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Thursday, 4 February 2010
Page: 421

Mr RAGUSE (10:15 AM) —I rise today to speak in support of the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009. It has been an interesting debate and very emotive, and we can understand why. We have grown up with Aunty—the ABC—and with SBS, also part of our public broadcasting, as our friendly cousins. Many different points of view have been well covered in the debate today. But the reality is that there is a need for this legislation, especially as it relates to appointments to the boards.

SBS and the ABC, as I said, have been part of our culture for many years. We have all grown up with the ABC. At different times of our lives it has interested us in different ways. For us as members of parliament, the quality of news broadcasting and the way that political issues are dealt with is very, very important. So it is an honour for me to be part of the Rudd government as we ensure the ongoing security of the independence of the ABC and SBS.

It is interesting to note that this amendment bill comes about as part of an election commitment. I can understand the opposition’s concerns about a whole range of things—that is what they are here to do, to provide an alternative explanation. But this was part of an election commitment. It was something that we identified a long, long time ago as needing rectification. The 2007 election allowed us to take that mandate forward and present the amendments here today.

Before I go on with some of my own thoughts and considerations, I would like to put on the record what the amendments in this legislation concern. The National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009 makes changes to the Australian Broadcasting Act 1983, the ABC Act; and the Special Broadcasting Service Corporation Act 1991, the SBS Act. At a high level, these changes implement merit based appointment processes for the ABC and SBS boards and reinstate the role of staff-elected director to the ABC board. The merit based appointment process for non-executive directors is proposed to work in the following way. Vacancies are to be advertised in at least national, state and territory newspapers as well as on the internet. Applications are to be assessed by an independent nomination panel. This assessment is to be made against selection criteria, with additional criteria determined by the minister if needed. A short list of recommended candidates is to be prepared and provided by the nomination panel to the minister or the Prime Minister. The minister or Prime Minister will select a candidate from the short list and write to the Governor-General recommending the appointment.

The mandatory criteria for appointment are worth considering. These are:

  • experience in connection with the provision of broadcasting services or in communications or management
  • expertise in financial or technical matters, and/or
  • cultural or other interests relevant to the oversight of a public organisation engaged in the provision of broadcasting services. 

There is a range of people who are not eligible to fill these positions, and this has been well covered by both sides of the House in this debate. Some of the conditions are that:

Current or former members of the Commonwealth Parliament, state and territory parliaments or legislative assemblies, and current or former senior political staff are not eligible for appointment to the ABC or SBS Boards.

It seems this is part of the contentiousness of these amendments. It is probably best to consider what is occurring here. We understand that the ABC and SBS are public broadcasters—owned by the people of this country—and we all, on both sides, understand the need for them to be independent. What we are arguing about with these appointments is the perception that there could be interference.

Viewing the ABC over many years, I have seen some of the political issues that have arisen around the public broadcaster. One of these political issues has been whether board appointments should include staff members or not. The amendments of 2006 removed the role of a staff-elected director of the board. And I well remember, just prior to the 1996 election, when John Howard was in opposition, some of the interviews with Kerry O’Brien. There was certainly a distaste by Howard about the interview style of Kerry O’Brien—to the point that Mr Howard refused to appear. In fact, when he became Prime Minister he refused to do interviews with Kerry O’Brien at all. I am not sure what that meant in the long term, but clearly there was a move later on to say that the independence of the ABC was somehow compromised and that we should appoint members of the board in a certain way. The reality is that it was perceptual. Good political argument in fair media will include all sides of politics when dealing with an issue. When you have both sides of the political fence arguing that there is some bias in the media, to some degree it probably means that the media is right on target.

One of the concerns that is emerging in terms of independence of the media is that journalism—and, as is well known, I have a media background—has moved in the last decade from good journalism to commentary. It is probably something we are all aware of at times. Media operates at two levels: there is the business of delivering the message, but there is also the message itself—and the content is very important. I have huge respect for media, as we all do. It is an important part of our society. That said, as commercial operations, certain media operations can become extreme in their views on both political sides at times, so we all experience at times a view that the media is unfair. That said, the ABC and SBS need to maintain independence. Simply the perception that the ABC or SBS might have some sort of bias could be compromising. Arguments put forward today about whether we should or should not have a staff-appointed member on the board are related to the view that in some way it compromises the quality or the independence of the ABC.

