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Thursday, 15 November 2018
Page: 8435

Senator STOKER (Queensland) (18:35): It is useful at the outset of this debate to say something about the existing appointment process for people to be added to the ABC's board. It is worth noting that the coalition government's appointments to the ABC board have been made not in accordance with a process that the coalition designed but in fact according to a process that was designed and legislated by the Labor Party when in government. The government has, despite having no input into that design, followed this process to the letter on each and every occasion that it has made an appointment to the ABC board. The process requires the involvement of the independent nomination panel for ABC and SBS appointments, whose four members are appointed by the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Let me take you through that process. On each occasion the process involved, first, the advertising of vacancies—or a single vacancy, if there is only one—then assessment of applications by a recruitment firm, which works under the direction of the independent panel. From there a shortlist is prepared for the panel to take to interview. Then a report by the panel to the minister is prepared, nominating candidates as suitable for appointment and making recommendations as to whom to appoint. It is and always has been, under governments of any colour in this place, open to the government to accept or reject these recommendations.

At the moment the ABC Act provides two options for the minister. He or she can put forward a candidate that has been nominated by the panel or can put forward another person whether or not they were nominated by the panel. From there each appointment is considered by cabinet. Appointees are then recommended to the Executive Council and, where a person is appointed to the board and has not been recommended by the panel, the minister must table a statement of reasons in the parliament for having made that decision.

The government has followed this process, as I mentioned, on every single occasion it has made appointments to the ABC and SBS boards. Since its election in 2013 this government has made 14 appointments to the ABC and SBS boards. Let's go through the process that applied to each of those. Seven of those have come through the panel process and have been rated as suitable for appointment. I think they would be pretty uncontroversial. Three have been reappointments of directors that were originally appointed by Labor. Reappointments don't require reference to the panel as a new appointment would. You would expect those ones to be uncontroversial too.

Four of them were not nominated by the panel. Those four, though, as you would expect for all appointments, have been consistently highly qualified individuals with a clear demonstration of the requisite skills range to oversee our broadcaster. Significantly, this government has also made considerable effort to include more women in this process. Half of the appointments made to these boards have been women, and it is worth noting that the ABC board now has a majority of women serving on it.

The government has also made an effort to ensure a geographical spread in the appointments made, particularly on the ABC and SBS boards, so that we have true representation of the needs of the whole nation and, in particular, that we don't neglect the importance of the role of the ABC in regional and rural areas, where, as you may know, Madam Chair, people depend more than they do in the city upon the services of the ABC. Historically these boards have been largely filled up with people who live in the big city centres, particularly in Sydney, and that just wasn't delivering the kinds of services that regional Australia needed.

In addition to the steps that are required for the appointment of directors, consultation with the opposition on the appointment of an ABC chair is an existing legislative requirement. This occurred in the case of Mr Milne, who, despite recent media reports, was one of the candidates that was nominated by the panel. Madam Acting Deputy President, you may recall that the Labor Party welcomed warmly the appointment of Mr Milne as chair in March of last year. In a media release dated 23 March 2017 acting shadow communications minister Mark Dreyfus said:

Labor congratulates Justin Milne on his appointment as the new Chairman of the ABC. Mr Milne is certainly qualified for the role given his extensive experience in, and knowledge of, the media industry.

That seems bipartisan by any measure, so it's worth asking: does this process need more rigour; does it need more independence than presently exists?

As I am sure senators can see, the process for making appointments to the ABC board is already much more complex and involved and much more transparent than is the case with many other types of government appointments. At the end of the day, it's fair to say, in my view, that democratically elected governments are entitled to make decisions for which they can ultimately be held accountable at elections. Whenever people in this place attempt to craft so-called independent appointment processes or, even worse, try to make them even more convoluted, in the way that this bill proposes, those efforts are inevitably proven foolish, naive and dangerous. That's so even when they are made with the best of intentions.

