A bill that will require the government to adhere to a merit-based process for appointing ABC and SBS board members was carried in the Senate last night, with the support of the Greens.
The National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2010 still needs to be passed by the House of Representatives, and is likely to do so.
The laws will reinstate a staff-elected director to the ABC and create an independent panel to advise the government on suitable appointments for the ABC and SBS boards. The panel will provide a short list to the communications minister who makes the final choice.
The laws reverse a 2006 coalition government decision to abolish the staff-elected position on the ABC board in 2006 on grounds that it risked a conflict of interest.
To avoid claims of political bias, current or former politicians and senior political staff will be banned from appointment.
In the case of the ABC chair, selection will be made by the prime minister after consultation with the opposition leader.
An amendment by the Greens to ban current or former politicians and senior political staff failed.
Section 12 of the Bill partially sets out the merit-based criteria for board members. They must ‘have had experience in connection with the provision of broadcasting services or in communications or management’, or ‘have expertise in financial or technical matters’, or ‘have cultural or other interests relevant to the oversight of a public organisation engaged in the provision of broadcasting services.
In regards to Directors, s 24 says that an assessment is based on merit if it is made with regard to the applicants’ ‘experience, skills and competencies genuinely required for the duties of that Director’, and that this assessment is ‘the primary consideration in nominating the candidates for that appointment’.
Debating the Bill in the Senate yesterday, Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham opposed the Bill on behalf of the Coalition, saying:
“Future ministers should, through the usual processes of government, be able to make appointments to the ABC and SBS boards in the same way that appointments are currently made to the Reserve Bank board and numerous other significant government institutions.
“In the end, you will simply create a ridiculous inequity where some very worthwhile people will be excluded.”
Greens Senator Scott Ludlam disagreed:
“We are simply proposing a process which distances the minister and political considerations from these extremely important positions. I do not see how that can be made to sound controversial.
“The board must be independent so that the ABC can fearlessly report on, expose and explore all issues, even those that make the government of the day and other powerful vested interests uncomfortable,” he said.
“The bill recognises that the ABC is meant to be independent. Governments can no longer regard its board as a place to give jobs to mates or the national broadcaster as a vehicle to pursue political agendas,” said Glenys Stradijot, a spokesperson for Friends of the ABC (Vic).
“Importantly, the Bill will also restore the staff-elected director position to the ABC Board.
“This position is critical. It ensures there is at least one member of the ABC Board who has intimate understanding of public broadcasting and is entirely independent of government.
The changes to the rules governing the national broadcaster and the SBS comes as Labor looks to revisit media ownership laws, and the announcement of job losses at Fairfax Media and News Ltd.