Where's ABC?

By Colless, Malcolm | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Where's ABC?


Colless, Malcolm, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


Apparently 'non-political' appointments will do nothing to resolve the ABC's identity crisis, writes Malcolm Colless.

The Federal Government's reappointments to the board of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation put a political showpiece ahead of corporate commonsense. In an attempt to demonstrate that it could go where no other government had gone before - namely depoliticising me ABC board - it turned its back on the opportunity to instill some forensic accounting experience into the governing body of a business with an annual budget of more than $800m.

This is despite what is believed to have been strong representations along diese lines from the ABC Chairman, Maurice Newman, who has been under pressure to accept the reinstatement of the position of ABC staff elected director' so that the Government can honour an election campaign commitment to the organisation's unions.

The appointment of long-term arts industry executive, Michael Lynch, a former Australia Council chief executive, and academic and Griffith Review editor, Julianne Schultz, followed a lengthy vetting process set up by the Government in what it claimed was necessary to prove transparency. The strength of this argument, pressed by Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, is unconvincing. But if it was determined to go down this path the Government should have laid out specific requirements that would have brought more financial management grunt onto the board and not (without taking away anything from Lynch or Schultz) an arts infusion.

The selection process involved the appointment, by the head of the Prime Minister's Department, of a seven-member nomination panel to make meritbased recommendations to fill the two vacancies on the ABC board and two on the board of SBS. This drawn out process which left the ABC positions unfilled for nearly a year cost the taxpayer more than $200,000 to prove a political point which, in the end, required the approval of Conroy, and then the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. A close reading of the Government's policy on this procedure shows that, if the Minister wants to disregard the recommendations of the panel he simply needs the Prime Minister's nod. So what's new?

When it comes to appointing the next chairman of SBS (due at the end of the year) and the ABC in 2012, the ball sits in the Prime Minister's office and again he is under no obligation to accept any recommendation from the nomination panel.

But there is no reason why the Prime Minister shouldn't make these appointments. The issue is about demonstrating good judgement by selecting individuals who can seriously contribute to the running of an organisation with the size and responsibilities of a major private enterprise company.

Prattling on about transparency, public confidence, equal opportunity, and diversity of gender and geographical representation on these boards only caters for the demands of political correctness from the Left while creating another costly bureaucratic structure.

Meanwhile the ABC is wrestling with a serious identity crisis as it campaigns to convince anyone who will listen - but particularly the Prime Minister - that it is the only organisation equipped both technically and ethically to be Australia's international broadcaster.

ABC management has whipped itself into a frenzy of lobbying activity after Sky News (partially owned by Rupert Murdoch) had the effrontery to contest its control of the country's overseas TV broadcasting service - Australia Television Network.

The ABC beat off a challenge from Sky News in 2005 to retain the right, through a five year contract, to deliver this external service. But a departmental review in August will recommend whether this contract should be rolled over for another five years or opened up for tender by other interested parties.

The problem for the ABC is that much has changed since 2005. There is a different Government with a vastly different view about how Australia's, and the Prime Minister's, image should be projected around the world. …

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