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Thursday, 4 February 2010
Page: 417

Mr ANTHONY SMITH (9:46 AM) —I am pleased to take the opportunity to speak in this debate on the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009, a debate that began in the dying days of last year. As the member for Dunkley foreshadowed on 26 November last year and as the former shadow minister for communications, Senator Minchin, outlined last year, we will be moving two amendments later in this debate. Those amendments relate to the staff-elected position for the ABC board and the proposed ban under this legislation of former members of parliament and senior political staff from being eligible for appointment to the ABC board under the merit review process. I will briefly outline the coalition’s objections to both of these issues. To save the House from repetition, given we will be debating amendments on this in an hour or so, I will limit my remarks, particularly since the member for Dunkley, as the previous shadow minister’s representative in this chamber, detailed our objections at the commencement of this debate last year.

The coalition strongly support our national broadcasters. What this bill seeks to do has significant deficiencies. I will deal in reverse order as far as the bill goes with respect to each of the issues. Firstly, I will deal with the proposal to ban for life former members of parliament and senior political staff from being eligible, under the new merit review process, to be considered for appointment to the board of the ABC. We believe this is a very obvious and cheap political stunt by the government. It seeks to give the impression that they are preventing any sense of bias in any respect. I am going to make a number of general points that those opposite know to be right and are beyond dispute, as my friend and colleague the member for Lyne said yesterday.

Firstly, this is ill-conceived and hypocritical. At one level it says that no member of parliament from a state, federal or territory government can ever at any point in their life be eligible for consideration as a future member of the ABC board—not to be appointed by a government minister but to be eligible for consideration, as the member for Lyne said last night. That is a typical cheap stunt that might satisfy those opposite, but let us consider what that means. It means that someone like Bob Carr, the former New South Wales Premier, could not be considered, many years on after a period outside of parliament. Under this legislation, of course, any political apparatchik who has not been a member of parliament or who has not been a senior staffer—say, a former national secretary of the ALP—could be considered for appointment.

Last night the rebuttal to the member for Lyne was that there have been all these political appointments—but those political appointments were not former members of parliament and would be eligible under this bill for consideration. The member for Lyne made the point, and the government speaker following him in seeking to rebut it amplified it: John Bannon, a former South Australian Premier, was on the ABC board. By the time he had finished, both sides of parliament thought he had done a good job. Our side of parliament thought he was a bad premier. As Senator Minchin pointed out, he did a good job. I am pretty sure, if you check the record, that the former Labor government of Paul Keating appointed Ian Macphee. This bill says that there will be a merit process so that people will be considered on merit but, at the same time, it says certain people, former members of parliament and former senior staff—not junior staff; senior staff—are banned for life from even being considered.

We are being reasonable, and we can understand that when you are a member of parliament or a senior staff member you are heavily involved in the political process. But why not after a period of say 18 months at least allow these people to be considered? At least if you care about letting the ABC get the best people, let that merit process consider them. If they find that someone is unsuitable, so be it. What is so hypocritical is that the minister is saying yes, we want a merit based process that is arms-length except that they are going to interfere and ensure that the merit based process does not consider these applicants. The member for Lyne was absolutely right.

The other point we make is that this is completely at odds with the government’s approach on other boards. The Prime Minister has appointed former Liberal ministers. Where someone is capable on merit, they should be considered. How many times have we heard that, and how many times have we seen those opposite nod in agreement? They say the ABC board is different. Are they saying all of those other boards are less important? Are they saying that if someone is inherently after a period of time going to conduct themselves with bias, that does not matter in a diplomatic posting? Is that their point? They know, now, that this is an overreach. It will be ineffective. You could appoint someone from Hawker Britton if the merit review process agreed. In many respects they would, I suggest, have a far more political background than some senior advisers. Think of a communications expert in the minister’s office who 20 years down the track might be able to make a contribution. Indeed, it is lucky this is prospective—the current Managing Director of the ABC once worked as an adviser, many years ago. The minister would not say he is doing a bad job as the manager of the ABC.

We have said there should be a compromise. The government should calmly see the light of day on this and agree that after an 18-month cooling-off period—which is a principle we say that they have established with their ministerial code of conduct; we do not say they are identical, but there are parallels there—we should be consistent and allow these people to be considered. If the merit review process finds them unsuitable, then they are found to be unsuitable.

The aspect of this bill dealing with the reinstatement of the staff-elected position on the ABC board is something this side of the House, this opposition, cannot support. It was this side of the House, when in government, that legislated to remove that position. The reasons have been well articulated in this debate. I accept there is a philosophical difference between this side of the House and the other side of the House, and I accept that whilst the member for Lyne agrees with me on my remarks up until this point, he has a view different from what I am about to say now. For very good reason our side the House when in government took action to remove the staff-elected position. The reason was best articulated back in 2006 in the explanatory memorandum to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment Bill. It stated:

The Bill addresses an ongoing tension relating to the position of staff-elected Director. A potential conflict exists between the duties of the staff-elected Director under paragraph 23(1)(a) of the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act to act in good faith in the best interests of the ABC, and the appointment of that Director via election by ABC staff. The election method creates a risk that a staff-elected Director will be expected by the constituents who elect him or her to place the interests of staff ahead of the interests of the ABC as a whole where they are in conflict.

More generally and critically, this staff-elected position is at odds with standard practice in Australian corporate governance. We made that position clear at the time and we took action.

We do not believe that the ABC has at all suffered from the absence of a staff-elected director—we really do not. We do not think the community is crying out to us saying, ‘We think the ABC is doing well, but it would just do so much better if we could get the staff-elected director back.’ We do not pick up that sentiment at all. My friend the member for La Trobe has walked in. He would have told me if he had picked up that sentiment—and he agrees that he has not. We will move an amendment to delete that section. As I have said publicly, and as was said in this House last year, I reiterate: we cannot and will not support the bill in either house if that amendment is not successful. I will confine my remarks there, in the knowledge that both of these amendments will be dealt with very shortly and I will no doubt have the opportunity to deal specifically with each of them a bit later this day.