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Interview with Rafael Epstein - ABC Radio Melbourne

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
I want you to think about what a Government should do, how a Government should appoint people to a body like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. They do have independent selection panels - there's a process there. The panel goes: hey, what about these three or four people. They produce a shortlist. The majority of the people sitting on the ABC Board right now, when they were appointed, were not on those lists.

It's the same situation with Ita Buttrose: they asked an executive recruiting firm to go out and recruit, have a look, advertise in the paper. They came up with a shortlist. They were all men - Ita Buttrose's name was not on that list.

So, as well as Ita Buttrose, the process is important. I was joined by the Communications Minister earlier today. He's part, of course, of Scott Morrison's team; he's also a Victorian Liberal Party Senator. And when Mitch Fifield joined me, I simply asked him: why Ita Buttrose?

FIFIELD:
Ita Buttrose is uniquely qualified to be the Chair of the ABC. She has worked in every form of media. She's worked as a journalist. She's worked in management. She's worked as an editor. She's someone Australians know. She's someone Australians trust. And she's the right person to chair the ABC at this time.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
Why does the Government keep on picking people who aren't on the lists presented to them by the independent group that offer up a list of names?

FIFIELD:
There is a legislated process which needs to be followed. The Government has always followed that process. It requires the establishment of an independent nomination panel who make recommendations to Government. Government receives that report. Considers it. And if Government decides that there is someone who's more appropriate to fill a vacancy, then the Act provides for that to occur.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
[Interrupts] That's a very good explanation, Minister, of what can occur. It's not at all an answer to why. There's- I think four of the six people on the Board now were not on a list, recommended to you, at the time they were chosen. It's the same with Ita Buttrose. So, the question is why do you keep on not using the list presented to you?

FIFIELD:
We always commission, as the legislation requires, the independent nomination panel process. That's not something that we have a choice about. That process is required. And we have always instigated that process. But the legislation, which was Labor's drafting, makes explicit provision for the Government to make an appointment apart from the names on the list. Now on some occasions we have appointed people from the list. On others we've made an appointment apart from the list.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
[Interrupts] On most occasions, with the current Board.

FIFIELD:
Well, [indistinct]-

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
[Interrupts] I just want an explanation for why. I am not suggesting to you there is anything improper. It's clear under the law you can look at the list and then choose someone from outside of the list. But I have asked two or three times: why do you keep stepping away from that list?

FIFIELD:
I've explained a couple of times, Raf, that where the Government is of the view that there is someone more appropriate to appoint, then that option is there and the Government has exercised that option.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
Well, we can let everyone else decide whether or not that's an answer to the why question - 1300 222 774.

If I can use a phrase like either conduit or firewall - a lot of the discussion around the former chairman who left in bad circumstances was whether or not a chair should be a conduit for Government communication with the ABC, or a firewall against Government intervention. Is a chair for you a conduit or a firewall?

FIFIELD:
Well, Raf, I'm not going to be restricted to two words that you present to me. The role of the chair of the ABC, indeed the role of the Board of the ABC, is to observe the legislated independence that the organisation has. Now, that is something that this Government has always observed. But, of course, it's entirely appropriate for the Government to communicate to the chair of the ABC as the head of a Commonwealth agency.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
Maybe an example everyone can understand: if you're furious about this interview - I'm not suggesting you are. If you were-

FIFIELD:
[Interrupts] Raf, never with you.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
But would it be appropriate for you to ring the chair and say: that was a terrible interview; that's an example of non-independent broadcasting. Is the chair an appropriate person for you to complain to about journalism or broadcasting at the ABC?

FIFIELD:
Raf, it's open to any member of the community, be they a Member of Parliament or-

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
[Interrupts] It's very different when you're the Communications Minister and you selected them.

FIFIELD:
Raf, let me continue. It's open to any member of the community, be they a Member of Parliament or a member of the general public, if they think that the ABC has made an error of fact, for instance, to raise that with the ABC. As it's open to any member of the community or any Member of Parliament to do so with a commercial media organisation. That's the general point. And Raf-

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
[Interrupts] If you hated all of my interrupting, would you ring Ita Buttrose or would you write a letter through the complaints process?