What seems to be being proposed here is something that looks an awful lot like US-style Senate confirmation hearings for appointments to the ABC board and that having these will somehow enhance independence. If anyone had seen the recent US Senate style of confirmation hearings in relation to the appointment of a justice of the Supreme Court of the US, one could only say that that process brought out more of the nature of the partisan than anything that we have in the current system here for selecting ABC directors. If there's anyone listening to this debate who thinks that a Senate committee would appoint an independent group, well, I'll tell you what, I've got a number of schemes I'd like to sell you! The truth is that ministers, cabinet and Executive Council are properly equipped to make government board appointments. They're accountable. Ultimately, they bear the burden of justifying their decisions when it comes to an election, and they must bear responsibility when it comes to the media.

As important an institution as the ABC is, let's get a bit of perspective here. It's not the only, or even the most important, institution that matters in this country; far from it. Appointments to its board are not as important as others to the wellbeing of Australians. Does anyone seriously suggest that the work performed by, for example, the Reserve Bank or our Federal Court and High Court or the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee—any of those—is less vital than the work done by the ABC? It's not an argument that can be sustained. Yet the process to make appointments to the ABC is already more convoluted than making appointments to those entities I have just mentioned, and this bill would make it even more elaborate and even more laborious. If you think that appointments to the ABC require more attention and more of a process than those that apply to our central bank, our highest courts or a body that decides which life-saving drugs to fund for the Australian people, then that says some really interesting and concerning things about priorities.

Underpinning all of this, of course, is a suggestion that the government has sought to interfere with the independence of the ABC, but no-one in the government has ever sought to influence the employment of particular ABC journalists, and, whilst they disagree on many things, this is one fact that both the former chair and the former managing director agree upon. But don't take my word for it; take the word of Labor's shadow minister Ms Rowland. On ABC News Breakfast with Ms Trioli, on 16 October, we saw the following exchange:

TRIOLI: …the inquiry found no justification for the view that either the then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull or other Government Ministers tried to secure the sacking of those ABC journalists.

ROWLAND: Well we knew that, and we knew that because both the Minister had stated that, and the former Prime Minister had stated that.

TRIOLI: So, so that's dealt with then?

ROWLAND: That is dealt with …

Let's be real about this. The ABC is one of the important underpinnings of media diversity in Australia. It makes a significant and important contribution to civic journalism in Australia and to the important accountability role of the Australian media.

The independence of the ABC is something that the Minister for Communications and the Arts has very regularly, in this place, committed himself deeply to. The ABC has legislated independence in relation to operational, programming, editorial and staffing matters. The government has always respected the independence of the ABC and simultaneously the ABC enjoys more than a billion dollars of taxpayer funds every single year. While there are always complaints in this place about cuts, the ABC enjoys greater funding certainty than any media organisation in this country. I'd even say that it enjoys greater certainty than most government departments that, as a regular exercise, look for efficiencies in the way they do their business. With such a significant contribution provided to them, it's natural that the ABC should have applied to it a higher level of scrutiny to ensure that they are being the best possible custodians—the best possible stewards—of taxpayer money.

We owe the Australian people no less. That's why the coalition has funded the ABC adequately to do its job. That is why, under the coalition government, the ABC has continued to receive over a billion dollars in funding every year. It's a substantial investment of public funds and it ensures that the ABC is able to continue to provide television, radio and digital media services in line with its charter. But the government also has a very important responsibility to the Australian people to repair this budget. The ABC has been asked, like all government entities, to operate as efficiently as it can to contribute to this effort. It's an effort we all must pull together to make. It is always important to remember that, in a rapidly changing media environment, the ABC still has more funding certainty than any other media organisation in the nation—absolutely every single one. It is well equipped to discharge all of the obligations in its charter. Quite frankly, in circumstances where there has been plenty of concern, in this place, in the media and even from some ABC journalists, about questions of its own partisanship, there is absolutely no place for suggesting the appointment process applied by this government is anything other than appropriate.