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ABC staff in no mood to capitulate to Coonan

IT has been a long time since ABC staff felt strongly enough about anything to organise a demonstration in the foyer of their headquarters at Ultimo in Sydney. But the issue that has shaken them out of their doldrums for today's lunchtime meeting is closer to ABC hearts than most: the Coalition's decision to abolish the position of staff-elected director.

Communications Minister Helen Coonan has wasted no time setting the legislative machinery in motion. Her bill to amend the act galloped through the Senate yesterday to the second reading stage without debate. It has now been referred to a Senate inquiry reporting by May 2, but the Government's haste is already seen by ABC staff as an inflammatory tactic designed to scuttle the election of a new staff director.

Quentin Dempster, a former staff-elected board member and the leading candidate to regain the seat, has written to Coonan saying her action "raises deep distress and suspicion about your motives. Remove the position and you risk turning the ABC in both perception and reality into 'the government station'. You further politicise and undermine this great institution." He urges the Minister to receive a deputation of ABC staff before proceeding further.

A representative chosen by staff has sat at the ABC's high table since 1975. After a short hiatus during the Fraser years, the position was reinstated and has remained an effective link between staff and the government-nominated board. Workers at the ABC are unlikely to give up that privilege without a fight.

The incumbent staff-elected director, Melbourne radio broadcaster Ramona Koval, reported on the issue to ABC staff by email on Monday. She views the Coalition's resolve in political terms. "The Government's intervention in abolishing this position while an Australian Electoral Commission election is under way reveals the urgency of its desire to control the organisation," she says. "It is my concern that the pressure on the ABC to conform to the Government's political agenda will only intensify ... at a time of great uncertainty for the organisation as it searches for a new managing director and awaits the Government's latest political manoeuvre in appointing a new chairman."

Koval is expected to address today's staff demonstration in Sydney during a break in the scheduled ABC board meeting. She is likely to respond strongly to suggestions from the Coalition and its supporters that her position embodies potential conflicts of interest. It is, indeed, curious that Coonan's long-serving and notoriously combative predecessor as communications minister, Richard Alston, did not feel compelled to act on this issue.

Dempster tells Media he sees the proposed abolition as a direct attack on ABC independence. "The position has evolved as structurally integral to the protection of the ABC's independence, strategically and editorially."

He sent a forceful letter to all federal parliamentarians during the weekend, arguing that the Government had no mandate from the electorate to end staff participation in the governance of the ABC. He outlined specific instances where the staff board position had been crucial in protecting the ABC from external interference and unwise commercial partnerships.

"Rather than being a perversity, as the minister implies, the position ... is a dynamic part of the ABC and its obligations to the act, the parliament and engagement with all its audiences, who are the taxpayers who pay for it," Dempster says.

The issue is seen as a crucial test for the Community and Public Sector Union, which covers ABC staff. Its influence has been waning as the ABC shifts more of its work force on to casual and run of show contracts.



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Original piece is http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,18646412%255E7582,00.html


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