SUBJECT: Labor’s call for Senate Inquiry into political interference at the ABC.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Shadow Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland joins me now. Welcome back to RN Drive.


KARVELAS: The Communications Minister has this afternoon announced an inquiry into political interference at the ABC. Do you welcome that?

ROWLAND: We welcome an inquiry, but Labor has called for an inquiry to be done by the Senate. We don't believe that having an inquiry done by the Minister's own department will provide the necessary level of transparency and certainly in the public's eyes, the public being a key stakeholder in all this, or give the public confidence in the outcomes of this inquiry. Indeed, with the greatest respect to Mike Mrdak, and I do have the greatest respect for him, but Mitch Fifield is his boss and that perception in the eyes of the public cannot be ignored.

Labor believes that we deserve a public inquiry into this matter. It is an extraordinary set of circumstances and at least we know with a Senate Inquiry that there are certain powers to compel witnesses for example, the public tabling of evidence, and we don't know that that will even be the case in respect of an inquiry being undertaken by the Minister's own department. 

KARVELAS: Okay, so just to be clear do you support both inquiries happening at the same time? Is that your ideal scenario here?  

ROWLAND: Well, the ideal scenario is that we have an inquiry that is independent. I am not aware of how the Minister perceives the two inquiries being done in tandem or how one will impact on the other. It just goes to show how reactive this Minister is. But we would certainly want any inquiry to be transparent and one in which the public could have confidence. 

KARVELAS: Some of the ABC Board met via a phone hook-up this afternoon. Justin Milne says he's not resigning. Should he stand aside while this inquiry takes place?

ROWLAND: Well certainly as Bill Shorten has made it clear, we are now, it's 6 o'clock, and this story broke late last night and it is a very relevant query as to whether or not his position remains tenable. And as time goes on I believe, as more of these allegations come out, the public's confidence in the ABC continues to be eroded. And I think it shouldn't be lost on anyone that this is an issue of governance, and governance is an essential component of trust. We talk a lot about trust and about the trust deficit. But today the public's trust in the Chairman and the governance of the ABC has really been thrown into question by today's allegations. And neither the Chairman, nor the Minister, have addressed the allegations head on. -

KARVELAS: So, if Justin Milne doesn't stand down, and right now as we go to air he's not standing down, should the government sack him before an inquiry? Is that what you're saying?

ROWLAND: Well, the powers to do that are actually very limited. What we are actually suggesting in this case is that we have an independent inquiry into this matter. And the ability of the Minister or the government of the day to get rid of the Chairman is actually extremely limited under law. But having said that, based on the regulatory framework, and noting the independence of the Board and their deliberations, it's certainly not unreasonable to expect that the Minister should satisfy themselves as to whether the duties of the Board have been upheld and that is the clear question in this case that goes to the independence and integrity of the ABC. 

KARVELAS: So isn't that what the Minister's doing? I know you're not satisfied that it's a departmental inquiry, but isn't the Minister going through a process now to ascertain what's happened here?

ROWLAND: Well, we don't know what that process is, quite frankly. He has said that he's asked his department to look at it and what that will precisely examine we don't know. This is a couple of lines from the Minister, and within that we have no understanding of what the level of transparency is. And again, I point to the fact that the most important stakeholder in this is the Australian public. And when you have that erosion of trust, particularly in such a trusted organisation like the ABC, it is one that is extremely damaging to our democracy.

KARVELAS: If you're just tuning in, this is RN Drive. I'm Patricia Karvelas and my guest tonight is Michelle Rowland. She's the Shadow Communications Minister joining us tonight. And I'll remind you of our text line 0418 226 576.    

Labor and the Greens want a Senate Inquiry into all of this. Will you wait for the departmental inquiry to release its findings or will you try and get the numbers to get it up when the Parliament sits again? 

ROWLAND: Well, for a start it's not even clear from the brief words from the Minister today whether the findings of the departmental inquiry will actually be made public. So we will continue to pursue a Senate Inquiry into this. As I said, it is an extraordinary turn of events and it's an extraordinary situation that we find ourselves in. But the important thing here is to maintain independence and integrity. So we believe that it is important to continue to pursue this Senate Inquiry.

KARVELAS: There is no evidence anyone from the government lobbied for the sacking of Emma Alberici or any other reporters. Do you have any proof that political interference actually occurred?

ROWLAND: Well this is the question that needs to be answered. It's a very damaging allegation. And to boil it down: did the Chair cite whether or not the government likes a journalist or doesn't like a journalist as a reason to get rid of them and did the Chair put any pressure on the Managing Director to sack a journalist because the government - and I quote - "hates her"? These are very serious questions that we don't believe can be brushed under the carpet. And look, the alternative is to just let this fester and do nothing about it. But look, as the Banking Royal Commission has shown, it's more damaging to ignore it and just as there were critics who said that a Royal Commission would undermine the banking system, I certainly believe that we need to have an independent inquiry in order to maintain the independence and integrity of the ABC.

