Wednesday, 20 June 2012
National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2010; Second Reading
I want to commence my contribution to this debate with a quote:
You do not just need to be here in this chamber to realise how arrogant and out of touch this government has become, with the ramming through of legislation, ridiculously tight deadlines for legislation, changing the sitting pattern all the time and using the guillotine. It is turning this chamber, which for 30 or 40 years has been a chamber of accountability and scrutiny, into a farce.
These words were those of the minister responsible for the bill before us, Senator Conroy. They were uttered on 19 October 2006, when he was criticising the then government for its application of the guillotine—a guillotine that was applied by that government over the entire course of a term of the Senate on the same number of occasions that this government has decided to apply the guillotine just in this sitting fortnight. Such is the hypocrisy of the government and of Senator Conroy in this regard.
This bill before us—the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2010—is a classic shining example of total mismanagement by this government of proper parliamentary process. Let me dwell on the last part of the bill's title: 2010. This bill was first introduced into the Senate on 24 November 2010, more than 18 months ago. I rise to speak on it as the first contributor to this debate. In the entire period of time—more than 18 months—since this bill was first introduced, we have had the situation in which the government has not managed to find the time or the will to bring it on for debate. In more than 18 months the government has not managed to find time in the sitting calendar to bring it on for debate. Despite the bill's being able to languish there for 18 months, with zero action from the government, suddenly it is urgent. Suddenly it must be dealt with in this sitting fortnight. Suddenly it warrants not substantive debate, not decent debate, but guillotined debate in a ridiculously short period of time.
It is just turning this chamber into a farce. This bill has absolutely no budget implications; it is totally unrelated to the budget. Usually any urgent legislation we deal with in this sitting fortnight is relevant to the new financial year and the implementation of the budget. There is nothing in this bill that demands that it be dealt with today. There is nothing in this bill that says it could not wait until a sitting period in which there is less congestion. Equally, there is nothing to say that in the past 18 months the government could not have managed to find a sitting day on which to deal with this bill without the application of the guillotine. Yet here we have the government forcing the guillotine, totally unnecessarily, onto this piece of legislation.
This piece of legislation itself is unwise, it is unwarranted, it is unnecessary and it is unhelpful. There is nothing in this bill that is particularly worthwhile or that will add to the effective running of either the ABC or SBS. This bill is just a small collection of political point-scoring by Minister Conroy and the government. I strongly support both the ABC and SBS. They are important national institutions. Indeed, particularly through the ABC's news and current affairs arm, the ABC will become a more important national institution over the next few years as we see the changing dynamics in the media landscape.
But this bill does not enhance the ABC's operations or SBS's operations; it simply seeks to play with the construct of their boards—no more, no less. It seeks to amend the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 and the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 to establish what the government calls a merit based appointments process for directors of the respective boards. It also seeks to put certain qualifications on who can serve on those boards and ban former members of parliament or former senior political staff from holding board positions, and it seeks to reinstate the staff elected director to the ABC board. That is all it does. That is all that is so urgent that it must be done today—just three things: a merit based appointments process, restricting members of parliament and former staff, and a staff elected director.
Let us look at those three things in sequence. First, regarding this idea of a merit based appointments process, the bill will establish a nomination panel to assist, through a legislated merit based selection process, the Prime Minister and minister to make their recommendations to the Governor-General for the appointment of the ABC and SBS chairpersons and of other non-executive directors. The nomination panel will consist of a chair and two or three other members to be appointed by the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet for terms no longer than three years.
I understand the intent behind this. Indeed, Minister Conroy has been applying this process voluntarily for the entire duration of his term as communications minister. That is his prerogative. He is able to decide to apply, as minister, whatever process to select who should be nominated to the ABC's or SBS's or any other boards however he wants to. But through this legislation he wants to tie the hands of all who come after him as well to the process that he chooses to use. That is totally inappropriate and totally unnecessary. Future ministers should, through the usual processes of government, be able to make appointments to the ABC and SBS boards in the same way that appointments are currently made to the Reserve Bank board and numerous other significant government institutions—without the type of process that Senator Conroy today seeks to enshrine in legislation.
It is not just that the process ties the hands of future ministers; it is also that the process is cumbersome, wasteful and expensive. To date, because Senator Conroy has voluntarily used this process, we know that up until 31 January this year it has cost $525,719.49, exclusive of GST, just to run the appointments process for ABC and SBS board directors. More than half a million dollars has been spent—not on better programming by the ABC or SBS, not on keeping open their foreign bureaus in Afghanistan, not on better equipment or services, and not on anything that provides a better ABC or a better SBS—on appointments of people and on the appointment or recruitment of recruitment consultants to provide recommendations to Senator Conroy about who should serve on the ABC or SBS board.
The most high-profile position on these boards was filled recently. The costs of filling that position are incorporated in this tally of more than half a million dollars which has come about as a result of Senator Conroy's appointments process. That position of course is that of the ABC chairman. The new chairman is Mr Jim Spigelman—a very good appointment, an appointment welcomed by both sides of politics and an appointment which was floated very early on in the process. Last year, in fact, when the process of appointing the ABC chairman began, there were newspaper reports identifying former New South Wales Chief Justice Jim Spigelman as the frontrunner for the position. What happened? Thousands of taxpayer dollars were spent to go through a process which eventually saw—guess what—Jim Spigelman appointed as chairman of the ABC.
Senator Conroy, if he had not been so wedded to a process which he now wants to tie future ministers to, could have said: 'My, that is a brilliant idea. Everybody seems to respect Jim Spigelman. He seems to be respected across the political divide. He would be an outstanding chairman. Why on earth would I go through this bureaucratic process, spending thousands of taxpayer dollars, to end up appointing the person who everybody recognised in the first place would be an outstanding appointment?' Instead he spent and wasted taxpayer money to get to that inevitable outcome. Worse still, through this legislation, he now wants to tie the hands of all future ministers—to make them undertake the same wasteful spending and the same bureaucratic process for making these types of appointments.
