King Zog of Albania spent a record 54 years in exile. Quentin Dempster, the ABC television presenter and journalist, must be beginning to know how he felt. Dempster easily won the ABC staff-elected director position in 2006 but, almost seven years later, is yet to take up his seat on the board.

The background to this saga includes an excursion into the vindictive ideological zeal of the Howard government in its dying days. But it also demonstrates the apparent incapacity — or unwillingness — of Labor to then restore a sensible element in the governance of our national public broadcaster.

The notion of letting the ABC staff elect someone to serve as a commissioner (later director) was a classic Whitlam-era brainwave. The first successful candidate, in 1975, was Marius Webb, who campaigned on the slogan “the board only knows what it’s told” — and defeated the late Richard Carleton in the process. Soon after the Fraser government abolished the position. Then Hawke — ever-mindful of his trade union support — resurrected it a decade later.

For the next 20 years a succession of committed and well-credentialed ABC staffers filled the Staff Elected Director (SED) role. Their contribution to board decision-making was often crucial. Not only were they a reliable conduit for staff concerns, but they could also offer the government-appointed directors useful practical knowledge of broadcasting practice. Senior management hated this informed scrutiny, but there’s no doubt SED intervention saved the ABC from many potential disasters.

All that came to a hasty full stop in 2006 when Howard’s last minister for communications, Senator Helen Coonan, rammed through an amendment to the ABC Act that abolished the post. Outgoing SED Ramona Koval’s rather fractious term was about to expire, and the Coalition wanted to have that chair at the board table removed before the newly elected director, Quentin Dempster, had a chance to sit in it.

The reduction of Dempster to director-in-exile status made good sense for the Howard government and its conservative majority of ABC board appointments. He’d been a tireless anti-commercialism, pro-independence polemicist who never hesitated to exploit his public-speaking invitations to champion those causes. Worse, he was a unionist.

In the run-up to the Kevin 07 federal campaign, the Commonwealth Public Sector Union — which represents the ABC’s non-journalistic staff — extracted a promise from Labor’s shadow minister for communications Stephen Conroy that, if elected, it would restore the SED position. That principle was confirmed in the ALP platform. But we’re still waiting.

Why? Well, the wheels of government turn exceeding slow, especially if that government doesn’t command a majority in the Senate.

Eventually, in October 2009, the promised amendment to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act was appended as schedule two of a bill to establish a merit-based appointment process for the appointment of non-executive directors to the boards of the ABC and SBS (another Labor election promise). That bill passed the House of Representatives in 2010 but the Senate — where the government was then at the mercy of the independents — shuffled the legislation off to a committee.

Last year the committee duly recommended the re-establishment of the staff-elected directorship, but the statute — the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2010 — does not to appear on the Senate notice paper for the first day of the budget session (Tuesday May 8). Word from Canberra is that Nick Xenophon is still fiddling about with some of the clauses dealing with the merit-based selection process.

The Greens support the re-establishment of the SED so the bill is sure to pass — eventually. Yet when, after seven years, Conroy honours Labor’s promise there will still be a final barbed-wire fence for the successful candidate to climb.

In 2004, during a period of particular paranoia about the SED undermining board solidarity, then ABC chair Donald McDonald introduced an extraordinary “ABC board protocol” which he required every director to sign. Sub-headed Recognition of Responsibility of Common Purpose, this strange document felt the need to declare that the duties of all directors were to the organisation as a whole. Section 1.3 states:

“No duty is owed by any director to any individual or group. It follows that directors owe their obligations to the ABC and not to any person or organisation who may have nominated them, or to any other individual or group.”

This was a bizarre attempt to remove any concept of directors acting independently — and you don’t need to be a lawyer to understand who those words were aimed at. (In any case, the SED is not, and has never been, a staff-representative position. Election is just another method of appointment, and the SED has the same duties and responsibilities as every other director.)

Nevertheless the noxious, and probably unenforceable, protocol is still an official board document and its legitimacy is even acknowledged in the explanatory memorandum that accompanies the bill to reinstate the SED position.

Why does this matter? Well, when the legislation finally passes there will be a new election in which all 4000 ABC staff, including management, are entitled to vote.

Dempster intends to run, and is the overwhelming favourite to reclaim the board seat he won by a 4-1 majority in 2006. He’s no fan of the protocol, so it will be interesting to see if new ABC chair Jim Spigelman asks him to sign it. My guess is that both men will pretend it doesn’t exist.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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