JACK WATERFORD. Turnbull’s ABC chickens home to roost (Canberra Times 28.9.2018)

Sep 29, 2018

Malcolm Turnbull is a gift that keeps giving to the Labor opposition. Scott Morrison’s ongoing efforts to be all things to all people were again derailed this week by the ABC implosion, which saw the loss of its board chairman and its managing director, and a powerful smoky stench as Coalition jihadists ran for cover.   

Coalition antipathy to the ABC – indeed, support for its privatisation or dismantlement – was by no means organised and directed by Turnbull. Turnbull may have been one of the few Liberals who would have admitted getting most of his news, views and information from it, rather than, say, The Daily TelegraphThe Australian, Alan Jones and Ray Hadley.

Yet this week’s implosions seemed almost a direct consequence of the now defunct Turnbull style of government, his rotten judgments with appointments, his style of crony capitalism, and the personal and spiteful way with which he dealt with people who crossed him. The effects of this – via people placed in boards and agencies – will continue to dog Morrison’s government and, probably, whichever party is in government after the next election.

In many respects, Turnbull was never so ruthless with patronage – and the installation of mates, party friends and donors, and ideological bedfellows – as some of his predecessors.

Tony Abbott was a shocker, and not only in seeking to install cultural warriors in key boards and positions, including on both the ABC board and the panel that recommended people of high reputation, independence of mind and concern for the public interest to be on the ABC board.

John Howard was not much better in making sure that statutory appointments were shared among people with world views “like ours” rather than “like theirs”. The more so because, in Howard’s view, a long period of Labor government, plus three terms of a person in Malcolm Fraser who had sought the esteem (and perhaps the forgiveness) of the chattering class, had made most of society’s institutions, including the ABC, reflect the Labor rather than the conservative world view. It was not something, he believed, that could be addressed merely by a bit of conscious evening-out with selected appointments during one’s turn at bat; it needed to be addressed from the beginning.

The damnable thing was that Labor governments just as consciously stacked boards and agencies with people of their own world view, and used the public purse to reward their mates and punish their enemies. But so successfully had Labor captured the cultural middle ground that it could often complacently install people of no obvious politics, or even certain types of Liberals, confident that their broad world view was more instinctively of the Labor centre than of the Howard right. Indeed, in a slightly different environment, Turnbull himself, a Liberal moderate who had once flirted with joining Labor, might once have been an example.

During a short-lived fit of virtue in the early days of Kevin Rudd’s government, John Faulkner conceived the theory that Labor might win itself credit in the public eye if it stepped back from some of the more blatant and corrupt forms of party patronage. It could instead use merit to fill vacancies on those boards, commissions and agencies where appointment was under the control of ministers.

The Faulkner idea, which did not much progress after he was moved from integrity matters to the defence ministry, was also based on the (so far, in Australia at least) unproven theory that if one side of politics set some sort of example of decent and honest public administration, the other might, in due course, reciprocate. Faulkner established a long list of statutory boards and agencies where vacancies would be filled by merit on the basis of recommendations by more-or-less independent panels.

The Faulkner reforms were similar to decisions in Britain in Gordon Brown’s then new government. But Brown had the sense to try to entrench his system. He appointed a commissioner for public appointments. He set up a parliamentary system for reviewing the process of making significant appointments. Brown’s reforms in Britain have by now been much watered down by the Tory government, but the forms are followed up to a point. Ministers now have much more discretion to override recommendations by independent panels, or findings by parliamentary committees that people are not suited for particular posts. In some cases, ministers can and do simply bypass the system altogether. Yet there is a sort of check and balance, if a weaker one, from the likely comment and backlash if an essentially bipartisan parliamentary committee declares an appointee unqualified or unsuitable.

The Faulkner reforms were mirrored by changes in broadcasting laws designed to depoliticise the ABC and SBS boards. An independent panel, selected not by the government but by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s secretary, would make independent recommendations about new board members. Implicitly, party hacks and obvious camp followers, of either side, need not apply.

Abbott, once prime minister, followed the forms. The then PM&C secretary decided, mysteriously, that the two best people for vacancies on the appointment panel would be strident conservative Australian columnist Janet Albrechtsen and a former deputy leader of the Liberal Party, Neal Brown, who was a trenchant critic of the ABC. Turnbull, then communications minister, distanced himself from the decision. When Turnbull became prime minister, the panel was changed and, if a little dominated by former mandarins, was manifestly non-partisan.

This panel, chaired by former Treasury secretary Ted Evans, did not recommend appointing Justin Milne as ABC chairman. It recommended instead Sydney lawyer Danny Gilbert. But Turnbull overrode that decision to appoint Milne. Turnbull always knows better than the professionals.

