Subjects: ABC political interference; Banking Royal Commission.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Thanks very much for joining me. I’ve decided to hold this press conference as a former Communications Minister, because I know what the responsibilities of the Communications Minister, when it comes to ensuring the independence of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, are. The fact is that we now know that on the 15th of June at the meeting where the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, called in the Chairman of the ABC, Mr Justin Milne, to complain about journalists coverage of various issues, in particular to complain about Andrew Probyn and reporting about the date of the by-election that was held for the Super Saturday on the 28th of July, there was another person there as well and that person was the Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield.
Now Mitch Fifield has a particular responsibility as Communications Minister to ensure the integrity of the ABC Charter is upheld, to ensure the integrity of that separation between the public broadcaster and political interference is assured. What we know now, as a direct result of that meeting, Mr Milne felt that so severe was the criticism of the Government that it imperilled funding for the ABC, which he saw and it led to him demanding that the ABC CEO shoot Mr Andrew Probyn. For Mitch Fifield to sit in that meeting is quite extraordinary. Mr Fifield has a responsibility to, during that meeting, say that he respected the fact that the ABC Chairman should operate separate from political interference. Quite clearly that just didn’t happen.
What’s more this morning we know that Scott Morrison has gone on radio in Melbourne and has not ruled out the amalgamation of the ABC and SBS. What we know is that the Government, in its most recent Budget, cut $83 million from the ABC and they set up a process of consideration of efficiencies, but that consideration explicitly rules out the amalgamation of ABC and SBS. It does it for very sensible reasons, that they’re separate organisations with very different roles and responsibilities in the Australian media landscape. So here we have Scott Morrison leaving that open, in spite of the fact that the Government’s own review of the efficiency dividend called for to cover up for the $83 million cut that he has Treasurer imposed on the ABC, he’s now talking openly about amalgamation.
But we know of course that what the Government really wants is what the Liberal Party has explicitly said they want, which is privatisation of the ABC. The attacks must stop and for as long as Mitch Fifield is the Communications Minister then we’ll know that this is a Government determined to undermine the independence and integrity of the ABC. The Government should shift Mr Fifield to a different portfolio and we need a Communications Minister who can uphold that high responsibility that he has.
Mr Morrison has also today appointed an Acting Chair of the ABC and I just hope that due diligence has been done over this appointment, because we know that there’s a real cloud over all the ABC Board members, given that they knew about Mr Milne’s emails to Ms Guthrie for a week and didn’t say anything about it – didn’t appear to think there was anything wrong with it until it was leaked to the media before they were prepared to even raise any criticism. This draws a real question over the entire membership of the ABC Board as it stands. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: So do you support the appointment of Dr Kirstin Ferguson?
ALBANESE: Well it’s not up to me to support it. What it’s up to me to do is to hope that the Government has done due diligence. I think there’s an issue over the entire board membership at the moment and what their role was when they knew this information. They knew about the emails, they saw the emails from Mr Milne to Ms Guthrie clearly, clearly asking, as the Chairman, for interference on the basis of essentially a political request from the Government. They knew that and they did nothing about it.
That’s why we need a full and open, transparent enquiry. That’s what Labor’s called for, that’s what we’ll initiate in the Senate so that this information can all be got out there and I should imagine the ABC Board members will be called before that enquiry. There are other issues as well have been raised about this particular appointment and I just hope the Government has done its due diligence on this.
JOURNALIST: Mr Morrison this morning was saying that he hasn’t seen anything to indicate that the board, the rest of the board, should stand down. I mean, do you think that they should be thinking about their jobs going forward?
ALBANESE: Well of course they should, because as board members they are responsible for ensuring that there’s not political interference in the ABC. And what we’ve had is that various people at the ABC have spoken about – people like Don McDonald – Mark Scott was, of course, in charge of the ABC while I was the Communications Minister and Stephen Conroy -was appointed by the former Coalition Government. He did his job effectively and diligently. Various chairs of the ABC – Don McDonald, Jim Spigelman – all did their job regardless of who they were appointed by in a diligent fashion.
What we have here is board members who receive reports and emails with the detail there clearly, explicitly calling for journalists to be removed in order to appease the political views of those precious petals who make up the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government, who don’t like any criticism at all. And let’s be clear about the issue that was raised at the June meeting between Mr Morrison, Mr Milne and Senator Fifield as the Communications Minister. The issue was over whether there was any political input into the choosing of the date of those by-elections. Now other journalists wrote that too. Phil Coorey in the Australian Financial Review today, states very clearly that Cabinet Ministers have said to him, that there was a political choice made to choose that date. Now the Prime Minister, former Prime Minister Turnbull, has indeed been criticised by his own side both publicly and certainly to me privately about the 12-week campaign for the by-elections which follows the longest campaign in political history in 2016. And going to Malcolm Turnbull’s judgement, you have Cabinet Ministers and people who were a part of the Dutton and Morrison challenges to Malcolm Turnbull, saying that it was Malcolm Turnbull’s judgement drawn into question with the choosing of that date. The Speaker we know consults with the Leaders of the political parties before choosing a date, and we know very explicitly that Labor objected very strongly to the choosing of that date. And said it should be held, those by-elections should be held, as soon as possible.
