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Thursday, 4 February 2010
Page: 425

Mr ZAPPIA (10:29 AM) —I, too, rise in support of the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009. This bill will amend the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 and the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 to introduce new board selection processes for the ABC and SBS. The measures in this bill will deliver on the Rudd government’s 2007 election promise to end political interference in appointments to the ABC board. This bill implements a new transparent and democratic board appointment process for both organisations and also restores the staff elected director to the ABC board. Currently, the ABC and SBS board members are appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the government of the day. Whilst the acts specify generic criteria against which candidates are assessed, there is no formal process for appointments and no transparency in relation to how candidates are selected. The new appointment process will involve an independent panel conducting a merit based selection process for non-executive directors to the ABC and SBS boards. The independent panel will then provide advice to the government on suitable appointments.

The guidelines for this new process were released in October 2008. Using this new transparent and independent selection process, in March 2009 four appointments were made: two each to the ABC and SBS from an outstanding field of over 300 applicants. Features of this new process include that the assessment of applicants’ claims will be undertaken by an independent nomination panel established at arm’s length from the government. Vacancies will be widely advertised—at a minimum, in the national press and/or in major state and territory newspapers and on the website of the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. The assessment of candidates will be made against a core set of published selection criteria which may be supplemented by additional criteria where appropriate for specific positions—for example, to address particular skill gaps. The nomination panel will provide a report to the minister with a shortlist of at least three candidates for each vacant position. The minister will select a candidate from the shortlist and will write to the Governor-General recommending the appointment as required under the ABC and SBS acts.

In accordance with the government’s election commitment, the appointment of current or former politicians or senior political staff will be prohibited. I will speak a little bit more about that later on if time permits. Where the vacancy is that of the chair of the ABC board, the selection process would follow all aspects of the merit selection process as it applies to non-executive board appointments—with two exceptions. The Prime Minister would select the preferred candidate in consultation with the minister. The Prime Minister would then confer with cabinet and, once cabinet approval was granted, the Prime Minister would consult with the Leader of the Opposition before making a recommendation to the Governor-General. I believe that that entire process highlights both how transparent and how fair the process will be. It certainly highlights that it will not be a process that is in any way politically biased.

I take a moment to talk about the ABC and SBS and their significant contribution to the Australian community. The ABC was founded in 1929 as the Australian Broadcasting Company and subsequently became a state owned corporation in 1932 as the Australian Broadcasting Commission. The ABC has been at the forefront of media in Australia throughout its history, beginning with radio in 1932, television in 1956, colour television in 1975 and satellite broadcasting during the 1980s. The ABC was one of the first major media organisations to establish a strong new-media presence online in 1995. Today, the ABC operates 60 local radio stations across Australia, 51 of which are in regional Australia; four national radio networks, including NewsRadio, Radio National and the dedicated youth network Triple J; three digital radio networks; and the international service Radio Australia, which broadcasts Australian news and content in eight languages throughout the Asia-Pacific. The ABC currently operates three television channels, with plans recently announced for a fourth channel dedicated to business, politics and news. Online, the ABC is not only one of the most trusted and up-to-date news sites in the country; it has also been a world leader in new ways of delivering media content to viewers through its podcasting and mobile services.

The ABC plays an important role in the production and distribution of Australian content. Much of this content, whether via radio, film, television or online, is not material that would be produced by a commercial media organisation. It is only because the ABC chooses to tell these stories that they are able to be told. The ABC has shown a willingness to take risks and work in areas that other networks are reluctant to work within. We see this in shows such as Landline, for regional and rural Australians; Message Stick, for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Australians; and the inspirational Choir of Hard Knocks, about homeless Australians finding purpose through shared music. This risk-taking extends to the ABC’s willingness to work with new and emerging talent: journalists, performers, writers, directors and musicians. Many celebrated Australians, including Ray Martin, George Negus, Garry McDonald and, more recently, Chris Lilley and Missy Higgins, launched their careers because of the ABC. It is through the ABC that many Australians are able to get their start in television, music and media, and many go on to international success. The ABC is in many ways the voice of Australia both locally and internationally and plays an important role in the daily lives of many Australians.

I now turn to the important role SBS plays in Australian life. SBS was founded in 1978, incorporating existing radio stations that broadcast to multicultural communities in their own languages. SBS TV began transmissions in 1979. Today, SBS Radio broadcasts in 68 languages across all Australian states. Importantly, SBS has changed over time, reflecting changes in society. It began its broadcasts in languages such as Italian and Greek and then added new languages such as Vietnamese, Cantonese, Arabic and Somali as these communities arrived in Australia in greater numbers.

The SBS charter provided in the SBS Act sets out the principal functions of SBS and a number of duties it has to fulfil. We can see from the charter the vital role that SBS plays in the lives of approximately three million Australians who speak a language other than English in their homes. The electorate of Makin, which I represent, has many communities of non-English-speaking background and I am very aware of just how important SBS is for migrants new to Australia. To have information and news available in your home language makes settling into a new country so much easier. There has been much said in recent years of Australia and its view of migrants and new arrivals. The fact that we are a country with a government funded multicultural broadcaster that broadcasts in 68 languages shows just what a welcoming country Australia is and our willingness to embrace and celebrate new cultures.

