I don’t know what was behind the dismissal of former CEO Michelle Guthrie. The board has not given any explanation apart from that it was in the ABC’s interests. Picture: AAP
I don’t know what was behind the dismissal of former CEO Michelle Guthrie. The board has not given any explanation apart from that it was in the ABC’s interests. Picture: AAP

Here’s how we fix the ABC

REGARDLESS of your view of the ABC, the reality is that it is here to stay. But the past few weeks have shown the time has come to reshape the broadcaster into what its charter intended.

And that is an independent broadcaster of record, one that can guarantee listeners and viewers that its news coverage will be factual and balanced.

Investigative stories or opinion pieces should be labelled as such, so that we can all have confidence that news will be separated from opinion.

I don't know what was behind the dismissal of former CEO Michelle Guthrie.

The board has not given any explanation apart from that it was in the ABC's interests.

The board of any organisation has the authority to remove a CEO for specific but limited reasons. But the ABC, as a publicly funded organisation, must give us a full explanation for Guthrie's sacking.

Transparency is not negotiable in situations such as these - we are all shareholders, so we are entitled to know what happened.

Board chairman Justin Milne quickly resigned because of accusations that he had exceeded his authority and because of potential conflicts of interest.

I don’t know what was behind the dismissal of former CEO Michelle Guthrie. The board has not given any explanation apart from that it was in the ABC’s interests. Picture: AAP
I don’t know what was behind the dismissal of former CEO Michelle Guthrie. The board has not given any explanation apart from that it was in the ABC’s interests. Picture: AAP

But it is clear the entire board has been part of a process that has brought no credit on the ABC or on its level of governance.

While it is an independent body, all board appointments except the staff representative are made by the government of the day.

Therefore, I believe that the government now has a responsibility to reset the basis on which the ABC operates.

Of course, the staff representative, Jane Connors, is in a difficult position. On one hand the staff expect her to do its bidding and report back to them.

But as a board member she should be acting as such, as part of a collegiate group, deliberating in confidence. For that reason, I don't think there should be a staff representative on the ABC board.

The deputy chair, Kirstin Ferguson, has shown she is not independent and does not qualify to serve as acting chair, or even as a board member. It is not her role to privately contact an employee and commend her work, as she did with Emma Alberici.

It now seems clear that the entire board is compromised.

Just what is the ABC's role? It's quite simple: it is the nation's broadcaster of factual and balanced record. It tells and shows us who, what, and why we are.

The deputy chair, Kirstin Ferguson, has shown she is not independent and does not qualify to serve as acting chair, or even as a board member. Picture: Britta Campion
The deputy chair, Kirstin Ferguson, has shown she is not independent and does not qualify to serve as acting chair, or even as a board member. Picture: Britta Campion

It should not compete with the commercial industry. The ABC is not owned by its staff, but by its customers, the Australian public.

The ABC should be held accountable for its performance, as should individual journalists, but specifically through the CEO.

Individual mistakes can be forgiven, but where repeated the individual should be treated like any other employee.

The ABC should not be a sheltered workshop but a vibrant workplace.

Finally, it is time the ABC and SBS were brought together under one board, with only one set of administrative functions.

SBS can still operate as a silo within the ABC, but we are long past needing a separate broadcaster for our multicultural identity.

Let me now give an outsider's advice about the new board I would establish.

I would have within its ranks a former respected parliamentarian from each of the conservative and Labor sides. That is to ensure the ABC is seen to be bipartisan.

When I founded beyondblue, I had a former Labor health minister, Carolyn Hogg, and a former National Party member, John McGrath, on the board. Both were highly professional and independent, and helped beyondblue maintain relationships with all sides of politics.

I invited former Labor PM Julia Gillard to join the board and later take over from me as chair.

I invited former Labor PM Julia Gillard to join the board of beyondblue and later take over from me as chair. Picture: AAP
I invited former Labor PM Julia Gillard to join the board of beyondblue and later take over from me as chair. Picture: AAP

At The Torch, my current community activity, I invited Catherine Andrews, our current premier's wife, on to the board.

Catherine is equally professional and greatly assists The Torch in delivering its programs for incarcerated indigenous people, and also on their release.

The remaining members of the ABC board should be people with specific skills, including but not dominated by broadcasting. Their job is to set a long-term vision, set and constantly review strategy, and ensure the CEO delivers a focused management of its charter.

And another thing: the ABC chairman does not have to come from Sydney, as so many senior appointments have under the recent Abbott and Turnbull administrations.

The CEO, responsible for the day-to-day running of the organisation, must be able to lead a diverse organisation and build trust with all stakeholders including the board, staff, consumers, and those who set the laws that allow the ABC to exist. Above all, the CEO must never seek to be a player in the political game.

It is my fervent hope that the federal government and the opposition work together to reset the governance of the ABC.

If we have learnt one thing from the royal commissions into child abuse and the finance sector, it is that trust in many of our institutions and services has been dramatically eroded.

That has also applied to our national political scene.

Political brawling over the failure of governance at the ABC will further erode public trust not only in the political system but in the ABC itself.

Hopefully the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader can sit down and resolve this issue - without any "gotcha" moments.

It would be a home run for common sense and for Australians everywhere.

Have a good day.

Jeff Kennett is a former premier of Victoria