One of the biggest disappointments of the current Estimates process is the departure of Senator Connie Fierravanti-Wells from the Environment, Communications and the Arts committee. This appalling woman, who specialised in raising the most trivial allegations of bias against the ABC and SBS, and in making unsubstantiated allegations of the most serious kind against journalists and staff of the broadcasters, now chases the Prime Ministerial dog and cat around the grounds of the Lodge in the Finance and Public Administration committee. Truly a case of the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.
Accordingly we are deprived of the entertainment that would’ve been afforded watching Stephen Conroy, a Minister who appears to thoroughly relish the opportunities for combat offered by Estimates, crossing swords with one of the Coalition’s most underwhelming members.
Not that this has stopped Coalition senators continuing to spend most of the Estimates time allotted to the ABC raising old and new allegations of bias. Memo to Senators Abetz, Kemp and McDonald: fellas, it was your ABC for nigh on twelve years. You stacked the Board with the likes of Janet Albrechtsen and Keith Windschuttle. You put Christopher Pearson on the SBS Board. Do you realise how dumb you look complaining about bias after doing that?
The Coalition’s Simon Birmingham, in contrast, is content to focus on policy, and use Estimates to patiently tease out issues, which in Communications can be technically and administratively complex.
On Monday he focussed on Labor’s promise to end the stacking of the ABC Board. Labor, after all, had put some duds of its own on the ABC Board in the 1980s and 1990s, including union hacks and a former Labor premier. At the last Estimates hearings, back in February, Conroy said he would establish an independent appointments process within a matter of weeks.
Nothing public has happened since then. Under questioning from Birmingham, Conroy as good as admitted he’d been hopelessly optimistic in February. He is now hoping to advertise for nominations for the selection panel that will run the board appointments process fairly soon. One envisages the Friends of the ABC have their website ready to spit out bulk nomination forms for their members. Just be careful not to spill your organic chai lattes on the forms when you’re filling them out, guys.
The key point of the Birmingham-Conroy discussion remains that Conroy will still be making the final decision about ABC Board appointments (which probably means the Prime Minister, or even Cabinet, will have final approval). This is the exact criticism that has been made of the so-called “Nolan” rules of board appointments in the UK, where criticism of Labour mates being appointed to the BBC Board have continued. Conroy has been genuinely concerned to find a way to square this particular circle, and that is probably the reason for the delay.
Also held up is the establishment of a staff-elected director for the ABC Board, which requires an amendment to the ABC Act. Conroy acknowledged that the Government had higher legislative priorities and that the amendment wouldn’t be introduced until later in the year (when, not un-coincidentally, the Coalition no longer controls the Senate).
The position of staff-elected director – a relic of the era of kite-sized ties and “Export Fraser, Not Uranium” bumper stickers – privileges the interests of ABC employees above those of taxpayers, and leads to an untenable conflict of interest. Defenders allege it is the only way to ensure that the board includes someone who knows about broadcasting – which assumes that the high-profile journalist or presenter that usually fills the position would know a thing about, say, transmission and distribution of programming, or the ABC’s financial, legal or online activities. It also seems rather redundant if we’re getting a merit-based appointments process. Still, logic never troubled ABC obsessives before.
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Birmingham had less luck yesterday, slogging through the cancellation of the OPEL contract to no avail. The shutdown of the CDMA network also got a run in the Committee, but that went smoothly enough to have slipped off everyone’s political radar. Still, he is willing to do the hard slog in Estimates. A few of his colleagues might watch and learn from his example.