Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (17:20): I rise to raise the views of the Australian Greens on the bill 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 Rhinehart 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 excluded-or the talent pool-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 inquires 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 multi-channelling. 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 with 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.