The lefties over at Larva Rodeo have gone into a Henny Penny “sky is falling” frenzy (here and here) over the appointment of Keith Windschuttle to the ABC Board, joining Janet Albrechtsen and Ron Brunton as appointees seen by many on the Labor side as unacceptably partisan politicisation of the ABC.
Call me naive or a closet Tory if you want, but I can’t for the life of me see any significant distinction between the Howard government’s practices in appointing ABC Board members and those of previous Labor governments. As far as I can recall, the Keating and Whitlam governments’ appointments were every bit as partisan as those under Howard, although things were slightly more moderate under Bob Hawke and in the later Fraser years. I Googled for a while until I found this excellent Friends of the ABC 2001 submission to a Senate committee. An appendix provides a very useful summary history of ABC Board appointments going back beyond WWII, and it mostly confirms my own more general recollections:
From 1932 to 1942 there was always a majority of Commissioners publicly identified with the anti-Labor ministries which had chosen them. The Curtin and Chifley governments tried a little harder for balance: of eleven members appointed and reappointed between 1942 and 1949, five were clearly Labor people and six were not. Menzies reappointed all but one of the Commissioners he found in office, but 23 years of anti-Labor rule yielded a solid majority of government supporters. By 1970 the Commission was largely composed of business men. One Commissioner belonged to the same branch of the Liberal party as the Postmaster-General, one was a member of the Country party, and the chairman, Sir Robert Madgwick, supposed that nearly all the others voted Liberal. The first Commissioner appointed by Whitlam in 1973 found himself regularly outvoted 8 to 1.
The Whitlam government became the first to make a clean sweep of its opponents’ Commissioners, replacing them almost entirely with Labor sympathisers. The Fraser government made that practice a tradition. Fraser actually tried to remove all the Whitlam appointees at once late in 1976 (see above), and when the bill authorising that action had to be dropped, the number of Commissioners was increased from nine to eleven for no evident reason other than to enable the immediate appointment of two people amenable to the government.
Tony Staley, the responsible minister from 1978, tried to make appointments less partisan. Ken Tribe from the world of music and David Williamson from the theatre might as easily have been chosen by Labor; Williamson, however, resigned after nine months, saying that his presence was legitimising the actions of `very conservative’ Commissioners.
The Labor government’s procedure of consultation helped to secure the new Board a favourable reception in and beyond the world of politics. It was not repeated. Seven of the nine Directors appointed in 1983 had been given three-year terms. (The Chairman, Ken Myer, and the Managing Director, Geoffrey Whitehead, had five-year terms, but each resigned short of the appointed time.) There was no consultation about their reappointment or replacement. When I recently asked Mr Hawke why, he said that governments have to govern and that he had seen no reason to involve an uncooperative opposition in the process of appointment.
Duffy and his colleagues had done their best to heed Dix’s call, written into the 1983 Act, for a governing body not vaguely representative of community interests but having relevant expertise. The Age had welcomed the new Board as a group which `had the chance to rejuvenate Aunty’. Three years later, the paper judged the first Board differently. `The Government’s mistake’, it declared, `was to appoint people who were representative of community interests, when they should have been chosen primarily for their knowledge of broadcasting and for their managerial experience.’ The paper was not alone in thinking that the first group of Directors had not displayed conspicuous expertise. Duffy tried again in 1986. When he replaced three of the original directors, he dwelt on the newcomers’ array of relevant expertise. None of the 1986 appointments were criticized as partisan.
By Paul Keating’s time as Prime Minister the practice of consultation had been largely forgotten. At the end of Labor’s thirteen years in office Alan Ramsey of the Sydney Morning Herald made what seems to me a judicious review of its appointees’ politics. Of 26 Board members, including chairmen, `12 came from overt political backgrounds, among them a former Labor premier, a former Liberal senator, a former Liberal Cabinet minister, four trade union activists, four advisers to various State Labor administrations, and Labor’s former opinion pollster, Rod Cameron.’ In short, `less than half Labor’s ABC appointments over the years have had obvious party political connections, while two of them came from among the ranks of its political opponents.’ (12 June 1996).
[ Have a look at the composition of the ABC Board in 1995, the last full year of the Keating government. It included former Labor Premier John Bannon, long-time ALP pollster Rod Cameron and Queensland trade union official and then Goss government health bureaucrat Janine Walker. Can anyone seriously suggest that those 3 appointees were significantly less overtly ‘political’ than Brunton, Albrechtsen and Windschuttle? ]
Most of the directors appointed since the Howard government took office have been formally or informally identifiable as supporters of the coalition. When I asked Mr Howard about a report (Sun-Herald 15 March 2001) of discussions between the coalition and other parties about the possibility of bipartisan appointments, he said that he knew nothing of any such discussions and that he was content with the present procedure. Michael Kroger, he said, was the only clearly political appointee, and he was a good member of the Board. Mr Howard has sometimes justified the political affiliations of Board members appointed in his time by invoking (and exaggerating) the partisan appointments of his predecessors. Some Howard supporters, far from denying that appointments are being made on political grounds, argue not only that Labor did that but that to do so is proper and healthy. You would chloroform the ABC, one coalition appointee has said to me, if you filled the Board with nondescripts having no publicly stated views and no engagement in public debate. No government lasts forever (this argument runs), and the time will come when Labor can retaliate.
Present Labor policy, however, as expressed by Kim Beazley and the shadow minister Stephen Smith, is that the Board should be de-politicised. By means of a joint parliamentary committee, as proposed by the Democrats, or by an informal committee, as in 1983, or unilaterally? When I asked the present minister for communications and the arts, Senator Richard Alston, what he thought of consultation before appointment, he replied that this was the sort of thing that appealed to parties in opposition. Once, though, it has been done, and there is no reason why it could not be done again unless relations between parties have so deteriorated since 1983 that members of a Labor government could not bring themselves to consult their opponents about anything.
Commissioners and Board members with evident political preferences have not always behaved as instruments of the party to which they owed their appointment. They might well develop around the table an allegiance to the ABC itself, a sense of trusteeship,stronger than any commitment to the government responsible for putting them there. In 1967 a Commission full of Menzies and Holt appointees resisted a minister who cut the budget, which he was entitled to do, and ordered that half the cut was to be applied to the always troublesome area of current affairs television, which he was not. The chairman, Sir Robert Madgwick, flew with a team to Canberra to tell him so. The government, not the Commission and management, buckled. The episode went into ABC collective memory.
More than one member of the present Board has told me that since 1996 differences of opinion between coalition appointees have sometimes been more substantial than differences between coalition and Labor appointees.
Quite so. Despite being a close friend of John Howard, the current Chairman Donald McDonald has developed an evident and highly principled allegiance to the ABC and its interests, to the vexation of some Liberal politicians. I suspect the same is probably true of Ron Brunton, who I have always found to be a man of great integrity and thoughtfulness in the dealings I’ve had with him.
I agree that it would be a nice idea if ABC Board appointments could be made with bipartisan consultation and agreement, but in the real world neither Labor in government nor the Coalition is likely to do so. Fortunately, history suggests that Coalition-leaning appointees have been just as capable as their Labor-leaning counterparts of fulfilling their fiduciary obligations as Board members and displaying the integrity and intellectual strength to make decisions in the interests of the ABC rather than the politicians who appointed them. I suggest that cuts to the ABC’s budget and the very public monstering of working journalists by the government have far more to do with the ABC’s current level of timidity than anything that has taken place at Board level.