It is no surprise that we are here today looking at the attempt-and the successful attempt-by the government to remove the staff-elected representative from the ABC board. What has made me particularly angry is the fact that there has been an attempt to dress up what is clearly a political decision-and the government has every right to argue and present political decisions-to remove a director from the ABC board who is not appointed by the government . We have heard the extraordinary amount of passion which this particular decision is generating. In this chamber today we have had amazing arguments, which included things like people's views about the whole way the ABC operates, interpretations of legislation and statements about what has led to the debate we are having today.
When the minister in March this year made the announcement that this was the intent and through the normal processes of the Senate there was formed a committee to look at the legislation, people in the community who are interested in the ABC again showed that they cared about decisions that impact on the ABC. In a very short time, over 50 submissions were received, mainly from people or organisations who had some particular interest in the ABC, such as people who had had the amazing privilege to serve on the board of the ABC in some capacity, some as staff-elected representatives and others who had other forms of involvement on the ABC board. When we talk about the ABC, a response from the community is generated. To some extent, the government was surprised by the degree of passion that came out in a number of the submissions and also in the direct commentary that was made during the gathering of submissions and in the giving of evidence.
It seems that every argument that is made about the role of the staff-elected representative on the board can be then turned around and used about the other members of the board, who are appointed by the minister. Some members of the government seem to think that there is some form of personal conspiracy because we do not always say that the managing director is elected by the other board members and not appointed by the minister, so let us get that on the table straightaway so that there is no allegation that we are misrepresenting the make-up of the ABC board. We know where the ABC board gets it basis to operate from: it is in the act, and we have had senators in this place talk about section 8 of the ABC Act, which clearly says that the board is there to work for the ABC. Then there are a whole lot of subsections which I will not go into, but people can examine them very easily and see what the legislation surrounding the formation of the ABC is all about. As for any other board in the country, there are particular expectations of and responsibilities given to those people who have the privilege of serving on the ABC board.
That is in another piece of legislation, which other members of this place are much more familiar with than I am, but I am going to quote from it to prove I have read it. It is the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997, which is the legislation that sets out what people who are members of boards do-what their responsibilities are. That act requires that a board member of any body covered under the act must perform their duties on the basis that he or she:
(a) makes the judgment in good faith for a proper purpose; and
(b) does not have a material personal interest in the subject matter of the judgment; and
(c) informs himself or herself about the subject matter of the judgment to the extent he or she reasonably believes to be appropriate; and
(d) rationally believes that the judgment is in the best interests of the Commonwealth authority.
They are fairly direct responsibilities, and it is the responsibility of any person who wishes to serve on a board and is then fortunate enough to get that responsibility to know and to act within those constraints. There are very clear penalties for any board member of any corporation who does not act according to those expectations. That seems to be the core point, because at the Senate inquiry there was no evidence that indicated that the board member on the current ABC board, or previous boards, who was appointed through a staff election had breached any of these requirements, nor was there any evidence, as we have heard from Senator Ronaldson, that any other board member who had been appointed by various ministers had breached those responsibilities. So what we had was amazing agreement, passionate agreement, that people who had the privilege to serve on the board of the ABC accepted their responsibilities, regardless of the process that led them to the position, and operated as they ought under board legislation as well as under the expectations of the ABC. There was, again, no evidence to indicate that any board member had breached their responsibilities.
However, because of the nature of the debate, because the minister had determined that there was a need to make this board more efficient by removing the one board member who is elected by the staff, the inference is that every single member of the board who had been elected through a staff process needed somehow to justify their performance.
We had evidence given to the committee and statements in submissions that said it was necessary to reinforce the credentials, the credibility and the performance of every single staff-elected board member since this position was instituted in the early 1970s-we do know that a previous Liberal-National government in the Fraser years removed the position and then it was re-formed in the 1980s. Every single staffelected board member-Marius Webb, Tom Molomby, Quentin Dempster, John Cleary, Kirsten Garrett, Ian Henschke and Ramona Koval-all had to somehow have their performance reinforced to prove that they had done the job and that they had been efficient. I am not sure how many other board members served on the ABC boards over that time with these various staff-elected representatives, but there would have been many.
I do not understand why their performance did not need to be justified and why their integrity did not need to be reinforced or questioned, but somehow those members who came through the process of staff election needed to be questioned about the role they played. The clear inference, by the way that this proposition has been brought before all of us, is that there is something not quite effective in any board member who has reached the position through a staff election. There is no evidence that that is accurate. In various submissions they have had numerous positions attributed to their actions, and I think that is a bit sad. I believe that a board should operate together and the fact that individual board members seem to have had attributed to their efforts particular positions in isolation, I think is a false judgment. I believe that every board member, being aware of their responsibilities and bringing their own experience, professionalism and expectations to the board table, works in concert to come up with a result.