I move now to the second point of this legislation—the banning of serving members of the Commonwealth parliament, serving members of state or territory parliaments, serving senior political staff, former members of the Commonwealth parliament, former members of state and territory parliaments and former senior political staff from taking the office of chairperson or director of the ABC or SBS. Mr Spigelman is an interesting example again—because he was of course at one stage a senior political staffer. He worked for former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Under the legislation drafted by Senator Conroy and introduced into this place in 2010, Mr Spigelman would not have been eligible for appointment. That is how well thought through the process that Senator Conroy wants to undertake is. That is how much consideration was given. In the end, the one new chairperson for the ABC that Senator Conroy has appointed during his time as communications minister would, had the legislation he has introduced already been passed, have been ineligible for appointment.
Thankfully, I understand the government has the intention of accepting coalition amendments to put a sunset on such bans—they would only apply for 12 months.
'Shame,' says Senator Ludlam. Senator Ludlam does not think Mr Spigelman should be the chair of the ABC, apparently. A 12-month sunset would be a sensible thing because that at least would ensure that a Mr Spigelman could be appointed. The other irony of the approach of the original legislation to banning former MPs and former political staff is that it might knock out a Jim Spigelman and it might knock out a Kim Beazley but—you know what?—it would not knock out a Gina Rinehart. It would not even knock out a Michael Kroger, who has of course been a state president of the Liberal Party's Victorian division and was an ABC director—
Indeed he was an outstanding ABC director, Senator Kroger—an appropriate time to enter the chamber. But Mr Kroger has never been a senior political staffer and therefore would not be knocked out by the definitions in the original legislation. That just goes to show you how ridiculous it is to try to do these things through legislation. That is the reason we have to trust the processes applied by ministers of the day and have to trust that they will exercise appropriate judgment in making these types of appointments. They will not always get it right, but they will always be open to public criticism when they get it wrong.
Senator Conroy made reference to Christmas card lists in trying to define the Howard government's approach to appointments. That shows us that his motivations in bringing this legislation forward are political. He made his political points along the way, attacking the Howard government appointments. I note that it is the ABC Board, entirely appointed by the Howard government, that appointed the current managing director, Mr Mark Scott. He is widely recognised as doing a very good job. Senator Conroy seems to have significant faith in him. The appointment of Mr Kroger and others by the Howard government was clearly not so bad after all. It led to the appointment of a very sound managing director in Mark Scott. It just goes to show that this legislation is purely politically motivated.
It is the last part of the legislation, the third component—the staff elected director—that is perhaps more politically motivated than all the others. It is about the Labor Party's need, as always, to appease the unions. In this case, no doubt, it is the MEAA. In June 2004, then ABC chairman Maurice Newman cited a gross breach of boardroom confidentiality and the refusal by the then staff elected director to adhere to the board's governance protocols. It was a serious concern. It left open the potential for further leaking of boardroom deliberations and papers. Mr Newman resigned. His resignation letter stated, in part:
You may be aware of the recent gross breach of boardroom confidentiality on the issue of independent monitoring of ABC broadcasts. This, and the inability to secure the agreement of the staff elected director to the board's governance protocols, leaves open the potential for further leaking of boardroom deliberations and papers should they be judged to be of concern.
Mr Newman was ultimately appointed ABC chairman, as this issue was eventually resolved. It was resolved because the staff elected director position was wisely removed from the ABC board.
It does not happen in any other organisation of this kind. Why on earth should it happen in the ABC? That is a fairly simple proposition. Why would you have the staff of the organisation electing one of their own to sit around the boardroom table, therefore potentially compromising either that person's position within the organisation or the confidentiality and approach of the board's deliberations?
The board has functioned perfectly well without a staff elected director since the position was removed, and indeed former ABC chair Donald McDonald, in evidence to the Senate inquiry into this legislation, highlighted some of the pressures that could be faced by a staff elected director. He said:
They would be bombarded with emails from staff members about issues. I think the most burdensome part of it was that, in the arrangements then—and at least these provisions are an improvement, if they are passed—their term was for two years only and they could stand for another two years. But it meant that if they wanted to do another term they were in a position of campaigning or passively campaigning for a chunk of that time. So they had to deal with all these pressures, all these inquiries and all these bombardments.
There is no justifiable need to have the ABC staff elected director position put back in. There has been no demonstrable argument as to why the ABC is worse off because of it. Anybody who thinks rationally about it would know that it is inappropriate, in many cases, to have somebody representing the staff sitting in the boardroom while difficult decisions are made.
On all three flanks this legislation fails. It is unnecessary to have the staff elected director. It is unnecessary and foolish to go through this so-called merits based appointment process and it is overly expensive to do. It is ridiculous to define out certain categories of people from serving on these boards. In the end, you will simply create a ridiculous inequity where some very worthwhile people will be excluded. This legislation has come to this chamber to debate in a shameful way with a guillotine, but it is unwarranted legislation and really does not deserve the time of day of this chamber.
I rise to raise the views of the Australian Greens on the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2010, and it will not surprise senators to hear that I have a very different view to Senator Birmingham—apart from the early part of his speech, which I quite enjoyed. He acknowledged the value of our national broadcaster to the Australian media landscape. If nothing else, the events at Fairfax early in the week and the announcement this afternoon about consolidation, restructuring and large-scale retrenchments sharpen the need for a well-resourced, independent national broadcaster. We will certainly hear more of that from news this afternoon.
The ABC provides local and international news as well as reliable information in times of crisis and calm. It provides critical analysis, cutting-edge culture and comedy. Some of it is pretty off the wall; some of it is extremely important. We believe the ABC has a vital role to play in Australian society. Of Australians, 88 per cent, according to a 2010 Newspoll, agree that it is a highly valued and trusted institution that provides a valuable service to the community. We have long advocated for more funds to fulfil its very ambitious mandate and reach its full potential in a digital multichannelled NBN world. I acknowledge the Australian government, in the budget before the one just handed down, for increasing the funding of the ABC to make up some of the ground that had been lost in previous years.
