MAC: Mines and Communities

Australian appointment of leading miner to ABC board causes major stir

Published by MAC on 2019-08-09
Source: The Guardian (UK)

The appointment of Australia's chairperson of its Minerals Council to the board of media channel ABC, has been marked by a distinctly murky process.

The following article recounts the various ploys used particularly by the government to influence the decision. 

ABC board: secret shortlist of candidates ignored in favour of mining executive

Documents show Coalition government passed over some of Australia’s most eminent cultural figures to appoint Vanessa Guthrie

Margaret Simons

The Guardian

7 August 2019

The Minerals Council of Australia chair Vanessa Guthrie was appointed to the ABC board by the Coalition despite the fact she was not recommended by an independent selection process.

The government passed over some of Australia’s most eminent cultural figures in order to appoint a mining executive to the ABC board in 2017, despite the fact that she was not recommended by an independent selection process.

Documents released under freedom of information legislation show that in February 2017, the government rejected singer, writer and director Robyn Archer, former managing director of SBS Shaun Brown, and Sandra Levy, former chief executive of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.

They were on a list of eight names recommended by an independent nomination panel after an extensive application and vetting process. The then communications minister, Mitch Fifield, instead appointed the chair of the Minerals Council of Australia, Vanessa Guthrie.

Guthrie had no media experience. At the time, the ABC was facing constant government criticism over its reporting on the coalmining industry and energy security.

Guthrie had also been through the application process but was not recommended for appointment. Fifield’s press release at the time said that while Guthrie had not been recommended, she “was identified by the government as having the requisite skills”.

However, until now, we have not known who was passed over in Guthrie’s favour.

They were:

• Robyn Archer – singer, writer, director and public advocate for the arts, as well as the former artistic director of the Adelaide and Melbourne international arts festivals.

• Shaun Brown – former managing director of SBS for four years from 2006. Before that, a reporter, presenter, producer and senior executive with Television New Zealand.

• Sandra Levy – former CEO of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, former head of drama at Zapruder’s Other Films, former director of development at Channel Nine and, before that, director of television at the ABC.

• Emile Sherman – Academy award-winning film producer, known for his work on the films The Kings Speech, Lion and Shame. Co-founder and managing director of See-Saw Films.

• Tim Reed – CEO of the business software company MYOB.

• John M Green – publisher, novelist, former executive director of an investment bank, business writer and commentator, member of the governing council of the National Library of Australia.

Georgie Somerset was also on the list recommended by the board, and was appointed with Guthrie. She is a Queensland cattle farmer with board experience across the not-for-profit sector.

An eighth recommended person’s name has not been released at their request.

The list of candidates was originally ranked in order of recommendation, but as one of the conditions of release that ranking was removed, meaning it is not possible to tell who was most preferred by the nominations panel.

The February 2017 appointments were one of several occasions – with the most recent being the appointment of the current ABC chairwoman, Ita Buttrose – when the recommendations of the independent nomination panel were set aside in favour of the government making its own pick.

The ABC board has ultimate responsibility for the independence and integrity of the public broadcaster. After decades in which both sides of politics made partisan appointments, the Labor government in 2013 introduced an arm’s length, merit-based process for appointments, under which candidates would be recommended to the minister by a nominations panel.

If you have a process, you should follow the process.

However, under the Turnbull Coalition government the recommendations were several times ignored in favour of government picks. Out of the current nine-member ABC board, five were appointed by the government despite not being recommended through the independent process. As well as Buttrose and Guthrie, the others are company director Dr Kirstin Ferguson (appointed 2015), businesswoman Donny Walford (2015) and businessman Joseph Gersh (2018).

The revelation of the rejected February 2017 applicants is the result of a 22-month battle. The original freedom of information request was lodged in October 2017.

The Department of Communications and the Arts refused to release the names, initially claiming they were exempt cabinet documents and that their release would be an unreasonable breach of personal privacy – although all but one of the people on the list said they had no objection to their names being made public.

The department also claimed that the names would reveal deliberative processes and that this was against the public interest.

The cabinet documents claim was dropped at the first stage of appeal. After intervention by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, a single name was released earlier this year – that of Georgie Somerset, whose name was already public, given that she had been appointed.

Finally, earlier this month, the acting Australian information commissioner, Elizabeth Hampton, overturned the department’s decision and ordered the release of the names.

Hampton took into account public controversy over the appointments process for the ABC board, particularly following allegations of political interference. She said in her decision that the release would “further increase transparency and scrutiny of the minister’s decision”.

While the battle over the request took place, government interference in ABC board appointments became a white hot issue following the September 2018 sacking of managing director Michelle Guthrie amid allegations the board had failed to protect her from political interference by chairman Justin Milne.

Milne resigned a few days later, and in February this year was replaced by Buttrose as a direct pick of the prime minster, Scott Morrison. While her appointment was widely welcomed, she had not applied through the arm’s length process, meaning another set of candidates was set aside in her favour. Some of them are known to be extremely dissatisfied at their treatment.

In April, a Senate inquiry resulting from the crisis over Michelle Guthrie’s sacking recommended that the appointments process should be transparent and directors have media experience, and that the minister should consult the opposition before choosing board members.

Contacted for comment last night, Shaun Brown said he had applied in 2017 after being urged to do so by the recruitment agency. He was told the ABC had particularly requested they hunt for people with broadcasting experience.

“I gave it some thought, I read the criteria, I thought I was well positioned.” He went through an “extensive and elaborate” process of interviews, only to find Vanessa Guthrie had been appointed despite not being recommended.

Coalition handpicks mining lobbyist for ABC board position

“I’m not annoyed,” Brown said. “I was a bit surprised that that would be done.”

Brown said he would consider nominating again only if he could be sure the successful candidate had been recommended by the nominations panel. “I wouldn’t want to go through the political process of being tested for my political connections.”

Levy said the release showed the government had had “a very good list of names … I don’t know Vanessa Guthrie, and she may be terrific too, but I’m a great believer if you have a process you should follow the process. All of us who put our names forward followed the process. I think it’s a shame the minister went a different way.”

Green said: “I was pretty keen, and felt I had a lot to contribute, but the minister is the minister and he has the final call.”

The other people on the list either did not return calls asking for comment, or could not be contacted. Attempts to contact Vanessa Guthrie were unsuccessful.

Normally, the next selection process for an ABC board member would be underway now, with the term of television executive Peter Lewis expiring in October. It has been reported that Buttrose is lobbying for his term to be extended.

Aside from the staff-elected director Jane Connors, managing director David Anderson and Buttrose herself, Lewis is the only member of the board with considerable media experience.



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