Senate debates

Tuesday, 28 March 2006

Matters of Public Importance

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (Queensland, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

The President has received a letter from Senator Conroy proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion, namely:

The Government’s continuing attempts to undermine the independence of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

I call upon those senators who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today’s debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:11 pm

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

The ABC is one of Australia’s most important national institutions. Millions of Australians across the length and breadth of this country rely on the ABC to keep them informed and entertained. It also has a vital role in developing Australian culture and our national identity. The ABC is a national asset that belongs to all Australians. It should not be a plaything of the government. It is no secret, however, that senior members of the Liberal Party take a very different view. Earlier this month the Bulletin catalogued the deep and abiding hatred that this government has towards the ABC. A senior Liberal was quoted as saying that the Chairman of the ABC, Mr Donald McDonald, is ‘hated and detested’ by most members of cabinet. By all accounts, his crime is that he believes that his role is to protect the integrity and independence of the ABC.

The last decade must have been difficult for Mr McDonald. Since 1996 the Howard government has been waging war on our national broadcaster in a determined effort to silence the ABC’s independent voice. The ABC has been starved of adequate funding. Last October, the ABC told Senate estimates that in real terms it has $51 million less per annum to make programs than it did when John Howard came to office. The former ABC managing director, Russell Balding, has warned that the ABC is ‘seriously under threat’ and has stated that he is concerned ‘about the ABC having the financial capacity to continue to develop, produce and deliver content’.

The funding cuts experienced by the ABC have had a real impact on the ABC’s ability to fulfil its charter obligations. The most obvious area to have suffered is the ABC’s production of Australian drama. Last year the ABC broadcast only 13 hours of locally produced drama. Five years ago it produced more than 100 hours. Inadequate funding is also stifling the ABC’s ability to fully exploit the possibilities of digital broadcasting. ABC2, the national broadcaster’s digital channel, runs on a budget of just over $2 million. As a consequence, little in the way of new content is available on ABC2 and the potential of the channel to drive digital take-up is not being realised.

The viewing public and the Australian production industry are being forced to pay the price for the Prime Minister’s ideological obsession with crushing the ABC. There are few signs that the May budget will bring the ABC any relief from the ideologically motivated funding squeeze that it is experiencing. During the 2004 election campaign the government promised to review the adequacy of the ABC’s funding and the efficiencies of its operations. This was an election commitment. Senator Coonan appointed KPMG to carry out this task. The minister has now received this report but she refuses to release it. She claims that the report is a budget input. There was no mention in the government’s election policy announcement that the report would be kept secret. Indeed, the context of the commitment was that the government would give the public an independent benchmark to assess the adequacy of the ABC’s funding.

Despite the minister’s moves to sweep the KPMG report under the carpet, it has been widely reported that the KPMG report found that the ABC is chronically underfunded and is efficient. This is a finding that would not surprise most reasonable observers. Senator Coonan should immediately release the KPMG report so that we can have a proper debate about the level of funding required to ensure that the ABC is the world-class public broadcaster that Australians deserve. The fact that the outcome of the review did not vindicate the government’s prejudices is no excuse for not releasing the report. Australians are entitled to ask what the government has got to hide. Taxpayers have paid $417,000 for this KPMG report. They are entitled to see its results and to make their own judgments. The Bulletin report on the ABC earlier this month shows a government that will not be diverted from its goal of destroying the ABC by the KPMG review. They will not let the facts get in the way of their blind prejudice. The Bulletin reported:

Despite some recent optimism, sources told The Bulletin that the ABC’s funding submission was doomed. Asked if there was a chance the ABC would receive more funding ... a reliable government source said flatly: “No. None.”

So we have this pretence of a public review, but the issue has already been prejudged. This is a government that is sitting on a massive budget surplus. Reports are of $14 billion worth of surplus. That is billion, not million. The government should invest some of this money to restore adequate funding to the ABC so that it is able to deliver the high-quality news and current affairs and the entertainment that Australians expect.

In recent weeks the government has made it clear that armed with its Senate majority it is about to launch a new offensive against the ABC. The minister told the Bulletin:

... it won’t be the same ABC it is today in a year’s time; we are in for some very exciting changes.

Well, we are now starting to see what these changes are going to be. They may be exciting for the ideological zealots in the Liberal Party, but they are cause for concern for all Australians who value a strong and independent ABC. The government has begun softening up the public for introduction of advertising on the ABC. The minister went on radio and misled the Australian public, stating that the introduction of advertising was a matter for the ABC board to consider. The minister should have been aware that this is not the case. Section 31 of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act states clearly:

The Corporation shall not broadcast advertisements.