FIFIELD:
[Laughs] Look, Raf, I wouldn't do either. I would just put that down to the idiosyncratic and charming interviewing style of Raf Epstein.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
Okay. You can text as well, by the way - 0437 774 774.
She did say something interesting about funding - Ita Buttrose has been selected as the new chair, she's not officially it I think until the Governor-General gazettes it.

FIFIELD:
That's right.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
Either way, let's just have a listen to what Ita Buttrose suggested:

[Excerpt]

ITA BUTTROSE:
I haven't been through the accounts yet; I haven't discussed anything with the acting managing director or with the acting chair. And I need to look at those things, I need to look at those figures and see what's what. I'm aware of what the current funding is. But look, let me assure you that if I think there is a need for more funding, I won't be frightened to ask for it.

[End of excerpt]

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
She's going to be asking for more money, isn't she? I mean, the ABC very much takes the position – they received this money that they expected to receive. What would you say to her?

FIFIELD:
Raf, we have the budget only a matter of weeks away and in that budget we will outline the funding for the next triennium. Ita Buttrose has indicated that she's very much her own person, which we respect, and she will put her views forward.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
Can you say no to Ita Buttrose?

FIFIELD:
Look, as chair, she will make a case on behalf of the organisation from time to time as you would expect.

 

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
Mitch Fifield is the Communications Minister, that does mean he's responsible for the ABC. It doesn't mean technically he's my boss – we're both employed by the taxpayer. Can I just ask you Mitch Fifield, if you think most Australians believe the ABC is not biased? Ita Buttrose actually mentioned, it's been consistently [indistinct] survey people, about a fifth roughly over time say the ABC is biased, which means of course that four-fifths of the country do not believe the ABC is biased and that they trust us a lot. Do you agree with her that most Australians do not think the ABC is biased?

FIFIELD:
The ABC is a large organisation. I don't believe it has a monolithic culture. I think there's a range of different cultures within the organisation. And no media organisation is perfect. And the ABC should always strive to be it's best self. I guess I characterise the relationship that Australians have with the ABC as a bit like being in a long-term relationship - sometimes you can't get enough of them, sometimes you don't want to be in the same room, but something keeps you coming back.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
So unbiased?

FIFIELD:
Well look, the ABC is not a perfect organisation. There is no media organisation in Australia which has yet achieved a state of nirvana. It does a good job, but all media organisations should always strive to continually improve.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
Can I just ask you about some money that went to Warren Mundine? He suggested to your Cabinet colleague, the Indigenous Affairs Minister, a TV show celebrating Aboriginal business success. The minister then asked the PM's Department for that and Warren Mundine received $300,000 to produce a Sky News show. And he's now of course a Liberal Party candidate. Do you know if any other Indigenous figure was offered a chance to raise their profile on TV in that way?

FIFIELD:
Raf, I'm not aware of any of the background of that.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
Do you think it could be seen- well it is, it's a potential Liberal MP suggesting to a Liberal minister an idea for a TV show. And the Liberal Prime Minister gives money to him and he later becomes a Liberal candidate. Does that sound like good government process?

FIFIELD:
Well Raf, as I say, I don't know any of the background of what you're putting to me. Yes, I do know that Warren Mundine is our candidate for the seat of Gilmore. But the other things you put to me, I'm not aware of.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
Can I ask you one outside portfolio question? You are Communications and the Arts but I've asked this of both your Energy and Environment Minister; do you think this Government, departmental proof that you'll meet your Paris emissions targets?

FIFIELD:
Yes.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
Can you point me to it?

FIFIELD:
I rely on the advice of my ministerial colleagues.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
Because I did put it to both Angus Taylor and Melissa Price; their department in December last year said we're going to miss our Paris targets by a mile. That's the department's forecasting.

FIFIELD:
Raf, I'll stick to my brief and my portfolio, but I've got no reason not to believe that our targets will be met and I've got full confidence in the advice of my ministerial colleagues.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
Mitch Fifield, thank you for your time.

FIFIELD:
Good to be with you.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
Mitch Fifield is the Communications Minister.

[ends]