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Monday, 22 November 2010
Page: 3224

Mr FLETCHER (5:59 PM) —The National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2010 is a wholly unnecessary piece of legislation. The three core elements of this legislation are all, in my view, poor ideas. The first idea is to resuscitate the position of staff-elected director. The second idea is to impose a formal blanket ban on former politicians and senior political advisers being appointed to the board of the national broadcasters. And the third poor idea is the process set out in the bill for what is described as ‘merit based appointment’.

Unfortunately, this legislation is evidently the product of a fairly desperate moment, casting around and trying to fill out a rather thin-looking policy in advance of the 2007 election. Clearly somebody said: ‘We must have a policy on broadcasting. Quick, what are we going to put in there? Let’s come up with some ideas. Let’s look like we’re taking action.’ This bill emerges from the same policy factory that gave us the citizens’ assembly, and evidently was a process with about as much rigour.

I want to address all three of the rather poor ideas that are inherent in this bill. The first of those is the reinstatement of the position of staff-elected director at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. There is an extraordinary claim in the second reading speech offered in justification for this measure:

The staff-elected director is often the only individual with the expertise to examine the advice to the board from the ABC’s executive.

That really is quite a remarkable claim, that there is nobody else on the board of the ABC who has the expertise to examine the advice to the board from the ABC’s executive. It is a proposition, I would suggest, which cannot be substantiated on even the most cursory examination. If there is a desire, as there may very sensibly be, to have people on the board of the ABC who have expertise and experience in matters of broadcasting, by all means appoint people with such experience. There are, in fact, a number of people on the board who have such experience. I look, for example, at Dr Julianne Schultz, who is on the board of the ABC. Her resume says that she:

… began her career as a reporter with the ABC … She has held senior editorial roles and worked as media columnist and director of corporate and digital strategy.

I know Dr Schultz a little bit—at least I have come across her at conferences. She is clearly a person of ability. But the more general point is this: it is clearly open to the minister to appoint, as he has on this occasion, persons with industry experience who are able to bring to bear that experience in examining the advice to the board from the ABC’s executive. It is really quite an extraordinary argument that the justification for having a staff-elected director is that that person is the only one on the board with the expertise to examine the advice to the board from the ABC’s executive. It is a proposition which does not stand up to even a moment’s scrutiny. The reason it is such a threadbare proposition is, as is often the case, that it is not the real reason why this government is legislating to seek to reinstate the position of staff-elected director.

Inevitably, regardless of the personal capacities of the individual, the staff-elected director is expected by the persons who elect him or her to be an advocate for their interests. That is the way that elected positions operate. And to have a person on the board who is subject to that set of expectations, to that set of pressures, is inconsistent with basic principles of corporate governance which require that directors are motivated by a consideration of what best serves the interests of the organisation and what best allows the organisation to deliver on its mission, to deliver on its objective of providing outstanding broadcasting to serve the interests of the Australian community.

The proposition that there ought be one member of the board who is elected to represent the sectional and specific interests of ABC staff is a poor one. The person who is charged with selecting the directors of the ABC is, as the law stands today and should remain in respect of every director, the minister. The minister is the person who brings to bear the responsibility, on behalf of the parliament and ultimately on behalf of the people of Australia who have elected that parliament, for the decision making as to selecting directors who are best able to direct the ABC in performing its mission of delivering outstanding broadcasting services to the Australian community.

Let me turn to the second very poor idea which is contained within this bill, which is the proposition that there ought be an automatic and blanket ban on former politicians and on former senior political advisers from being eligible to be appointed as directors of the board of the ABC or the Special Broadcasting Service. Let me quote evidence given by Donald McDonald, a former chairman of the ABC, to a recent Senate inquiry where he said:

I think it is an extraordinary provision, frankly, to suggest that somebody, having served the public as a member of parliament, is, as a result of that, contaminated to the extent that they cannot provide useful service to the public by being on the board of the ABC. I think that is not only extraordinary but profoundly offensive in retrospect to former politicians who have been on the ABC board.

He further observed that in his time as chairman of the board he was well served, and the board was well served, by having as two directors the former Labor Premier of South Australia John Bannon and the former Liberal federal cabinet minister Ian Macphee. Mr McDonald said in his evidence:

They brought a great deal of experience, judgment and balance to considerations, particularly in matters to do with dealing with the government and in lobbying for funding because that is a big chunk of the board’s responsibility once every three years.

