House of Representatives Speech- National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009

I support the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009. It reflects the fulfilment of a longstanding commitment on the part of the Australian Labor Party to ensure the independence of the ABC and SBS, the two national broadcasters. It is a commitment that Labor has been repeating for a very long time and it is a commitment that Labor has expressed many times in the face of attacks on the independence of the ABC and SBS by the former government.

I support the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009. It reflects the fulfilment of a longstanding commitment on the part of the Australian Labor Party to ensure the independence of the ABC and SBS, the two national broadcasters. It is a commitment that Labor has been repeating for a very long time and it is a commitment that Labor has expressed many times in the face of attacks on the independence of the ABC and SBS by the former government.

The bill establishes a new and transparent appointments process for the ABC and SBS, and it reinstates the staff-elected director to the ABC board—which is the matter that the member for Herbert has just been expressing such indignation about. The staff-elected director of the ABC was, of course, abolished by the former government in the face of a great deal of well-founded community opposition.

The appointments process is important. Through a transparent appointments process can be understood the steps that are taken to make appointments to the board of the ABC and the board of SBS. With that level of transparency, it is possible to establish the true independence of these boards and the independence of these very important taxpayer-funded broadcasting organisations. The problem that the community encounters if the process is not transparent, is not able to be externally assessed and checked, is that able, diligent and expert board members—people who are making a very important contribution to the management of these two organisations—can be tarnished if there is an accusation that their appointments have in some way been ideologically driven or partisan. I make the point that, whether or not there is any substance to such accusations of partisan appointment, a perception that the appointment of a particular board member has been produced by some partisan and ideologically-driven process is a very important one. Perception matters greatly in this area of public administration, not least because public funds are being used by the ABC and SBS to provide information to the community. Of course, part of the activities of the ABC and SBS are inevitably and rightly concerned with broadcasting news about politics and affairs of the nation and with broadcasting commentary about the affairs of the nation. It is for that reason that it is so important to maintain the perception that the appointment of the people at the very peak of these two publicly-funded organisations has been achieved without partisan involvement.

The procedure that is provided in this bill will ensure not just that there are merit based appointments of future directors to the ABC board but also that those appointments will be seen to be independent and non-partisan appointments. The fact of the matter is that neither the ABC or SBS is able to function to the capacity that we would expect of them without excellent boards. It is important that there be expert, able and interested people serving on these boards and that, having been appointed, they do not have to undergo the potentially unfair criticism that their appointment has been achieved by some partisan involvement.

The features of the process, at their core, are that the assessment of applicants for board positions in future will be undertaken by an independent nomination panel that is to be established at arm’s length from the government. Vacancies are to be widely advertised, at a minimum in the national press. The assessment of candidates is to be made according to a core set of published selection criteria. Again, what you have there is the achievement of a degree of transparency, because the criteria to be applied in the selection of candidates by the independent panel will be publicly known. That nomination panel is to provide a report to the minister with a short list of at least three candidates for each vacant position. The minister selects a candidate and writes to the Governor-General recommending the appointment, as is required under these two pieces of legislation, the ABC and SBS acts. As well—and this is, again, in accordance with a commitment that the Australian Labor Party made at the last election—the appointment of current or former politicians or senior political staff will be prohibited.

What is made clear from that process is that the process which is now to be included in the legislation is one by which the process of appointment will be seen to be a transparent one. Where the vacancy is for the chair of the ABC Board, the selection process will follow all of the aspects I have just outlined of this merit selection process as it applies to non-executive board appointments, except that in the case of the Chair of the ABC Board the Prime Minister would select the preferred candidate in consultation with the minister. There would then be conferring with cabinet and, following cabinet approval, a consultation with the Leader of the Opposition before making a recommendation to the Governor-General. That is an appropriate additional check and balance in respect of the very important position of the Chair of the ABC Board and, again, achieves a level of transparency and of accountability and will do a great deal to ensure that the perception of independence of the appointment process for these two boards, the ABC and SBS boards, is maintained.

As was announced by the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, in late 2008, the process contained in this legislation, in advance of its passage, was followed by the government in making the appointments last year to both the ABC Board, where two appointments were made, and the SBS Board, where, again, two appointments were made. It was open to the government to adopt these new processes, which involved the appointment of a nomination panel to assess applications in accordance with a stated and publicly known set of criteria, the nomination panel making recommendations to the minister and, at that point, the appointments being made.

It should come as no surprise that, as a consequence of the adoption administratively by the government of that independent process—the one that is now to be contained in legislation to guide future appointments—the appointments which were announced in April of last year were welcomed. Not only were the appointments greeted with praise for the very high quality and, indeed, eminence of the new non-executive directors—Mr Michael Lynch and Dr Julianne Schultz to the ABC and Ms Elleni Bereded-Samuel and Mr Joseph Skrzynski as non-executive directors to the board of SBS—but, because the government had adopted a more transparent selection process for the directors of the ABC and the SBS, their appointment was met with, happily, very little, if any, criticism directed at what would have been an entirely false accusation that there was any partisanship at all in the process of their appointment.

