Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Politics should go by board, by Phillip Adams - 13th November 2007

REMEMBER them changing the guard at Buckingham Palace? Christopher Robin went down with Alice. Will we enjoy a similar spectacle in Australia when guards of all sorts change after a Rudd victory on Saturday week?

That most spectacular variation on Wentworth-style branch stacking, the board of the ABC, comes to mind. When you look for a pattern of government-friendly appointments, only the Bush administration's Supreme Court comes close. The Harris Street headquarters in Sydney may as well be run by Quadrant or the H.R. Nicholls Society.

Kevin Rudd will face a problem with precedent. No sooner had Paul Keating organised the anointing of Brian Johns as the ABC's big cheese than John Howard won his first federal election and the new PM promptly appointed his closest friend as chairman. Johns lost his Canberra power base and found himself answering to the diplomatic and basically decent Donald McDonald. This was, clearly, an untenable situation for both men. And the new chairman found himself facing a roomful of ALP appointees and, worse, a staff-elected director.

I thought McDonald's elevation a good move. He'd have the PM's ear and, with his track record in arts administration, would, I argued, be a buffer between a vengeful Government and the ABC staff. Which is how McDonald began and ended his terms of office. It was what happened in the middle - the Jonathan Shier fiasco - that did the damage. It seemed important to build a bridge between McDonald and Johns. Knowing them both, I volunteered. What, I asked the chairman, might help?

First, scouts honour, McDonald asked me to ask Johns to "do up his shirt buttons at board meetings". It seemed the marvellously rumpled chief executive, an unmade bed on legs, neglected to do so and his ample tummy would loll on the board table. This offended his dapper chairman's sensibilities.

The other issue? Would I suggest to Johns that he ask a couple of the board to resign so the Howard Government could appoint replacements? This, McDonald felt, would take much of the tension out of the Government's relationship with the public broadcaster.

To his credit, McDonald had felt it decent to proffer his resignation from a number of NSW's arts organisations when Bob Carr was elected premier in 1995. The premier's response was civilised: he declined to accept them. When Howard won a year later, I too resigned from all government jobs, such as my board membership of the proposed National Museum. Keating had offered me the chairmanship, but I doubted Australia would get the museum if I stuck around.

(From day one, Howard started clearing the decks of Labor appointees, such as forcing the resignation of Janet Holmes a Court from the body preparing the celebrations for Australia's centenary of Federation. Holmes a Court's job went to Dick Smith, a Howard favourite until he began attacking the Government over aviation safety.)

I passed on McDonald's requests to Johns, whose shirts remained unbuttoned. Nor did any board member fall on his sword. It took a process of attrition to replace the Labor-leaning ABC with one in Howard's image. This branch-stacking not only continued but also showed an ideological escalation with the recent additions of Janet Albrechtsen and Keith Windschuttle. And as well as the stacking there was the sacking of staff-elected director Quentin Dempster.

Let it be said, however, that the dark days of Shier have not returned, that before he left the building McDonald succeeded in calming down the place and the audience. Russell Balding was a good interregnum managing director while the newie, Mark Scott, though warmly endorsed by conservative columnist Gerard Henderson, seems to be respected by the staff.

And, though a constant target of right-wing criticism, I'm still there at the ABC. The board and I have, it would seem, a simple arrangement. We simply ignore each other. If the culture wars are raging at the ABC, neither Albrechtsen nor Windschuttle has demanded heads on plates. Television ratings are through the roof, largely thanks to the risk-taking irreverence of The Chaser's War on Everything. Has the incumbent board gone troppo? Many in Howard's ministry argued that McDonald allowed himself to be seduced by the ABC and had gone over to the dark side. I await Albrechtsen's next opinion page column and Windschuttle's first edition of Quadrant with interest.

A Rudd government would have to deal with the rage of ALP supporters who believe the ABC is in the hands of the enemy. Surely Dempster, the staff-elected director, will be welcomed back. But board appointments? Unless there are a few resignations, it'll take years to change the political balance.

Rudd has a great opportunity to end party-affiliated appointments to the ABC. There are proposals to change the whole approach, to ensure that these crucial jobs go to the most talented irrespective of their political sympathies. Rudd still has time to make an announcement. Meanwhile, the US principle applied when the presidency changes hands, of immediate resignations right across Washington, has its merits. The best and brightest can be reappointed, the rest shown the door.

Media Man Australia Profiles

Phillip Adams