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Wednesday, 22 June 1994
Page: 1929

Senator CHAPMAN (7.10 p.m.) —I welcome the fact that the Minister for Trade (Senator McMullan), who represents the Minister for Communications and the Arts (Mr Lee), is here for the adjournment debate tonight. While both Senator McMullan and the minister seem to be deliberately ignoring the growing controversy surrounding the political appointment of former South Australian Labor Premier, John Bannon, to the ABC's board of directors, it is timely to remember the past failures of this man. This former Labor Premier in South Australia and former national President of the Australian Labor Party will forever be remembered by all South Australians for his gross mismanagement of the financial affairs of that state. This alone should disqualify him from this proposed appointment.

  The telephones in my office in Adelaide and, indeed, here in Canberra have not stopped ringing as South Australians, including Labor voters, register their strong disgust and protest at the pending appointment of this disgraced Labor politician to this prestigious position on the ABC. It is of no less significance that when the ABC's 7.30 Report in Adelaide last night featured the Bannon appointment the switchboard at the ABC Collinswood complex lit up like a Christmas tree, I am told, as calls poured in from people in South Australia who were clearly outraged at this appointment. There are justifiable feelings of outrage and disgust in South Australia with the realisation that this man, Mr Bannon, will walk into a cosy job at the ABC, compliments of his Labor mates here in Canberra. What possible motive, we should ask, could the Labor Party have in making such a political and controversial appointment to this, our national broadcaster? Mr Bannon's appointment to the ABC is purely political. It certainly has nothing to do with his ability to handle financial or executive management decisions. He has shown over his history as the Premier of South Australia that he has failed dismally on both of these counts. His career has demonstrated a lack of both financial and decision making skills. Here we have a former premier who resigned in disgrace for failing to prevent Australia's largest financial disaster—the $3 billion loss by South Australia's State Bank—being appointed to the ABC board. Let me quote from the findings of the royal commission into the former Premier's involvement with this financial scandal. Page 120 of the royal commission's report states:

That the Treasurer (Mr Bannon) failed to address such issues and decided to maintain the existing structure of the Board is but a further example of the extent to which he allowed the Bank itself, through its Directors, to influence his judgement, even in the exercise of one of his most important statutory powers.

We have a former Labor premier, Mr Bannon, entrusted, as he was then as premier, with powers to control the bank's affairs who was clearly found as having failed to do so. Who is the loser? It is not Mr Bannon. It is the people of South Australia. South Australians are the ones who will be forced to endure the financial hardship inflicted upon them by this man's failure.

  Yet this federal Labor government seems convinced that Mr Bannon has the ability to cope with the demands of running the Australian Broadcasting Corporation with an annual budget of some $500 million. Let me challenge Senator McMullan and his colleague the Minister for Communications and the Arts, Mr Lee, to have the courage to come to South Australia and ask the people of that state what they think of Mr Bannon being offered this cosy appointment. They should come and mix it with the people of South Australia. They should come and see the tragic legacy of Mr Bannon's failed management before they proceed with this appointment. Yesterday when I raised this issue in this chamber, in defending this appointment, Minister McMullan accused me of character assassination of Mr Bannon.

  It is not surprising that Senator McMullan is a little muddled in the head in regard to this issue, because it seems he has got his head firmly buried in the sand and the rot has set in. I remind honourable senators that criticism of Mr Bannon is not based on party lines. I will read some statements written by the honourable member for Makin in South Australia, a federal member of this parliament in the other place, who shares my concerns, and those of thousands of South Australians, about Mr Bannon's capabilities. Peter Duncan's comments are contained in a foreword to the book by Adelaide political journalist, Chris Kenny, called State of Denial. He said:

Ten years of Bannon Government rule. In the judgment of history, the past decade undoubtedly will be the most important period in South Australia's history—from a negative point of view.

  Just as Wakefield, Light, Kingston, Playford and Dunstan can be seen as the builders of South Australia, so Tim Marcus Clark and John Charles Bannon will be seen as the demolishers.

  It is easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to see now just how flawed the Bannon years were.

He further said:

  Mr Bannon, of course, has sought to off-load any real blame. He has attempted to say that he accepts responsibility in a constitutional sense, but not in other senses. This cannot be accepted and certainly will not be the judgment of history.

He states further:

The full horror of the Bannon years is yet to be felt. When the impact of arguably Australia's greatest financial disaster finally becomes apparent to this state's taxpayers, there is little doubt that South Australians for generations to come will rue the day they heard the names Tim Marcus Clark and John Charles Bannon.

There we have a South Australian Labor member of this parliament leaving no doubt about the lack of capacity and accountability on the part of former Labor Premier John Bannon. How can the minister for communications still proceed with this appointment?

  It has also been farcical to sit here and listen to the government refuse to confirm Mr Bannon's appointment to the ABC. This would have to be South Australia's, indeed Australia's, worst kept secret. As I indicated in estimates hearings yesterday, Mr Bannon himself has confirmed the appointment and I provide the proof in the form of a transcript of interview which Mr Bannon conducted on ABC radio yesterday morning. I seek leave to have that transcript incorporated in Hansard.

  Leave granted.

  The transcript read as follows

Ref: T209734

Subject: ABC Board Appointment

Station: 5AN

Time: 0850

Program: Keith Conlon Show

Date: 21.6.94

Presenter—Keith Conlon: Interesting news in the Sydney Morning Herald today. I'll just read from their correspondent in Canberra. "The former Premier of South Australia, Mr John Bannon, is to join the ABC board in a revamp designed to bring the ABC back to its charter as a national broadcaster." That makes it an interesting story from a number of angles. John Bannon, new member of the ABC board, good morning.