Probably representative of the high praise with which the appointments of these four people to the ABC and SBS boards, respectively, were greeted was the editorial appearing in the Melbourne Age on 2 April last year. I will quote some of that editorial because, as I say, it was representative of the manner in which these appointments were greeted. I suggest that the appointments were greeted in this way because of the adoption of this more transparent process. The Age editorial writer said:

THE two new members of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Board, arts administrator Michael Lynch and publisher Julianne Schultz, are the first to be appointed under the Government’s new, more transparent selection process for directors of the ABC and SBS. The new process involved advertising of board positions and a five-month vetting system that considered more than 350 applications (former politicians and senior political staff are ineligible), whittled to 25, then a panel review that submitted to the Government a short list of seven for each board.

Although conspiracy theorists will no doubt try to find political undercurrents, there can be no doubt that the collective experience and expertise of Mr Lynch and Dr Schultz outweighs any ideologies either person might or might not necessarily possess. This has not, of course, been the case with such ultra-conservative appointees as columnist Janet Albrechtsen and historian and editor Keith Windschuttle, whose presence on the ABC board is a legacy of the former Howard government.

The editorial writer went on to say:

Although it will take time for the new system to have a full effect, it at least represents an encouraging start that augurs well for the future of national broadcasting—

and they go on to comment favourably about the distinguished careers of the appointees. The new process of appointment that is provided in this legislation is an entirely appropriate step to restoring and ensuring for the future the independence of the ABC and SBS. It is important, of course, that both boards be in a position to attract the best possible appointees in order to ensure that the governance of these two important public institutions continues to be undertaken as well as it can possibly be.

The other matter which this legislation deals with is the restoration of the staff elected director. The abolition of this position by the former government was, of course, something that the former government did not take to the election in 2004. Nothing was said about the abolition of the staff elected director. Upon being re-elected in 2004 and obtaining control of the Senate from 1 July 2005, the former government was able to embark on a whole range of attacks on longstanding Australian institutions not the least of which was their attack on the Australian industrial relations system in the form of Work Choices, but what we saw in the case of the ABC was the attack on its independence with the abolition of the position of staff elected director.

We have heard again just from the previous speaker, the member for Herbert, the repetition of the complete myth that the Uhrig report, which dealt with Commonwealth corporations, that lengthy report in some way supported the abolition of the position of staff elected director to the ABC. The problem with the repetition of that statement is that the Uhrig review did not look at staff elected appointments. The citing of the Uhrig review was not a basis back then and is not a basis now for the argument that is being advanced that there is some problem with having a staff elected director.

Staff elected directors are well known in many developed economies. As this legislation in combination with the legislation that governs the ABC board makes entirely clear, there will be no possibility of an unmanageable conflict of interest for the staff elected director for the simple reason—and it is a simple reason—that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is a Commonwealth authority. It is a Commonwealth authority governed by the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997 and that act makes clear that officers being directors and senior managers of Commonwealth authorities owe duties of due care and of diligence, a duty to act in good faith in the interests of the Commonwealth authority, as well as not to improperly use their position to gain an advantage to themselves or anyone else or to cause detriment to the Commonwealth authority. In that context the provisions that do now apply and will continue to apply to all directors of the ABC and SBS will ensure that there is nothing in the legislation nor could there be that makes the duties of the staff elected director different to those of the other non-executive directors on the board of the ABC.

The arguments that are continuing to be advanced by those opposite that there is some problem about the staff elected director position simply show their desire to, on an ongoing basis, attack the independence of this very important government funded organisation. There is a long, trouble-free record for the staff elected director of the ABC. This was a position that was created in 1983 and continued without difficulty through to the abolition of the position by the former government. There is no suggestion of a conflict of interest. There is no suggestion that the staff director will do other than understand fully the obligations that the staff elected director will owe to the corporation that she or he will be a director of. The position will ensure that if for some reason the board is not as fully aware of the interests of those who work at the ABC as it should be, the staff elected director can make absolutely clear to the other members of the board exactly how important those staff concerns are.

Finally, I want to say something about how the attacks on the ABC that we saw during the course of the former government are to be deplored. They are to be deplored because those opposite fail to recognise on a continuing basis the important role that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the SBS play in our Australian democracy. They play that role because they provide to the Australian people, free of commercial interests, the news and commentary that we have come to expect at the standard which we have come to expect from our independent national broadcasters.

The ABC is a vital Australian institution. We need to defend the ABC against the attacks of those opposite, against the attacks of commercial corporations who have an interest in limiting the activities of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and SBS, who are direct competitors and through their own news outlets are continuing to mount an attack on the ABC.