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Wednesday, 20 June 2012
Page: 3942


Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (17:31): I rise to speak on the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill. The amendments to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 and the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 were part of the Australian Labor Party's election commitments to provide a new, transparent and democratic board appointment process in which non-executive directors are appointed on the basis of merit. The ALP also committed to restoring the appointment of the staff elected director to the ABC board.

Australians are rightly proud and protective of the ABC and SBS, and this bill will ensure all Australians will have an opportunity to nominate for a place on either of these boards. All future appointments will be made by an independent panel, which will consider applications based on their merits, resulting in boards of excellence for both the ABC and SBS. This independent nomination panel will be appointed by the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. This panel will remain independent from government, and members of the nomination panel will have a statutory duty to disclose any conflicts of interest. I am sure future panels will follow in the footsteps of the current nomination panel, which has carried out its duties well.

Boards will be led by a chairperson and will consist of between four and six directors. The chairperson of each will be appointed by the Governor-General; however, in a new subsection of the bill, the Prime Minister must be satisfied that the chairperson has experience in connection with broadcasting, communications or management, or experience in financial or technical matters. Directors will be appointed on a merit based selection process, with specific selection criteria determined by the minister. Only those with the best suited skills, experience and competencies will be appointed.

The need for a merit based selection process has been long identified. In 2001, a Senate committee inquiry recommended the method of board appointments be altered to 'embrace a system characterised by the principles of merit and transparency'. The Howard government, however, disagreed and failed to act. I would like to take a moment to ponder why the coalition, then in government, would oppose the recommendations of a Senate committee inquiry. It was reported on 16 June 2006, by the Age, that:

John Howard has transformed the leadership of the national broadcaster in the past decade. There is now no one serving on the ABC board who has not been hand-picked by his cabinet.

…   …   …

Mr Howard's first step in changing the culture was to appoint his friend Donald McDonald as chairman in July 1996 …

…   …   …

Mr Howard also shook things up early with the appointment of Victorian Liberal powerbroker Michael Kroger, who parted ways with the board in 2003. Other government appointees to raise eyebrows were pro-labour-market-deregulation academic Judith Sloane, selected for the board in 1999, and former Liberal MP Ross McLean. The board now includes commercial QC John Gallagher, appointed in 1999; Dr Ron Brunton, a former fellow of the Institute of Public Affairs, appointed in 2003; and Janet Albrechtsen, conservative columnist appointed in 2005.

I am certainly not the first person to wonder just how the then government felt it was appropriate to use the ABC board as a way to reward mates—the result being a board of known conservatives. This had quite an impact on Australia, and I refer to the 'culture wars' as an example of one of the problems created by such a board.

But times have thankfully changed under the Labor government, and the ABC board is once again serving the interests of the Australian community. The amendments to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 and the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 will ensure that all appointments to the ABC and SBS boards will be merit based and this will result in strong and independent broadcasters that will serve Australia and Australians well.

I would like to acknowledge the recent appointment of the Hon. James Spigelman AC QC, to the role of chairman of the ABC. Mr Spigelman brings with him a wealth of knowledge, having served as a chief justice, lieutenant-governor, barrister, QC and as a member of the Australian Law Reform Commission. He is an author, with an interest in government, nuclear energy and history—including medieval, Australian, British and Chinese history.

Mr Spigelman has also served on a range of boards, including as chair of the National Library of Australia, chair of the Australian Film Finance Corporation, deputy chair of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and president of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. He has been awarded Companion of the Order of Australia for services to law and to the community in bringing about changes in attitudes to the administration of justice for a fair and equitable society, and to the support of visual arts. This is exactly the kind of person we want engaged with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and I look forward to his leadership and contribution over the coming five years. When it comes to the appointments of the ABC board, I am particularly proud of Tasmanian Jane Bennett, who began her five-year term in June last year. She brings not only a great business sense, with a background in commerce and management, but also a strong understanding of regional communities and the provision of communications services. Jane has made a name for both herself and Tasmania over the last decade. She is an award winning cheese maker and has been heavily involved with her family business, Ashgrove Cheese. She has been ABC Radio Australian Rural Woman of the Year and won the National Regional Development Award at the Young Australian of the Year Awards. She was Tasmanian Telstra Business Woman of the Year and was awarded a coveted Nuffield scholarship in 2008. She sits on the Brand Tasmania Council board. Jane has also contributed to a range of government inquiries, including the telecommunications industry inquiry and the regional telecom­munications inquiry.