As well as funding and adequate resourcing there also needs to be a truly independent board. The board must be independent so that the ABC can fearlessly report on, expose and explore all issues, even those that make the government of the day and other powerful vested interests uncomfortable. The events of this week that have sent shockwaves through those working in the media and those who pay attention to these issues sharpen the importance of that independence. It is not only the reality of independence that is important but of course the public perception of independence. If the Australian public are suspicious that the work of the ABC is being tailored to suit a partisan political agenda, they will be disinclined to trust its reporting and much of the value of the ABC will be lost. Senator Birmingham and I have both spent hours in budget estimates with Mr Scott where senators from all sides of politics will serve it up to the director for bias, the appearance of bias or how stacked the audience of Q&A has been on any given night. I think you can agree that those conversations are robust and that the independence of the ABC tends to shine through—at least in as much as you could say Mr Scott cops it from all sides.
Australians need, for example, Four Corners to continue to expose scandals, trigger inquiries, provoke debate and confront taboos. Australians need to know what is happening in Fukushima, which has long since disappeared from the pages of Australian newspapers. We are complicit, of course, given that Australian uranium burned in each of those destroyed reactors, and we have learnt a great deal from the fine reporting by Mark Willacy. He is simply one example of the reach of the national broadcaster and the ability that the national broadcaster has to go out and get these stories. We know more about what is happening in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East through having correspondents in those places. Those reporters need to know they can do their jobs as journalists without interference.
Unbiased journalism is one very important pillar of what a healthy and functional democracy relies upon. That is why we do not believe that the government should be allowed to arbitrarily appoint or influence in any way who sits on the board. The bill that we are debating tonight ensures that no government can seek to form, inform or influence the content on the board through the appointments process.
Senator Birmingham somewhat glibly remarked about the comments of Prime Minister Howard simply going through his Christmas card list. The concept was dismissed but, effectively, it is a process of tapping people on the shoulder to go and do more or less exactly what Ms Gina Rinehart is proposing to do to the people who work at Fairfax, which is twist the work of the organisation towards a particular editorial line. That is extraordinarily dangerous. It is dangerous in private media corporations—very difficult, obviously, for the parliament to get a grip on—but I propose that it is even more dangerous for that sort of influence to be sought within a national funded broadcaster.
The Greens welcome and support the bill. I have also long been on the record as supporting a staff appointed representative on the board and welcome the reinstatement of this position being included as part of this bill—and this is a reform that has been long in coming. When we get to the committee stage of the bill, Senator Xenophon will be proposing that SBS, our second also very important national broadcaster, be given a staff elected director to fulfil essentially the same role as the reforms proposed by these bills, and the Australian Greens will be supporting that amendment.
In the committee report I made some observations about the board nominations panel. The laudable aim of depoliticising ABC board appointments seemed to be somewhat casually dismissed by Senator Birmingham, who spoke of it in terms of tying the hands of the minister. We are simply proposing a process which distances the minister and political considerations from these extremely important positions. I do not see how that can be made to sound controversial.
The extremely important aim of depoliticising the board is further advanced by ensuring that the nomination panel is not simply appointed at the open discretion of the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The inclusion of the Merit Protection Commissioner on the panel is a good idea, and I endorse it. However, I note that this still leaves the head of PM&C appointing potentially three of the four panel members. I recognise here that there is a limiting factor of independence. Sooner or later somebody needs to make the decision, and it is not something that can completely be outsourced; however, as I stated in the committee report into the bill, I believe that it should provide for a three-person nomination panel chaired by the Merit Protection Commissioner with the other two members being the Secretary of the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and the chair of the ABC board or his or her nominee. The panel would be chaired by someone with expertise in merit based decision making, and a minority of members—perhaps one—might be vulnerable to public perception of a predisposition for selection decisions that advance the political agenda of the incumbent government. These are extremely important considerations that should not just be chucked away lightly.
The Greens welcomed the initial iteration of the bill that saw no politician or staffer being able to serve on the board. Senator Birmingham raised these issues on the way through and then elbowed them aside and said, 'If Michael Kroger can find his way onto the board, why not, for example, John Howard?' My response to that is: for heaven's sake; you have to start somewhere.
It is extremely disappointing to us that this amendment that I think the coalition have indicated has government support winds back the provisions of the bill. Why would we not want to see former serving politicians or senior staffers appear on the board of the ABC? Because, inevitably, people like us—and obviously addressing an audience in this chamber—have links, ties, memberships and investments in political parties or partisan positions that should not have a place on that board. We lament that the government therefore has backtracked from its initial position. I know that obviously very talented politicians interested in an unbiased media probably could serve admirably, but there is the impact and the perception of the impact that you are simply importing a partisan bias onto the board of the national broadcaster.
I acknowledge the CPSU's argument that political appointments are not necessarily the same thing as appointments of politicians—and I think that is fair enough. While many former MPs and staffers may be capable of making a valuable contribution to the board, I think these arguments are outweighed by a couple of considerations and I will just spell them out. There are obvious reasons for suspecting former MPs and staffers of political partisanship, whether or not they have an exclusive claim to that dubious distinction. There is a significant problem of perception, however, with this cohort of people—that is, us—especially given that the proposed selection process leaves a certain degree of executive discretion intact and perhaps that was inevitable. The communications minister or Prime Minister would ultimately personally appoint these former parliamentarians, potentially from within their own party, all the while attempting to reassure the public that it was not politically motivated and had nothing to do with politics. And of course people are never going to believe that. The group—or the talent pool— excluded by the provisions of the bill is small enough that there will be no difficulty recruiting appropriately qualified board members without us necessarily being in the mix. I urge the government to maintain an absolute ban on former MPs and senior staffers being appointed to the board of the ABC. However, should this appeal not succeed—and I have reason to believe that it will not—I foreshadow an amendment that ensures that at least former politicians and senior staffers must go through the nomination and merit based selection process. You cannot simply be imported sideways, leapfrogging the mechanisms that this bill quite painstakingly sets up to provide some kinds of arms-length situation. I hope to see support on both sides of the chamber when those amendments are moved. The minister must provide reasons for the assessment of a former politician or staffer against the selection criteria. Inasmuch as it is possible to prevent someone's mate from being dropped into a position of such importance, we are attempting to provide those protections.
