Wednesday, 26 March 2014
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
In December last year, following the release of MYEFO, the Treasurer said in his speech to the National Press Club that taxpayers' dollars should be better respected. Further, the Treasurer said that:
The days of just handing out cash, helicoptering money out, is just not possible.
With the budget fast approaching, I and many of my colleagues are taking a particular interest in the money churned through large taxpayer funded organisations.
One such organisation which might need a reminder about the ethics associated with being employed by the taxpayer is the ABC. Keep in mind that the public broadcaster receives over $1 billion a year from the taxpayer, where a reported $465 million of that is allotted to wages, super and entitlements alone. We should not forget that the $223 million 10-year contract for the Australia Network—which was twice recommended by bureaucrats be awarded to Sky News, only to be overruled by the Gillard and Rudd governments—was given instead to the ABC. So there is no shortage of money available to the public broadcaster.
Those on a good salary from the public purse should not have a problem with showing some transparency when taking it. I might add that the remunerations of senior Commonwealth public servants and, indeed, politicians are there for the world to see and any additional money or income that we earn from forays into paid journalism also have to be disclosed to the public.
That is why I read with interest last week a report in The Australian which alleged that a number of high-profile ABC employees were not being transparent at all by not disclosing income made from commercial entities. On March 17, Lara Sinclair wrote:
THE ABC’s most senior journalists are failing to disclose payments of up to $15,000 from major corporations to speak at functions, despite legal requirements for the public broadcaster to be free from commercial influence.
Ms Sinclair went on:
Some of the ABC’s most high-profile talent—Tony Jones, Emma Alberici, Fran Kelly and Barrie Cassidy—are charging between $5000 and $15,000 to speak at private events run by big global and Australian corporations, industry groups and government departments.
Neither I nor the coalition have any problem at all with that; in fact, we encourage individuals to work hard for an income that is legitimately derived. Good luck to those ABC presenters who are able to command those sorts of salaries. Do not detect in my speech any envy that no-one has ever approached me with a $5,000 cheque to make a speech! Indeed, this does happen to people who have notoriety through their well-known existence courtesy of ABC programming across Australia. However, given the significant celebrity of these presenters—which, as I say, comes on the back of being employed by the taxpayer—I believe there should be some clarity about where any additional income comes from, particularly if it comes from commercial interests.
As The Australian reported:
Lateline host Emma Alberici was paid $15,000 to host a two-day Wesfarmers Insurance leaders conference in October 2012, which at the time was part of the Wesfarmers group, which includes Coles, Bunnings, Kmart and other high-profile companies.
Alberici has since interviewed Wesfarmers executives on Lateline, including chief executive Richard Goyder …
Then there is Q&A host and Lateline presenter Tony Jones. Ms Sinclair writes that:
Jones, who is already paid by the taxpayer to the tune of $355,789 a year, according to ABC salary data leaked last year, charges between $5000 and $10,000 for an appearance, according to the Ovations site.
That is a speakers bureau site. Platinum Speakers and Entertainers agency founder Helene Greenham told The Australian that:
Tony Jones is pretty popular …
“We might have had five or so jobs with Tony.
"(He) is awesome at panel facilitation.
Some quick research also reveals that other notable ABC personalities not mentioned in the report are popular on the speaking circuit. ABC News Breakfast co-host Michael Rowland is listed by Saxton as having been used as a facilitator by a superfund. Annabel Crabb, ABC News Online's chief political writer and star of The Drum, is also used by speakers bureaus, including Claxton Speakers International. Then there is the darling of the left, columnist for The Australian and long-time presenter of Radio National's Late Night Livefour nights a week, Phillip Adams. The Celebrity Speakers website lists numerous testimonials for Mr Adams, including from a finance group, a council and educational institutions. All of those testimonials are very enthusiastic, I might say. Veteran ABC broadcaster Mark Colvin is also listed as a speaker on the Ovations website—but no fee is disclosed. Tony Eastley, formerly of AM but now on News 24, is listed by Claxton. ABC sports journalist Debbie Spillane features on the Celebrity Speakers website. It does seem that prominent ABC personalities are in great demand on the corporate speaking circuit.
Sinclair wrote in her report that:
The ABC says there is no need for its on-air talent to publicly disclose the payments, arguing all engagements are cleared with a journalist’s manager beforehand.
I wonder about the ethics of the ABC declaring itself commercial-interest-free if its star presenters are accepting these speakers fees and not subsequently declaring them.
Australians should be reassured of the impartiality of the ABC. Declaring such interests are part of that reassurance. After all, the taxpayer is forking out hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay annual salaries to some of these presenters, who, I might add, are building their profile and boosting their commercial speaker's fees that they no doubt demand courtesy of their national platforms across Australia. Do not forget, this is across the region, thanks to the multi-million dollar Australia Network deal.
I am not alone in seeking for the ABC to be more transparent. Friends of the ABC have raised concerns about the same issue. I would hope that the ABC can concede that a little clarity is needed. Perhaps the taxpayer should be demanding a bit more of their money's worth from our ABC presenters as well, given the time that they have to take up these commercial offers. I am told that some of these presenters do not even log a five day working week. Maybe someone like Tony Jones could be sent to some of our neighbours in the region—where the Australia Network no doubt rates through the roof—to speak to people smugglers, giving them the government's message that their game is up.
Either way, the ABC should be instigating a better process—one of transparency—when it comes to the commercial income that their impartial presenters receive. The public purse should be respected, especially at this time of a difficult budget. I want to make it clear that I am not against ABC presenters selling their balance, their expertise, their wit, their general all-round knowledge and their opinion. Good luck to them. I have no problem with that, provided that they do that in their own time and provided that it does not interfere with the work for which they are paid by the taxpayer.
I do say that everybody receiving the taxpayers' dollar, including ABC presenters, should be transparent and accountable in their roles. The monies that they receive from these private engagements should be made known to the public, as they are in the case of senior public servants and politicians who receive additional income over and above their taxpayer-funded salary.