It is black and white in the legislation. It is not a matter for the board, Minister; it is the law.

At the last election, the government promised to maintain this prohibition. It was a government election commitment: ‘We will not put advertising on the ABC.’ Do not worry about your election commitments! Despite this the Prime Minister and the Treasurer have called for the matter to be examined. The government should immediately make clear whether it intends to honour its election commitment or not. Let me be clear about this: Labor is completely opposed to any move to introduce advertising on the ABC. Advertising would take the ABC down the American road, where public broadcasters have to beg for corporate sponsorship to remain viable. Advertising would undermine the ABC’s editorial independence, which has been built up over 70 years. ABC program makers must be free to take on powerful vested interests. Current affairs producers should not have to worry about offending the sponsors of the 7.30 Report.

The introduction of advertising would mean that decisions about what programs are broadcast would be dictated by needs of advertisers rather than the ABC’s charter. In such an environment, programming decisions are likely to become more conservative and less innovative. Government members like Senator Humphries have been championing advertising as the solution to the ABC’s funding crisis. A few weeks ago he said:

… the fact is the ABC needs the money and could make great things happen with that money, such as restoring services in regional Australia…

He went on:

We can sit back and wait for the wonderful day when money comes from government but it’s unlikely to happen in sufficient quantities into the future.

The fact is that advertising will not save the ABC; it will destroy it. If Senator Humphries is really interested in strengthening the ABC he should start lobbying his colleague the Treasurer to stop the funding squeeze.

The latest instalment in the government’s attempt to undermine the independence of the ABC was the minister’s announcement last week of a plan to restructure the ABC board. The announced restructure consists of just one measure: the abolition of the position of the staff-elected director. For 10 years the government has tried to stack the ABC board with its political mates to try to control the ABC. People like Michael Kroger, Ron Brunton and Janet Albrechtsen have been dispatched to the board with orders to bring the ABC to heel. There is a clear conservative bias amongst the current board. This bias has undermined the confidence of many Australians in the independence of the ABC. The staff-elected position is the one appointment that the Prime Minister cannot control. That is why it has been targeted for termination.

Under the current arrangements, the staff-elected director makes an important contribution to the ABC’s corporate governance. The staff-elected director is able to give the board an important insight into ABC operations. Particularly with the current board, they are sometimes the only person with the expertise to question the advice coming from the ABC’s executive. The Prime Minister is not appointing mates who understand anything about public broadcasting; he is just appointing his ideological mates. They have not got a clue about public broadcasting. The elected representative on the ABC board is the only person with, in many instances over the last 10 years, any experience or understanding of public broadcasting.

It is not just the Labor Party that has complained about this. In 2001 government senators unanimously—and I am willing to bet, Senator Eggleston, you were one of them—endorsed a Senate committee recommendation to retain the staff-elected director’s position. Nothing has changed except that the government now has a Senate majority. This is an arrogant, out of control government that is determined to undermine one of our most important national institutions. If the government was really serious about improving the ABC’s corporate governance it would end the practice of stacking the board with coalition cronies.

Since 2003, Labor has argued that there should be an open and transparent process for making appointments to the ABC board. Vacancies should be advertised and there should be clear merit based selection criteria. Labor’s policy provides for an independent selection panel to undertake a proper shortlist selection process. Most importantly, the selection of the shortlist would be independent of the minister. If the minister does not appoint a short-listed candidate he or she will have to table in parliament a formal statement of the reasons for departing from the short list. Labor’s policy will enhance our democracy by making the ABC independent of government. It will foster an environment where the ABC can be fearless in its approach to news and current affairs and critical of both sides of politics whenever necessary. These are the changes Labor will be arguing for when the government introduces its bill into the parliament.

It is about time this government realised that the overwhelming majority of Australians do not share their warped views about the ABC. According to research conducted by Newspoll, 82 per cent of people believe that the ABC is balanced and even handed when reporting news and current affairs; 84 per cent regard the ABC as distinctively Australian and contributing to Australia’s national identity; 80 per cent believe that ABC TV provides quality programming; 70 per cent believe that the ABC is efficient and well managed; and 90 per of the public value the ABC and its services to the community.