When appointed, Jane told the Weekend Australian that her commitment to the public broadcaster and its role in the lives of rural and regional Australia had driven her to offer her services. She spoke of her strong belief in the role of the arts in rural communities and the fact that she views the ABC as our country's most important cultural institution, and one which is often a person's only contact with art and culture. I know Jane's contribution to the ABC board will be extremely valuable.

I would also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the fact that my colleague communications minister Senator Stephen Conroy upheld a commitment to re-establish a gender balance with regard to both the ABC and SBS boards. This was a commitment made by the federal Labor government to ensure both the SBS and ABC boards were made up of 40 per cent women. Jane Bennett is joined by former Australian of the Year Fiona Stanley AC, Cheryl Bart AO and Dr Julianne Schultz AM. The SBS board enjoys the expertise of Jacqueline Hey, Elleni Bereded-Samuel and Patricia Azarias.

As I mentioned earlier, the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill also allows for the restoration of a staff elected director to the ABC board. Staff elected directors are important for many reasons. They have not only a strong understanding of the ABC and its operations, but the confidence of the ABC staff, who deserve to have their voices heard by those on the board. The knowledge of those at the forefront is vital. How can it be perceived as anything but a positive step?

However, history shows that a staff-elected director has been perceived negatively by some. In 2006, the Howard government abolished, through legislation, the staff-elected position on the ABC board. The excuse given was that the position created 'uncertainty about accountability' and that a staff elected director would be expected by their constituents to place their interests ahead of the interests of the ABC. I fundamentally disagree on that front. In 2006, then staff elected director Romona Koval wrote to the online newsletter Crikey:

It's a serious responsibility that I have carried out with passionate commitment. The position of staff-elected director is important to provide the board with a working knowledge of the role and functions of a public broadcaster, and, at times, as a balance to the practice of party political stacking of the ABC board.

... and it's a serious responsibility that I have carried out with passionate commitment.

The position of staff-elected director is important to provide the Board with a working knowledge of the role and functions of a public broadcaster, and, at times, as a balance to the practice of party political stacking of the ABC board ...

I personally welcome the decision to reinstate a staff-elected director to the board, and look forward to the contribution this person will bring to the ABC, which is fondly known by many as 'Aunty'.

Australians are proud of their ABC and have a real sense of ownership, as they should. In Tasmania, we have an active Friends of the ABC with whom I regularly engage. Friends of the ABC is a community organisation that represents the public's interest in the ABC. It works to ensure the ABC continues as a healthy, independent and comprehensive national public broadcaster. Friends of the ABC in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, WA and Tasmania joined forces to respond to the inquiry into the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2010 with a thoughtful submission. This group has welcomed—very much so—the appointment of a staff elected director. It is wonderful to see a group of people such as the Friends of the ABC who are representing the interests of the Australian community in this way, and I would very much like to applaud their efforts.

Neither the ABC nor SBS can function to the best of their ability without boards of excellence. I am confident that the proposed amendments to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 and the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 will result in exactly this. All Australians will have the opportunity to nominate for a place on either board, as they should, and all claims will be considered on their merits. All future appointments will be subject to independent scrutiny and the principles of equal opportunity and gender and geographical diversity will be upheld. A staff elected director will bring an important perspective and expert knowledge. I am confident that this bill will ensure that the bright future of our public broadcasters is placed in the very best of hands, as it should be. That is why this amendment has come before the Senate through the parliament at this time. Certainly the Gillard Labor government takes very seriously righting the wrongs of the past in relation to the loss of that basis of merit and by having a staff elected director on our ABC and SBS boards.

We all very much admire the input that the ABC and the SBS provide to us. We want to be able to support them with boards of excellence. That is exactly what this bill now does. I commend the bill to the Senate.