SUBJECTS: Allegations regarding political interference at the ABC involving Justin Milne; Labor’s call for Senate Inquiry into political interference at the ABC.
MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: This has been a tumultuous few days in which one of the most valued pillars of our democracy, the ABC, our trusted public broadcaster, has been the centre. It is vitally important that Australians have trust and confidence in our public broadcaster and Australians can be assured that it is acting independently and with integrity, and that people charged with acting as such do so with independence and integrity. As I said earlier yesterday, we had a situation where reports had emerged of alleged political interference in the ABC.
I have also made it clear that I had spoken to the Chairman, Mr Milne, yesterday morning and without revealing the content of those discussions, I was not satisfied with Mr Milne's response. Labor has repeatedly, even today, made it clear that if Mr Milne is incapable of answering some of the very serious questions that go to his role of being independent and acting with integrity in this role then certainly his position as Chairman should be considered untenable.
Labor has methodically pursued this approach, which is why today I understand the gravity that I'm about to say. And that is that Labor does not have confidence in the Chairman of the ABC. Labor believes that the ABC, as a trusted public institution, should be capable of holding that public's trust, and that that has been severely compromised by the reports that we continue to see today of alleged political interference.
The other thing that Labor wishes to know, and it is a very valid question that many Australians would want to know as well, this started with the issue of the Managing Director's sacking by the ABC Board. What did the Prime Minister know, what reasons were given to him and to the Minister for Communications for her sacking? When did they find out and what did they know? These are some of the questions that need to be answered. And again, it is for this reason that Labor is calling for an independent, transparent Senate Inquiry into political interference at the ABC. The public's trust and confidence in the ABC has taken a battering. This is not only about trust; it is about governance that goes to that trust.
JOURNALIST: So you think that Justin Milne should step down?
ROWLAND: Labor's view is that his position is untenable and hence we do not have confidence in his position as Chairman. That is a matter for him to make, a decision that he would make in relation to his position.
JOURNALIST: Obviously the pressure’s mounting. If he steps down by the end of the day you would very much welcome that?
ROWLAND: Well Labor does not believe that his position is tenable. We don't have confidence in him and we believe it is for the good of the ABC, and certainly for the Australian public as stakeholders in the ABC, and also considering it is such a vital part of our democracy, that that would certainly be something that the Chairman should be considering in formulating his decision.
JOURNALIST: So far, it looks like he's digging in and he's going to stay. What then, are there any avenues or what would you like to see if he decides to stay in the role?
ROWLAND: There are very limited grounds for removal of the Chairman in this instance. So ultimately it is for the Chairman to make up his own mind. There are very limited circumstances, and these are untested, for the government to form a view that certain aspects of the public governance and accountability regime may or may not have been satisfied. But I believe, and Labor believes, that as each day goes on and as we find out more of these allegations about alleged political interference, every day this goes on the public's trust in the ABC is eroded and that cannot be allowed to continue.
JOURNALIST: What do you make of reports in the Daily Telegraph that Justin Milne asked Michelle Guthrie to shoot Andrew Probyn because the Prime Minister hates him?
ROWLAND: These are extraordinary allegations. They go to the heart of an independent functioning public broadcaster. It is not a state broadcaster. It should not be concerned with who the Prime Minister of the day is, or what the politics of the day may be. On any particular issue, the ABC should be able to do its job without fear of retribution. And we know that, under this government, it has been subjected to financial and ideological attack. This government likes to talk big about supporting the independence and having a strong ABC, but its action show the absolute contrary. It has cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the ABC's budget since 2014 despite an explicit promise not to. It has a series of Bills before the Parliament as we speak, in order to undermine and meddle with the ABC Act and ABC Charter. It's instigated a competitive neutrality inquiry with One Nation over media ownership laws. And it's got an efficiency review under way which many fear is simply code for more cuts.
So, this is a government which certainly has displayed its true colours in relation to the ABC in the past, including under Scott Morrison whose latest budget cut of $83.7 million was the last cut that happened, but certainly which the former Managing Director said would be the straw that broke the camel's back.
JOURNALIST: The sacking of the MD and the interference of the Chairman are two separate issues. Does Labor have confidence in the rest of the Board considering the rest of the Board were part of the sacking of the MD?
ROWLAND: These are matters that need to be explored and that is why Labor has called for a full and transparent inquiry into these issues because they certainly go towards the obligations of the Board under the ABC Act to act with independence and integrity.