KARVELAS: If there's not an independent inquiry and it remains just the Communications Department that runs the inquiry, would you launch an inquiry if you were to win government, even after perhaps a Senate Inquiry?

ROWLAND: Well, we would consider it to be quite deficient if we didn't have a transparent set of reasons and some sort of transparency in the process of the inquiry provided to the public. And in Labor, this is an article of faith for us; that the ABC is able to maintain its independence and integrity and that it is supported in deed and not just in word. We would certainly be considering all of our options but we aren't there yet and we are here today to say that the Australian public, in our view, would support above all else a public inquiry into this and the best way to do that is through a Senate process. 

KARVELAS: I know you spoke with Justin Milne. Can you tell us what he said to you that was not satisfactory?

ROWLAND: I won't disclose the details of the conversation. I was grateful that he took my call. But I did not believe, having discussed the allegations that were in the Fairfax media reports today, that the explanation he gave was satisfactory. And in fact, I ended the call with more questions than answers.

KARVELAS: Did he deny the reports to you?

ROWLAND: He certainly did not go towards outright denial of them. It was an open discussion that he had with me. 

KARVELAS: So were you left - I'm just trying to get, Michelle if I can interrupt politely, trying to be polite - but did you get a sense, when you finished that phone call, that he had interfered?

ROWLAND: I had a sense that there was more information that I needed to know. And if it was the case that this allegation would be dismissed outright or that was capable of being addressed head on, then I thought that he would've done that. And it's on the record today, you can see that he made a statement earlier today and again the allegations were not addressed head on. So, in my view, this is compounding the public's view that there are more questions than there are answers being provided here and we find ourselves in a situation where, I think, the public would absolutely support a public inquiry into what is happening. 

KARVELAS: So will you call Justin Milne again and ask him to stand aside whilst an inquiry is conducted?

ROWLAND: I don't intend to make another phone call to him. I will be monitoring this situation and Labor has made its position quite clear on where we think we need to go from here.

KARVELAS: Bill Shorten says the government has made Justin Milne's position untenable and that no political party has the right to interfere like this with the ABC. But do you think governments, in fact if you were in government that you would have the right to complain about reporting that you feel is inaccurate or, you know, somehow is unfair to your side of politics?

ROWLAND: Complaining about reporting is one thing. And we know that complaints have been made, very notable complaints being made, by the Communications Minister, for example, about the ABC and about particular stories that have appeared. But it is one thing to be making complaints and to be making those publicly. It is quite another thing as to the question of whether pressure has been put on the ABC to act in a certain way in relation to a journalist because of the government's view of that journalist. 

KARVELAS: So if Justin Milne is still Chairman by the time of the next election, and if Labor were to win, what would you do?

ROWLAND: This is a hypothetical that I think is quite far ahead to contemplate.

KARVELAS: I like to throw forward.

ROWLAND: Certainly. If we're throwing forward, I believe that Bill Shorten has made it very clear that this situation has now become untenable for the Chairman.

KARVELAS: Should the rest of the Board answer questions as well? Is that part of the way that an investigation, in your view, should work? Is it the whole Board that has to answer questions on these issues?

ROWLAND: Well, I note that that view has been expressed by some notable people, including Kerry O'Brien. But certainly it goes to the duties of the ABC Board and whether they've been maintained in this instance. So certainly this goes back to the question of good governance and what governance has been exercised in these cases. I mean, the ABC Act is very clear. It's a duty of the Board to maintain the independence and integrity of the corporation and these things, Labor believes, are quite fundamental to ensuring the public has trust in our public broadcaster.

KARVELAS: Just finally Michelle Rowland, have you had a chance to speak with Michelle Guthrie since she was fired?

ROWLAND: No I have not. I have been asked about my relationship with her whilst she held the position and as I said, I found our relationship to be professional. Whilst we didn't always agree on particular issues in relation to the ABC, I always found her to be someone who was responsive and maintained a professional relationship with her in my position. 

KARVELAS: And have you sought a meeting with the Department of Communications to find out exactly what the parameters of its inquiry are?

ROWLAND: Not at this stage. Like the rest of Australia, or most of Australia, I only recently found out about the Minister stating that this inquiry would be occurring and I would hope that the department would be issuing some sort of guidance in the very near future about its terms of reference, whether or not it's going to be public and whether its findings will be released as well. 

KARVELAS: Michelle Rowland, thanks for being so generous with your time. Thank you for joining us on RN Drive.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.

KARVELAS: That is the Minister, or the Shadow Minister of course, for Communications Michelle Rowland. And to be clear we have made requests to get Mitch Fifield, who is the Communications Minister, on air tonight and we haven't been successful.