Broadband Minister Stephen Conroy this morning made some incremental progress on the ABC Board appointments issue, announcing a new ABC and SBS Board appointments plan based on the UK “Nolan Rules” for merit-based appointments.

The complex process, involving a nominations panel (identity as yet unknown) that will recommend a short-list to the Minister, a new secretariat within the Department of Broadband and Communications, and possibly executive search firms, will take time to establish and will ensure the ABC and SBS Boards — on which there are four vacancies due to delays in developing the appointments process — will continue, in Conroy’s terms, to “run a little light”, possibly into 2009.

The Government will amend the ABC and SBS Acts to entrench the new process, as well as re-imposing the Whitlam-style “staff-elected director” position to the ABC Board. That position was removed by the previous Government amid charges that staff-elected directors were conflicted and breached Board confidentiality.

Future appointments of the ABC and SBS Chairs will be made by the Prime Minister, who will be required to consult with the Leader of the Opposition. In practice, this will mean no more than a letter advising of the appointment. Moreover, Government Ministers will still have the power to appoint who they like to the Board regardless of the process — a key criticism of the UK Labour Government’s appointments to the BBC Board. When they do so, the only requirement will be to table a statement as to the reasons in Parliament.

Conroy has also announced the first serious review of the ABC since the Mansfield Review in the late 1990s. The relatively short discussion paper invites submissions on all major aspects of the broadcasters’ direction and operation. The only area ruled out by Conroy was advertising on core ABC services.

The paper in brief:

  1. How should the ABC fulfil the comprehensive nature of its Charter in a multi-platform environment, and should a comprehensive role be reconsidered. Is SBS’s multicultural role still appropriate — and should the broadcasters’ Charters be amended, including to more clearly define their core functions.
  2. What role should ABC and SBS play in digital conversion and how can online services be used to better provide local content. How should the ABC’s archives best be used?
  3. What should the ABC and SBS roles be in promoting Australian identity and providing children’s programming.
  4. Do the broadcasters still have their traditional media training role, and could they be used to provide education and training content more generally?
  5. Should digital be used to provide non-English language programming and services to new migrant groups, and should they carry the new National Indigenous Television service.
  6. Should they play a greater international broadcasting role and how should that role integrate with Australian foreign policy.
  7. Whether capital requirements and property management for the broadcasters should be reconsidered, what’s the right mix of outsourcing, should ABC and SBS operations be combined, and are there other revenue-raising options such as charging for online content.

The review will get the Friends of the ABC in a tizzy of excitement, and form submissions are doubltess already being churned out in studies across Melbourne urging a massive increase in funding, greater independence and the appointment of Michael Leunig as ABC MD.

The review is probably as significant as that launched by Gareth Evans on the ABC’s future in the 1980s, although the Hawke Government ended up avoiding major changes as a result. It will open up the key strategic question about the broadcasters’ role in a multi-platform environment and with any luck might herald the start of the process of sacking the ABC’s standing army of underemployed production personnel that soaks up a huge part of its budget.

Expect conservatives to complain that the issue of bias isn’t explicitly covered, but of course they’ll find a way of getting that in.

Peter Fray

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