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Thursday, 15 November 2018
Page: 8431

Senator STORER (South Australia) (18:17): I rise to speak to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Appointment of Directors) Bill 2018. Watching Four Corners on the ABC is rarely less than instructive, and that was certainly the case with this week's program on the recent leadership crisis at the ABC. Instructive it was in a number of ways. First, it was a reminder that no other major media organisation in the country would have the courage to take a look at itself in such depth without fear or favour. Second, it revealed that as the people appointed to run the national broadcaster and chair its board were engaging in a battle for personal survival, the staff at the ABC were getting on with the job. Third, it showed that neither the sacked managing director nor the former chair was suitable to lead and care for our most important cultural institution, as it was put in The Guardian by Margaret Simons, a distinguished journalist and academic who has reported authoritatively on the ABC for many years. Fourth, it showed that parliament must now take steps to ensure that this never happens again—that there is more independence, integrity and transparency in the process for appointing board directors. That is the point of the legislation I have introduced, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Appointment of Directors) Bill 2018, which we are debating today.

I do not intend to bring this to a vote today, but I do hope the provisions of this bill may be incorporated in amended terms of reference for the current Senate inquiry into allegations of political interference at the ABC. On the other hand, I believe it would be useful for the committee to use the process I am proposing as guidelines in coming to a set of recommendations to try to ensure that what we have seen in recent weeks cannot happen again. As the terms of reference of that inquiry indicate, it must examine why it was that the board decided to terminate the contract of Ms Guthrie less than halfway into her contract.

Public knowledge of what happened remains imperfect, despite the best efforts of journalists, including those working for Four Corners. It is also the case that there is more to learn about the efforts of the government to influence the ABC. We now know that Mr Milne did want the ABC's chief economics correspondent sacked, to 'explore external development opportunities', as he put it to Ms Guthrie. 'What did that phrase mean?' Sarah Ferguson asked Mr Milne on Four Corners. Mr Milne replied that it was a 'silly corporate euphemism for firing her'. Mr Milne denied that the government had ever placed political pressure on him either to sack ABC journalists or to influence the way the broadcaster reported events. However, he did acknowledge that the communications minister, Senator Fifield, called him frequently to 'discuss issues', as he told Four Corners. This does leave questions for the Senate inquiry to ask, but it would be a failure if the committee were to simply delve into the past rather than looking to solutions for the future.

The ABC is the most trusted media and cultural organisation in the country. That was the finding of the Roy Morgan research organisation, which reported in May that just nine per cent of those surveyed distrusted the ABC, well ahead of commercial media. According to Morgan, the ABC is by far the nation's most trusted media organisation. This is backed up by the ABC's own research, which has found that 82 per cent of people trust the information provided by the national broadcaster—again, well ahead of its commercial counterparts. Nothing could be more telling in this regard than another recent episode, again with Four Corners at its centre. The mere prospect of a Four Corners program on aged care led the government to announce a royal commission. If the ABC in general, and Four Corners specifically, did not have a well-earned reputation within the community for accuracy and impartiality, the government would not have acted with such haste. Those opposite knew that it would be better to get in first with a royal commission, that what was coming would make a compelling case for action, as other Four Corners programs have done in the past. The government knew it would be better to move with speed, rather than having to face the music before taking action. I commend the government for its good sense in this regard.

The ABC has been the prism through which Australians have been able to inform and add to their knowledge about themselves and the world for close to a century. It also provides entertainment as well as services for children and those in the bush that no other organisation has been prepared to do or capable of doing. It is well worth the public money invested in it. Indeed, the ABC continues to do more with less. Since 2014, the government has cut more than $250 million from the budget and another $84 million in the last budget. In the run-up to the Mayo by-election, a ReachTEL poll conducted in my home state of South Australia found that close to three-quarters of Australians wanted the ABC's funding increased or maintained at its current level. That includes more than 70 per cent of coalition voters. Given the results of the Mayo and Wentworth by-elections—the ABC was an issue in both polls—there are lessons for all of us in those findings. The implications are that the public do not appreciate perceptions that the ABC is under political pressure and that its independence is threatened. For those two reasons alone, the bill I have introduced would be an important step forward in enhancing the ABC's independence and ability to withstand political pressure.

