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Monday, 22 November 2010
Page: 3228

Mr HARTSUYKER (6:18 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak on the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2010. The purpose of this bill is to amend the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act and the Special Broadcasting Service Act to introduce a new board appointment process. The bill also reinstates the position of staff-elected director to the board of the ABC. Appointments of directors to the ABC and SBS boards will not be able to occur unless the merit based selection process is undertaken through a nomination panel. The nomination panel will be comprised of a chair and either two or three other members appointed by the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. After advertising nationally to fill vacant board positions, the panel must assess each candidate against selection criteria set by the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and provide a report to that minister, or to the Prime Minister in the case of the ABC chairperson, containing at least three nominations.

If the minister chooses to appoint a person not nominated by the nomination panel, the minister must provide written notice to the Prime Minister and table reasons for the appointment in parliament within 15 sitting days. There will be a number of candidates not eligible for appointment, including a member or former member of an Australian parliament or a person who is or was a senior political staff member, which includes such positions as chief of staff or adviser.

The legislation will not provide a completely independent process for appointment to the ABC and SBS boards, as the government claims. Whilst the legislation proposes a merit based process through the selection panel, the minister and the Prime Minister will still be able to ignore panel nominations and appoint whomever they like. The government’s argument that the process will protect the independence of the ABC and SBS is completely exaggerated. I also note that Labor’s emphasis on transparency and independence in this bill is completely at odds with their other policies in communications, such as the National Broadband Network.

The coalition has two further issues with this legislation. The first relates to the reinstatement of the position of staff-appointed director to the ABC board. By reinstating the position of the staff-elected director to the board of the ABC, the government are overturning the coalition government amendments of 2006 which removed the position from the ABC board. The coalition’s amendments were introduced in 2006 following the publication of the Review of the corporate governance of statutory authorities and office holders, known as the Uhrig report. The coalition’s legislation was consistent with the recommendations of that report.

All governmental office holders have a responsibility to ensure good governance and to maintain suitable relationships with the responsible minister, the parliament and the public, including private business. These principles extend to the management and governance of the ABC and of SBS. The coalition supports the important role that the ABC and SBS play in providing diverse content across both television and radio services. In particular, the content provided to regional services is an important service that the coalition strongly supports. Content made available through the ABC and SBS networks is not being provided by commercial networks, and it is important that the government continues to provide these services whilst encouraging a competitive broadcasting sector.

However, ensuring that the ABC and SBS are resourced appropriately and can continue providing unique content important to Australians comes at a substantial cost to taxpayers. For example, the ABC’s revenue from the Commonwealth government in 2010-11 is some $779 million. It is therefore essential that the ABC and SBS balance the need to provide diverse and unique services across Australia with strong and professional boards who understand these responsibilities and who can protect the interests of taxpayers. Board members of the public broadcasters must discharge their responsibilities independently and without being influenced by external groups. This is why the Uhrig report recommended that representational appointments should not be pursued. These types of appointments have the potential to place the success of an entity at risk.

The position of staff-elected director creates the potential for conflict of interest. The director in question has a responsibility to staff as their representative. It is likely that occasionally commercial decisions in the best interests of the ABC will conflict with the interests of staff. The coalition believes that each director must be suitably independent and capable of making commercial decisions without any conflict of interest.

The position is also made redundant by the operation of corporate legislation and statutory duties. As the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport noted in his second reading speech, the staff-elected director has the same duties, rights and responsibilities as all other non-executive directors. Like any other ABC director, the staff-elected director’s primary duty is to act in the best interests of the corporation. Each director has a statutory duty to the ABC. This duty is the same for each director regardless of the terms of their appointment. The statutory duty of a staff-elected representative to the staff is no more than it is for other board members. If a staff-elected board member were to place the interests of staff above the commercial interests of the ABC, that director would be in breach of statutory obligations and liable for penalty.

The coalition abolished the position of staff-elected director on the ABC board in 2006 for these very good reasons. We believed it was both unacceptable and unnecessary for a member of the ABC board to hold a potential conflict of interest between staff interests and company interests. It is unreasonable to place a director of the ABC into such a conflicted position.

The second issue of concern for the coalition is the restriction on appointment of former politicians and former senior political staff to the ABC and SBS boards. Despite the minister claiming that this bill will give ‘all Australians an opportunity to nominate for a place on the ABC and SBS boards’, Australians who have previously been involved in politics will be banned from nominating. The government argues that the restriction will enhance the boards’ independence. The explanatory memorandum to this bill states:

The exclusion of former politicians and senior political staffers from consideration for Board positions is intended to strengthen the independence and impartiality of the ABC Board, which is consistent with the Board’s duties under section 8 of the ABC Act. A number of appointments over the years have been perceived as politically biased.

These provisions ignore the fact that former members of parliament have made responsible and valuable contributions to the ABC and SBS boards. For instance, I note that the former South Australian Labor Premier John Bannon served on the ABC board with distinction. The provisions restricting former politicians and political staffers are also completely at odds with this government’s approach to other boards. We all know that the former Prime Minister appointed some high-profile coalition members to government boards. The coalition believes that where someone is capable on merit they should be considered regardless of background. If the government has faith in the merit review process it is implementing within this bill, it should expect that appropriate board members would be chosen regardless of political background.

The coalition will be proposing two amendments in order to rectify these two issues. Our first amendment will oppose the reinstatement of a staff-elected director to the ABC board. As I have outlined, we believe that the appointment of staff-elected directors has an inherent conflict of interest and it is unfair to place a director in such a position. If a current employee of the ABC wishes to become a director, the bill provides other avenues for achieving such an objective through the merit based appointment process. The coalition’s second amendment will oppose the ineligibility of former politicians and former senior staff of politicians from being considered for appointment to the ABC or SBS boards. Our amendments will restrict the appointment of former politicians and senior political staff members to 18 months after ceasing employment in politics. We believe this is a reasonable time frame. As I have outlined, the ABC and SBS boards should not be restricted in who they employ. Former political employees often have experience that cannot be gained in the private sector and the ABC and SBS should be able to utilise individuals with those skills just like any other corporate entity.

These amendments should be accepted by the parliament to ensure that the ABC and SBS boards remain independent and retain the ability to access the most appropriate board members.