CONLON: Congratulations.

BANNON: Thanks.

CONLON: is this your first major public commitment, John, since your retirement from the premiership about twenty one months ago?

BANNON: Yes, it is, Keith. I've been doing one or two other things, but I've actually sort of tried to keep, you know, offers and possibilities at arms length, but this one was put to me a while back and I thought, "Well, that's something I'd really be interested in and feel I could make a contribution." so I said yes.

CONLON: After the way in which you were, you know, were required to leave, I suppose, you made your decision to leave public office, have you been wary of the idea of public service again?

BANNON: Not so much public service, but certainly public prominence and I don't want to, sort of, revisit the scenes of my political activities. I regard myself now as, you know, a private citizen with, I would hope something to contribute, but not, sort of, up there in front with lights and bells.

CONLON: It might be difficult to avoid politics with a little p, though. There are some big issues confronting the ABC. What's this idea that maybe you would help bring the ABC back towards its charter as a national broadcaster? What might you bring to that?

BANNON: Well, I'm not quite sure what's in mind there. My guess would be that it's linked very much to the concept of a national broadcaster not being a centralised broadcaster. As you would know, at that.. at the national level I was always a very keen advocate of what I saw as the Federal principle, the diversity and regionalism of Australia is one of its strengths, and the ABC, I believe, has a very specific brief, to ensure that it is truly national, that is it has regional presence, and you know, with economies of scale, changing technology, and so on, that's been under threat lately.

CONLON: There is concern about commercialisation within the ABC, particularly as the Asian arm, the sort of international television arm is backed by sponsorship. Do you have concerns about that?

BANNON: I think you've got to be careful about it. One of the justifications of a national broadcaster is that ability to stand aside from the immediate commercial considerations, not to feel, whether directly or indirectly, beholden to those who are financing it in the commercial sector. And that.. that's an important principle. Having said that, I certainly wouldn't have a totally closed mind and indeed it'd be wrong of me to do so without having looked at the various issues that are before me, but that's the direction that I come from. But the independence of the ABC, in part, derives from the independent base of its funding.

CONLON: In private life now. I think as a student.. you're a student at Flinders?

BANNON: Yes, that's right. I'm fully engaged at the moment and enjoying it considerably, researching the 1890's Federation issues as much as anything. I'm.. in terms of immediate focus I guess I'm about a hundred years behind the times.

CONLON: Right. Except that that's going to be an issue on which we might consult you another time, what it means to Federation a hundred years on. But someone else will do the job for you when you're introduced at the first meeting, which is when, John?

BANNON: Well, that I don't know. I've been.. indeed I wasn't even aware the announcement was going to be made until.. until contacted.

CONLON: Well, sometime soon you're going to front the rest of the ABC board, old and new members and someone will have to tell them how long you've been involved in the ABC. When did you first stand on a box as an ABC actor?

BANNON: Oh, gee. I've.. I've.. I reckon it's about forty years ago.. [Laugh]

CONLON: [Laugh]

BANNON: I was ten at the time. Short pants, standing on a box, yeah. I've had a fair bit of contact with the ABC. Most of the first half to three quarters of that was very positive and favourable, but I have to admit that in those end years of my premiership I got a pretty hard time from it as well, but that's.. that's exactly what they should be doing in terms of their job.

CONLON: John Bannon, thanks for your time today.

BANNON: Thanks, Keith.

CONLON: The new member of the ABC board, nationally. He's not quite sure when he'll take up the position, but John Bannon will be taking South Australia's interests and his interest in the ABC and the arts to the table. [Laugh] Leigh McClusky reckons that she's gone for all money now, but I'm sure that she will welcome John Bannon's comments just then.


Senator CHAPMAN —If any members of the Senate remain in any uncertainty about the intention of that appointment, let them take note of Mr Bannon's responses in the transcript of that interview. We need to conduct a very close examination of the make-up of the board of the ABC. In recent years it certainly appears to have become God's little waiting room for disgraced Labor premiers, Labor Party hacks, Labor Party pollsters, trade union officials and former Labor ministerial advisers. So it is no wonder that Senator McMullan at yesterday's estimates hearings with regard to the ABC said that he did not know what the selection criteria were for such appointments.

  Let us take a quick look at the experience of some of the members of the board of the ABC. They include Mr Rod Cameron, an adviser to the Australian Labor Party on political trends and strategies until 1990; Janine Walker, an industrial officer with the Queensland branch of the Australian Workers Union; and Len Hingley, another union official, and federal secretary of the Australian Bank Employees' Union and an executive member of the ACTU. They are three clear Labor linked appointees.

  When we consider that today Senator Alston revealed that yet another political appointment is eminent, that of Ms Wendy Silva from Western Australia, a former political adviser to the disgraced former Burke Labor Government in Western Australia, and now, of course, this appointment of John Bannon, we can see exactly where the appointments to the board of the ABC are heading. When we take those two pending appointments into account it means that five of the nine members of the board of the ABC have close links with the Labor Party—strong Labor Party links.

  What we have seen with these appointments is that Labor has neatly given itself control of the ABC. The Labor Party is not only stacking its own branches but is now stacking the board of our nation's broadcaster. What confidence can Australians therefore have in the future integrity and impartiality of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation—our national broadcaster? I warn the minister that, if the government proceeds with these appointments, with this stacking of the ABC board, it will suffer a demonstrable political backlash in South Australia as well as in the rest of Australia. (Time expired)