Two media executives and lawyer passed over for Ita Buttrose as ABC chair, FOI confirms

PM’s ‘captain’s pick’ given job over ex Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood, former News Corp CEO Kim Williams and lawyer Ian Robertson, who were recommended by independent panel

Two senior media executives and an eminent media lawyer were passed over for appointment as chair of the ABC board last year in favour of prime minister Scott Morrison’s “captain’s pick” of journalist and businesswoman Ita Buttrose, documents released on Wednesday under freedom of information confirm.

Buttrose was appointed as the direct choice of the prime minister despite the fact she had not been through the arm’s length independent selection process.

The men recommended for the job by the independent panel were former Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood, former News Corporation CEO Kim Williams and senior lawyer Ian Robertson AO, the national managing partner of Holding Redlich.

All three subjected themselves to an extensive vetting process, involving a number of gruelling interviews and background police and taxation checks, only to see the process and its recommendations ignored by the government. Buttrose, on the other hand, did not apply for the job.

The document released on Wednesday also reveals that in 2015, the man who went on to be appointed as Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel, was recommended for the ABC board but was rejected in favour of then minister for communications Mitch Fifield’s “captains picks” of businesswomen Dr Kirstin Ferguson and Donny Walford.

At the time of Buttrose’s appointment Morrison defended bypassing the selection process, saying she was an “extraordinary Australian” and he had been disappointed the independent panel had not recommended any women.

While the Buttrose appointment was widely welcomed, it continued a chain of decisions by the government that sidestepped the process set up to safeguard the ABC from political interference.

The result is that most ABC board members now hold office as the direct appointees of the government, meaning the exhaustive selection process has often been in vain.

The revelations raise the issue of whether the current minister for communications, Paul Fletcher, will continue the pattern of “captain’s picks” set by his predecessor.

Two board positions will fall vacant in November this year, when the terms of Ferguson and Walford expire. The selection process for their replacements should begin soon.

Fletcher told Guardian Australia that “all appointments to the ABC and SBS boards are carefully considered based on a range of factors with a view to the boards doing their jobs effectively”.

“Of course another important factor is complying with legislative requirements which set out steps to be taken before appointments can be made.”

Hywood, Williams and Robertson all declined to comment on Wednesday, and Finkel is on leave and could not be reached.

But other applicants for the board said the process had been so frequently abused that good candidates would be reluctant to subject themselves to it, meaning the minister should either commit to acting on its recommendations or abolish the process – which would mean changes to legislation.

The “arm’s length” selection process for appointments to the ABC and SBS board was established by the Rudd Labor government after years of political stacking by both sides of politics.

Under the process, applicants for board positions are vetted against selection criteria by a panel that puts a shortlist of recommended candidates to the minister for communications.

But the Coalition government has routinely ignored the recommendations in favour of making its own choices.

There are nine members of the ABC Board, including managing director of the ABC, David Anderson, and staff-elected director Dr Jane Connors.

Out of the remaining seven, five were appointed directly by the Coalition government, outside the independent process.

As well, former media executive Peter Lewis, who was appointed through the independent process in 2014, had his term extended by the government for another five years in 2019, meaning there was no independent selection process on that occasion.

Wednesday’s release follows an earlier disclosure in August last year that showed some of Australia’s most eminent cultural figures were passed over in 2017 in favour of appointing mining executive Vanessa Guthrie to the board, despite the fact she was not recommended by the independent process.

Those recommended but not appointed in 2017 included singer, writer and director Robyn Archer, former managing director of SBS Shaun Brown, and Sandra Levy, former chief executive of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.

The release covers the board appointments made in 2015, 2018 and the appointment of the chair early last year.

In November 2015, Walford and Ferguson were appointed, but the panel recommended Finkel, company director Kathleen Bailey-Lord, lawyer Katrina Rathie and two other nominees who objected to their names being released.

Ferguson was recommended by the independent process but withdrew before being persuaded to take up the appointment by the Fifield. Walford was not recommended.

In May 2018, businessman Joseph Gersh was appointed despite not being recommended. The panel preferred Stephen Targett, a company director and deputy chair of the P&N Bank, and two other nominees who objected to their names being released.

A Senate inquiry into allegations of political interference at the ABC recommended last April the strengthening of requirements for the leader of the opposition to be consulted over the appointment of the ABC chair, as well as improvements to the transparency of the board selection process. The government rejected all its recommendations, saying the existing process was adequate.


Margaret Simons

The GuardianTramp

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