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Wednesday, 20 June 2012
Page: 3951


Senator EDWARDS (South Australia) (18:11): Today I rise to speak on the National Broadcasting Amendment Bill 2010. This bill centres around three main changes to our national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS. This bill covers the appointment of directors, the membership of the boards and a new, merit based appointment process for these boards.

The ABC is an important institution and SBS is an important part of public broadcasting also. The ABC has a budget of $779 million from the 2010-11 year—not insubstantial by anybody's account—so it is important that we have the best possible management structure in place to ensure high-quality programming at the ABC and SBS. We do not need an ABC that is further encumbered by additional layers of bureaucracy, which is what this bill will achieve.

In the very short time before the government guillotines this bill, I will turn my attention first to the merit based appointment process. The bill proposes to insert a provision into the legislation concerning the ABC and SBS requiring them to implement a merit based selection process and stipulating that appointments cannot occur unless the process has been undertaken—and so let the bureaucratic red tape begin. The bill will require the government to establish a nomination panel, which will be made up of a chair and two or three members. The members will be appointed by the Secretary to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The committee of three or four will be appointed for up to three years in part-time positions—I guess they will all receive a nice stipend.

Let us look at the bureaucracy that will be laid over the appointment process. The nomination panel will conduct a selection process for each appointment of a director. To do this, the panel will be required to advertise vacancies nationally and then must see and assess all applications against the selection criteria set by the minister. In the case of the appointment of the SBS chairperson the panel is required to provide a report to the minister, while the appointment of a new ABC chairperson will require a report to the Prime Minister as well. Both reports will have to offer a minimum of three nominations for consideration. It does not really matter, does it? In 2009, they spent $200,000 doing this. The reality is that those reports do not actually require the minister or the Prime Minister to adopt any of those recommendations. This bill just puts red tape in there and the selectors do not have, by virtue of the second recommendation, the widest possible pool of talent to choose from.

The second recommendation implements a blanket prohibition on former politicians and senior staff members, and eliminates a large number of people who may have suitable experience. What nonsense. Politicians and their staff spend their entire careers in the public domain, in some cases, dealing with issues of local, regional and national importance. It is our job to be across current affairs and understand a wide range of issues. This kind of broad knowledge provides a solid foundation for a board appointment.

Clearly, there are concerns about politically driven appointments. Everyone shares that concern, which is why my colleague Senator Birmingham, on behalf of the coalition, will move an amendment to this bill, which if left as is will restrict the prohibition of former politicians and their staff to the first 12 months after leaving. This will help prevent politically motivated appointments to the ABC and SBS boards—what rot. Unless the Senate adopts this amendment, we could have the ludicrous situation where a great candidate from any political party who has left this place could be overlooked for candidates of the ilk of, say, Mr Paul Howes, the current national secretary of the AWU, or Mr Tony Sheldon, the current secretary of the TWU, both public political figures and demonstrably partisan, and would not face any impediment to selection under the current deal. Complete hypocrisy.

The third change this bill provides is for the reinstatement of a staff-elected director—in other words, a shop steward. In 2006, the coalition eliminated the staff-elected director position on the ABC board. This was done on the advice of the Howard government's Review of corporate governance of statutory authorities and officeholders. It was done by a review of corporate governance of statutory authorities and officeholders. I repeat that because this was no lame task; this was based on a concept in Australian company law that directors act in the best interests of the company and all of its shareholders, not because they are beholden to a group from within. The very nature of the placement which is proposed makes them subject to coercion from the very people who put them there; therefore having a director who is representative of one group, the staff, at a board level does not fulfil this long-held view of company directorships in a modern corporate world.

Then there is the issue of public broadcasters who were being paid by the taxpayers of Australia. None of those people are subject to the same scrutiny as politicians. So it is a double standard. The bill refers to the merit of appointments to the ABC and SBS. These two publicly funded broadcasters have become incredibly narrow in their appointments in recent years. How much new talent has managed to get into these organisations from the commercial channels? Very little, I can tell you. Mateship might not be a prized attribute in the fractured Labor caucus, but the cronies who look after their mates in these two organisations are very much alive and flourishing. When the time comes for a staff elected commissioner, watch and see how they will inevitably be aligned with the ALP or the Greens.

So we have additional red tape, unnecessary restrictions on board appointments and an attempt to reinstate a staff-elected director position at the ABC, all unnecessary changes that will only make it harder to appoint high-calibre candidates to board and director positions at the ABC and the SBS. This bill in its current form makes knuckle-draggers of this Labor-Greens alliance and it takes our public broadcasters back to corporate Neanderthal times. In the seconds I have left before this bill is guillotined, I urge all members in this chamber not to take a step back in time and stop taking the ABC, our national broadcaster, into the Dark Ages and support the amendments. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order! The allotment of time for this bill has now expired. The question is that the bill now be read a second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: The question now is that opposition amendments (1) and (2) on sheet 7108 be agreed to.

Question agreed to.

The PRESIDENT: The question now is that amendment (1) on sheet 7239 be agreed to.

The amendments read as follows—

Schedule 1, item 12, page 5 (after line 15), after subsection 12(5A), insert:

(5AA) However, so far as subsection (5A) relates to a person who:

(a) is a former member of a Parliament or a Legislative Assembly referred to in that subsection; or

(b) was a senior political staff member;

that subsection applies only for the period of 12 months beginning on the day the person ceased to be a member of that Parliament or that Legislative Assembly or a senior political staff member.

Schedule 1, item 24, page 16 (after line 10), after subsection 17(2A), insert:

(2AA) However, so far as subsection (2A) relates to a person who:

(a) is a former member of a Parliament or a Legislative Assembly referred to in that subsection; or

(b) was a senior political staff member (within the meaning of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983); that subsection applies only for the period of 12 months beginning on the day the person ceased to be a member of that Parliament or that Legislative Assembly or a senior political staff member (within the meaning of that Act).

Clause 2, page 2 (table items 3 to 5), omit the table items.