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Laura Tingle: The Next ABC staff-elected director?

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By Quenting Dempster 3 February 2023

The news this week that high profile journalist Laura Tingle has thrown her hat in the ring for the election of the next staff-elected director (SED) on the ABC Board has surprised many colleagues, past and present. Former staff-elected director and now Alumni director Quentin Dempster looks behind the headlines with this backgrounder on the SED position and why it’s important.

Laura Tingle: the next ABC staff-elected director?

UPDATE: Laura Tingle was announced as the staff-elected director of the ABC on 31 March.

So Laura Tingle, the ABC’s 7.30 political editor, has nominated for the staff-elected director position on the ABC board. Interesting.

Outgoing SED (staff-elected director) is Dr Jane Connors, a social historian, broadcaster and editorial policies executive. Notably, within months of joining the board in 2018 for her statutory five-year term, Connors found herself with other directors terminating the contract of then managing director Michelle Guthrie and, within the same week, accepting the resignation of Turnbull government-appointed chairman Justin Milne.

It was the biggest management and political boilover in the ABC’s history, accompanied by allegations of political interference with demands to behead those ABC journalists who had enraged the then government.

To clear the air, incoming Prime Minister Scott Morrison personally chose the media icon (and subversive feminist) Ita Buttrose to chair the ABC Board, side stepping a legislated merit selection process for ABC and SBS directorships.

Instead of severing ABC heads to appease a hostile government Buttrose knuckled down to orderly governance, appointed insider David Anderson as managing director, and made speeches and submissions reasserting the ABC’s Charter obligations under the ABC Act with its Section 8 guarantee of independence from the government of the day.

Such was her resistance to political pressure Buttrose, with the support of her fellow directors including Connors, withstood calls for her resignation from Liberal powerbroker Michael Kroger. Kroger had become incensed that the ABC was “throwing acid in the face” of the Liberal Party with Four Corners’ reports which exposed misbehaviour by government ministers and the prime minister’s own personal links to questionable characters.

Buttrose’s current term as ABC chair expires in May 2024. She has yet to indicate if she wants or is seeking an extension.

Apart from the chair position, the incoming Albanese government and its Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland, now have an opportunity to remake ABC governance with the May 2023 departure of directors Joe Gersh and Fiona Balfour.

The government says it is committed to restoring the advertised merit selection process set out in the ABC Act. Meritorious board appointments were an attempt to depoliticise the ABC which, over the decades since its foundation in 1932, notoriously had been stacked with party political partisans and some ideologues known to be opposed to the very idea of a taxpayer funded outlet in Australia’s media market.

The ABC staff-elected director position evolved from concepts of worker participation in the Whitlam government years (1972-75). The late Moss Cass, Whitlam’s Minister for the Media, had authorised the election by the ABC staff, the successful candidate being appointed by the government to the board. The position was effectively abolished in the Fraser government years, but reinstated, this time by amendment to the ABC Act, by the Hawke government in 1983 when the ABC ceased to be a ‘commission’ and became a ‘corporation’ with its own borrowing capacity for capital works and some commercial revenue raising capacity. The new Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1983 was prohibited from taking advertising and sponsorship domestically. While it made money from program and merchandise sales through ABC shops and centres (since abandoned) the ABC remains almost totally dependent on Treasury appropriations.

Later, the Howard Government also abolished the SED position, from 2006 when it had the numbers in the Senate, but it was reinstated by the Rudd Government from 2013.

The full list of SEDs from 1975 is: Marius Webb, Tony Bond, Tom Molomby, John Cleary, Quentin Dempster, Kirsten Garrett, Ian Henschke, Ramona Koval, Matt Peacock and Jane Connors.

While the position was often believed to have been ‘owned’ by the ABC’s main staff union, the Staff Association, now the Community and Public Sector Union, it has evolved as more than mere workforce representation on the board. A staff-elected director has exactly the same duties and obligations as all other ABC directors. It is only the method of appointment, by an Australian Electoral Commission ballot, which is different. This year’s voting will be conducted again by postal ballot as stipulated by the ABC Act. Previous postal ballots, while voluntary, only engaged less than half of the ABC's eligible staff, which includes management personnel. Given the interest and some staff disaffection through truncated career paths, a contentious and unresolved wage negotiation and further prospects of job losses through defunding and restructure, this 2023 SED ballot is expected to be well attended.

Tingle has made a point of union endorsement in her published statement to staff announcing she had nominated for SED.

While she has been a trade unionist (Australian Journalists Association, now Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance) in her 42-year career as a print and broadcast journalist, she told staff: “I have decided not to seek the union’s nomination for the job. There are clear obligations for directors of any board to be independent and while I would obviously listen to all staff concerns, I feel it would be detrimental to simply be perceived as representing the interests of one sector of our workforce.”

