The Politics    Wednesday, February 27, 2019

It’s not about Ita

By Paddy Manning

It’s not about Ita

AAP Image / Alan Porritt

The ABC Act is being undermined by the government

It appears that the appointment of Ita Buttrose as chair of the ABC will sail through, having reportedly been signed off [$] by cabinet last night. Nothing against Buttrose, but the serial flouting of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act by Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, who seems determined to ignore all recommendations of an independent nominations panel established by law to ensure appointments are at arm’s-length, should surely be a cause for public concern. Either the independent panel process is desirable, and its recommendations should be followed, or the Act should be amended and the entire process junked. Who could take a government recruitment process seriously now? Go through the interviews, have your name wheeled out publicly, then be bushwhacked at the end by a political appointment that has no regard for the criteria used to compile the shortlist?

If Fifield or the prime minister wanted a female candidate included on the shortlist, they could and should have said so. The AFR reports [$] the panel that recommended an all-male shortlist was effectively all-female, because the panel’s chair, Ted Evans, missed substantial parts of the process due to illness. The panel was not told that it was necessary to include a woman candidate – apparently common practice in business – and so it didn’t.

It is to Buttrose’s eternal credit that there is no backlash [$] to her appointment. In fact, there is almost unanimous praise for her integrity and contribution to the media industry over the decades, from the PM and Opposition leader on down. “Fascinating decision if someone with a commercial background is to chair the ABC,” tweeted the Friends of the ABC on Monday after the story broke, “let’s hope Ita Buttrose is a supporter of public broadcasting!” Well, hope is the operative word here because Buttrose, having not been through the recruitment process, may or may not have been grilled about her attitudes to public broadcasting. With this government’s track record, hope is not enough.

In an important piece for Inside Story last year, media academic and author Margaret Simons wrote of her extended FOI battle to discover the panel’s recommendations. Simons wrote that “since the Coalition took power, the process has been trashed”. Three of the ABC’s current seven board members were appointed by Fifield, despite not having been recommended by the nomination panel, and a fourth was highly rated but withdrew before she was recommended. Later, Fifield persuaded her back, so she was strictly a direct ministerial appointment.

As Mike Seccombe wrote for The Saturday Paper late last year in the wake of the Milne v Guthrie meltdown, the board stack has been going on since the organisation was founded, but the nominations panel was established by the Rudd government to put an end to the politicisation of ABC and SBS board appointments. A good thing too. That process should be respected. As former ABC staff–elected director Quentin Dempster tweeted today: “Political interference at ABC still a live issue (pending Senate report). Nothing against @ItaButtrose but ABC chair appointment should now be deferred until after the May election. ALP/LNP now obligated to produce policies on securing ABC’s independent governance and funding.”

The Greens communications spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young was more blunt: “Five months have passed since the Government was caught in a web of political interference at the ABC. They still have not learned their lesson. Ita Buttrose is clearly a strong candidate for the position, however the current mess at the ABC is a result of exploiting board appointments. This cannot be allowed to continue, no matter how strong the contender. Political interference has plagued the ABC and there can be no doubt placed on future board appointments, or indeed the chair. The independent panel exists for a reason, and must not be disregarded or side stepped yet again by this Government.”

And one last thing – quite apart from anything else – it is a shocking waste of $180,000 reportedly paid to the recruiter, Korn Ferry.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers


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A Liberal Party source downplays news that Helloworld is sponsoring a Gardenvale branch fundraiser in Victoria.

The Number

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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.

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