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Govt appoints ABC board members

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PM - Thursday, 15 June , 2006  18:22:18

Reporter: Mark Colvin

MARK COLVIN: The ABC has two new board members, and one of them is on record as saying the national broadcaster's been captured for the last 30 years by Marxists and radicals.

He's Dr Keith Windschuttle, best known at the moment for his role in the so-called History Wars.

Dr Windschuttle's book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History caused an uproar by challenging almost everything that the history establishment had written and taught about the relationship between settlers and Aborigines in the first 150 years of white settlement.

That massive intellectual and academic battle is still being fought out.

The Government also announced today that the term of the ABC Chairman Donald McDonald would be extended, but just to the end of this year.

And it appointed the South Australian President of the Australian Hotels Association Peter Hurley to the board.

But when I spoke to the Minister Helen Coonan this afternoon I asked her about the apparently political nature of the appointment of Keith Windschuttle.

HELEN COONAN: He meets the criteria perfectly. I think many people may not realise… that is the criteria for a board appointment to the ABC… What I think a lot of people may not realise is that besides being a historian, he's got a very strong background in the media, having started out as a journalist, and he worked as a journalist throughout he's career. He's been a lecturer in journalism and has a very strong interest in the media.

MARK COLVIN: But he is as I say on, very much on one side of the picture, when it comes to some of the major debates of our times and these are debates in which the ABC is supposed to hold the ring, isn't it, as almost as a neutral referee?

HELEN COONAN: Well, I think that's a reasonable comment, except I think that what you could say is that he has put forward a different view in the debate about Australian history, and he's challenged the work of some other prominent academics and perhaps opened up a very interesting and at times, robust debate.

I don't see that that would disqualify him as being an appropriate appointment to the board where you need a whole mix of skills, and in an organisation, which is of course taxpayer funded where I think a broad range of views is entirely appropriate for the board.

MARK COLVIN: Nonetheless, you have placed on this board, three prominent contributors to one magazine, Quadrant, which again is very much on one side of politics.

It looks like a board stack doesn't it?

HELEN COONAN: Well I don't think, I certainly wouldn't characterise it as that, and I really do emphasise that the ABC board members have got a broad range of skills and if we just go through them, I mean in addition to Ms Albrechtsen, who I suppose, you put in that category…

MARK COLVIN: Well, Janet Albrechtsen, Ron Brunton and Keith Windschuttle are all quite strongly associated with that side of politics and in particular, with Quadrant magazine.

Now the Quadrant board shouldn't be the same as the ABC board, should it?

HELEN COONAN: No, it shouldn't, but then of course you've got Donald McDonald whose been extended, he's a long time arts administrator, and I think has done a good job on the ABC board, as the Chair…

MARK COLVIN: He's only extended for six months.

HELEN COONAN: Well he's been there for 10 years and he's extended for six months to provide continuity.

MARK COLVIN: Yes, but in terms of the future, where is the spread in terms of people that you're talking about - these are three contributors, as journalists, historians, anthropologists, so on. Where's the spread of views?

HELEN COONAN: Okay, well look, you've got Donald McDonald, you've got John Gallagher, QC, whose a senior counsel from Queensland, you've got Steven Skala, whose a legal finance and banking expert, you've got the new member Peter Hurley, whose got a very diverse background in business and management, and you've got Mark Scott, of course the new Managing Director, whose got a media and management background.

Now I think if you put the whole board together, it clearly demonstrates an excellent mix of skills on the board and its appropriate for an organisation with an annual budget in excess of $800 million of taxpayers' money.

I think it puts the ABC, if I may say so, on a very solid footing with an excellent Budget outcome and a full compliment of board members and a diverse and appropriate mix of skills.

MARK COLVIN: But the point I'm trying to put to you is, that of the people on the board who have an identifiable political leaning, all three of them are from a fairly dry conservative background.

There aren't even what you'd call wet conservatives, as it were.

HELEN COONAN: No, but I mean, they're not… they don't have the majority on the board. I mean, I've already gone through the fact that there's a lot of others there.

There's another five, with a very diverse background and mix of skills, including the Chairman.

I mean, we have set out, and I have personally set out to put the ABC on a very sound footing. I'm extremely pleased that we've been able to secure decent funding for the ABC and the board now has its full compliment of members.

We try and make the best choices at the time that you need to make these appointments and I do emphasise that there's a very diverse mix of skills on the board.

MARK COLVIN: Both Ron Brunton and Janet Albrechtsen had been very critical of the ABC as being too left-wing before they joined.

Now Keith Windschuttle gave a lecture last year in which he said that the ABC had been effectively taken over by a small group of Marxists and radicals, which had really taken control of the ABC over the last 30 years.

HELEN COONAN: Well, I mean that's his view, but he's one voice of course on the ABC. And I think it's appropriate to acknowledge that he has put forward different views and no doubt, to some, quite provocative views, but really the ABC shouldn't be…

MARK COLVIN: Do you agree with him that…

HELEN COONAN: (inaudible) debate, it needs to take part in these debates, I would have thought. And I mean, it's not as if he will carry the entire board I would think.

I mean, there's a very diverse background there, it's not as if Mr Windschuttle has been appointed Chairman.

MARK COLVIN: Do you agree with him?

It's known that other colleagues of yours do agree with him that a group of Marxists and radicals have dominated the ABC and that, even a board now dominated by conservatives has been unable to displace that, to quote him.

HELEN COONAN: Well, I think you can see from my record of having been in charge of this portfolio, that I've taken a very constructive attitude to the ABC.

And in terms of those sorts of issues, that can sometimes be manifested in angst from my colleagues, the view I take is that it's appropriate in a democracy for people to have a range of views, including my colleagues, and I think that my job is to make sure that the ABC runs effectively, that it's got a good board, that it's appropriately funded, and that the complaints mechanism is there as a proper safeguard if there really egregious editorial divergence.

MARK COLVIN: The Communications Minister Helen Coonan, speaking to me a short while ago.
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