SUBJECTS: Departure of ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie; Liberal attacks on the ABC; Emma Husar.
FRAN KELLY: The ABC’s first female Managing Director is gone, but the controversy over her sacking rolls on. Michelle Guthrie says she’s considering all legal options after the national broadcaster’s Board unceremoniously dumped her yesterday. She says nobody told her what she did wrong, to prompt her termination, and in interviews yesterday the Chairman of the ABC, Justin Milne, refused to detail the Board’s reasoning:
JUSTIN MILNE, ABC CHAIR: These are difficult conversations for boards to have, it’s a difficult decision for the Board to make. We take it incredibly seriously. It hasn’t been taken lightly; it’s been taken over a long period of time and over a lot of discussions. And I’m sorry but I’m just not gonna share those, the details of the ins and outs of that with you. And I apologise for that but I’m doing that, I think, in everybody’s interests.
KELLY: That’s the ABC Chairman Justin Milne speaking on ABC News 24 yesterday. Well Michelle Rowland is Labor’s Communications spokesperson. Michelle Rowland, welcome to Breakfast.
MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Thank you.
KELLY: Were you happy with that explanation from the Chairman or do you think the Board owes audiences and taxpayers a better explanation of why Michelle Guthrie has been sacked?
ROWLAND: Well there’s a couple of reasons that have been given in a statement that’s been provided by the ABC, and leadership style has been cited as a factor. And as you say, I note the Chairman has said he’s not going into the ins and outs of the decision out of respect for Michelle Guthrie and all of the people that are involved and, I can understand that. And I note Michelle Guthrie herself says that her contract permits the Board to terminate her appointment without cause and with immediate effect. But that said, I think Australians will be curious as to what has transpired. Ultimately this is about who leads a taxpayer-funded institution – a very important institution in Australia’s democracy – and it’s also taxpayer funds that would be used to pay out the Managing Director’s contract at the end of the day.
KELLY: So you’re saying we should have more transparency around this.
ROWLAND: I think there will be opportunities for that coming up at Senate Estimates in the near future.
KELLY: Were you aware this move was coming? Have you had any communication with the ABC Board, did you know there were tensions?
ROWLAND: It took me completely by surprise. It’s a very big decision of the Board. I found out when most of Australia found out as well, through the media. And the only direct contact I received was after the event by the ABC Chairman, who contacted me directly, and that was after the ABC had released a statement and that didn’t particularly add much to what was in the statement.
KELLY: So you weren’t aware of tensions between the Board, or the Managing Director and the Chairman?
ROWLAND: I wasn’t aware of tensions. I was aware that there was some views about technology and content and a general idea of direction in which the ABC would be going but I certainly wasn’t aware that that was, apparently, such a source of conflict as we’ve been reading in the last 24 hours.
KELLY: Well several reasons have been proffered for her dismissal, one is she lacked the necessary skills to run an organisation the size of the ABC; another that she was an ineffective lobbyist, in a sense, for the ABC in Canberra as the Government continued to cut our funding. As a Shadow Minister, you must have had contact with her – how did you assess her performance?
ROWLAND: I always found my dealings with Michelle Guthrie to be very professional. Labor and Ms Guthrie didn’t always see eye to eye on some particular policy issues, including around the closure of shortwave radio and cuts to transcription services, for example. But, I found she was open and responsive and, even though we didn’t always agree, she was always very pleasant to deal with and I’m not aware of any of my peers who raised any particular issues with her that could have been unresolvable. But having said that, of course Fran, that’s in my capacity as an MP and as a Shadow Minister and I can appreciate that other people, particularly those within the ABC, may well had a different relationship.
KELLY: What about her strength as a political advocate? I mean as a future, potential future, Minister for Communications, do you think it’s important that the ABC has a Managing Director who will stand up to the Government of the day, whatever the stripes?
ROWLAND: Well, I think that view has been made clear in a number of corners already. The MEAA, for example, was specifically said that they need a champion for public broadcasting and what they call…
KELLY: What do you think?
ROWLAND: …I was about to say, ‘and I agree with that assessment’. I think the ABC does need a champion in the face of what’s been ongoing, sustained political attacks, both in a financial sense and an ideological sense. And I think it’s fair to say, Fran, look in initial Estimates: Michelle Guthrie was criticised, and I did also note this personally, that she didn’t see it as her role to advocate for more funding under questioning at Senate Estimates. But, over time, and in particular in relation to the last budget cut of $83.7 million, Michelle Guthrie was unequivocal in stating that that cut would make it very hard for the ABC to meet its Charter obligations.
KELLY: And was she powerful enough, do you think, in pushing back on that, and campaigning and ongoing campaign for that funding to be restored?
ROWLAND: Look I think she was making the point very well. I think that the ABC overall was particularly good in highlighting the level of trust and the need for the ABC to remain a strong and well-funded and supported public institution. And look, I think time will tell whether or not that was effective at the end of the day.
KELLY: Others, including the man who hired her, the former Chairman Jim Spigelman, saw her as a change agent given her previous roles with Google and NewsCorp. She reportedly clashed, there’s many reports around today, she clashed with the Chairman Justin Milne over his expensive plan to launch a massive new database called “Jetstream”. Do you know much about Jetstream, do you think it’s a good idea, are you on board with it?
ROWLAND: Well I’m generally aware of the idea of the need to upgrade and modernise the ABC platform as some sort of single repository of all ABC content, as well as archive material. And the way that I understand that rationale, I see that’s sound, and of course major technological investments are not new for the ABC; an organisation of its scale, of course it would be something that’s very significant. I’m not aware of all the ins and outs of the project but I do appreciate that Michelle Guthrie was also very concerned about content and I see that this has been interpreted in some sources as a technology versus a content issue. I’d always seen the two as quite complementary. And as I said, I didn’t, I wasn’t aware that it was an issue of such conflict.
KELLY: You’re listening to RN Breakfast. Our guest is Michelle Rowland, the Shadow Minister for Communications. On another matter, Michelle Rowland, your Western Sydney Labor colleague Emma Husar seems to be considering a change of heart regarding her decision to quit politics at the next election. Is it your understanding she will contest the next election, after all?
ROWLAND: My understanding is that she’s made a decision that enough was enough, and I haven’t spoken to her or seen anything about that to the contrary.
KELLY: So she hasn’t spoken to you about whether she might stay on. Is there any chance she could stay on as a Labor candidate for Lindsay?
ROWLAND: I’m not aware of any talks that may have been going on in that department, Fran, that’s one that’s actually handled by the NSW Branch of the Labor Party.
KELLY: If she decided to run again, but not for Labor, as an Independent, would she be a formidable candidate, would she hurt Labor’s chances?
ROWLAND: Well of course it’s always disappointing if people who were once Labor candidates choose to run as independents but I don’t know that that’s been suggested in this case for Emma, at all.
KELLY: All right, Michelle Rowland, thank you very much for joining us.
KELLY: Michelle Rowland is the Shadow Minister for Communications.