There is the voice of direct experience: it is in fact no bad thing, in some instances, to have former politicians serving on the ABC board. I was particularly interested to see the view of the Community and Public Sector Union expressed by another witness before that Senate committee, Dr van Barneveld, who had this to say:

It is simply the view of the CPSU that there is no need to exempt ex-politicians and ex-staffers. However, our view is that the appointments should not be political in nature and that, if ex-staffers or ex-politicians apply—and they should be able to apply, because they potentially have things that they could add to these positions—they are subject to the merit selection process.

It is interesting indeed, is it not, that the CPSU—the union movement—does not support a blanket ban on former politicians, on former political advisers, being directors of the ABC or the SBS?

There are several fundamental problems with this idea. First of all, there is nothing inherently wrong with politicians or former political staffers as a class which should automatically bar them from eligibility for serving on the board of the ABC or the SBS or indeed from any other position in our community. Secondly, as we have seen in the evidence I have cited from Donald McDonald, in fact a rule which excludes politicians and political staffers automatically excludes from consideration a class of persons who may have something distinctly valuable to offer. Thirdly, the gaping inconsistencies between the claimed virtue of excluding the evils of political and governmental contamination on the one hand and the actual drafting on the other simply highlight the absurdity of this policy. There is, for example, no ban in this bill on former senior bureaucrats, including a former Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet or a former Secretary of the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy.

None of these classes of person is banned, nor for example are officials or former officials of political parties. A former federal secretary of the ALP or a former federal director of the Liberal Party would not be banned, nor would former union officials, nor would failed political candidates, nor would advisers to former politicians who did not attain the designated rank, which I think, according to the explanatory memorandum, is ‘adviser’ but not ‘assistant adviser’. One can easily conceive of examples where persons who operated in a strict formal sense at a lower level in fact had just as much influence on the politician whom they served as somebody at a more senior level designated an adviser or chief of staff.

While we are considering classes of persons who are not barred by this legislation—and, if there were a skerrick of logical consistency about it, they would be barred—let us think about former elected members of parliaments of countries close to our own political tradition, such as New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada or other similar nations.

This legislation is rife with gaping logical inconsistencies and, in my view, the prohibition simply makes very little sense. I would suggest, as a very minimum, that if we are going to go forward on this approach then it would be logical at the very least to set some time limit on the period for which former politicians and political advisers are disqualified. The notion inherent in the legislation today, as proposed, that this prohibition lasts forever—the notion that apparently you are so contaminated by political service that you can never be cleansed—is inherently ludicrous.

I turn finally to the formalised appointment process, the so-called merit based selection process, which has been proposed in this piece of legislation. This really is the triumph of the human resources strategist. This is the approach of the government that brought you the 2020 Summit, the gathering of the 1,000 so-called ‘best and brightest’. I well remember the photograph that appeared in one newspaper of the butcher’s paper—which you see so often at these kinds of events—for the breakout groups, which had written across the top of it: ‘There are no stupid ideas.’ The facilitator had wandered away after committing that piece of wisdom to the butcher’s paper.

I have been to a lot of these off-sites. I did not go to Australia’s national off-site, the 2020 Summit, but I have been to a lot of other off-sites and let me tell you there are a lot of stupid ideas. No matter how many times you write across the top of the butcher’s paper, ‘There are no stupid ideas,’ there are stupid ideas, and this is a stupid idea. The idea that we ought to have this formalised multi-step appointment process, going through the appointment of a panel, going through formal notification requirements, and going through step after process step, is a bad idea. Why ought there to be this appointment process conducted at arm’s length from the government? The government is there to govern and that includes appointing people to boards of government entities.

It is no bad thing, of course, to cast the net as widely as possible to have the widest possible range of candidates being invited to apply to become directors. That is no bad thing; it is sensible practice. But to formalise this involved series of steps in legislation is a triumph of process, which we on this side of the House think is wasteful, foolish, unnecessary, and ill conceived.

In conclusion, the idea-generation factory in politics sometimes produces bad ideas. Let us be honest: we all know it. It happens from time to time. We saw one example during the last campaign: the idea of the citizens’ assembly. It was a silly idea that has thankfully been dropped. I appeal to the government today to do the same thing with this bill. The ideas are silly; drop them. Leave things as they are.