I believe that it probably goes more to an ideological perspective. I mentioned the former Prime Minister’s concern about the independence of the ABC and one particular journalist but it certainly goes a little bit further than that. We well understand the issues of waterside workers back in the nineties and the High Court ruling at the time that basically threw out the suggestions of the then Howard government about how the issues of waterside workers and the unions should be reviewed and renewed. That came back very strongly against the workers in this country with Work Choices. Work Choices was ideologically driven. On a business basis you can argue a whole lot of points but this comes back to the rights of individuals within their workplaces.

Back in the eighties the need to increase industrial democracy—democracy in the workplace—was known around the world. All sides of politics essentially understood the need to have more involvement by workers at different levels—whether it is people in management, people who are process workers, people involved in management buyouts or people who are considering a shareholding of an organisation or a business. In my own businesses I have always had staff who have had some financial interest in the business. It makes sense for a whole range of reasons, such as the expertise of the people who understand the business, but it is about industrial democracy. It is about people in the workplace not only having a say but also having a unique understanding and corporate knowledge that goes with their involvement in an organisation or business. To me, the mere fact that there is some opposition to having a staff-appointed member of the board goes totally against the importance of having some local or corporate knowledge involved in decision making.

Many members on the other side talked about members of parliament not being members of the board; clearly it is a matter of perception. It does not suggest for a minute that members of parliament do not have the skills. Yes, ‘merit-based’ suggests that it would be open to all and sundry. The reality is that, as a public broadcaster and an independent news service, if there is any perception of bias that is a problem for the ABC and SBS.

It makes a lot of sense to me that in progressing staff appointments we do not include members of parliament or their staff as nominations for the board. It is not about whether we are capable of doing that particular job or not. Yes, there is a history of former members of parliament serving on boards, particularly on the ABC and SBS boards. This legislation came about because of an election commitment, as there was a perception that there was some political tampering. Whether there was or not, people in the community had that view and as the Labor government came into office we decided that we needed to do something about it—hence, this amendment bill that is here with us today.

This does formalise a certain structure and approach for how appointments are made. As an opposition, and now as a government, we had concerns that there was some adhocery in the way that boards were appointed. I am not suggesting for a minute that there was political bias in that but the adhocery did open it up to that sort of challenge and the perception that some things are not right.

A number of members on the other side talked about our involvement in the ABC and that somehow we are tampering or fiddling with it. Let us judge by actions, not by words. The former government had a particular view that there was some reason to remove staff-appointed members. Quentin Dempster, who was removed during that period of time, was understandably very harsh about that treatment because he no doubt felt that there were some aspersions on him about his activities. He said:

The current ABC board cannot be relied on to advocate the cause of independent public broadcasting. It is in an ideological and party-political bog.

Obviously he was quite angry when he said that, but the reality is that here was a man, who was well-respected in media circles, being aggravated. He was upset about his treatment and about there being some perception that he was doing the wrong thing. To me that clearly shows why we need to keep the ABC and the SBS very independent and make sure there is a perception that all things are correct and equal when we are dealing with these very important public broadcasters.

Aunty and her cousin—the ABC and the SBS—are very much part of our culture and it is important that we are all comfortable in the understanding that their organisation will continue to improve, as it has. Governments of different persuasions have, one way or another, supported these particular organisations as they have continued to grow and as the whole media approach to news broadcasting and other services has grown. The fact that the ABC is looking at a 24-hour news service, in competition with some of the commercial operators, is a good thing for media. It is also a good thing for people who are employed as journalists or other operatives within media organisations to know that they have the ability and the quality continuing on both the commercial and public sides.

The ABC and the SBS have been part of our communities and our upbringing in this country. The ABC pre-dates any of us in this House and when we look at it we see that it is a dynamic organisation, albeit publicly owned and of some major interest to all levels, including—as this debate proves—members of parliament. The fact that we are looking at putting back the way staff appointments are made and excluding certain members of our community—in this case, former members of parliament—is not something that the opposition should get too upset about. It is for all us and we are making the point that it is an independent organisation.

In conclusion, I would like to summarise a number of the points. Australian public broadcasting has been and remains an institution of which we can be all proud. Australian governments, of whatever political flavour, should never use public broadcasting as a means to further their particular political agendas. These reforms ensure that the great ABC and SBS, our Aunty and our cousin, will deliver quality independent media for the future.