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Monday, 22 November 2010
Page: 3221

Ms ROWLAND (5:49 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2010. This bill amends the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act and the Special Broadcasting Service Act to implement a new merit based appointment process for the ABC and SBS boards. The bill also reinstates the position of staff elected director to the ABC board, a position that was scrapped by the Howard government.

I believe our national broadcasters are unique institutions. I firmly believe that the boards of our national broadcasters should not be politicised. It is simply not acceptable that individuals are appointed to the ABC and SBS boards simply because they hold views that are sympathetic to the ideology of the government of the day. Merit, not an individual’s political ideology, should be the guiding and underlying principle behind appointments to the ABC and SBS boards.

The contrast between the approach taken by this government since its election in 2007 and the previous Howard government on this issue could not be clearer. There can be no objective disagreement with the way in which the independence of the ABC and SBS has been compromised in the past through a series of blatantly political board appointments. For the benefit of the House, I wish to highlight some of these appointments. In 1996, Donald McDonald, a long-time friend of former Prime Minister Howard, was appointed chair of the ABC board. In 1998, Michael Kroger, who we all know is an active member of the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party, was appointed to the ABC board. Conservative commentators Janet Albrechtsen, Ron Brunton, Keith Windschuttle and Morris Newman were also appointed to the board of the ABC from 2003 to 2007. Furthermore, Christopher Pearson, a former speechwriter for John Howard, was appointed to the board of SBS in 2003. In addition to serving as directors of the ABC and SBS, these individuals were united in their support of the Liberal Party and its ideology.

The former Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Richard Alston, revealed the underlying objective behind these blatantly political appointments in May 2003 when he claimed that the ABC was biased in its coverage of the Iraq war. The then government’s solution to this alleged bias was to appoint known members and supporters of the Liberal Party, such as Ms Albrechtsen, Mr Brunton, Mr Windschuttle and Mr Newman, to the ABC board.

On the same day Senator Alston accused the ABC of bias, he told Lateline:

I think the ABC has a duty to its listeners and the tax-paying public. To uphold the highest standards of journalism. To accept that it’s accountable. And to ensure that it is meeting its own codes of practice.

I could not agree more with the former minister. The ABC does have an important responsibility to present the news in a balanced and independent manner. It is a pity that loading the ABC board in the manner I described directly undermined the ability of the ABC to fulfil its code of practice. May I suggest that Senator Alston was not referring to an anti-Liberal bias when he made his allegation in 2003. May I suggest that his allegation was simply a cover for the frustrations his government felt over the fact that the ABC was presenting a balanced coverage of the Iraq war. The Howard government fundamentally neglected the principle of merit and that is why this bill is so important. By amending the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act and the Special Broadcasting Service Act, this government is taking important steps to ensure the practices of the former government never happen again.

This legislation will lead to the establishment of a nomination panel to oversee the merit based appointment of non-executive directors. All non-executive director vacancies will be advertised, which gives every Australian the opportunity to apply. As such, political affiliation will no longer be an unofficial prerequisite to be considered for an appointment to the boards of the ABC and SBS.

 New part III of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act will clearly set out the process by which this independent merit selection process will take place. Equally, the insertions to part 3 of the Special Broadcasting Service Act will set out the process by which the nomination panel will appoint non-executive directors to the board of SBS. Features of this process include assessing candidates against a core set of published selection criteria, specifically the skills, experience and competencies of the applicants. The nomination panel will provide a report to the minister with a short list of at least three candidates for each vacant position. The minister will select a candidate from the short list and write to the Governor-General recommending the appointment as required under the legislation.

It is also important to note that this bill amends subsection 12(5) of the ABC Act and subsection 17(2) of the SBS Act to specifically prevent current and former members of state and federal parliaments and current and former senior political staff from being appointed to the boards. I also draw to the attention of the House the proposal to insert new section 24C into the ABC Act, which states:

… the Panel is not subject to direction by, or on behalf of, the Government …

The processes outlined in these respective parts of the ABC Act and SBS Act will ensure the process of appointing members to the boards will no longer be subject to partisan interference. This means that the blatantly political appointments to the boards of the ABC and SBS that occurred under the Howard government will never happen again.