Threats to the independence of the ABC are nothing new. By my estimation, since the mid-seventies no fewer than four of the 11 ABC board chairs have had their terms cut short for failing to live up to the expectations of the government of the time, both coalition and Labor. Three managing directors have met the same fate. Some displeased the government of the day; some were not up to the job. What unites them all is that they were subject to less-than-transparent processes which have cumulatively led to a loss of public confidence not in the independence of the ABC but in its ability to withstand attacks on that independence. On that score, Ms Guthrie told Four Corners, as we saw last Monday, that the minister had complained to the ABC six times in five months. 'Unprecedented in any term' was the phrase used to describe the minister's behaviour. Now another chair and another managing director are gone, mid-term, despite the introduction in 2012 of new measures for board appointments designed, as stated by the government of the day, to ensure 'a transparent and democratic board appointment process that appoints non-executive directors on merit'. 'Transparent' and 'on merit' are the key terms here.

However, in recent years the intent and spirit of this process have been ignored on at least three occasions, leading to public disquiet about the independence and integrity of the ABC. Three appointees to the ABC board by this government were not recommended by the independent nomination panel. A fourth was highly rated by the panel, but then withdrew from the process and was subsequently appointed by the minister. The National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 led to the establishment of an independent nomination panel designed to nominate appointments of non-executive directors to the boards of the ABC and SBS, based on merit. According to the act, the requirement is for nominees:

(c) having had experience in connection with the provision of broadcasting services or in communications or management; or

(d) having expertise in financial or technical matters; or

(e) having cultural or other interests relevant to the oversight of a public organisation engaged in the provision of broadcasting services.

But the act also enables the Prime Minister of the day to ignore panel nominations, as long as he or she tabled the reasons for that appointment in each house of the parliament no later than 15 sitting days after that appointment is made. The intention was honourable, but it has turned out to be a substantial deficiency. As Senator Nick Minchin, then shadow communications minister, said in this place on 17 November 2009, when the legislation was introduced:

While the government is establishing a Nomination Panel for the appointment process, at the end of the day the scope remains for the minister and the Prime Minister to ignore Panel nominations and appoint whoever they like.

And so it has turned out to be, setting in train a course of events that, once again, sees the ABC with a managing director whose term has been cut short and a chair whose actions have forced him to resign. A bare majority of the current ABC board were appointed as a result of recommendations from the independent nomination panel. Two of the current board were nominated as qualified candidates by the panel and one did not even apply.

The amendment I am proposing is designed to remedy this situation by returning to the spirit and intent of the legislation that set up the independent domination panel and the process surrounding it. It is a modest proposal, a multi-stage, graduated process to enhance independence, transparency, multipartisanship and public confidence in both the appointment process and the future independence of the ABC. What it is not is an attempt to impose US-senate-style confirmation hearings on Australian democracy.

The bill is consistent with the principles of Westminster government. The ultimate appointment of a non-executive director remains the prerogative of the Governor-General, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, in the case of the chair, or the minister, in the case of a director. The bill requires the Prime Minister, in the case of the chair of the ABC, or the minister, in the case of the other non-executive directors, to publish the name of their proposed appointment at least 30 days before the appointment proceeds, if they intend to ignore the recommendations of the independent nomination panel. This strengthens the integrity of the panel process and of its members. It maintains the confidentiality of those candidates not recommended by the panel and enhances the authority of panel nominations by putting them in the public domain.