Just today, the Treasurer received a petition organised by the community organisation GetUp and endorsed by 42,000 Australians, calling on the government to properly fund the ABC. This is an extraordinary figure considering the petition was only launched last Thursday. Nobody would pretend that the ABC is perfect. Like any media organisation, the ABC makes mistakes. (Time expired)

4:26 pm

Photo of Alan EgglestonAlan Eggleston (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Conroy failed to make his case in any way whatsoever that the Howard government is seeking to undermine the ABC. In fact, the Howard government is a very strong supporter of the ABC and recognises the value of its services to the community. Amongst a significant section of the population, the national broadcaster is regarded as a cherished institution. This is particularly so in rural and regional areas. It is cherished for its commitment to local news and current affairs, the quality of its news services and the general quality of its programs, particularly in country areas but also throughout this country.

This government, like its predecessors, is committed to a vibrant and independent ABC. The government has no intention of compromising this independence. Indeed, the editorial independence of the ABC is guaranteed by the ABC Act, which is something that Senator Conroy seems to have overlooked. Its fact sheet, ‘The ABC’s charter, independence and accountability’, states:

By law and convention, neither the Government nor Parliament seeks to intervene in editorial and program decisions.

The ABC Act explicitly states:

Except as provided by this section—

relating to the minister’s power to direct the broadcast of matters in the national interest—

or as expressly provided by a provision of another Act, the Corporation is not subject to direction by or on behalf of the Government of the Commonwealth.

The ABC Act charges the board of the national broadcaster with the duty of ‘maintaining the independence and integrity of the corporation’. With public funding, however, come certain obligations. Just as with any other media organisation, the government does not expect nor does it demand favourable reporting from the ABC. Nevertheless, it does expect—and it is by no means an unreasonable expectation in the context of the very significant public funding that the organisation receives—the ABC to take a fair, balanced and objective approach to its news and current affairs coverage.

In order for the ABC to meet its functions and duties under its charter, since 1997 the government has maintained its funding in real terms; whereas, by way of contrast, when Labor was last in office it continually reduced the ABC’s funding, and the ABC’s current levels of funding exceed those it had under the Labor government prior to the 1996 election. In 2005-06, the ABC will receive funding of $792.1 million, and during the 2003-06 triennium it will receive almost $2.3 billion from the Commonwealth government. In the 2004-05 budget, $4.2 million per year was also directed to the ABC in ongoing and indexed funding in order to help it meet the increasing costs of purchasing television programs.

In 2004-05, the government announced an additional $54.4 million for the ABC’s regional and local programming initiative, on top of the $71.2 million provided to the ABC in the 2001-02 budget for the National Interest Initiatives program. To assist both the ABC and the SBS to meet the additional costs associated with digital broadcasting, the coalition is continuing to deliver on its commitment to fully fund their digital transmission and distribution expenses, at a cost of over $1 billion.

Labor failed to provide the ABC with additional funding for local and regional programming. Sitting here listening to Senator Conroy one could be forgiven for thinking that this government does not have regard for the ABC. The fact is that this government has funded the significant expansion of ABC television and radio services so that more Australians have access to the ABC then ever before—hardly the actions of a government antagonistic to the ABC.

The government made an election commitment for a funding adequacy and efficiency review, following a request from the ABC board. KPMG Australia has conducted this review and its results will be considered by the government in the context of future decisions relating to the funding of the ABC. The minister has consistently stated that the ABC will not lose funding as a result of this process.

Turning to the recent announcement in relation to the restructuring of the ABC board, it certainly should not be characterised as an attack on the independence of the ABC. The decision to abolish the staff-elected director position on the ABC board represents an initiative to improve the national broadcaster’s corporate governance. The government believes that the concept of a board director elected by a particular group is an anachronism that does not accord with modern requirements for corporate governance, and is certainly not common on other Commonwealth government agency boards.

The position of a staff-elected director on the ABC board creates undue uncertainty about accountability when you bear in mind that directors are required to act in the best interests of the ABC as a whole, not just in the interests of a particular constituency. There is an inherent conflict of interest between the clear legal duty of a director to act in good faith and in the interests of the ABC, and being elected by staff who may primarily expect the staff-elected director to represent their interests rather than the interests of the ABC as a whole.