The Greens are on the record in recent inquiries as having grave concerns about the ABC outsourcing too much due to inadequate funding. We want to see the ABC budget allowing it to maintain a healthy balance between in-house and external production. This was the subject obviously of a recent Senate inquiry which attracted quite a degree of interest both inside and outside the ABC. We want the ABC to maximise its potential in terms of education and creative opportunities provided by digital multichannelling. This is most important perhaps given what is happening with the NBN—so long as it is not destroyed sometime in the next term of government.
We will continue to argue for the ABC, our adored public broadcaster, which has such huge support across the Australian community and across the political divide. We will keep going into bat for our national broadcasters, both of them, helping them to receive more funding. The ABC needs adequate funding; it also needs an independent board. I commend this bill as addressing at least this latter need. I again congratulate the government for at least bringing it forward. This has been a long time in coming and, although I have dwelt mostly in my remarks on the aspects of the bill that I disagree with, I welcome the passage of this bill through the chamber.
I rise to speak on the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill. The amendments to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 and the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 were part of the Australian Labor Party's election commitments to provide a new, transparent and democratic board appointment process in which non-executive directors are appointed on the basis of merit. The ALP also committed to restoring the appointment of the staff elected director to the ABC board.
Australians are rightly proud and protective of the ABC and SBS, and this bill will ensure all Australians will have an opportunity to nominate for a place on either of these boards. All future appointments will be made by an independent panel, which will consider applications based on their merits, resulting in boards of excellence for both the ABC and SBS. This independent nomination panel will be appointed by the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. This panel will remain independent from government, and members of the nomination panel will have a statutory duty to disclose any conflicts of interest. I am sure future panels will follow in the footsteps of the current nomination panel, which has carried out its duties well.
Boards will be led by a chairperson and will consist of between four and six directors. The chairperson of each will be appointed by the Governor-General; however, in a new subsection of the bill, the Prime Minister must be satisfied that the chairperson has experience in connection with broadcasting, communications or management, or experience in financial or technical matters. Directors will be appointed on a merit based selection process, with specific selection criteria determined by the minister. Only those with the best suited skills, experience and competencies will be appointed.
The need for a merit based selection process has been long identified. In 2001, a Senate committee inquiry recommended the method of board appointments be altered to 'embrace a system characterised by the principles of merit and transparency'. The Howard government, however, disagreed and failed to act. I would like to take a moment to ponder why the coalition, then in government, would oppose the recommendations of a Senate committee inquiry. It was reported on 16 June 2006, by the Age, that:
John Howard has transformed the leadership of the national broadcaster in the past decade. There is now no one serving on the ABC board who has not been hand-picked by his cabinet.
… … …
Mr Howard's first step in changing the culture was to appoint his friend Donald McDonald as chairman in July 1996 …
… … …
Mr Howard also shook things up early with the appointment of Victorian Liberal powerbroker Michael Kroger, who parted ways with the board in 2003. Other government appointees to raise eyebrows were pro-labour-market-deregulation academic Judith Sloane, selected for the board in 1999, and former Liberal MP Ross McLean. The board now includes commercial QC John Gallagher, appointed in 1999; Dr Ron Brunton, a former fellow of the Institute of Public Affairs, appointed in 2003; and Janet Albrechtsen, conservative columnist appointed in 2005.
I am certainly not the first person to wonder just how the then government felt it was appropriate to use the ABC board as a way to reward mates—the result being a board of known conservatives. This had quite an impact on Australia, and I refer to the 'culture wars' as an example of one of the problems created by such a board.
But times have thankfully changed under the Labor government, and the ABC board is once again serving the interests of the Australian community. The amendments to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 and the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 will ensure that all appointments to the ABC and SBS boards will be merit based and this will result in strong and independent broadcasters that will serve Australia and Australians well.
I would like to acknowledge the recent appointment of the Hon. James Spigelman AC QC, to the role of chairman of the ABC. Mr Spigelman brings with him a wealth of knowledge, having served as a chief justice, lieutenant-governor, barrister, QC and as a member of the Australian Law Reform Commission. He is an author, with an interest in government, nuclear energy and history—including medieval, Australian, British and Chinese history.
Mr Spigelman has also served on a range of boards, including as chair of the National Library of Australia, chair of the Australian Film Finance Corporation, deputy chair of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and president of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. He has been awarded Companion of the Order of Australia for services to law and to the community in bringing about changes in attitudes to the administration of justice for a fair and equitable society, and to the support of visual arts. This is exactly the kind of person we want engaged with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and I look forward to his leadership and contribution over the coming five years. When it comes to the appointments of the ABC board, I am particularly proud of Tasmanian Jane Bennett, who began her five-year term in June last year. She brings not only a great business sense, with a background in commerce and management, but also a strong understanding of regional communities and the provision of communications services. Jane has made a name for both herself and Tasmania over the last decade. She is an award winning cheese maker and has been heavily involved with her family business, Ashgrove Cheese. She has been ABC Radio Australian Rural Woman of the Year and won the National Regional Development Award at the Young Australian of the Year Awards. She was Tasmanian Telstra Business Woman of the Year and was awarded a coveted Nuffield scholarship in 2008. She sits on the Brand Tasmania Council board. Jane has also contributed to a range of government inquiries, including the telecommunications industry inquiry and the regional telecommunications inquiry.