The confidentiality of the nomination process before the panel's announcement minimises the likelihood of well-qualified individuals being deterred from putting their names forward. It reduces the prospect that the efforts of the panel will have been a waste of time, as former panel member and former coalition government minister Neil Brown has pointed out when his nominations, and those of other panel members, were ignored. The reasons must be published on the website of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the Leader of the Opposition must be informed in writing and invited to comment, within a reasonable period. If the Leader of the Opposition informs the Prime Minister, in the case of the chairman, or the minister, in the case of other non-executive directors, in writing within the specified period that he or she does not agree with the appointment, the Prime Minister must cause a statement of reasons, including an assessment of the appointee against the selection criteria set down for the independent review panel, to be tabled in both houses of parliament. In that situation, the Prime Minister must not recommend the Governor-General make the appointment until after the end of the 90-day period beginning when the statement was tabled in the second of the houses. This strengthens the current legislation, which requires the Prime Minister to consult with the opposition leader only in the case of an appointment of the ABC chair before recommending the appointment to the Governor-General.

Following tabling of the government's statements of reasons in both houses of parliament, it will be open to the Senate to hold an inquiry into the nomination by the relevant committee. It is hoped that this new final step need never be taken and that the modest, measured, graduated steps I am proposing will be sufficient to encourage governments to accept the nominations of the independent review panel. If they are not, the voters would see where responsibility for any consequences of the government's actions lie—with the government and no-one else.

That is where the responsibility rests for the recent episodes centring on the former chair and former managing director of the ABC—with the government and no-one else. They appointed Justin Milne. He headed the board which sacked Ms Guthrie. He was recommended by the independent nomination panel, but, as he told Four Corners, he put his name forward only after being approached by the minister. We now know that the minister was informed of the breakdown in relations between the board and Ms Guthrie on 12 September, 12 days before her dismissal became public. The minister denies that he has ever, in any way, shape or form, sought to involve himself in ABC staffing matters. Clearly, Mr Milne saw it differently.

In the report commissioned by the minister from his department's secretary and in the Four Corners program, Mr Milne did not deny that he wrote an email to Ms Guthrie about an article by ABC chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici. That email stated:


the government—

hate her.

Mr Milne said in the email of Alberici, according to Fairfax Media—

We are tarred with her brush. I think it’s simple. Get rid of her. We need to save the ABC—not Emma. There is no guarantee they—

the coalition—

will lose the next election.

According to the report of the Secretary of the Department of Communications and the Arts, the former ABC chair acknowledged that a conversation with Ms Guthrie about ABC political editor Andrew Probyn was around 'what to do with him'. Mr Milne does not recall but, in the secretary's report, does not deny having used the term 'to shoot him' in reference to Mr Probyn in that conversation. According to the secretary's report, Mr Milne does not consider that either communication was a direction to the managing director.

But it doesn't matter what Mr Milne thinks. What is significant is what Ms Guthrie thought was the message of Mr Milne's communications with her. According to the secretary's report, Ms Guthrie did consider the Alberici email constituted a direction to take action and was consistent with what she regarded as an interventionist approach to the individual staffing and editorial matters which the chair adopted. Equally, Ms Guthrie regarded the 'Probyn phone call' from Mr Milne as providing significant pressure to terminate Mr Probyn's employment. 'Shoot him' and 'get rid of her'—no-one who uses colloquial Australian would have any doubt what those phrases mean, whatever Mr Milne believes.

The current processes for appointing non-executive directors to the ABC board may well have been well intentioned, but they have failed. It is time, in my view, for the Senate to pass the modest, measured, graduated steps I am proposing so that the chances of political interference in the ABC, real or perceived, are reduced and the public can be assured that this pre-eminent cultural institution not only is genuinely independent but also has the protections to withstand attacks on that independence, and so that its autonomy and integrity are strengthened. With a Senate inquiry underway, it is better, in my view, that this committee either consider amending its terms of reference to incorporate the intent of this bill or use this legislation as a road map for making sure the appointment process for members of the ABC board becomes more independent and transparent, as well as improving its integrity.

The independent nomination panel deserve to know that their work will be treated with respect. They also need to know that their reputations are linked to the quality of their recommendations. The public have repeatedly made it clear that they expect their ABC to be free of political interference and to have management and a board that have the back of the staff as a priority. There is much else that needs to be done—greater funding certainty for the ABC, for example—but I believe this bill is a modest, necessary step forward. I do hope the Senate agrees.