On a practical level, this has led to difficulties in respect of board confidentiality and lack of commitment to a revised board protocol that deals with handling of confidential information. The difficulties arising out of the staff-elected director position have previously been raised by departing board members and in 2004 led to the resignation from the board of Mr Maurice Newman. The abolition of the position certainly does not mean that the board and management of the ABC will not take employee interests into account, but there are ways of doing this without having a specific staff-elected position on the board. In particular, the Managing Director of the ABC, who is a full member of the board, is more than capable of making employee interests known to the board.

The government does not support advertising on the ABC in the 2006-09 triennium. It will be up to the ABC board in the future to consider whether to approach the government about advertising on the ABC, and the government would need to be persuaded to make the necessary legislative amendments that would permit this. In doing this, the government would need to consider if advertising would be consistent with the ABC’s charter, as well as its impact on commercial broadcasters. I have to say that I do not think Senator Conroy has made his case at all that the Howard government has sought to undermine the ABC. To the contrary, I think the case has been made that the government has consistently supported the ABC and will continue to do so in recognition of the great service it provides to the Australian community.

4:36 pm

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

We need to turn our minds back to the reason the ABC was established in the first place. It was established for two prime reasons. The first was that the commercial media could not be relied on to make the full and proper investment that was necessary to deliver services to much of Australia. That is still a problem today, despite the improvement in technology. The second reason, of course, was to ensure, as far as possible, that there was an independent voice which was not governed by commercial imperatives and which would not carry on the biased and somewhat superficial approach to news and current affairs that was and is a characteristic of some of the commercial media.

The ABC is not just an important part of our telecommunications and media network—the information gathering and disseminating network—it is a very important social and political counterpoint to the big business attitudes that often determine how our main commercial media report. It is therefore an important part of our democracy. The ABC provides a lifeline to, in particular, regional Australia, with informed current affairs reporting, vital contributions to Australian culture and the provision of Australian content. It also makes a contribution to a proud Australian nationalism and the expression of the Australian character.

However, ABC operational funding has declined by 30 per cent since 1985-86 under both Labor and coalition governments. In 1996, the coalition cut funding by 12 per cent. This has never been restored. ABC funding has been cut far more in relative terms than any other major area of government expenditure. The ABC is finding it difficult to maintain core services like news and current affairs at the level and to the depth required. Cheaper programs therefore end up replacing quality and more expensive, long-term programs. Australian content ends up falling and repeats become increasingly common. Those sorts of results directly attack the ABC charter and its basis of operation.

Many Australians are concerned that current affairs shows such as Four Corners and iconic children’s programs such as Play School might go without adequate funding. Already the ABC production of local drama has fallen from 102 hours in 2001 to just 20 hours in 2005 as a result of underfunding. A recent KPMG audit of the ABC, commissioned by the government, has found that the ABC is efficient but severely underfunded. Rather than spend a small part of the estimated $14 billion surplus on adequately funding the ABC and providing a service that Australians do value, the government is talking about allowing advertising on the ABC—not in the immediate future but in the long-term future. That would be a mistake because it would introduce commercial imperatives and suppress a fully independent operation. That is a government view which should not prevail in the future. Public funding means that the ABC does not have the commercial pressures of other broadcasters, allowing the ABC to provide diverse programming and maintain independence and journalistic integrity without fear or favour. The ABC should not be in the business of selling junk food to kids or motor cars to adults.

Last Thursday, GetUp and the MEAA launched a petition calling on the Treasurer and finance minister to grant the moderate funding requested by the ABC in their triennial budget submission. They set a target of 10,000 signatures. Within 12 hours they smashed their target, and within four working days they had received 41,270 signatures. The overwhelming response to the petition demonstrates the sense in the community—ordinary Australians—of how committed people are to this cherished institution and to it remaining independent and well funded. We are also concerned about Minister Coonan’s decision to remove the staff elected ABC board member. We think this decision is bad politics, bad public policy and bad corporate governance. (Time expired)

4:41 pm

Photo of Dana WortleyDana Wortley (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak about a matter of public importance which affects one of the great public institutions of Australia—the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the ABC, the people’s ABC. It is now an endangered species and has been since the election of the Howard government. The ABC as we have known it is moving closer and closer towards extinction in the hands of this government. Since 1996, the government has starved the national broadcaster of funding. In real terms today, the ABC has $51 million less for making programs than it did when the Howard government came to office. The ABC is so starved of funds that it now rates as the second most underfunded public broadcaster in the OECD. Despite this, the ABC provides two television stations, four national and 60 local radio stations, two digital radio stations, ABC Online and Radio Australia—all of these public broadcasting activities on a budget about two-thirds of the average Australian commercial television network.