I now wish to turn my attention to the second aspect of this legislation, the reinstatement of the staff elected director to the ABC board. This will be achieved by amending subsection 12(1) of the ABC Act to include the staff elected director as a member of the board. New section 13A outlines the obligations of the staff elected director. The minister representing the communications minister said in his second reading speech:

The staff-elected director plays an important role in enhancing the ABC’s independence by providing the board with a unique and important insight into ABC operations. The staff-elected director will often be the only individual with the expertise to question the advice coming to the board from the ABC’s executive.

I strongly agree with the minister’s statements.

An inquiry into the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment Bill 2006 by the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Legislation Committee heard numerous examples in which the staff elected director acted to maintain the independence of the ABC. This view is reinforced by the author of Whose ABC? and This is the ABC, Professor Ken Inglis, who stated:

The staff-elected director has exercised more influence than any other single director apart from the Chairman and Deputy Chair.

The staff elected director had real power and exercised this power to maintain the ABC’s integrity and independence; there was no guarantee they would be sympathetic to the ideology of the government of the day; and it was the only appointment to the board of the ABC that the then government could not control.

To justify their decision to abolish this position, the Howard government referred to a review of the corporate governance arrangements of statutory authorities and officeholders conducted by John Uhrig. Uhrig’s report, entitled Review of the corporate governance of statutory authorities and office holders, was quoted in the explanatory memorandum of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment Bill 2006, the very bill that led to the abolition of the staff elected director position. The explanatory memorandum included the following excerpt from the Uhrig report:

The Review does not support representational appointments to governing boards as representational appointments can fail to produce independent and objective views.

This was hailed as an independent endorsement for what the then government was attempting to do. However, this comment was one very minor aspect of a 133-page report. In fact, no reference was made to the ABC in Uhrig’s report. Nevertheless, even if one were to falsely accept that the Uhrig report explicitly referred to the ABC and the position of the staff elected director, it is somewhat hypocritical to claim that the staff elected director is unable ‘to produce independent and objective views’. If the staff elected director is unable to act in an independent and objective way, how is it possible to expect openly partisan individuals, such as Michael Kroger, to act in an independent and objective manner?

For this reason, I suspect that the Howard government abolished the position of staff elected director simply because they feared the director’s independent and objective views. I am concerned that the opposition continues to oppose the reinstatement of the staff elected director. I refer the House to a media release issued by the former shadow Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Minchin, in which he stated:

The position creates the potential for conflict of interest with the staff-elected director legally bound to act in the best interests of the Corporation, despite having been appointed as a representative of staff and elected by them.

This is a flawed analysis. It shows a complete disregard for this comment by the last staff elected director, Quentin Dempster:

The staff director is not the shop steward for the unions.

This directly contradicts the claim made by Senator Minchin that the staff elected director will simply act as a staff representative.

We on this side of the House believe in the importance of independent national broadcasters. That is why we are seeking to implement this legislation. We are seeking to amend the ABC Act and the SBS Act to ensure that board appointments are made on the basis of merit, not political affiliation. We are also seeking to amend the ABC Act to reinstate the position of staff elected director because we believe this position enhances the independence of the ABC by providing a unique and important insight into the operations of our national broadcaster. These amendments are needed to help undo the damage done by the Howard government to the ABC and SBS. These amendments form part of the government’s commitment to reform Australia’s communications sector. We now need to consider how we, as a nation, can best respond to the challenges and opportunities of the emerging digital and online environment. In delivering their mandates under their respective statutes, the ABC and the SBS play a critical role. Their governance arrangements should reflect this mandate and I commend the bill to the House.