There is a final point I would make in respect of SBS. Like the ABC, SBS has shown a willingness to work with new talent in film and media. The greatest difficulty for young people wanting to work in film and television is getting an opportunity to pitch their ideas—getting that first start. Many of the major networks and studios are essentially closed shops that are only willing to discuss projects with established artists. SBS goes out of its way to be the opposite. It has many specific projects designed to give young filmmakers with no professional experience their first professional broadcast opportunity. Many of these projects are geared towards filmmakers from a diverse range of backgrounds.

The ABC and SBS play unique roles in the Australian cultural and media landscape. I believe both perform roles that could never be filled by a commercial media organisation. It is only through government broadcasters that we are able to broadcast to rural and regional Australia and across the Asia-Pacific, provide opportunities for Australian talent to have their work produced and distributed, allow many Australian communities with unique requirements to access radio, television and online media that suits their needs and continue to provide opportunities for young Australians—regardless of their background—who seek a career in the media, film and television industries and display a willingness to innovate by embracing new technologies and new ways of delivering news and media content to the community.

The ability of the ABC and SBS to impartially and effectively continue their important service is very much dependent on the appointment of a skilled and balanced board. In that regard I am pleased to see that this bill reinstates a staff elected director to the board. That is not a new practice but one that I believe other boards, both public and private, would benefit from. Staff members inevitably know what works, what does not and what improvements could be made, yet their expertise is all too often ignored by management.

The ABC and SBS networks serve an important role in democracy. In a country where our major media outlets are owned by private and public companies there always exists the ability of media owners to act in their own self-interest rather than objectively and impartially. Their influence over public policy can indeed be immense and I have no doubt that we could all cite many known examples of that. In Australia we have laws limiting media ownership—albeit that those laws were substantially watered down by the Howard government. We have those laws to prevent media monopolies which in turn can have an undue influence on the flow of information and news. It is an important underpinning principle of our democracy that we have diversity of ownership of Australian media outlets, so much so that, other than foreign investment laws, media ownership is the only area of private enterprise that I am aware of where limitations of ownership are prescribed in law. The Airports Act places limitations on the ownership of airports by aircraft carriers and the ACCC has powers relating to market competition but our media ownership laws are quite unique. They are quite unique for good reason—that is, because we want to ensure that they are fundamental to underpinning the principles of democracy in this country.

Over the years the ABC and SBS have generally been seen by Australian people as being fair and impartial in presenting issues. It is my assessment that both networks would have a very high level of credibility when presenting political and current affairs. That credibility and impartiality is very important to our democracy. That credibility begins with the boards that manage them.

I want to comment on the two issues that have been raised by the member for Casey when he earlier said that the opposition would be moving amendments to the question of a staff elected person to the board and also the question of whether a person who was a politician or worked in politics would be eligible to be appointed to the board later on. In respect of a staff elected person to the board I said earlier that a staff person has a lot to offer to any board, whether it is the ABC board, the SBS board or any board whatsoever wherever it may be, because there is no question in my mind that staff have an incredible insight into the operations of the organisation that they work within—an insight that would undoubtedly prove to be invaluable to the administration of that particular organisation.

I note that the member for Casey said that it could cause a conflict of interest with respect to that person working or being appointed to the board. I say to the member for Casey that there are many, many other examples where employees are appointed to either government boards or private boards, and there are many examples where in fact it is provided through legislation that employees, through their union, have an elected person on the board. Those people could also be accused of having a conflict of interest. The reality is that they are appointed to the boards because they bring with them a degree of expertise and experience that is useful and beneficial to the organisation, and it would be no less the case with a person who was appointed to the board from among the employees of the ABC.

In respect of the question of whether a person who has been a politician or worked in a political advisory capacity ought to be appointed to the board or not, can I say this: again I support the government’s position on this. I believe they should not. I pointed out earlier in my remarks that the ABC is unique in its structure—so much so that we have legislation limiting media ownership rules in this country, albeit that legislation was watered down by the Howard government. It is such an important principle that we as a nation have accepted that we need legislation to manage and govern media ownership. We do that to ensure the impartiality of media services in this country and the news and reports that they provide. To suggest that a person who has worked in politics in one form or another will change their political views, I believe, is a nonsense. We all know that they will not, or at least that they are very unlikely to. Therefore, in the interests of the nation and given the importance that we place on impartiality in this particular appointment, it is important that that provision be supported.

My view is that this particular bill picks up on a number of critical elements in terms of the whole process about appointing people to the boards—transparent processes which ultimately—

Honourable members interjecting—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. DS Vale)—Order! The member is entitled to be heard in silence.

Mr ZAPPIA —will ensure the best possible board structure for those services. It will be free of politics not only during the life of this government but when other governments are elected in due course. Secondly, it ensures that the board will be free of political interference as well, and that is absolutely crucial and fundamental to the good running of the ABC board. I commend this bill to the House.