On 2003-04 numbers, the ABC’s annual budget for television alone is less than a third of Channel Nine’s, 40 per cent of Seven’s and 58 per cent of Ten’s. These figures speak volumes about the desperate situation facing the ABC today. The filtration effect on programming is startling. In recent years, the development of first-run Australian drama has dropped from 103 hours to just 13. Last year, the Australian content on the ABC was around 43 hours—nowhere near the 200 hour mark which is the obligation of television broadcasters in Australia. There would no doubt be people in this country who have been listening to and watching the ABC for over 70 years. When the programming slips to such critical levels, people notice. People notice these things. Those who work at the ABC notice these changes too. Given the seriousness of these facts, it would come as no surprise that even the members of the board are very concerned about this issue.

In the board of directors’ statement in the ABC’s annual report of 2005 under the ‘financial sustainability’ heading it reads:

A growing gap now exists between the funding provided and that which is needed to maximise the potential of ABC programs ... in the new digital environment.

It goes on to say in the closing section of the board’s statement:

A critical point has been reached. Unless adequate funding is secured for the coming triennium, the Board will be faced with a range of fundamental questions about the extent and quality of ABC programming and services.

The board’s statement almost reads like an extract from what we could have expected from Burke and Wills’ diary: ‘Save us, and save us now, before it is too late!’ Last year the minister was generous enough to throw a small lifeline to the ABC when she commissioned KPMG to investigate and review funding adequacy and efficiency at the ABC. So the minister is obviously conscious of the problem. We now hear that the report did not exactly tell the minister what she wanted to hear. And, though the minister has had the report for some weeks, it still has not been released. I ask the government: when will you be prepared to release the report, or does the minister intend sitting on the report indefinitely?

Given the $417,000 of taxpayers’ money that the KPMG report cost, we can only presume that the government intends to use its findings in conjunction with the ABC’s submission in the May budget. This is the opportunity for the government to restore adequate funding to the ABC so that our ABC is able to deliver the high-quality news, current affairs and entertainment that the Australian public not only expect but deserve. The Australian public will be waiting for the outcome of that May budget.

It would, however, be unfair to suggest that the Howard government and Senator Coonan have not brainstormed some solutions to the funding crisis of the ABC. I refer to an interview in the Bulletin where Minister Coonan said she was considering including commercial advertising. The minister said when asked about advertising on the ABC:

... these are some of the things that I mean the board might like to look at—as to just what they want to do with advertising, what they want to do about commercialising ...

I would like to now refer you to the ABC Act, where in section 31 it states, ‘The corporation shall not broadcast advertisements.’ This suggestion that the board consider a change, which is clearly contradictory to the act, must be of concern to the Australian public.

At the last election the government promised to maintain its position on advertising prohibition for our national broadcaster. Is the Howard government going to honour this election promise, or is it a case of ‘Senate majority so we’ll push this one through too’? That is the first thing I would say about advertising. The second is, and this should be pretty obvious, the ABC has built its reputation as a unique, innovative, independent and diverse broadcaster largely due to the absence of commercial influence. Diversity and independence of institutions such as the ABC are critical elements in maintaining our culture, in maintaining our traditions and in showing newcomers to our land about the great features that make us a great society.

The ABC also has a significant role in observing the operation of government and reporting on this to the Australian public. This is an essential part of the main democratic principles that built our society. Without doubt, advertising on the ABC would eventually compromise its editorial independence. The mums and dads are already asking questions about what it would mean for ABC children’s television. How long would it be before we would find advertising sneaking into children’s programming? Our ABC with Coke and McDonald’s interrupting Play School and Bananas in Pyjamas every 10 minutes—not our ABC, Minister!

Only last Friday, the minister announced another move by the government to impose its influence on our ABC. Senator Coonan announced during the Commonwealth Games that the Howard government intended to abolish the position of staff-elected director on the board of the ABC. This position gives the staff at the ABC a presence within the board’s corporate governance. This position of staff-elected director gives the ABC board a vital insight into the operations of the day-to-day employees. Interestingly enough, in the 2001 report of the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts References Committee entitled Methods of appointment to the ABC board, in response to a recommendation, government senators stated:

There has been no suggestion that the position of the staff-elected director will be abolished.

Now the government have changed their mind. It changed with the Senate majority. And, let us be clear, this is the one position left on the ABC board that the government cannot control. So if you cannot control it, what do you do if you are the Howard government? Answer: you get rid of it.

