What a surprise! The newly appointed chairman of the ABC, Justin Milne plans to do nothing about bias on the ABC because there is none. Not even a little bit? No; none. Not even on Q&A. It is, of course, ludicrous to say such a thing. To suggest that the ABC does not approach contentious issues from a left or so-called progressive perspective is simply perverse and contrary to observable facts. And it does not auger well for the organisation that it is now in the hands of a chairman who is so injudicious as to make such a statement the moment he is appointed. The new chairman might say the ABC has no bias; but he comes to the ABC with the worst bias of all, the bias that it has no bias.
But, I hear you say, why did you recommend him, as the press release from the prime minister and the minister, Mitch Fifield, tells us you did? I am certainly on the panel that makes nominations for the boards of the ABC and the SBS. But, we did not ‘recommend’ Mr Milne, which implies he was our only nominee or that he was better than the others. Our job under the statute is to nominate at least three candidates who meet the qualifications set out in the Act, and we nominated ‘at least three candidates’. After that, it was the job of the Cabinet to make the appointment of the chairman and we assumed the Cabinet would assess whether its appointee was appropriate. One can only assume that the Cabinet thought it appropriate to appoint someone who thinks there is no bias at the ABC. That, by itself, shows you what a ridiculous system it is. The panel can nominate people who are qualified until we are blue in the face, but the government is not bound by our nominations. In other words, the panel is a complete waste of time and money. The chairman and members of the boards of both the ABC and the SBS are government appointees and the government should live up to its responsibilities, make its appointments and justify them. Instead, the government uses an expensive charade to pretend it is taking part in some noble and elevated process, when in fact it is appointing whoever it wants and is using the panel to bolster its decision by claiming we ‘recommended’ him. In the case of the new chair of the SBS, the Minister claims publicly that he was our ‘recommendation’, which implies he was our only nominee or that he was better than the others. Well, the government should release our full reports on both the SBS and ABC nomination process, redact any necessary names to protect anyone not appointed and let the public see for themselves how we assessed the candidates.
The best insight I have had into politics over the last few years was the comment made by the chap who took part in a series of focus groups analysing the performance of our leading politicians. He reflected: ‘Before this exercise, I thought our political leaders were smarter than me because that is how they come to occupy their positions of power. Now, after the experience, I think I am smarter than them.’ I was reminded of this last week as I watched the government’s ham-fisted attempt to have the parliament ratify the extradition treaty with China. After 10 years in gestation, the treaty was apparently bowled up to Cabinet by Julie Bishop for want of anything better to do on a slow day and then introduced to the parliament with no notice, no assessment of whether anyone would vote for it and, apparently, not the slightest appreciation that a lot of the public, like me, have reservations about China’s record on human rights and its dubious legal system. And such exquisite timing! The whole debacle coincided with a state visit by the Chinese Premier, who must have been over-awed by this demonstration of democracy in action. The bill had to be withdrawn, whereupon the government embarked on its next crazy project, abusing the backbench for threatening to vote against it.
This shining example of bad government really worries me. How could you now trust anything to this lot, no matter how elementary? How could you rely on their judgement when they clearly have none? To echo the focus group man, how can you get the public to believe you know what you are doing when it is obvious that you do not know yourself? If the Cabinet were a board of directors the shareholders would sack them. If Julie Bishop were its sales manager, the business would never sell anything. Moreover, the shambles had all the hallmarks of the deadly sins that are immobilising this government. It had the usual ones, of course: bad management, bad timing, and bad communications.
But it had the additional features still coming down the track from the sacking of Tony Abbott. The Liberal party sowed the seeds of its own troubles with that disaster and it is now reaping the harvest. So, the government could not resist the temptation to leak and lie about Abbott’s involvement with the treaty, simply to discredit him. This in turn gave more currency to the leitmotif that the right wing of the Liberal party is a giant Rasputin-like creature holding the prime minister in its malevolent grasp. And it highlighted yet again that a deal with Julie (‘I’m right behind you’) Bishop is not worth the Hugo Boss wrapping paper on which it is written.
A government is in real trouble when people finally conclude that it cannot even deliver administrative efficiency, let alone serious reform. That time is fast approaching.
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