Election for all ABC Board Members

The hasty decision by Communications Minister Helen Coonan to abolish the staff elected representative on the ABC Board is an undemocratic act that will weaken sound governance at the national broadcaster. In fact, if the Howard Government were serious about wanting to widen the alleged insular culture at the ABC it would call for elections for the entire board. That it would never entertain such an idea betrays the command and control instincts of this government. It also illustrates the oligarchical character of all federal and state public institutions, which are ruled by government-appointed boards instead of democratically elected consumer, worker and other stakeholder representatives who would better serve public participation and control.

One of the lesser-known items on Mark Latham’s wishlist in the last federal election was to elect a proportion of ABC Board members to break the tyranny of government appointees from either side. In fact, so club busting were Latham’s instincts that he would have liked all boards elected. In the end Federal Labor supported a worthy compromise policy of arm’s length appointment to public boards. But this policy did not stop state Labor appointing the usual party hacks, fellow-traveling grandees and undeserving spouses to important public boards — just like the Coalition does federally. The poverty of performance of many public institutions in this country is directly related to the poor quality of the partisans and bureaucrats who sit on their boards. It’s time to champion the election of all public boards as a grassroots democratic element of a future republic.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

Missing from the 1999 referendum on a minimalist republic were issues of citizenship, democracy, participation, diversity and culture. In the wake of Howard’s admission that Lizzie may be the last Windsor to reign over us, a possible Australian republic is back on the agenda. Republicans now need to discuss radical ideas that might form part of a maximalist republic, such as election for all federal and state government public boards.

In the referendum, the debate focused on replacing the Queen with an Australian head of state; that is, achieving a republic from the top. While the majority of the people support an Australian head of state, they want to vote for a president by direct election as in the US, France and Ireland. Many republicans were surprised at the depth of public enthusiasm for direct election, which would potentially abandon a pillar of our Westminster system by creating an alternative power base to parliament. I found this popular urge for direct democracy a cause for optimism.

The reality of the Australian polity, like many representative democracies, is rule by oligarchy. Simply voting for a parliamentary representative every three years does not seem to give citizens a sense of control over government and its institutions. Howard’s refusal to sack ministers for wrongdoing has undermined the Westminster principle of ‘responsible government’, making the executive virtually unaccountable between elections. In an era of rigid party discipline, the stacking of parties with obedient hacks and the growing presidential style of rule by prime ministers, we truly are subjects, as monarchy implies.

But the monarchy and the royal prerogative are a ruse behind which skulks an oligarchy – the rule of the many by the few. Most Australians did not want to give the oligarchy the power to choose the new president, but wanted to assume that power themselves.

There is something profoundly wrong with the relationship between government and the people in contemporary Australia. While the people still participate, pay their taxes and give consent, a certain narky quality has entered into our politics.

Blue-collar and rural Australians feel locked out of political representation, excluded by well-educated middle-class experts who are appointed to run everything. The rise and fall of One Nation was a symptom of the growing gulf between the governed and governors. Some groups of Australians, such as youth of Middle Eastern Appearance or Aboriginal people have reasons to be estranged from a form of government that leaves them under-represented yet over-policed.

Republicans have been obsessed with the top of the pyramid, with the head of state. Perhaps we need to look at a republicanism that expands democracy throughout the body politic; reducing hierarchies in government and making those tiers that remain directly accountable to their communities rather than controlled from the centre in the traditional Westminster style.

Are the debauched remnants of ministerial responsibility sufficient to guarantee democratic control of the government instrumentalities that shape our lives? No. Most federal and state utilities that govern important aspects of our lives, such as water (state), or public broadcasting (federal) have “public” boards whose members are selected in secret by the government.

Community groups like the Friends of the ABC are now arguing for a reform of public appointments along the lines of the British model, where selection criteria are transparent and a public interview and selection process is overseen by an independent Commissioner of Public Appointments.

But why not go all the way and elect the boards of all federal government “quangos”, such as the ABC, CSIRO and the federal police? Imagine the policies, ideas and passions that elections for the ABC board would generate. ABC staff are allowed to elect one board member and it leads to quality directors like the thinking man’s firebrand, Quentin Dempster. The staff who work for the huge outsourced cottage industry supplying a large whack of Aunty’s programs might also expect to be able to elect a representative. Taxpayers and consumers should elect the rest. Then it really would feel like our ABC. Instead the Howard Government is eliminating the only democratically elected representative on the board — and also the only appointment who is guaranteed to know a thing or two about broadcasting.

The stacking of the ABC Board with right-leaning Liberal mates is matched only by the zeal with which the NSW ALP stuffs boards with hacks and spouses of the Sussex Street machine. The public is sick and tired of the blatant political stacking of their boards. Yet with the exception of Latham Labor’s reforming ideas at the last election, both parties jealously guard this prerogative.

We could go further. Just as Americans elect their county judges, district attorneys and sheriffs, why don’t we have elections for important local officials and executives who are currently appointed by the government, making them accountable to those populations? What of the judiciary? Maybe such sensitive selections might better be made by a two-thirds majority of parliamentarians. This would ensure cross-party approval and maintain the separation of the executive and judicial branches of the Commonwealth – though such a change would require a referendum.

If the Australian people are to make the huge leap from a monarchy to a republic, they will want it to be worth it. The replacement of one oligarchy with another is insufficient reason to jump. But a wholesale democratisation of our old system of government may just be inspiring enough.

So far, republicans have talked about political abstracts that leave punters bored, but everyone is interested in having a say over forces that shape their daily lives, whether it be transport, hospitals, schools, the police or the workplace.

Best of all, introducing elections for the boards of Commonwealth or state authorities does not require a change to the constitution. A brave party could go to an election with this policy and win a mandate for change.

Minimalist republicans say direct election of a president will take place over their dead bodies. But the opposition to a movement for grass-roots self-government will expose republicans like Helen Coonan, Peter Costello, Bob Carr and the rest of the governing club for the oligarchs they are.

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