Whether this declaration proves to be counter-productive in actually winning a majority of votes in what may again be a Melbourne-Cup field of staff nominees remains to be seen. The ABC workforce of 4000 remains substantially unionised. To avoid splitting the vote the MEAA is conducting an informal “pre-selection” for its endorsement of a single candidate. The CPSU has not indicated any endorsement, although Tingle’s complaint about ABC management’s recent gutting of ABC archives under the claimed benefit of advanced digital retrieval technology was well received by the union.

Perceived conflict of interest by being an employee of the corporation and sitting on its board has often been raised. This was usually handled at board level by the SED declaring a personal conflict when his or her own performance or work area were up for discussion. Just as an MD was required to leave the board room when individual performance was on the agenda, so too did the SED.

Most of the other potentials known to be considering nomination by February 10 are generally well regarded.*

The question is: can the successful SED actually help the ABC in its current struggle for resources to survive through the highly disruptive digital revolution?

While the ABC is a major content provider and audience success through emergency services (fires, floods and pandemic) in recent years, the ABC has been significantly downsized since the Joe Hockey budget in 2014.

The ABC has been asking the Albanese government for operational base funding enhancement to boost its contribution in original Australian content outside its staple news and current affairs offerings, as it faces audience erosion from global video and audio streamers.

Strapped for cash, debt-ridden and facing many deserving demands, ABC’s

Minister Michelle Rowland must persuade Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ ERC – Expenditure Review Committee – to risk enraging Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch’s News Corp and other competitive commercial media by increasing the ABC’s content creation capacity. While the ABC wants to substantially lift its drama and production slate and publicly has asked for an additional $90m a year, the Albanese government probably will reach a modest “price point” to continue what is seen as politically neutralising the ABC lobby.

If Tingle and her rivals for SED can move the board to more effective advocacy, particularly with the ABC’s vandalised international services, and for more children’s and higher quality specialist content, they all will be doing Australian audiences and taxpayers a great service.

Surviving in the digital revolution with its mis- and disinformation is all about trust through original content.

The ABC staff-elected director position has largely been constructive in helping to ensure management accountability in return for executive bonuses and is an intel conduit or back channel into the board room often effective in countering management ‘snow jobs’.

Staff at Australia’s CSIRO and SBS have been campaigning, so far unsuccessfully, for the creation of similar positions.

The position helps to build staff commitment to the independence and success of an entity.

In the best interests of shareholders and investors perhaps all private sector corporations should be considering something similar in their governance arrangements.

The memo from Laura Tingle announcing her nomination for SED follows in full:

Why I want your vote for staff-elected director of the ABC

The ABC needs people on the board who understand public broadcasting and the need to protect and nurture the independence of the national broadcaster.

I have nominated for the position of staff-elected director because after 42 years in journalism – across the major media organisations – and decades covering federal politics, I think I have much to contribute to the board, and on behalf of the staff of the ABC.

I have watched up close for all that time how governments have dealt with the ABC.

I have seen many media organisations try to negotiate the major waves of change affecting them in recent decades, and the folly of many of their responses.

That experience can inform my contributions to the board’s deliberations as we proceed towards a digital future.

I’m very conscious that the ABC’s role in our national life spreads well beyond news and current affairs and I would advocate on behalf of the rich contributions the broadcaster makes in our cultural life.

The ABC has a unique role and responsibility to contribute to the production of quality, distinctive, original Australian content across the genres – drama, music, educational and international programming, the arts, and entertainment.

We now live in a world of video and audio streaming accessed on demand on your device. To survive as part of Australia’s robust media sector, the ABC needs the resources and staff creativity to continue its great work.

The organisation’s Charter and purpose are more important now than ever before in this world of disruption.

I bring the experience of leading an important national institution. Colleagues have entrusted me to lead the National Press Club. I believe we have invigorated the Club’s standing as a forum for national debate.

While I have been a member of the MEAA since I began my career as a journalist at age 19, I have decided not to seek the union’s nomination for the job.

There are clear obligations for directors of any board to be independent and while I would obviously listen to all staff concerns, I feel it would be detrimental to simply be perceived as representing the interests of one sector of our workforce.


*Editor's Note (23 Feb): On 22 February the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), ABC Section, formally announced that it was endorsing Laura Tingle as staff-elected director. Tingle did not solicit the endorsement but confirmed she was a long-time member of both the CPSU and the journalists' union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Before ballot papers were posted to eligible ABC staff the MEAA announced its endorsement of finance journalist Dan Ziffer as its pre-selected candidate for SED. Other candidates, in alphabetical order, are: Dan Bourchier, Graham Himmelhock-Mutton, Tom Joyner, Indira Naidoo, Alison Wall and Kelly Williams. The Australian Electoral Commission postal ballot is expected to be declared in early April.

Correction (8 Feb): The original version of this article indicated the SED ballot would be conducted through the Australian Electoral Commission online portal. This is not correct. The ABC Act stipulates the ballot must be by postal vote. All ABC staff are urged to participate by returning a postal vote when they receive their ballot paper and candidates' statements.

This article was first published on 2 February 2023 by John Menadue’s public policy journal, Pearls and Irritations.

Quentin Dempster is a journalist, public broadcasting advocate and a director of ABC Alumni.

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