Labor believes that there should be an open and transparent process for making appointments to the ABC board. At the present time, the staff-elected position is the one position that fulfils this criterion. Today, Sydney performer and Alliance New South Wales secretary Penny Cook presented the minister with a 40,000-person petition seeking greater funding for the ABC. So great is the support from the public for increased funding for the ABC that it took only four days to acquire this significant response.

There is no doubt that community support for the ABC exists. Senator Eggleston told us that the ABC’s independence is guaranteed by the act. This is a fact. I have already stated the act also prohibits broadcast advertisements, but Senator Coonan has cast serious doubt on this continuing to be the case. Adequate funding would enable the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to deliver sufficient first-release Australian television drama, documentaries and children’s programming. It would enable it to deliver enhanced levels of local television and radio news, current affairs and sports coverage for people living in metropolitan, rural and remote areas. (Time expired)

4:51 pm

Photo of Michael RonaldsonMichael Ronaldson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will just make an initial remark on some of the comments from the other side: again we are seeing an example of the Australian Labor Party bowing to their political masters. But I am not going to spend the next eight minutes confirming what is an obvious fact.

I read with interest today the editorial from the Age. It said, talking about the ABC:

It must be free to scrutinise critically government and civil society. It must be able to produce drama that expresses Australian life and should be able to cater for a broader range of interests than is covered by commercial networks.

Those are sentiments that I do not disagree with, but the words that I think should be in that editorial are ‘objectivity’ and ‘without bias’.

I noted with some interest comments from Senator Conroy in relation to people’s views of the ABC. I thought I would quickly advise the Senate of the obvious bias that is involved in the ABC—a matter that I have raised at Senate estimates before. It is clearly an ingrained and systemic problem at the ABC. Exemplifying this are the views of a former ABC TV Four Corners producer who, in a letter to the Age newspaper recently, wrote:

It is necessary and essential for the ABC to always be left of centre—whichever government is in power.

Those are undoubtedly views held by those within the ABC.

But I thought it would be of more interest, in the limited time available to me, to talk about a recent publication of the Melbourne University Press which included an independent study by the RMIT, Roy Morgan and the Reader on how journalists view the Australian media in terms of bias. In answer to the question ‘Which media outlet is the most biased?’ 25 per cent nominated the ABC. Twenty-five per cent of Australian journalists think that the ABC is the most biased media outlet in Australia, and, as a whole, Australian journalists rate the ABC as the second most biased media outlet.

The real issue today is about corporate governance and whether the Australian Labor Party is prepared to admit that the ABC should accept, as every other organisation and company throughout this country has accepted—quite rightly in my view and, I assume, in that of the Australian Labor Party—that good corporate governance underpins any organisation, whether it be a state owned organisation such as the ABC or whether it be a publicly listed or private company. Under this government, this country has insisted that we as a nation have appropriate corporate governance requirements, and a lot of this has come through the CLERP legislation. In fact we are now emphatic about it and, in my view, quite rightly so. It is not good corporate governance to argue that you should have a director on the ABC board who is representing sectional interests only. It is not appropriate and, under legislation passed by both chambers, that has been confirmed.

I am sure that one of my colleagues referred to the Uhrig review of 2003, which dealt with the corporate governance of statutory authorities and office holders and concluded:

… representational appointments can fail to produce … objective views. There is the potential for these appointments to be primarily concerned with the interests of those they represent, rather than the success of the entity they are responsible for governing.

Regrettably there is no greater example of that than one of the now retiring board members of the ABC who refused to sign a confidentiality agreement. Under the laws of this land, that particular board member actually had no choice about whether they maintained the confidentiality of the board. That was not an option. They were required to. What had happened was that this particular board member—who, quite frankly, I think had probably exposed herself to other matters—went out and breached board confidentiality, acknowledged the fact and refused point blank to tell that board that she would in the future maintain that confidentiality.

That is what corporate governance surely is about. Presumably—I do not know; I was not in the Senate at that stage—all the corporate governance legislation and the CLERP legislation under which some of it falls was supported by the Australian Labor Party. Are they turning around and telling us today that it is appropriate everywhere else except the ABC—that the ABC is quarantined from good corporate governance? That seriously cannot be the argument, but that is what it is. In a passionate desire to again support those who support them financially, they are prepared to throw out any requirements for good corporate governance, to support the ABC unions.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You’re just making this up.

