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Wednesday, 22 June 1994
Page: 1887

Senator ALSTON (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (3.38 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Trade (Senator McMullan), to a question without notice asked by Senator Alston this day, relating to proposed appointments to the Board of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

I note that the minister did not reply to that part of the question which asked whether Mr Bannon had been headhunted by the Minister for Communications and the Arts, Mr Lee; nor did he indicate whether Mr Lee had headhunted Ms Wendy Silver; nor did he spell out what relevant qualifications, skills and commercial expertise Ms Silver would bring to this important position.

  It is a matter of great concern to all Australians who regard the ABC as a very significant national institution that it should be run by those who are pre-eminent in their fields. That is not to say that under no circumstances should we ever have people who are members of political parties or who have been serving politicians. What it does mean is that a person ought to have some other track record, some level of achievement that would qualify him or her for what is a very significant national appointment.

  Once these appointments have been confirmed by the Executive Council next week, we will have a nine-member board with a majority which consists of an ex-Labor pollster, an ex-Labor ministerial staffer, two former trade union officials and an ex-Labor premier. The requirements for non-executive board directors are contained in section 12(5) of the Australian Broadcasting Act, which states:

  (5) A person shall not be appointed as non-executive Director unless he . . . had experience in connection with the provision of broadcasting or television services or in communications or management . . . expertise in financial or technical matters, or by reason of his having cultural or other interests relevant to the oversight of a public organization . . .

The government cannot pretend that somehow someone manages to slide in under those headings. Without being too personal, my understanding of Ms Silver's qualifications is that she has a degree in social work, she was a ministerial staffer for a period of years and she was appointed to the lotteries commission by the last state Labor government. She has now been put forward as someone with relevant credentials for this position. They are certainly not readily apparent to me.

  For Senator McMullan to pretend that somehow the board contains people with a broad range of qualifications simply ignores the fact that we do not have anyone with commercial expertise. There are businessmen around the country who have proud track records, are leaders in commerce and industry and are captains in their field who would be perfect appointments to the board. I dare say some of them have been quite close to the Labor government over the last decade or more. Yet we have a board that is notable for a complete absence of anyone with commercial qualifications.

  Having regard to the fact that the board is going to have to make a number of very sensitive judgments about the ABC's continuing involvement in pay television and satellite television and a number of judgments about other commercial activities, the last thing we want is a board that looks like Australia in terms of agenda and political attachments and does not have anyone with all those other very important criteria.

  Senator McMullan pretends that there is balance in terms of politics. For the life of me I cannot see anyone that stands out as having been associated with any party other than the Labor Party. That is a matter of great concern and regret both within and outside the ABC. The ABC does not want to be a matter of high political controversy. It does not want to be bedevilled by debate about the affiliations of its board members. It wants to be sensitive. It wants to be independent. It wants to maintain impartiality. It simply cannot do that when it has foisted upon it people whose primary credentials are that they have been very close to the Labor Party over the last few years.

  If that is the way we are going to go in this country, if great public institutions are going to be treated as prizes to be given at the gift of the minister, I think the government is simply lowering the standard and reputation of those bodies and it will suffer accordingly. It seems to me that when we talk about balance we are simply echoing the way the Prime Minister, Mr Keating, used the term when he talked about balanced coverage. He means balance his way. If that is what the government has in mind it is simply not good enough for national institutions and it should not be good enough for the parliament.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Colston)—The time allowed for taking note of answers has expired.