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Protecting the ABC from attacks on its independence

Opinion

After accusations of political interference in the ABC’s independence, South Australian senator Tim Storer outlines his plan to change the appointment process for the board to bolster the national broadcaster’s capacity to resist influence from Canberra.

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Threats to the independence of the ABC are nothing new.

By my estimation, since the mid-1970s no fewer than four of the 11 ABC Board chairs have had their terms cut short for failing to live up to the expectations of the government of the day – both Coalition and Labor.

Three managing directors have met the same fate.

Some displeased the government of the day; some were not up to the job.

What unites them all is that they were subject to less than transparent processes which have cumulatively led to a loss of public confidence not in the independence of the ABC, but in its ability to withstand attacks on that independence.

Now it has happened again, despite the introduction of new measures for board appointments introduced in 2012 designed to ensure, as stated by the government of the day, “a transparent and democratic board appointment process that appoints non-executive directors on merit”.

But in recent years, the intention and the spirit of this process have been ignored on at least three occasions, leading to public disquiet about the independence and integrity of the ABC.

Three appointees to the ABC Board by this government were not recommended by the independent nomination panel. A fourth was highly rated by the panel, but then withdrew from the process and was subsequently appointed by the Minister.

The National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill of 2012 established an independent nomination panel designed to nominate appointments of non-executive directors to the boards of the ABC and SBS based “on merit”.

According to the Act, the nominees were required to have had “experience in connection with the provision of broadcasting services or in communications or management”, “expertise in financial or technical matters”, or “cultural or other interests relevant to the oversight of a public organisation engaged in the provision of broadcasting”.

But the Act also enabled the Prime Minister of the day to ignore panel nominations as long as he tabled “the reasons for that appointment in each House of the Parliament no later than 15 sitting days … after that appointment is made.”

The intention was honourable, but it has turned out to be a substantial deficiency.

As Senator Nick Minchin, then Shadow Communications Minister, told the Senate on November 17, 2009, when the legislation was introduced:

“While the government is establishing a nomination panel for the appointment process, at the end of the day the scope remains for the minister and the Prime Minister to ignore panel nominations and appoint whoever they like.”

And so it has turned out to be, setting in train a course of events which once again sees the ABC with a managing director whose term has been cut short and a chair whose actions have forced him to resign.

Bananas In Pyjamas and former Playschool host Benita Collings defending the ABC as part of the Wentworth by-election campaign in Sydney. Photo: AAP/Joel Carrett

A bare majority of the current ABC Board was appointed as a result of recommendations from the independent nomination panel.

Two of the current board were not nominated as qualified candidates by the panel; one did not even apply.

The amendment I am proposing is designed to remedy this situation by returning to the spirit and intention of the legislation which set up the independent nomination panel and the process surrounding it.

It is a modest proposal – a multi-stage graduated process designed to enhance independence, transparency, multi-partisanship and public confidence both in the appointment process and the future independence of the ABC.

What it is not is an attempt to impose US Senate-style confirmation hearings on Australian democracy.

The Bill is consistent with the principles of Westminster government: the ultimate appointment of a non-executive director remains the prerogative of the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister or Minister.

The Bill requires the Prime Minister in the case of the chair of the ABC or the Minister in the case of the other non-executive directors to publish the name of their proposed appointment if they intend to ignore the recommendations of the independent nomination panel at least 30 days before the appointment proceeds.

This strengthens the integrity of the panel process and of its members.

It maintains the confidentiality of those candidates not recommended by the panel and enhances the authority of its nominations by putting them in the public domain.

The current processes for appointing non-executive directors to the ABC board may have been well-intentioned, but they have failed.

The confidentiality of the nomination process before the panel’s announcement minimises the likelihood of well-qualified individuals being deterred from putting their names forward.

It reduces the prospect that the efforts of the panel will have been a waste of time, as former panel member and former Coalition government minister Neil Brown has pointed out when his and other panel members’ nominations were ignored.

The reasons must be published on the website of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Opposition Leader must be informed in writing and invited to comment within a reasonable period.

If the Opposition Leader informs the Prime Minister (in the case of the chairman) or the Minister (in the case of other non-executive directors) in writing within the specified period that he does not agree with the appointment, the Prime Minister must table a statement of reasons in both Houses of Parliament. This statement must include an assessment of the appointee against the selection criteria.

In that situation, the Prime Minister must not recommend the Governor-General make the appointment until after the end of the 90-day period beginning when the statement was tabled in the second of the Houses.

This strengthens the current legislation which requires the Prime Minister consult the Opposition Leader only in the case of the appointment of the ABC Chair, before recommending the appointment to the Governor-General.

Following the tabling of the government’s statement of reasons in both Houses of Parliament, it would be open to the Senate to hold an inquiry into the nomination by the relevant committee.

I hope this proposed final step would never need be taken; that the modest, measured and graduated steps I am proposing would be sufficient to encourage governments to accept the nominations of the independent panel.

Should they not, the voters would see where responsibility for the consequences of the government’s actions lay – with the government and no-one else.

And that is where responsibility for the recent upheaval lies – with the government.

The current processes for appointing non-executive directors to the ABC board may have been well-intentioned, but they have failed.

It is time for the Senate to pass the modest, measured, graduated steps I am proposing so that the chances for political interference in the ABC – real or perceived – are reduced and the public can be assured that the pre-eminent cultural institution is not only genuinely independent, but also has the protections to withstand attacks on that independence as well as its autonomy and integrity.

Tim Storer is an independent Senator for South Australia.

He will introduce his ABC Bill to the Senate later today (Thursday).

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