly the Government’s method and the transparency of it makes those appointments much more open to scrutiny than they were in the past.

Look at those scary words: ‘independent panel’, ‘transparency’, ‘open to scrutiny’. They are probably not words those opposite are familiar with, especially when we compare this to the Howard way. The Rudd government does not believe that the ABC board should be stacked with mates and political appointees. Rather, we believe in the greater good. This transcends short-term political expediency. We support an independent approach. We also believe that ABC staff should be represented on the board.

This bill establishes a new, transparent, merit based appointment process for ABC and SBS non-executive directors. To be appointed to the ABC or SBS boards, you no longer need to be a former Liberal politician. You do not need to be a former Liberal staffer or powerbroker. You do not even need to have worked for a conservative think tank or be mates with John Howard—which would rule out Peter Costello, I suppose. I know this is pretty heavy stuff for those opposite to digest, and I honestly do not want to shatter their world view, but under this new process you do not even need to vote Liberal or National to be appointed to the board. In fact, under this bill any Australian will be able to nominate for a position on the ABC or SBS board. The ABC and SBS boards of the future will not be groups set up in an attempt to control some political agenda. Rather, they will be there to empower the independent national broadcasters to develop fresh Aussie content and innovative top shelf news and current affairs, and also to push ahead with new and emerging digital communication technologies.

The process established through this bill will ensure that appointments to the ABC and SBS boards will, as much as possible, be free from political interference. Non-executive director vacancies on the ABC and SBS boards will be advertised. An independent nomination panel will short-list suitable candidates. There will be clear merit based selection criteria for non-executive director positions, and where the government does not appoint a short-listed candidate it will have to provide reasons to the 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, and the appointment of current or former politicians and senior political staff will be prohibited. The ultimate responsibility for board appointments remains with the minister, and this is totally appropriate. But the process that leads to the appointment must be open, transparent and based on merit to ensure we have quality people driving SBS and our ABC.

As I said, this bill also reinstates a staff-elected director to the ABC board. Because everybody on the conservative side of politics knows that the ABC is hostile towards them, Howard also abolished the staff-elected director position from the ABC board in 2006. You would not want some staff-elected leftie journalist getting in the way of the Liberal Party agenda! We all know that ‘Red Kerry O’Brien’ is planning to raise a people’s army and overthrow the state. And don’t get me started on Comrade Barry Cassidy’s evil schemes! Any right-minded Australian knows that a board without a window into the practical and day-to-day realities of ABC operations will not have the full picture.