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Wednesday, 20 June 2012
Page: 3948


Senator BILYK (Tasmania) (17:59): I rise to speak on the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2010. Those on the other side who are continually grizzling and harping and not actually participating in discussion on the issue at hand have wasted so much time that they could probably have had another speaker had they not gone on with all their diatribe. Strong and independent national broadcasters are an essential pillar of our democracy and it is vital that in a vibrant civil society there exist broadcasters whose views are not tied to and corrupted by corporate interests. It is also vital that there are broadcasters whose views are not partisan and tied to the views of current or previous governments due to politically motivated appointments to their boards.

The purpose of this bill is to amend the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 and the Special Broadcasting Services Corporation Act 1991 to implement a new merit based appointment process for the ABC and SBS boards. The bill also reinstates the position of a staff elected director on the ABC board, which was removed by coalition changes to the ABC Act in 2006. This government believes in the independence of the ABC and the SBS and it believes that the boards of the ABC and SBS should not be appointed due to their political allegiances and previous political positions.

There can be no objective disagreement with the way in which the independence of the ABC and SBS has been compromised in the past through a series of blatantly political board appointments. I want to highlight some of the appointments during the Howard government. In 1996 Donald McDonald, who happened to be a long-time friend of former Prime Minister Howard, was appointed chair of the ABC board. Mr Michael Kroger, an active member of the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party who has been in the news a bit lately, was appointed to the ABC board in 1998. Between 2003 and 2007 appointments to the board included conservative commentators Janet Albrechtsen, Ron Brunton, Keith Windschuttle and Morris Newman—and a former speechwriter for John Howard, Christopher Pearson, was appointed to the board of SBS in 2003. All these people were in support of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Party ideology.

The ABC has a duty to its viewers, its listeners and the public to ensure the highest standards of journalism, to accept that it is accountable and to ensure that it is meeting its own codes of practice. It is also incumbent on the ABC and SBS boards to be able to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the emerging digital and online environment. The ABC and SBS cannot function to their maximum capacity without excellent boards. This legislation will ensure that all Australians will have an opportunity to nominate for a place on the ABC or the SBS boards and all claims will be considered on their merits by an independent panel.

Importantly, all future appointments will be governed by the overriding principle of selection based on merit. Individuals who through their abilities, experience and qualities match the needs of the ABC and SBS will be selected. All future appointments to the ABC and SBS boards will be subject to independent scrutiny by the nomination panel, who will shortlist suitable candidates. The process promotes the principles of equal opportunity and gender and geographical diversity. The ABC and SBS provide the important function of reflecting the whole Australian community—urban and rural, young and old, and people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The appointment process for the ABC and SBS boards must ensure that the persons most suited for the position of board member are chosen.

It is interesting to note the comments of the Friends of the ABC, who, in their submission to the Senate committee on this bill, wrote:

The past practice of governments appointing their supporters to the governing board of the ABC resulted in the appointment of people who lacked independence or merit and sometimes both. If allowed to resume, this situation, which was in danger of spiralling out of control, would ultimately damage the public's trust in the national broadcaster's independence and in the integrity of government.

Schedule 1 to the bill establishes a merit based appointment process for ABC and SBS non-executive directors, with the following features: the assessment of applicants' claims will be undertaken by an independent nomination panel established at arm's length from the government; vacancies will be widely advertised, at a minimum in national and/or state and territory newspapers, and on the website of the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy; the assessment of candidates will be made against a core set of selection criteria, supplemented where necessary by additional criteria as determined by the minister; and a report containing short-listed recommended candidates will be provided to either the minister or the Prime Minister by the nomination panel.

There are some amendments, stemming from the committee process. The Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee report on the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill commented that a waiting period before former politicians and senior staffers become eligible for public appointment would be appropriate. The committee recommended a waiting period rather than a lifelong prohibition, and the government supports this amendment. A waiting period would be consistent with other Australian government policies such as the Lobbying Code of Conduct, which provides that former ministers and parliamentary secretaries may not engage in lobbying activities relating to any matter with which they had official dealings, within 18 months of leaving office. The Lobbying Code of Conduct provides for a 12-month waiting period for former political staff, agency heads, senior public servants and others.

The Australian Greens have suggested an amendment to this bill, which will work in conjunction with the Opposition's amendment, and the government agrees with this amendment also. The proposed amendment will mean a former politician or senior staffer can only be appointed to the ABC or SBS boards after ceasing to be a member of a parliament or a legislative assembly or a senior political staff member for a period of 12 months and being nominated by the nomination panel following their participation in a merit based selection process, as set out in the bill.

In addition, we strengthened the statement of reasons that must be tabled in parliament by the executive if any person, other than a former politician or senior staffer, is recommended for appointment by the Prime Minister or minister, as the case requires. This is consistent with the government's commitments to strengthen the independence and integrity of the ABC and SBS boards and to facilitate greater transparency and parliamentary scrutiny of the selection and appointment of candidates to the boards.

Schedule 2 concerns the appointment of a staff elected director to the ABC board, which I believe to be a very important issue. Prior to 2006, the ABC Act provided for the inclusion of a staff elected director on the board. The coalition's Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment Act 2006 removed the position of staff elected director from the ABC board. It removed the right of ABC staff to elect a representative from amongst their peers. The removal of the position of staff appointed director on the ABC board was done by the coalition purely from an ideological opposition to having staff being represented. This was a great injustice and is one which this government now seeks to rectify. The staff elected director enhances the ABC's independence by providing the board with a unique and important insight into ABC operations. I will quote once again from the Friends of the ABC's submission:

Importantly, the Bill restores the Staff elected Director to the ABC Board. The Staff Director position ensures there is at least one Board member with a sound understanding of the role and ethos of public broadcasting and an intimate understanding of the ABC's current operations. It is a sole counter should any government again stack the independent broadcaster's board.

The staff elected director was often the only individual with the on-the-ground expertise to examine the advice to the board from the ABC's executive.

The staff elected director will sit as a non-executive director on the ABC board and fall within the definition of director for the purposes of the ABC Act. The staff elected director will have the same duties, rights and responsibilities as all other non-executive directors. Like any other ABC director, the staff elected director's primary duty will be to act in the best interests of the corporation. The only difference between the staff elected director and other ABC directors will be their means of appointment. The Friends of the ABC highlighted the importance of the staff elected director in their submission to the committee inquiry:

The Staff Director was integral, for example, in bringing to the ABC Board's attention illegal ABC activities in the 1990s. The inquiry conducted on behalf of the ABC Board by Mr George Palmer QC established breaches of the ABC Act and Board editorial and coproduction policies. The role of the staff-elected Director in the exposure of ‘backdoor’ compromise of programs through external funding was acknowledged in Our ABC—the 1995 report of the Senate Select Committee on ABC Management and Operations … which was chaired by Senator Richard Alston.

There is nothing in the present act or the proposed amendments that says the duties of the staff elected director would be different from those of the other non-executive directors on the board. It is the responsibility of the board to ensure that all directors are aware of their primary duty to act in the interest of the corporation as a whole. This point was made by the Australian National Audit Office in 1999 when it noted in its discussion paper about corporate governance that a written code of conduct, approved by the board, setting out ethical and behavioural expectations for both directors and employees was a better-practice governance principle for the board of a Commonwealth authority or company.

In conclusion, this bill will make important changes to the way the ABC and SBS boards are appointed, to ensure that political favouritism does not occur and that the boards have the talent and experience to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the emerging digital and online environment. Importantly, it will also bring back an independent, staff elected director with unique insights into the daily operations of the ABC. With those few words I commend this bill to the Senate.