JOURNALIST: Why aren't you satisfied with the inquiry that the Communications Minister has announced?
ROWLAND: With greatest respect to Mike Mrdak, this is a person who answers to the Minister for Communications. And for Mitch Fifield to think that this would satisfy the Australian people I think simply misjudges how the public feels about this issue. We don't even know whether this is going to be public, we don't know whether the findings are going to be public. At least with a Senate Inquiry, we know that there are powers to compel witnesses, to take evidence and that this would be an open and transparent process. And when you consider that this is all about trust, this is about governance, this is about perceptions as well. The Australian public need to be assured that we are going to have a process that is going to get to the bottom of this.
JOURNALIST: So, you don't think that the inquiry that is happening is going to be transparent?
ROWLAND: Labor does not consider that this inquiry is satisfactory because it is being conducted by the Minister's own Department. It is not looking like it is going to be one in which findings will be made public, it is not looking like one in which the public will have a say and have a role, and one in which they can observe its actual undertakings. So, for those reasons, Labor is not satisfied and that is precisely why we called for a Senate Inquiry. And it is notable that the Minister only chose to respond to act late yesterday; reactive in every sense when the public mood clearly shows that the public wants answers to these serious questions.
JOURNALIST: Back to the issue that started this all: does Labor have a problem with the sacking of Michelle Guthrie?
ROWLAND: Labor understands that the Board took an independent decision in order to effect that outcome and I made that clear on Monday when this became apparent. And Labor really understood - and we made that very clear - that those powers are there, that the Board isn't required to give reasons. But we want to know what the Prime Minister was told, what reasons he was given, what reasons the Minister for Communications has given as to that sacking, particularly in light of everything that we now know about the alleged political interference with the ABC.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that the Minister's intervention and looking in is just a Coalition cover up?
ROWLAND: Labor is very concerned that not only do we need to have the actuals come out, but also, the perceptions are very important. And let's bear in mind that this is a Minister who is a card carrying member of the IPA, which advocates the privatisation of the ABC. He has made substantial complaints to the ABC over various matters, he has presided over cuts to the ABC and quite frankly, Labor does not have confidence that this inquiry done alone by his Department will be satisfactory to bring all those matters out. And that is what the Australian public are crying out for: transparency. They are stakeholders in this matter and they have a right to know what is going on.
JOURNALIST: The government and Malcolm Turnbull have maintained that, yes they've raised issues of accuracy within the ABC but they haven't actually interfered. Do you believe that?
ROWLAND: Well we haven't had an outright denial of some of the specifics that have been going on here. And I've heard what former Prime Minister Turnbull said and what the Communications Minister said today. Quite frankly, those allegations that have been made need to be tested and they need to be tested in a transparent way and one that goes directly to issues of independence and integrity.
JOURNALIST: This week, you know, this has been going on for days now. How damaging do you think it is to the ABC as a brand?
ROWLAND: The ABC brand is well trusted in Australia. It is one of Australia’s national treasures, as it is often called, and it's no secret that the ABC is consistently rated as the most trusted news source in Australia. And that is why, more than ever, in an era of fake news and media consolidation, Australia requires a strong, independent and well-resourced public broadcaster in the ABC. As this goes on, the ABC relies on people to have trust in it. If that trust is diminished, and if governments do not act to restore that trust, then that is a serious failing of our democracy.
JOURNALIST: So you think this is quite damaging for the ABC?
ROWLAND: There is no denying that the public’s perceptions of this have been negative. Whether they have been negative about the ABC as an entity which provides quality news journalism is another matter. But certainty the public’s confidence, I believe, in the running of the ABC, and in the matters surrounding these allegations in the running of the ABC, certainly in the public’s minds is not good at all.
JOURNALIST: You've said you've had conversations with Justin Milne previously. Are you going to speak to him today?
ROWLAND: I don't intend to do that.
JOURNALIST: Would a future Labor Government stop the cuts to ABC and the SBS?
ROWLAND: Labor has made it very clear that we will restore the $83.7 million cut from the ABC and that we support a stable funding trajectory for the ABC in order that it can carry out its task as a trusted public broadcaster. Our record on funding the ABC and the SBS is well known and we have always supported having strong, publicly funded broadcasters in order for the Australian public to benefit from what are very trusted news sources.