When appointed, Jane told the Weekend Australian that her commitment to the public broadcaster and its role in the lives of rural and regional Australia had driven her to offer her services. She spoke of her strong belief in the role of the arts in rural communities and the fact that she views the ABC as our country's most important cultural institution, and one which is often a person's only contact with art and culture. I know Jane's contribution to the ABC board will be extremely valuable.
I would also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the fact that my colleague communications minister Senator Stephen Conroy upheld a commitment to re-establish a gender balance with regard to both the ABC and SBS boards. This was a commitment made by the federal Labor government to ensure both the SBS and ABC boards were made up of 40 per cent women. Jane Bennett is joined by former Australian of the Year Fiona Stanley AC, Cheryl Bart AO and Dr Julianne Schultz AM. The SBS board enjoys the expertise of Jacqueline Hey, Elleni Bereded-Samuel and Patricia Azarias.
As I mentioned earlier, the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill also allows for the restoration of a staff elected director to the ABC board. Staff elected directors are important for many reasons. They have not only a strong understanding of the ABC and its operations, but the confidence of the ABC staff, who deserve to have their voices heard by those on the board. The knowledge of those at the forefront is vital. How can it be perceived as anything but a positive step?
However, history shows that a staff-elected director has been perceived negatively by some. In 2006, the Howard government abolished, through legislation, the staff-elected position on the ABC board. The excuse given was that the position created 'uncertainty about accountability' and that a staff elected director would be expected by their constituents to place their interests ahead of the interests of the ABC. I fundamentally disagree on that front. In 2006, then staff elected director Romona Koval wrote to the online newsletter Crikey:
It's a serious responsibility that I have carried out with passionate commitment. The position of staff-elected director is important to provide the board with a working knowledge of the role and functions of a public broadcaster, and, at times, as a balance to the practice of party political stacking of the ABC board.
... and it's a serious responsibility that I have carried out with passionate commitment.
The position of staff-elected director is important to provide the Board with a working knowledge of the role and functions of a public broadcaster, and, at times, as a balance to the practice of party political stacking of the ABC board ...
I personally welcome the decision to reinstate a staff-elected director to the board, and look forward to the contribution this person will bring to the ABC, which is fondly known by many as 'Aunty'.
Australians are proud of their ABC and have a real sense of ownership, as they should. In Tasmania, we have an active Friends of the ABC with whom I regularly engage. Friends of the ABC is a community organisation that represents the public's interest in the ABC. It works to ensure the ABC continues as a healthy, independent and comprehensive national public broadcaster. Friends of the ABC in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, WA and Tasmania joined forces to respond to the inquiry into the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2010 with a thoughtful submission. This group has welcomed—very much so—the appointment of a staff elected director. It is wonderful to see a group of people such as the Friends of the ABC who are representing the interests of the Australian community in this way, and I would very much like to applaud their efforts.
Neither the ABC nor SBS can function to the best of their ability without boards of excellence. I am confident that the proposed amendments to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 and the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 will result in exactly this. All Australians will have the opportunity to nominate for a place on either board, as they should, and all claims will be considered on their merits. All future appointments will be subject to independent scrutiny and the principles of equal opportunity and gender and geographical diversity will be upheld. A staff elected director will bring an important perspective and expert knowledge. I am confident that this bill will ensure that the bright future of our public broadcasters is placed in the very best of hands, as it should be. That is why this amendment has come before the Senate through the parliament at this time. Certainly the Gillard Labor government takes very seriously righting the wrongs of the past in relation to the loss of that basis of merit and by having a staff elected director on our ABC and SBS boards.
We all very much admire the input that the ABC and the SBS provide to us. We want to be able to support them with boards of excellence. That is exactly what this bill now does. I commend the bill to the Senate.
I have a number of views about this particular bill, the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill, but because this bill is subject to the guillotine I am going to restrict my comments just to the issue of the staff elected director.
I have to say that it is a bit tough when the Labor Party and the Greens impose a limit on the amount of debate that you can have here and then have speakers like the last speaker speaking for 15 minutes on this bill, thereby restricting those members of the opposition who want to have a say on this but who will not be able to because of the very limited time. I do acknowledge that Senator Ludlam did not take his full 20 minutes, but, again, here are the Greens and the Labor Party, who have passed these motions to restrict free debate in this chamber, taking up the time of the opposition in speaking on this bill. Just before I address the bill, I quote from a debate some time ago:
You do not just need to be here in this chamber to realise how arrogant and out of touch this government has become, with the ramming through of legislation, ridiculously tight deadlines for legislation, changing the sitting pattern all the time and using the guillotine. It is turning this chamber, which for 30 or 40 years has been a chamber of accountability and scrutiny, into a farce.
Who said that? None other than our erstwhile shadow minister for communications, Senator Conroy. So, just five years ago, it was awful to impose restrictions and guillotines on the debate, but today, because Senator Conroy and his Greens mates want to ram legislation through, suddenly it is quite okay! I raise those issues to explain why my contribution will be, of necessity, brief. I understand that my colleagues want to make a contribution as well.
I start by alerting the Senate to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment Bill 2006. The explanatory memorandum states:
The Bill addresses an ongoing tension relating to the position of staff-elected Director. A potential conflict exists between the duties of the staff-elected Director under paragraph 23(1)(a) of the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997
the CAC Act—
to act in good faith in the best interests of the ABC, and the appointment of that Director via election by ABC staff. The election method creates a risk that a staff-elected Director will be expected by the constituents who elect him or her to place the interests of staff ahead of the interests of the ABC as a whole where they are in conflict.
I think that sums up why this re-creation of this position is so wrong. I have not heard any debate from the Labor Party or Greens senators during this very truncated debate on why a staff elected director should be appointed. Why not have a Rugby League elected director appointed to the board? Surely a Rugby League elected director would be able to give the ABC board a real insight into not only the best football code but actually how sporting activities should be dealt with. They would have a very balanced view on the way sports should be recorded by the ABC. You could pick any example of a group of people electing one particular representative on the ABC board. This is supposed to be a merit based board.
