The Oz is tipping Australian Stock Exchange head Maurice Newman will be announced as the new Chair of the ABC as early as tomorrow. This follows Michelle Grattan breaking this story almost a fortnight ago.

This is a very significant appointment, and a good one. The message we can draw, tentatively, is that the worst of Federal Government hostility to the national broadcaster might be over, at least for the present.

The anti-ABC forces have been most closely associated with the Melbourne Liberals, in particular Treasurer Peter Costello, former Board member Michael Kroger and former Communications Minister Richard Alston. As their influence within the Government declines so too does the force of the anti-ABC crusade.

Not that all is goodness and light. Feral Senators continue the crusade, and the Prime Minister obviously doesn’t care to stop them. The attitudes of many in Cabinet range from indifference to suspicious resentment. Senator Helen Coonan does her best as Communications Minister and declared ABC “friend”, but she doesn’t always win.

Nevertheless, the “holy war” period seems to be coming to a close.

Hence increased government funding in the last budget – nowhere near enough, as reported previously, but better than nothing. Hence a reasonable to good appointment in Mark Scott as Managing Director.

The appointment to the Board of Keith Windschuttle earlier this year runs counter to the trend. That appointment, I suspect, can be understood as careless rather than actively hostile. It was about John Howard rewarding a cultural warrior more than about attacking the ABC.

Carelessness is bad enough. The Government has alternately slashed, attacked, underfunded and neglected this key national cultural asset. It is an appalling record. But at least the “holy war” mentality is in decline, which might give good stewardship a chance.

Thanks to the stacking, the Board is light on in a number of areas of expertise, including, shamefully, broadcasting. Skala was the only one with solid financial management experience, and I understand that the need for more was one of the things that swayed the decision Newman’s way.

Newman might be personally close to the Prime Minister, but he is respected on both sides of politics and his own man. As the events surrounding his departure from the Board a while ago testify, he is a stickler for issues of governance.

This could come in very handy. Newman will have a clear idea of the correct relationship between Parliament, Ministers and independent statutory authorities such as the ABC. He will also have a clear idea of what is and isn’t the job of Board Directors.

Other contenders for the top job included advertising man, Harold Mitchell, Chair of Minter Ellison, Peter Bartlett, current board member and Vice Chairman of Deutsche Bank, Stephen Skala and David Gonski. All of those in serious contention would have been solid to excellent appointments. Names like Sam Chisholm, mooted earlier, thankfully faded out of contention.

Now, Newman will have the difficult job of chairing a Board containing a mix of polemicists, a ratbag and a few solid citizens. Oh, to be a fly on the wall.

Peter Fray

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