Moreover, Turnbull always seemed to have an agenda for the ABC, whether by way of punishing it for its (according to him) bias or journalistic errors, or because, as some insist, the government’s agenda has been to weaken the ABC against other media rivals, such as Foxtel, News Corp and Seven West. The ABC has had its budget cut, in fairly obvious retaliation for failing to loyally parrot the government line, and has been subjected to an array of reviews, some conducted by people whose backgrounds have been scarcely disinterested.

The last few decades in Australia have seen a general collapse in public faith in most Australians institutions, public or private. In the robber-baron era of the 1980s and 1990s, business, banks and many of the financial institutions, and the professions, even the judiciary, lost caste among the public. Many of the churches and other private pillars of the family and society discredited themselves, not least in the epidemic of child abuse. Lawyers and doctors came to be seen as more greedy and less noble and disinterested in their aspirations. The public service seemed to become more anxious to please, more heartless in carrying out policy and less concerned about the public interest. Old established media have lost their base and often become more strident, and, thus, less trusted.

In all of this, the ABC has maintained an extraordinary public trust and affection. But it has become an institution much abused by politicians on both sides, and a particular object of hatred by Liberal politicians, even Turnbull.

And, in Morrison, Australia might have its first prime minister in 80 years who does not look instinctively to the ABC for news of what is happening. Other politicians have supped with the shock jocks, and succumbed to News Corp crusades, but one has usually sensed that this has been more posture than real.

One is not to assume that Milne was installed in the ABC as some sort of spy or disruptive force. One can expect that Turnbull did not lean on him, even as he made clear, at both personal and business interactions, what he thought of the ABC or of its journalism.

Turnbull has always thought himself a media expert, and once imagined he could rule Fairfax via his effective control of its junk bond debts. Like many a politician before him, Labor or Liberal, he has worked for and with media moguls, and handed many of them millions of dollars in public money. It has not, usually, won him permanent friends. A tendency to bite back through representations and threats to owners and senior managers has not endeared him to journalists. Nor has it much impressed the moguls, whose affections are generally rented rather than bought freehold.

Milne, put simply, was unsuited, either by background or temperament, for the job of ABC chairman. He seemed to have shown little feeling for the ABC’s mission and far too much anxiety to be a middleman between the government and the organisation. In fact, his chief qualification seemed to be that he was a mate and former business partner of the prime minister, and that he shared Turnbull’s enthusiasm for big technical projects, of little direct relevance to what the ABC is doing now or in the medium term.

And the Turnbull style and personality was just as evident in the fate of the ABC’s hapless managing director, Michelle Guthrie. She was out of her depth in managing the ABC’s people or functions, even as she was cutting its costs, doing managerial fandangos, and seriously dumbing down and constraining its talk, its news and its current affairs. She will be little mourned, even if she will be a little pitied.

It is now clear that she was caught in the middle. There was an activist chairman, equally deficient in understanding of public broadcasting, who wanted to do her job and appease conservative politicians all at once. And a news and current affairs staff continually under the hammer from government, not least Turnbull himself.

Luckily for the public record, Guthrie was documenting some of the efforts, through the chairman, to make the ABC less annoying to Turnbull and the Coalition.

Turnbull is famously well connected to the big end of town, not least because of successful speculation (with Milne) in an internet company, and his partnership in a merchant bank, along with Neville Wran and Nicholas Whitlam. He had never actually managed much, other than money and investments, when he went into politics. It was soon clear there, if it had not already been in a business career laced with violent fallings-out with erstwhile colleagues and friends, that he had little skill at managing people, and little judgment in who was really any good, and who, like him, promised more than they could deliver.

A fair proportion of these have come from the banking industry, apparently for Turnbull the gold standard of judgment, the long view, common sense and concern for the public interest. Qualities and mindsets strongly in display at the moment as the royal commission into the misdeeds of bankers, financial advisers and bank-associated insurance and superannuation-industry rent seekers. It must have seemed natural to Turnbull that the outlooks and the learning of such chaps were just what Australia needed in resetting the values, focus and managerial style of the public service over the next 30 years.

He had earlier placed Milne on the national broadband network’s board, Turnbull’s lasting bequest to the Australian people, if yet another one for whose manifest and engineered deficiencies others will probably pay the political price.

One of the last great Australian mandarins, Tony Ayers, used to continually remind his peers and underlings that they would be remembered, if at all, mostly for the quality of the appointments they made, the people they chose, and the way they developed and fostered the careers of others.

It is hard to suggest that Turnbull was around long enough to much trouble the scorers in respect of ministerial careers.

Perhaps half of the senior bureaucracy owe their most recent appointment to him, or to his adoption of recommendations made to him. But with the exception of Mike Pezzullo, already clearly in evidence before Turnbull showed up, few of these have much of a public profile, or are associated with much in the way of policy or program development. It has been from where Turnbull has had free discretion, or the capacity to override the judgments of others for his own, that much of the character and most of the consequence of the Turnbull era comes.

Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.

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