Photo of Michael RonaldsonMichael Ronaldson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

If that is where you want to go, why don’t you just acknowledge it? Why do you think Maurice Newman resigned from the board? Maurice Newman resigned from the board because Maurice Newman could not be satisfied and was not confident that the matters that were discussed at that board would remain within that board.

I rather suspect there would be very few on the other side of the chamber who have actually sat on the board of a publicly listed company. I have. I sat on the corporate governance subcommittee of that company and I saw first hand, month after month, the corporate governance requirements of that publicly listed company.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Which one was it?

Photo of Michael RonaldsonMichael Ronaldson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It was Berklee mufflers in Ballarat. That is on the public record and there are a lot of photos of me in directors’ reports, so I am not hiding anything. I was on that corporate governance committee and I can tell you now that the corporate governance requirements for that company and for companies throughout this country do not entitle you to have a sectional interest representative. It begs the question: if it is so important for the ABC, why wasn’t it so important for SBS? Why didn’t you insist on it with SBS? (Time expired)

5:00 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to support the motion moved by Senator Conroy concerning the independence of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. For all the shouting of Senator Ronaldson I hardly think someone with broadcast experience being on the board of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation can be described as a sectional interest. It is a novel idea that the only person left on the board with broadcasting experience should be determined to be a person with a sectional interest.

It is very clear that under this government—under the Howard government—the ABC has been seen as one of the last stalwarts of our democracy. That is because the ABC does reflect some sort of critical assessment of our democracy and civil society, and for that crime—for being a bulwark for public service values, for being a bulwark for the community and for the values that Australia holds dear: freedom of speech, independent opinion, fairness, tolerance and justice—it is deemed to be biased. It is because the Howard government regards the ABC as being biased—because it does not share the values of the Howard government—that there has been this attack on the ABC and the removal of the staff representative from the board.

This has been a systemic attack since the Howard government came to power, beginning with reducing funding which has meant that there has been a retreat from the regions. We have lost the capacity for the ABC to broadcast news from the regions, especially at weekends. There has been a move which has resulted in the reduction of hours of Australian drama on the ABC, and the reduction in funding has meant the removal of the last independent person on the board. This will make way for the government to introduce advertising to the ABC which, in turn, will lead to the advertising and promotion of junk food, big car advertisements and all the advertisements of corporate Australia, which will undermine the capacity of the ABC to do its job, which is, in fact, to provide some independent journalism in Australia.

The abhorrent thing with the Howard government is that the very people who stand with the flag, who wear the wattle and who swear that they are the one and true upholders of the nation are the ones who have systemically undermined the independence and the traditions of every single institution from the judiciary through to the ABC. That is precisely what is going on here with this government attack on the ABC. We all know that in the new digital environment the capacity to broadcast and multichannel is going to be very expensive and so, by giving the ABC the right to do it and then taking away the funding capacity to do it, this is the Howard government’s way of undermining the capacity of the ABC to cover the media landscape that is required to give effect to its charter—to inform the country and be a national broadcaster for all Australians.

The ABC is our ABC. It belongs to the people. It does not belong to the Howard government but worse still, it does not belong to the radical philosophy of the Howard government which has led to this huge gap between the rich and the poor in this country, which has seen a bias in favour of privatisation and individualism, a loss of interest in the public interest and of acting in the public interest. The ABC acts in the public interest. The independent board member—the staff representative—should remain on that board and the government should desist from badgering and intimidating people associated with the ABC and accusing them of bias.

If there is a bias in this country it is the bias that the Howard government brings to all our national institutions and undermines our strength in terms of freedom of speech and freedom of association in this country. I want the ABC to stay independent. I want it to stay as our national broadcaster reflecting this whole country and not be forced into commercial advertising like other commercial television in this country. I want it to be what the Australian community wants it to be, and that is the voice of Australia, not the voice of the narrow values of the Howard government.

5:05 pm

Photo of Nigel ScullionNigel Scullion (NT, Country Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I must say I have been absolutely astonished by some of the submissions from the other side and from the crossbenches. I understand that they are trying to make the argument that this government is continuing its attempts to undermine the independence of the ABC. We have had phrases like ‘deep and abiding hatred,’ and ‘Donald McDonald is hated by cabinet’. A federal cabinet minister, Amanda Vanstone, was sitting right here and she said, ‘Not by me.’ Of course there is no evidence to support this. This is just conjecture—the normal rubbish of those people who are just trying to wage some pathetic, desperate attempt to undermine the Howard government’s excellent record in most areas.