And we know there was inconsistency with those dates and the dates in which Barnaby Joyce’s by-election was called and the Bennelong by-election was called. So for Mr Milne to be hauled over the coals to such a degree whereby he felt that the Government’s ongoing support for the ABC was in question and the only way to avoid that was actually to have journalists sacked, and that he argued that case in writing to the CEO of the ABC, and the members of the board saw those emails and did nothing about it for a week after Ms Guthrie was removed from her position and Justin Milne remained the chair, seemingly with the absolute confidence and support of the board, that raises very real questions here and that’s why we need a full and transparent inquiry.
But that’s why, also, Mitch Fifield’s position as Communications Minister is untenable. The Government should be able to find something for him. He doesn’t have to be made an envoy. They can find something for him where he can’t do damage to the national broadcaster. But I can’t see how he can remain in that position, given he sat in on that meeting on the 15th of June.
JOURNALIST: Do you think there is a sense of urgency in appointing a new permanent Chairman of the ABC? And should the terms of service be looked at?
ALBANESE: Well, they need to get it right, that’s the first thing. So whoever the Chair is needs to be an appointment that will restore confidence in the fact that the ABC is a public broadcaster not a Government broadcaster on behalf of the state. I mean, you know what we’ve seen with all of this, is a Government determined to control reporting of it, which journalists work where – and there’s a word for that. It’s called totalitarian. That’s what totalitarian regimes do. Here in Australia, in a democracy, with a public broadcaster that we cherish, it is vital that it be protected. I believe that the ABC has overwhelmingly the support. That doesn’t mean that everyone in Australia always likes what’s on the ABC. It certainly doesn’t mean that every politician likes everything that’s on the ABC. From time to time, there wouldn’t be any politician that didn’t object or disagree with an angle that the ABC took on a particular story. But that’s not the point. They have a right to complain, what they don’t have a right to do is to intimidate the ABC to the point whereby we essentially have journalists’ jobs being drawn into question.
JOURNALIST: So considering the current situation with the board, I mean, do you think that the entire board should, you know, stand down and leave way for a fresh leadership team at the top there?
ALBANESE: Well I certainly think the questions need to be answered, of why it is that a Board Member could see an email like that from Justin Milne to Ms Guthrie and not believe that was worthy of further action being taken to ensure the ABC’s Charter was protected.
That’s why we need an inquiry. It may well be there’s an explanation, but I can’t see what it would be. That someone would see that email and not understand that made Mr Milne’s position untenable, as he himself saw yesterday and as commentators’ right across the political spectrum have seen.
ALBANESE: All of their positions are under a cloud at the moment. And every single one of them who saw that email has to explain why it is that wasn’t worthy of further response. And that’s why we need an inquiry. The ABC is a cherished national institution, it plays such an important role in the cultural life of Australia and its worth protecting. And we certainly are prepared to protect it and I’m sure the Australian community want to protect it as well. Thanks very much.
JOURNALIST: Just a very, very brief one, just about the Banking Royal Commission, sorry. Your thoughts about the interim report coming out today, do you have any thoughts about what is expected today? Considering that Scott Morrison himself, you know he didn’t want it for 600 days or so. Whatever it was, yeah.
ALBANESE: Well what we see today is a damning indictment of many people, not all, but many in the banking and financial services sector. Labor campaigned for this Royal Commission. We said if we were elected in 2016 we would have called it, it would have been finished by now, not handing down interim reports.
Scott Morrison voted against this Royal Commission on 23 occasions, in the Parliament. He called it a stunt. He argued it was a waste of time. What we know, is that it’s been very valuable in bringing out the facts when it comes to the abuse of power that financial institutions have used against some of the most vulnerable people in our community. And there have been some startling revelations, day after day. What is clear is that Scott Morrison has a lot to answer for for why he objected to this on 23 separate occasions in spite of the fact that there was mounting evidence that this Royal Commission was required. This is a Government that wants Royal Commissions into the Labor Party and into its political opponents. It doesn’t want to use Royal Commissions for what it should be used for, which is to get information about big national issues out there on the table so that reforms can occur. What we need to do is to embark on any changes to the financial regulatory system, to ensure that these sorts of stories can’t happen again and that people can have absolute confidence in the financial services sector. Thanks very much.