However, it is clear on the public record that those members of the board who came through the staff election process all had exceptional qualifications in their professional work, in their ability to talk with other staff members and gain their support and, most particularly, in their commitment to their position as an elected representative on the ABC board. What I find most frustrating and most offensive in the process we are going through now is that that is being somehow tarnished and the role of these people is now being somehow questioned-the only way it is possible to have an effective, operational board of the ABC is to remove this particular position because of the way those people got their appointments. I find that false. Where do we go? Of course the government has the numbers in the Senate. I hope that we will not see the kinds of personal attacks on the people who have served on the board that come out of a debate like this. It is clear that the Australian community wants members on the board of the ABC who get there openly, whose actions are transparent and who have a commitment to the ABC. The Labor Party and the minor parties have put forward recommendations about alternative methods of ministerial appointment because there have been allegations, and we have heard them in the debate today, that governments of various flavours have had processes of appointing people to the ABC board-without any doubt about their effectiveness working there, because every minister would have that as the most important element of the decision-making process-that result in the appointment of people with varied backgrounds and from time to time very little personal experience of working in public broadcasting. That is not to say that they would not have the ability to acquire the skills and work very effectively on a board. But it is fair to say that people who are currently working in the environment, people who are now working in the ABC, would have the immediacy of the knowledge of the extra stresses, the kind of environment in which public broadcasting operates and the knowledge of the general activities that go on in the staff.
That is not to say that there is any confusion amongst the people who work for the ABC or those people who have been privileged to be elected by them to be staffelected representatives on the board. They do not have any doubt about what their role should be. There was clear evidence to the committee that it was understood by the people who were staff-elected representatives to the board as well as by other people that they were not there to be some form of industrial representation or advocacy. I know from my own experience working in the public sector that there were numerous times when in the ABC itself there were differences of opinion over things that came out of board decisions and the expectations of various unions working in the ABC. But there was never any confusion about the staff-elected person on the board having any more responsibility than any other board member to look at the issues of staff entitlements. Hopefully, some of the members had very strong experience in the business world and understood human relationships and human resource management. So the role of the board member was not in question. Nor was the expectation of the staff about the role of the board member. But this particular decision by the government to single out this representative position once again, as I have said, calls into question the integrity, the professionalism and the effectiveness of every single person who got onto that board by being elected by the staff. I find that very disappointing. It is also clearly not backed up by evidence of any decisions or processes that went on.
We have had read to the Senate as well as to the committee evidence put forward by Mr Donald McDonald, who talked about the tensions of board members, particularly those who were there through a staff election process. I believe that Senator Wortley said earlier that a certain degree of tension creates creativity. Indeed there is fact in that particular process. Naturally when you have seven, eight or nine people-depending on how many people actually turn up to the board meetings-sitting there debating such difficult issues as the ongoing struggle to maintain a strong public broadcaster in Australia, there will be tensions. There will be strong disagreements from time to time. But again I question whether drawing into the focus one particular board member on the basis of the process through which they achieved their appointment, and implying-if not directly and openly stating-that all tension in the ABC board has been caused by that particular board member, is patently false. But, again, the process we have before us of debating in this place indicates that that is the kind of message that has been given. I would hope that it is clear in whatever the government does say that there is no personal inference on any of the people who have served the ABC board so strongly.
The Senate inquiry minority report felt that there needed to be some comment about statements made about Ms Koval and the highly publicised decision about whether she would sign protocols or not. Ms Koval has made her position very public and it is on the public record. But it is sad that once again there was an attempt to attack her position and make that some form of cause celebre to indicate that she was not effectively fulfilling her role. But fulfilling the requirements of her job as an ABC staff-elected board member and the requirements of being on the board were not questioned or crossed by her decision not to sign those protocols. If there was a view by the board that her decision was inappropriate, then there were processes that could be followed rather than dragging through the whole process in the Senate any kind of inference that she was not fulfilling her role.
There is interest in this legislation. The government is always surprised by the degree of interest there is in the role of the ABC in the community. Certainly, there is interest among members of the staff of the ABC. We now know that Mr Quentin Dempster has just been successful in an internal election for the staff-elected member of the board. It may well be that he is never able to take up this term, but the volume of interest in the election was very high, and I think that reflects some of the commitment by people who work within the ABC to have this particular process maintained. It is not because of any view that this is somehow some special link that individual staff members have with the board but simply because, once again, the ABC in Australia has a managing process which involves having the staffelected representative on the board with the same authority and expectation as every other board member, and in many ways that is personally empowering for all the staff. We know that the government will pursue this particular process but we hope that this will not be the beginning of further attacks on the ABC. As Senator Murray pointed out today in his contribution, we know that there will probably not be support for various amendments that would look at changing the appointment process-numerous times these have gone up and numerous times they have been defeated. We want to maintain the special commitment that the ABC has to the people of Australia and the special privilege of all board members, regardless of how they get there, in maintaining the absolute independence and integrity of the public broadcaster. That is the commitment and the challenge to all members of the board. This diversion down a track, quoting a report that did not consider the ABC specifically-we know that; the evidence is there and I will not go over that again-and grasping the Uhrig report and pretending that that is the only basis for this decision colours the kind of trust that we hope would be in place if we are looking at an independent broadcaster. We have a challenge. I think it is sad that it is coloured by an attack on people who work in such a wonderful organisation. Please, Minister, when it comes to pushing through this legislation, make it very clear that there is no attack on any of the wonderful people who had the privilege of being staff-elected representatives on various ABC boards.
09 May, 2006