People talk generally about significant taxpayer funding. I remind this place that in the triennium 2003-06, $2.3 billion was provided, and $793 million was provided this year. We provided an extra $4.2 million over and above what we extended—a bonus. We have assisted the ABC in every way, particularly with the increase in program purchasing funding which actually went up to $54 million over the last three years. It is ironic that those on the other side should stand in this place and somehow make the tie between removing the independence of the ABC and a lack of funding. The single largest drop in the funding for the ABC was in the late eighties and nineties and that happened under Labor.

I would have to concede that, if you look closely at the history, in 1996 there was a drop in funding for the ABC under this government—as there was across every single agency to try to deal effectively with the black hole, economically, that was left by the Labor government. I concede that. But from that point, historically, the funding for the ABC has continued to grow and in fact, right at the moment, it enjoys a level that it never enjoyed under the Labor Party.

We talked about a review. People have been spinning these reviews around the place here today. We have had a review. We constantly review particularly the efficiency and adequacy of funding. It is interesting to note statements about independence. We actually ensured that the terms of reference were drafted in consultation with the ABC. We ensured that we consulted with this particular broadcaster and that the terms of reference were what they considered appropriate to consider the adequacy and efficiency of that funding. We engaged an external consultant from KPMG. Again, we have propriety, transparency and facts rather than silly and fatuous conjecture from the other side.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It’s secret! When are we going to see it?

Photo of Nigel ScullionNigel Scullion (NT, Country Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The review will be announced in time. Of course, this will take into account ABC’s 2006-07 funding. Those on the other side may notice the date—it is not around the time that one would normally make those announcements, which is towards the end of June, but watch this space. The minister has said time and time again—and he has proved to be correct—and, since 1996, this government has said time and time again that the ABC will not lose funding.

We have from the other side this very poor argument, I have to say, that somehow getting rid of a staff-elected director undermines the independence of the ABC. There have been a number of independent reviews. We have already heard about the Uhrig review from my colleague Senator Ronaldson. I will quote from it. This is an independent review about good governance. It says:

... representational appointments can fail to produce ... objective views. There is the potential for these appointments to be primarily concerned with the interests of those they represent, rather than the success of the entity they are responsible for governing.

I have no problems with that at all. In fact, I can see the difficulty. If I were elected to represent the staff, that is what I should be doing there. Clearly, there would be a conflict of interest. If I were elected to represent the staff of the ABC, my view would be that I should represent their interests and not those of the body I should be representing—that is, the entire board of the ABC. That is why we have such governance arrangements in place. We can ensure that this conflict of interest cannot continue.

Of course, in that environment we had people like Maurice Newman. Mr Newman has resigned. Mr Newman, I would have thought, had a fair bit of credibility in terms of good corporate governance. At the time I understand that he was chairman of the Australian Stock Exchange. That is not something that you would say was just a small organisation which turned over the odd buck. You would have to be very cognisant of the propriety of those processes. Of course, he had to resign simply because he will not be associated with an organisation that cannot show that transparency and good governance. He has a reputation to uphold. So he got out. I can tell you now and I can advise those on the other side that you cannot come by people of that calibre every day. People on the other side are saying that somehow someone of that calibre is a government crony or someone we ring in. Decrying the good name of those sorts of people does neither them nor the people they accuse of poor behaviour any good.

This whole notion that you actually need an elected board member is just absolute nonsense. The managing director of the ABC is the managing director. We have had Senator Conroy on the other side say that the elected director is the only person who can have any clue about broadcasting or the ABC and how it runs. Of course, the facts of the matter are deliberately ignored. I think this is completely misleading. On the ABC board in fact we do have the managing director. The managing director has full knowledge of those matters. He is always a conduit between staff, management and the board.

I think that this line of debate, which has somehow tried to put forward this notion that the government has undermined the independence of the ABC, has fallen absolutely flat on its face. We have ensured that we have maintained the independence of the ABC by ensuring that there are no sectoral interests there to control it. Those people who are on that board are not there to look after the interests of a sectoral group. They are paid by the Australian people to look after their interests and that is what they should do. In terms of the commercialisation of the ABC, all I would say is that you should not look to this side; you should look to history. The Labor Party is on very shaky ground. In 1991, with the SBS Act, they were the ones to introduce limited advertising on SBS.

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The time for the debate has expired.