Crikey editor Misha Ketchell writes:

In breaking news this morning, Communications Minister Helen Coonan
has announced she’s going to restructure the ABC board to improve
corporate governance at the national broadcaster. Judging by the text of
the release, the “restructure” amounts to one thing – axing the
staff-elected director position.

The staff-elected director position on the ABC Board will be abolished
and legislation to give effect to this change will be introduced as
early as possible. Unlike the other national broadcaster – the Special
Broadcasting Service (SBS) – the ABC Board includes a director
appointed through a staff election process.

This is an anomaly amongst Australian Government agency boards that has
given rise to concerns about conflicts of interest and the effective
functioning of the ABC Board, including maintaining the confidentiality
of Board deliberations.

“As the staff-elected Director has been elected by staff rather than
appointed, there have been claims that the position creates uncertainty
about accountability.

“However, there is a clear legal requirement on the staff-elected
Director that means he or she has the same rights, duties and
obligations as the other Directors, including to act in the interests
of the ABC as a whole. “

The Government is of the view that there should be no question about
the constituency that ABC Directors are accountable to,” Senator Coonan
said.

It’s a bold move for Coonan to make at a time when the government has
been accused of waging war on the ABC and stacking its board with
political allies. She can expect hot opposition from staff and pro-ABC
lobbyists such as Friends of the ABC, groups which claim the ABC has
already been getting the rough end of the pineapple under the Howard
Government.

Meanwhile some ABC watchers are asking if the move is
intended to mollify Coalition members who had opposed the reappointment
of ABC Chairman Donald McDonald amid claims, published in The Bulletin
last week, that he had become the Coalition’s John Kerr and has failed
to change the culture at the ABC.

Current staff-elected ABC director Ramona Koval sent this response to Crikey once news of the decision reached her:

Contrary to the Minister’s view, there has never been uncertainty
about the accountability of the staff-elected director to the ABC
Board. I am required to act in the best interests of the ABC, as are
all other directors, 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 have never breached
confidentiality in this role. I have simply raised concerns about the
potential for political interference.

The government’s intervention in abolishing this position while
an Australian Electoral Commission election is underway, reveals the
urgency of its desire to control the organisation.

And Kirsten Garrett, who was a staff rep on the ABC board from
1996-2000, said the argument that the staff position created an
untenable conflict was rubbish:

This is just red raw politics with an extraordinary disregard for the
Australian people. If it succeeds, the Government will have complete
control of the ABC. The staff-elected director is already the
last independent voice on the board and the accountability argument is
a furphy.

During my time on the board I found that the staff-elected director
position was of great value because of the knowledge about the ABC and
its place in the wider community that the person holding that position
has. Many other directors were keen to hear the information a
staff-elected director could put before the board. The debates and
disagreements merely strengthened the board’s decisions.

Once he or she enters the boardroom, the staff-elected director is
answerable to the charter of the ABC and the Australian community. You
are informed by staff but you are in fact an executive director of the
board and must behave as such, that is independently. The staff-elected
director is accountable in exactly the same way as other directors.

This is about clearing away any impediment to further weakening and
dismembering the ABC and getting it ready for commercialisation. The
campaign in the media of the last two weeks shows that the ABC, the
media and the community are being softened up for this assault.

Expect a long and protracted debate, but in the end, it
might all count for nought. The Government has the numbers in the
Senate, and in this case that’s what matters.

Peter Fray

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