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Thursday, 4 February 2010
Page: 429

Mr ALBANESE (Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government) (10:46 AM) —in reply—I am very pleased to have the opportunity to sum up on this important legislation before the parliament, and I thank honourable members for their contribution to the debate on the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009. This bill fulfils two important and longstanding commitments by the Australian Labor Party which will lead to improved governance and enhanced long-term outcomes for our national broadcasters.

The national broadcasters—the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, or ABC, and the Special Broadcasting Service, or SBS—play an important and critical role in Australian life, and it is imperative that they perform their functions in an independent and impartial manner. This bill establishes a statutory merit based and transparent selection process for the appointment of non-executive directors to the ABC and SBS boards. Strong boards appointed through this robust and transparent process are in the best interests of the nation and of the broadcasters themselves.

The process established by this bill will give all Australians an opportunity to nominate for a place on the ABC or SBS board and all claims will be considered on their merit by an independent nomination panel. In addition, the reintroduction of the staff elected director to the ABC board will increase the quality of the advice to the board and deliver positive benefits to the ABC and indirectly to its audience. This is simply common sense. It is well known that the lack of due process has in the past resulted in long-running concerns that the ABC, and to a lesser extent SBS, board appointments have been politically motivated. There is also a perception in the community that perceived political appointments have diminished the level of expertise which is essential if the boards are to do their job of making decisions on the range of complex technological and financial issues facing the national broadcasters.

The ability of the national broadcasters to shape and influence public opinion is significant. It is essential, therefore, to ensure that the boards of the national broadcasters fulfil their statutory charters in a manner that is impartial and independent of the government of the day. To this end, this new statutory appointment process will ensure that appointments to the boards of the national broadcasters are merit based. The government is committed to ensuring the ABC and SBS boards have the best qualified and most experienced members to assist them to navigate the significant challenges they will face amid rapidly accelerating changes in the media landscape. This merit based selection process takes the politics out of the appointment process and puts the focus where it should be: on getting the best candidates for the boards. The legislation is also drafted to ensure that the nomination panel conducts its selection process at arm’s length from the government of the day.

The second change to be implemented by this bill is the reinstatement of a staff elected director on the ABC board. The previous government abolished this position. Its rationale for removing the position was to remove a perceived potential conflict between the statutory duties of the staff elected director to act in good faith and in the best interests of the ABC and the appointment of that director via election by ABC staff. The government does not believe there is any inherent conflict of interest, and we made a commitment in the context of the 2007 election to restore the staff elected director position on the ABC board.

The staff elected director plays an important role in enhancing the ABC’s independence by providing the board with a unique and important insight into ABC operations. The staff elected director will often be the only individual with the expertise to question the advice coming to the board from the ABC’s executive. The staff elected director brings particular expertise to the board but is not elected for the purpose of representing ABC staff. This is comparable to the other directors, who likewise do not represent the communities in which they work.

All ABC directors, including the staff elected director, are obliged to act in the best interests of the corporation as a whole. In the government’s view there is no question about the constituency that any ABC director is accountable to. Their prime responsibility is to the best interests of the ABC. The measures in this bill deliver on the government’s election commitments to introduce a new merit based appointment process for the ABC and SBS boards and to restore the position of staff elected director on the ABC board. The measures will increase the transparency and democratic accountability of both the ABC and the SBS boards, will strengthen our national broadcasters and will assist in ensuring they continue to provide Australians with high-quality broadcasting services free from political interference. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.