I heard the arguments from the previous speaker about gender equity. I do not want to enter into that debate, but it is the same in this parliament, Madam Acting Deputy President McKenzie. You, may I say with respect, and the minister on duty on the coalition side, Senator Payne, clearly demonstrate why a merit based selection process—be it for the Senate or for the ABC board—is the correct way to go. Quite clearly in this chamber and in this parliament those on our side of parliament understand that what is important is merit, not gender. I repeat, without meaning to embarrass you, Madam Acting Deputy President, or the minister on duty, you get merit for merit's sake. You do not have to, without meaning to be too offensive, be like the Labor Party, who have senators in this chamber who are there for one reason and one reason only: their gender. Whilst that applies in this chamber, the same applies on the ABC board. You need a board based on merit, not a board based on gender or on staff election.
Can I say, lest people misunderstand me, that I think the ABC generally is a pretty good organisation. I think that, in the country in particular and particularly in radio, the ABC is a magnificent organisation that is balanced, provides a real service and is part of the community. I have never made any secret of the fact that a lot—not all—of the ABC journalists who hang around Sydney, Melbourne and this building have a view that is to the left of the political spectrum. That is fine; I expect everyone in Australia has a political view. What I do not like about some of the ABC presentations is that individuals' personal views determine how news is represented. I am an avid listener of ABC News Radio, which, when I first started listening to it, I thought was pretty balanced. It still is, except, if you watch carefully, you will note, in terms of where things are put in the bulletin, that very often, when the coalition makes a major policy announcement, you do not get the ABC talking about the policy announcement—you get the ABC highlighting and giving prominence to anyone who would criticise the coalition's policy announcements.
I am not one of those that goes to Senate estimates committees with a long list of the indiscretions of the ABC. I am afraid I have grown beyond that. I have been around too long, and a lot of people will agree with that comment. But I know the system and I know it will not make any difference to the way news is presented. Quite frankly, we have had some very good ABC boards but they have not really impacted upon what I see broadly as a pro-leftish approach not just to the news but also to the presentation of news that is so important. But I do not complain about that.
I acknowledge that there are a lot of ABC journalists and reporters who are balanced and who have views across the spectrum. What concerns me is when those views determine how news is presented by the taxpayer funded broadcaster. The ABC generally does a good job. Some of the news and current affairs that come out of what I used to call the 'Gore Hill mob', and out of the capital city areas, does not seem to me to be quite so balanced. I reiterate that the same does not apply, though, to ABC radio. That is my experience. I congratulate the ABC; I think it does a marvellous job for Australia. Having said what I have said, across the board the ABC is probably better being there than not being there, so that is a half-tick.
Getting back to this particular issue before the chamber at the moment, no case has been made for the establishment of a staff elected director. A staff elected director is seen as an anomaly. Why is the staff elected director there if not to represent the interests of the staff? If it is not there for that position then why is it there? If it is there to represent the interests of the staff on the ABC board then clearly it is an abrogation of the duties of directors on any board, including the board of the ABC. Can anyone in the Labor Party tell me why the staff elected director is there?
Sure, the staff elected director would have an understanding of how radio, TV, news presentation, current affairs and social programs work—yes, they would have expertise in that, but so would Alan Jones. He would understand those things, so why not also have a commercial radio station shock jock elected member on the ABC board to give a slightly different approach to the way the ABC presents news? That is rather a silly suggestion, but it is about as silly as having a staff appointed director on this particular board.
This is a chamber of debate and of trying to get an argument across. I always come into every debate with my ears completely open and, more often than not, my mind unmade. I am here to be convinced of the right or wrong of a particular provision but I have not heard it in this debate whatsoever. The coalition members of the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee that looked into this bill clearly articulated why this provision was wrong and, similarly, why a number of the other provisions relating to this amendment bill are incorrect. I urge senators to have a look at those provisions.
I wanted to comment on other aspects of this bill but unfortunately time has beaten me. I am conscious that others of my colleagues are wanting to speak on this particular bill and so I will restrict my comments there. I see Senator Edwards joining the chamber now and I am conscious that he has some things to say.
Again, I lament the fact that we are not going to be able to debate this bill as we would have wanted to and that we are not going to be able to look closely into every aspect of the bill, as this chamber should be doing. We are not able to do that, I remind those who might be listening, because the Labor Party and the Greens political party have embarked upon this curtailment of debate in what should be the house of review. After all the pious words of Labor and the Greens in years gone by about guillotining, here they are just in this fortnight guillotining—that is, curtailing the debate on—36 bills. For all that the Labor Party and the Greens might rail about the Howard government, in the three years in which that government had an absolute majority in this chamber it only time managed bills on 36 occasions. For the three years of the Howard government, 36 bills were time managed, while already in this fortnight—and I do not go back to the farce we went through when the carbon tax bills were brought in.
Remember the carbon tax bills? There, 18 separate bills imposing upon Australians the largest carbon tax in the world were rammed through this parliament in a guillotined debate. Eighteen bills, 76 senators. I think that gave us all about one minute per bill per senator. This is what the Labor Party classes as democracy. Its mismanagement is so obvious and it clearly does not want debate in this chamber which might highlight that.
So those are all the guillotined bills prior to this session. In these two weeks alone 36 bills have been subject to the curtailment of debate. That puts the lie to the new paradigm of openness and accountability that our so-called Prime Minister announced proudly when she convinced a couple of Independents to support her in her bid to retain power in this country. Have a look at this: 36 bills curtailed in this fortnight alone—great openness! Great accountability! Great new paradigm!
I rise to speak on the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2010. Those on the other side who are continually grizzling and harping and not actually participating in discussion on the issue at hand have wasted so much time that they could probably have had another speaker had they not gone on with all their diatribe. Strong and independent national broadcasters are an essential pillar of our democracy and it is vital that in a vibrant civil society there exist broadcasters whose views are not tied to and corrupted by corporate interests. It is also vital that there are broadcasters whose views are not partisan and tied to the views of current or previous governments due to politically motivated appointments to their boards.
