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Wednesday, 20 June 2012
Page: 3945

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (17:43): I have a number of views about this particular bill, the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill, but because this bill is subject to the guillotine I am going to restrict my comments just to the issue of the staff elected director.

I have to say that it is a bit tough when the Labor Party and the Greens impose a limit on the amount of debate that you can have here and then have speakers like the last speaker speaking for 15 minutes on this bill, thereby restricting those members of the opposition who want to have a say on this but who will not be able to because of the very limited time. I do acknowledge that Senator Ludlam did not take his full 20 minutes, but, again, here are the Greens and the Labor Party, who have passed these motions to restrict free debate in this chamber, taking up the time of the opposition in speaking on this bill. Just before I address the bill, I quote from a debate some time ago:

You do not just need to be here in this chamber to realise how arrogant and out of touch this government has become, with the ramming through of legislation, ridiculously tight deadlines for legislation, changing the sitting pattern all the time and using the guillotine. It is turning this chamber, which for 30 or 40 years has been a chamber of accountability and scrutiny, into a farce.

Who said that? None other than our erstwhile shadow minister for communications, Senator Conroy. So, just five years ago, it was awful to impose restrictions and guillotines on the debate, but today, because Senator Conroy and his Greens mates want to ram legislation through, suddenly it is quite okay! I raise those issues to explain why my contribution will be, of necessity, brief. I understand that my colleagues want to make a contribution as well.

I start by alerting the Senate to the AustĀ­ralian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment Bill 2006. The explanatory memorandum states:

The Bill addresses an ongoing tension relating to the position of staff-elected Director. A potential conflict exists between the duties of the staff-elected Director under paragraph 23(1)(a) of the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997

the CAC Act—

to act in good faith in the best interests of the ABC, and the appointment of that Director via election by ABC staff. The election method creates a risk that a staff-elected Director will be expected by the constituents who elect him or her to place the interests of staff ahead of the interests of the ABC as a whole where they are in conflict.

I think that sums up why this re-creation of this position is so wrong. I have not heard any debate from the Labor Party or Greens senators during this very truncated debate on why a staff elected director should be appointed. Why not have a Rugby League elected director appointed to the board? Surely a Rugby League elected director would be able to give the ABC board a real insight into not only the best football code but actually how sporting activities should be dealt with. They would have a very balanced view on the way sports should be recorded by the ABC. You could pick any example of a group of people electing one particular representative on the ABC board. This is supposed to be a merit based board.

I heard the arguments from the previous speaker about gender equity. I do not want to enter into that debate, but it is the same in this parliament, Madam Acting Deputy President McKenzie. You, may I say with respect, and the minister on duty on the coalition side, Senator Payne, clearly demonstrate why a merit based selection process—be it for the Senate or for the ABC board—is the correct way to go. Quite clearly in this chamber and in this parliament those on our side of parliament understand that what is important is merit, not gender. I repeat, without meaning to embarrass you, Madam Acting Deputy President, or the minister on duty, you get merit for merit's sake. You do not have to, without meaning to be too offensive, be like the Labor Party, who have senators in this chamber who are there for one reason and one reason only: their gender. Whilst that applies in this chamber, the same applies on the ABC board. You need a board based on merit, not a board based on gender or on staff election.

Can I say, lest people misunderstand me, that I think the ABC generally is a pretty good organisation. I think that, in the country in particular and particularly in radio, the ABC is a magnificent organisation that is balanced, provides a real service and is part of the community. I have never made any secret of the fact that a lot—not all—of the ABC journalists who hang around Sydney, Melbourne and this building have a view that is to the left of the political spectrum. That is fine; I expect everyone in Australia has a political view. What I do not like about some of the ABC presentations is that individuals' personal views determine how news is represented. I am an avid listener of ABC News Radio, which, when I first started listening to it, I thought was pretty balanced. It still is, except, if you watch carefully, you will note, in terms of where things are put in the bulletin, that very often, when the coalition makes a major policy announceĀ­ment, you do not get the ABC talking about the policy announcement—you get the ABC highlighting and giving prominence to anyone who would criticise the coalition's policy announcements.

