Attacking the ABC is likely to be out of season in the new parliament. Auntie has her best friends in the bush, and the regional independents are likely to be advocates. But there is, nevertheless, important business to transact and an important question to resolve: will there be a staff-elected director on the ABC board?
It is an important issue. The ABC’s historian, Ken Inglis, has said that the staff-elected director has been, at crucial periods, easily the most influential member of the board. Former directors such as Quentin Dempster, Ramona Koval, Tom Molomby and Kirsten Garrett have had enormous impact on the organisation, arguing against and sometimes exposing various commercial partnerships and sponsorship arrangements.
You can get an argument within the ABC about whether this has always been a good thing. Garrett, for example, effectively killed off an arrangement that would have seen ABC content sold to Telstra for use in its websites — possibly the last time that anyone was prepared to pay megabucks for content online. Today ABC content pops up all over the place, and it’s a fair bet that nowhere near as much money changes hands.
On the other hand, there is no doubt staff-elected directors have been fearless and unrelenting in their concern for the independence of the public broadcaster, including at times when managing directors and board members were less punctilious.
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Although the passion may have gone out of the debate it is probably safe to say that most existing staff support the notion of being able to elect someone to the board, not least because many believe those at the top have no idea how thinly resources are stretched. They want someone in a position to speak up.
Auntie watchers will remember that Dempster was elected to the position only to have it abolished from under him, so to speak, by the Howard government in 2006.
Now, one of the bills before the new parliament is the near-forgotten piece of legislation, first brought before the legislature in 2009, that will ensure that ABC and SBS board members are appointed through an arm’s length process free from ministerial interference.
This is not so controversial. The process is already in place. It seems to be working tolerably well. But the staff-elected director position, which would be reinstated if the bill is passed, is a legislative orphan child.
Labor is committed to it, but communications minister Stephen Conroy is believed to be less than wildly enthusiastic and unlikely to die in a ditch in its defence. The Liberals are opposed. The Greens remain in favour. The attitude of the independents is not known.
Meanwhile, current ABC management and board chairman Maurice Newman are believed to be antagonistic. Newman was influential in having the position dropped. He resigned as an ABC board member in 2004 when the then staff-elected director, Koval, refused to sign a code of conduct on confidentiality that would have prevented her from reporting to ABC staff.
Newman believed the staff-elected director had a potential conflict of interest between duties to their electorate and to the organisation as a whole. That has been clarified. The present legislation makes it clear the duties of a staff-elected representative are not to the staff, but to the interests of the ABC — the same as any other board member.
The staff-elected position — introduced by the Whitlam government — has historically been favoured by Labor and the left more generally, and frowned upon by conservative governments. The Fraser government abolished it, and Hawke reintroduced it in 1986, before Howard abolished it again in 2006 because of the perceived conflict of interest.
Those in favour of the position say it guarantees that at least one member of the board will have expertise in and commitment to public broadcasting. In the days when the board was stacked by successive governments this was a strong argument. It might well be weaker now that the arm’s length process is in place, and directors with relevant expertise are the norm.
In the short term the fate of the staff-elected position would seem to rest on the attitude of Family First Senator Steve Fielding. Nobody knows what his view is likely to be, and anyone who has interviewed him knows that finding out is likely to be mission impossible.
Meanwhile, retiring 7.30 Report anchor Kerry O’Brien has dismissed rumours he may run for the position if it is recreated. He is, he says, no longer going to be an ABC staff member, even though he hopes for some role with the national broadcaster next year.