The purpose of this bill is to amend the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 and the Special Broadcasting Services Corporation Act 1991 to implement a new merit based appointment process for the ABC and SBS boards. The bill also reinstates the position of a staff elected director on the ABC board, which was removed by coalition changes to the ABC Act in 2006. This government believes in the independence of the ABC and the SBS and it believes that the boards of the ABC and SBS should not be appointed due to their political allegiances and previous political positions.
There can be no objective disagreement with the way in which the independence of the ABC and SBS has been compromised in the past through a series of blatantly political board appointments. I want to highlight some of the appointments during the Howard government. In 1996 Donald McDonald, who happened to be a long-time friend of former Prime Minister Howard, was appointed chair of the ABC board. Mr Michael Kroger, an active member of the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party who has been in the news a bit lately, was appointed to the ABC board in 1998. Between 2003 and 2007 appointments to the board included conservative commentators Janet Albrechtsen, Ron Brunton, Keith Windschuttle and Morris Newman—and a former speechwriter for John Howard, Christopher Pearson, was appointed to the board of SBS in 2003. All these people were in support of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Party ideology.
The ABC has a duty to its viewers, its listeners and the public to ensure the highest standards of journalism, to accept that it is accountable and to ensure that it is meeting its own codes of practice. It is also incumbent on the ABC and SBS boards to be able to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the emerging digital and online environment. The ABC and SBS cannot function to their maximum capacity without excellent boards. This legislation will ensure that all Australians will have an opportunity to nominate for a place on the ABC or the SBS boards and all claims will be considered on their merits by an independent panel.
Importantly, all future appointments will be governed by the overriding principle of selection based on merit. Individuals who through their abilities, experience and qualities match the needs of the ABC and SBS will be selected. All future appointments to the ABC and SBS boards will be subject to independent scrutiny by the nomination panel, who will shortlist suitable candidates. The process promotes the principles of equal opportunity and gender and geographical diversity. The ABC and SBS provide the important function of reflecting the whole Australian community—urban and rural, young and old, and people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The appointment process for the ABC and SBS boards must ensure that the persons most suited for the position of board member are chosen.
It is interesting to note the comments of the Friends of the ABC, who, in their submission to the Senate committee on this bill, wrote:
The past practice of governments appointing their supporters to the governing board of the ABC resulted in the appointment of people who lacked independence or merit and sometimes both. If allowed to resume, this situation, which was in danger of spiralling out of control, would ultimately damage the public's trust in the national broadcaster's independence and in the integrity of government.
Schedule 1 to the bill establishes a merit based appointment process for ABC and SBS non-executive directors, with the following features: 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 national and/or 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 selection criteria, supplemented where necessary by additional criteria as determined by the minister; and a report containing short-listed recommended candidates will be provided to either the minister or the Prime Minister by the nomination panel.
There are some amendments, stemming from the committee process. The Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee report on the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill commented that a waiting period before former politicians and senior staffers become eligible for public appointment would be appropriate. The committee recommended a waiting period rather than a lifelong prohibition, and the government supports this amendment. A waiting period would be consistent with other Australian government policies such as the Lobbying Code of Conduct, which provides that former ministers and parliamentary secretaries may not engage in lobbying activities relating to any matter with which they had official dealings, within 18 months of leaving office. The Lobbying Code of Conduct provides for a 12-month waiting period for former political staff, agency heads, senior public servants and others.
The Australian Greens have suggested an amendment to this bill, which will work in conjunction with the Opposition's amendment, and the government agrees with this amendment also. The proposed amendment will mean a former politician or senior staffer can only be appointed to the ABC or SBS boards after ceasing to be a member of a parliament or a legislative assembly or a senior political staff member for a period of 12 months and being nominated by the nomination panel following their participation in a merit based selection process, as set out in the bill.
In addition, we strengthened the statement of reasons that must be tabled in parliament by the executive if any person, other than a former politician or senior staffer, is recommended for appointment by the Prime Minister or minister, as the case requires. This is consistent with the government's commitments to strengthen the independence and integrity of the ABC and SBS boards and to facilitate greater transparency and parliamentary scrutiny of the selection and appointment of candidates to the boards.
Schedule 2 concerns the appointment of a staff elected director to the ABC board, which I believe to be a very important issue. Prior to 2006, the ABC Act provided for the inclusion of a staff elected director on the board. The coalition's Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment Act 2006 removed the position of staff elected director from the ABC board. It removed the right of ABC staff to elect a representative from amongst their peers. The removal of the position of staff appointed director on the ABC board was done by the coalition purely from an ideological opposition to having staff being represented. This was a great injustice and is one which this government now seeks to rectify. The staff elected director enhances the ABC's independence by providing the board with a unique and important insight into ABC operations. I will quote once again from the Friends of the ABC's submission:
Importantly, the Bill restores the Staff elected Director to the ABC Board. The Staff Director position ensures there is at least one Board member with a sound understanding of the role and ethos of public broadcasting and an intimate understanding of the ABC's current operations. It is a sole counter should any government again stack the independent broadcaster's board.
The staff elected director was often the only individual with the on-the-ground expertise to examine the advice to the board from the ABC's executive.
The staff elected director will sit as a non-executive director on the ABC board and fall within the definition of director for the purposes of the ABC Act. The staff elected director will have the same duties, rights and responsibilities as all other non-executive directors. Like any other ABC director, the staff elected director's primary duty will be to act in the best interests of the corporation. The only difference between the staff elected director and other ABC directors will be their means of appointment. The Friends of the ABC highlighted the importance of the staff elected director in their submission to the committee inquiry:
The Staff Director was integral, for example, in bringing to the ABC Board's attention illegal ABC activities in the 1990s. The inquiry conducted on behalf of the ABC Board by Mr George Palmer QC established breaches of the ABC Act and Board editorial and coproduction policies. The role of the staff-elected Director in the exposure of ‘backdoor’ compromise of programs through external funding was acknowledged in Our ABCthe 1995 report of the Senate Select Committee on ABC Management and Operations … which was chaired by Senator Richard Alston.