I am not one of those that goes to Senate estimates committees with a long list of the indiscretions of the ABC. I am afraid I have grown beyond that. I have been around too long, and a lot of people will agree with that comment. But I know the system and I know it will not make any difference to the way news is presented. Quite frankly, we have had some very good ABC boards but they have not really impacted upon what I see broadly as a pro-leftish approach not just to the news but also to the presentation of news that is so important. But I do not complain about that.

I acknowledge that there are a lot of ABC journalists and reporters who are balanced and who have views across the spectrum. What concerns me is when those views determine how news is presented by the taxpayer funded broadcaster. The ABC generally does a good job. Some of the news and current affairs that come out of what I used to call the 'Gore Hill mob', and out of the capital city areas, does not seem to me to be quite so balanced. I reiterate that the same does not apply, though, to ABC radio. That is my experience. I congratulate the ABC; I think it does a marvellous job for Australia. Having said what I have said, across the board the ABC is probably better being there than not being there, so that is a half-tick.

Getting back to this particular issue before the chamber at the moment, no case has been made for the establishment of a staff elected director. A staff elected director is seen as an anomaly. Why is the staff elected director there if not to represent the interests of the staff? If it is not there for that position then why is it there? If it is there to represent the interests of the staff on the ABC board then clearly it is an abrogation of the duties of directors on any board, including the board of the ABC. Can anyone in the Labor Party tell me why the staff elected director is there?

Sure, the staff elected director would have an understanding of how radio, TV, news presentation, current affairs and social programs work—yes, they would have expertise in that, but so would Alan Jones. He would understand those things, so why not also have a commercial radio station shock jock elected member on the ABC board to give a slightly different approach to the way the ABC presents news? That is rather a silly suggestion, but it is about as silly as having a staff appointed director on this particular board.

This is a chamber of debate and of trying to get an argument across. I always come into every debate with my ears completely open and, more often than not, my mind unmade. I am here to be convinced of the right or wrong of a particular provision but I have not heard it in this debate whatsoever. The coalition members of the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee that looked into this bill clearly articulated why this provision was wrong and, similarly, why a number of the other provisions relating to this amendment bill are incorrect. I urge senators to have a look at those provisions.

I wanted to comment on other aspects of this bill but unfortunately time has beaten me. I am conscious that others of my colleagues are wanting to speak on this particular bill and so I will restrict my comments there. I see Senator Edwards joining the chamber now and I am conscious that he has some things to say.

Again, I lament the fact that we are not going to be able to debate this bill as we would have wanted to and that we are not going to be able to look closely into every aspect of the bill, as this chamber should be doing. We are not able to do that, I remind those who might be listening, because the Labor Party and the Greens political party have embarked upon this curtailment of debate in what should be the house of review. After all the pious words of Labor and the Greens in years gone by about guillotining, here they are just in this fortnight guillotining—that is, curtailing the debate on—36 bills. For all that the Labor Party and the Greens might rail about the Howard government, in the three years in which that government had an absolute majority in this chamber it only time managed bills on 36 occasions. For the three years of the Howard government, 36 bills were time managed, while already in this fortnight—and I do not go back to the farce we went through when the carbon tax bills were brought in.

Remember the carbon tax bills? There, 18 separate bills imposing upon Australians the largest carbon tax in the world were rammed through this parliament in a guillotined debate. Eighteen bills, 76 senators. I think that gave us all about one minute per bill per senator. This is what the Labor Party classes as democracy. Its mismanagement is so obvious and it clearly does not want debate in this chamber which might highlight that.

So those are all the guillotined bills prior to this session. In these two weeks alone 36 bills have been subject to the curtailment of debate. That puts the lie to the new paradigm of openness and accountability that our so-called Prime Minister announced proudly when she convinced a couple of Independents to support her in her bid to retain power in this country. Have a look at this: 36 bills curtailed in this fortnight alone—great openness! Great accountability! Great new paradigm!