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The resignation of Nihal Gupta from the SBS chairmanship yesterday draws a line under one of the more baffling chapters in the Australian government’s management of Australia’s public broadcasters.

Gupta — a low-profile businessman and Liberal Party donor who’d been appointed to a string of plum positions, including the board of the Sydney Cricket Ground, during Barry O’Farrell’s premiership — was named chair of SBS 16 months ago. The role had remained unfilled for six months before that, with the Abbott government refusing to extend the term of merchant banker Joe Skrzynski and taking a very long time replacing him.

Gupta was SBS’ first chairman of Indian heritage. But his appointment was greeted with scepticism that turned to outright suspicion when it emerged his business and corporate governance experience was, perhaps, less than it first appeared. The Australian reported he was the sole employee of his business, Digital Electronics Corporation Australia, and had resigned as chairman from JCurve Limited, an ASX-listed company, after only eight months.

Yesterday afternoon, the day after SBS management fronted Senate estimates, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield announced Gupta was stepping down for “personal family reasons”. Fairfax is reporting that Gupta has a sick family member. The minister’s release said Gupta brought to SBS “his years of international business and management experience particularly in the technology and consumer electronics sectors”. Gone are statements about his “three decades” of “extensive experience in international business management”, which had accompanied his appointment.

Labor opposition communications spokesman Jason Clare said he welcomed Gupta’s resignation and referenced the “relentless pressure” from The Australian on the issue. “Gupta should never have been appointed to the $120,000-a-year role. He was a pawn in the political game between Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull,” he said, referencing reports that Turnbull’s preferred choice for the role had been former NSW premier Nick Greiner, who had also been recommended by the “independent nominations panel”.

Gupta’s resignation comes after, it seems, most efforts to question him on the process by which he came to be appointed have been exhausted.

At a special Senate estimates hearing called last year solely for the purpose of questioning Gupta, the chairman refused to answer basic questions about his resume prior to his role at SBS:

“Since [my appointment], some questions were raised about the appointment. … I do not propose to make any comment on the appointment.”

And he didn’t, insisting he would only comment on what the SBS board had been doing since his arrival. Substantiating the particulars of his resume, he said, was a response to “speculation”.

The refusal nearly drove Labor’s interrogator, Senator Sam Dastyari, to distraction. “This is a complete joke,” he said, when Gupta refused to say when he had first heard about the vacancy in the SBS chairmanship. Afterwards, Labor did everything it could to put further questions to Gupta, but efforts were stymied by the Liberal-controlled Senate Communications Committee. Chair Anne Ruston made the argument that public servants could not and should not be expected to answer questions about their decisions before they were appointed to their positions.

Crikey had no more luck. In a statement last year, the Communications Department said the diligence undertaken on Gupta was “standard”, and would not elaborate beyond referring us to the guidelines. Then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull ducked questions about the robustness of the process, given the subsequent questions about Gupta. Senior Liberal supporters took to referring to the appointment as one of previous prime minister Tony Abbott’s “captain’s calls”.

Behind the scenes, sources say Gupta’s time at SBS has been marked by turbulence of a different kind. Hostility between himself and SBS managing director Michael Ebeid was widely remarked on in the industry. Gupta sought — and was denied — the use of an office at SBS’ Artarmon headquarters. Things appear to have taken a particularly dysfunctional turn when Gupta, and some other board members, made moves to force Ebeid out of his position as CEO and managing director. But it didn’t work — Ebeid’s term was extended another four years. The vote was unanimous, though informal.

News of Gupta having tried to oust Ebeid first flared in The Australian, and both were questioned about it at Senate estimates. Ebeid confirmed Gupta had called an extraordinary general meeting on February 2, 2015, to discuss his term as managing director, which was due to expire later that year. The meeting was called with three days’ notice and held two weeks before a scheduled meeting was due. Ebeid’s contract, corporate affairs manager (now Labor candidate for Wills) Peter Khalil said, was the sole item on the agenda. Ebeid confirmed he’d spoken to the minister in the three days leading up to the meeting. But Gupta told Senate estimates later that there had never been any intention to remove Ebeid from the position. The reason the extra meeting was called, he said, was because the scheduled February meeting “had an agenda for two full days which was already full”, so the decision was made to call a special meeting. Terminating Ebeid’s contract, Gupta said, “has never been my intention and it is not my position”. “Any media speculation that has cast doubt on my confidence in the managing director is wrong.”

Gupta’s departure leaves Bulent Hass Dellal as acting chairman — a position he is familiar to, having held it for the six months after before Gupta’s appointment. Dellal is a veteran of Australia’s multicultural organisations, having served as chief executive of the Australian Multicultural Foundation since 1989. He’s been on the SBS board since 2010, and was reappointed to another five-year term last year.

Peter Fray

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