There is nothing in the present act or the proposed amendments that says the duties of the staff elected director would be different from those of the other non-executive directors on the board. It is the responsibility of the board to ensure that all directors are aware of their primary duty to act in the interest of the corporation as a whole. This point was made by the Australian National Audit Office in 1999 when it noted in its discussion paper about corporate governance that a written code of conduct, approved by the board, setting out ethical and behavioural expectations for both directors and employees was a better-practice governance principle for the board of a Commonwealth authority or company.
In conclusion, this bill will make important changes to the way the ABC and SBS boards are appointed, to ensure that political favouritism does not occur and that the boards have the talent and experience to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the emerging digital and online environment. Importantly, it will also bring back an independent, staff elected director with unique insights into the daily operations of the ABC. With those few words I commend this bill to the Senate.
Today I rise to speak on the National Broadcasting Amendment Bill 2010. This bill centres around three main changes to our national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS. This bill covers the appointment of directors, the membership of the boards and a new, merit based appointment process for these boards.
The ABC is an important institution and SBS is an important part of public broadcasting also. The ABC has a budget of $779 million from the 2010-11 year—not insubstantial by anybody's account—so it is important that we have the best possible management structure in place to ensure high-quality programming at the ABC and SBS. We do not need an ABC that is further encumbered by additional layers of bureaucracy, which is what this bill will achieve.
In the very short time before the government guillotines this bill, I will turn my attention first to the merit based appointment process. The bill proposes to insert a provision into the legislation concerning the ABC and SBS requiring them to implement a merit based selection process and stipulating that appointments cannot occur unless the process has been undertaken—and so let the bureaucratic red tape begin. The bill will require the government to establish a nomination panel, which will be made up of a chair and two or three members. The members will be appointed by the Secretary to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The committee of three or four will be appointed for up to three years in part-time positions—I guess they will all receive a nice stipend.
Let us look at the bureaucracy that will be laid over the appointment process. The nomination panel will conduct a selection process for each appointment of a director. To do this, the panel will be required to advertise vacancies nationally and then must see and assess all applications against the selection criteria set by the minister. In the case of the appointment of the SBS chairperson the panel is required to provide a report to the minister, while the appointment of a new ABC chairperson will require a report to the Prime Minister as well. Both reports will have to offer a minimum of three nominations for consideration. It does not really matter, does it? In 2009, they spent $200,000 doing this. The reality is that those reports do not actually require the minister or the Prime Minister to adopt any of those recommendations. This bill just puts red tape in there and the selectors do not have, by virtue of the second recommendation, the widest possible pool of talent to choose from.
The second recommendation implements a blanket prohibition on former politicians and senior staff members, and eliminates a large number of people who may have suitable experience. What nonsense. Politicians and their staff spend their entire careers in the public domain, in some cases, dealing with issues of local, regional and national importance. It is our job to be across current affairs and understand a wide range of issues. This kind of broad knowledge provides a solid foundation for a board appointment.
Clearly, there are concerns about politically driven appointments. Everyone shares that concern, which is why my colleague Senator Birmingham, on behalf of the coalition, will move an amendment to this bill, which if left as is will restrict the prohibition of former politicians and their staff to the first 12 months after leaving. This will help prevent politically motivated appointments to the ABC and SBS boards—what rot. Unless the Senate adopts this amendment, we could have the ludicrous situation where a great candidate from any political party who has left this place could be overlooked for candidates of the ilk of, say, Mr Paul Howes, the current national secretary of the AWU, or Mr Tony Sheldon, the current secretary of the TWU, both public political figures and demonstrably partisan, and would not face any impediment to selection under the current deal. Complete hypocrisy.
The third change this bill provides is for the reinstatement of a staff-elected director—in other words, a shop steward. In 2006, the coalition eliminated the staff-elected director position on the ABC board. This was done on the advice of the Howard government's Review of corporate governance of statutory authorities and officeholders. It was done by a review of corporate governance of statutory authorities and officeholders. I repeat that because this was no lame task; this was based on a concept in Australian company law that directors act in the best interests of the company and all of its shareholders, not because they are beholden to a group from within. The very nature of the placement which is proposed makes them subject to coercion from the very people who put them there; therefore having a director who is representative of one group, the staff, at a board level does not fulfil this long-held view of company directorships in a modern corporate world.
Then there is the issue of public broadcasters who were being paid by the taxpayers of Australia. None of those people are subject to the same scrutiny as politicians. So it is a double standard. The bill refers to the merit of appointments to the ABC and SBS. These two publicly funded broadcasters have become incredibly narrow in their appointments in recent years. How much new talent has managed to get into these organisations from the commercial channels? Very little, I can tell you. Mateship might not be a prized attribute in the fractured Labor caucus, but the cronies who look after their mates in these two organisations are very much alive and flourishing. When the time comes for a staff elected commissioner, watch and see how they will inevitably be aligned with the ALP or the Greens.
So we have additional red tape, unnecessary restrictions on board appointments and an attempt to reinstate a staff-elected director position at the ABC, all unnecessary changes that will only make it harder to appoint high-calibre candidates to board and director positions at the ABC and the SBS. This bill in its current form makes knuckle-draggers of this Labor-Greens alliance and it takes our public broadcasters back to corporate Neanderthal times. In the seconds I have left before this bill is guillotined, I urge all members in this chamber not to take a step back in time and stop taking the ABC, our national broadcaster, into the Dark Ages and support the amendments. (Time expired)
Order! The allotment of time for this bill has now expired. The question is that the bill now be read a second time.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
The question now is that opposition amendments (1) and (2) on sheet 7108 be agreed to.
Question agreed to.