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Monday, 27 June 1994
Page: 2018

Senator TIERNEY (4.17 p.m.) —I rise to support my colleague Senator Alston on this matter of public importance:

  The government's confusing policy approach to the ABC leading to a serious loss of morale and lack of sense of direction.

It is a great pity that Senator Collins has left the chamber because I found his defence most curious. He mentioned the issue of loss of morale and his only real defence that morale was high was that if one provides a secure funding base morale will be high. That is a very strange view of an organisation. I would have thought there are a lot of reasons why morale is low in an organisation, and to people with fairly secure employment such as those in the ABC I do not think the financial security of the organisation is a large one. Certainly the way in which the managing director conducts himself, particularly the way in which policy develops in a rather erratic way, is something which, for people who are very concerned and take great pride in their work, can damage morale very seriously.

  I found it curious that in his criticisms and in his defence Senator Collins missed out the last part of the MPI, which is the lack of a sense of direction. That is what is concerning us most here today. We hear rumours of the differences between this managing director and the Minister for Communications and the Arts (Mr Lee). We believe that the minister has great reason for being concerned about the directions of the ABC under his managing director. The managing director is appointed by the board of the ABC and this perhaps gives him a little more independence than he should have in the direction that he is going. The government is obviously having great difficulty in reining him in in a number of areas, particularly the way in which he is approaching the international arm of the ABC, ATI, and also what is happening with pay TV at this time.

  The coalition supports the general idea that the ABC should extend its services. We are supportive of pay TV for the ABC and, in principle, we are supportive of the international initiatives of the ABC. But if the ABC is moving in a new direction—in particular, if it is moving away from the original charter that was brought in at the time of Joe Lyons to commercial activities—this should be done in a very considered and planned way. However, there has not been much evidence of that.

  The managing director, David Hill, seems to be moving on a fairly erratic course without any great vision of where it is all going. For example, ATI was supposed to be set up initially as self-funding and yet we see that it is already running into trouble, it cannot meet its budget and it is drawing on the other funding of the ABC.

  One shakes in trepidation at what could possibly happen in the totally unchartered waters of pay television. Initiatives by the government to try to bundle through a number of ABC services were partly blocked by the Trade Practices Commission. The initiatives ran into trouble and this brought about a tantrum from our minister. One wonders what will happen as he moves through a further series of commercial decisions. As a matter of fact, one wonders whether this managing director and, indeed, the board really have the expertise to take on this new type of commercial organisation.   One wonders how well it can succeed under the leadership of David Hill. As managing director, he initially brought in a number of reforms which were useful at the time. But if we look in some detail at his reforms, particularly at his reforms in the area of industrial relations, we will see that they were fairly superficial. He seems bored with the job at the moment and likes to move on to new toys. Pay TV and ATI are two of those new toys. I think this parliament should look at this matter with some concern, given his earlier track record.

  David Hill was the head of the New South Wales State Rail Authority. This body ran the railway system in New South Wales. He moved in there on a whim. Neville Wran met him at Pambula show and he came up with some good ideas on railways. All of a sudden, he ended up heading the SRA. David Hill brought in a few showy things such as the XPT trains. But the real reforms that were needed, particularly in the area of industrial relations, were not addressed until Bruce Baird and the Greiner government came along in 1988. They carried out a massive series of needed reforms that really showed the inadequacy of the former director of this area. I suppose the best measure of David Hill's failure with the SRA was the fact that the current government has managed to halve the work force that he had and still have a greater output. One wonders what is going on beneath the surface in the ABC. There have been a few superficial reforms and he is now moving off into the area of new toys.

  It is of great concern that someone with such a poor track record is running such an important Australian institution, one that is now moving into new fields such as ATI and pay TV. We should wonder about the ability of this managing director and his board to carry out these activities. Although we can have a crook managing director, at least if we have a strong board we can keep things on the rails. Hence our concern at this time about appointments such as John Bannon. Joe Lyons's view was that the ABC should be balanced and independent. I am sure he would not have envisaged that 50 years down the track there would be three members of the board with ALP affiliations and two with trade union movement associations.

  The minister's defence is that these are all very fine people, and I am sure they are. But if they are there on the basis of political party patronage, and if the managing director is there on a similar sort of basis, one has great fears for the future of this organisation. We need people on the board with vision and commercial background to monitor non-charter financial decisions as the ABC moves into new waters. We do not have this at the moment and the appointment of people such as John Bannon and other Labor cronies should be of great concern to this chamber.