As we revealed on Monday, Ita Clare Buttrose is the putative new chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
What is required now is for her name to be signed off on by Cabinet and presented to the Governor-General for Executive Council approval.
Ita’s father, the late Charles Oswald Buttrose, served as deputy general manager of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, as it then was, under Talbot Duckmanton.
Assuming Ita Buttrose is approved this would square a family circle.
In other words, Ita Buttrose comes from a lineage of Australian journalism, leaving aside her own career as journalist, editor, broadcaster and media administrator. On the face of it, this is a good pick by Scott Morrison and may prove to be an inspired one. We shall see.
Among questions will be whether Buttrose has the mettle and the smarts and, indeed, at 77, the stamina to avoid being devoured by responsibilities inherent in the role as chair of a national institution buffeted by tribal politics.
Her first task will be to restore confidence in board oversight of the organisation soiled by its mishandling of tensions between former chairman Justin Milne and the ABC’s managing director Michelle Guthrie.
Beyond that, her overwhelming responsibility will be to ensure that the national broadcaster is provided with a clear sense of direction and the certainty to pursue those responsibilities laid out in the ABC Charter. This was lacking under the previous board chair and managing director.
Once those requirements are in place she will find herself in the role of a shield against inevitable criticisms, many of them politically motivated, levelled against the national broadcaster.
This will test her public advocacy skills. On the face of it, these abilities are quite formidable.
What the Buttrose appointment tells us is that in politics not much can be taken for granted. As things stood, it appeared the government was heading for a predictable appointment as ABC chair from a shortlist, dominated by lawyers, whose credentials were worthy if not inspiring.
All were men.
In the event, Morrison has sprung a marketing surprise at the very moment the government is being heavily criticised for a paucity of women in its ranks.
What is demonstrated by this detour away from a headhunter’s shortlist is that as long as it retains government, the party in power has, within its gift, appointments to Australia’s most significant offices: Head of State, Chief Justice of the High Court and chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Of the three, you could say the latter is in a position to exert the most sway on Australia’s political and cultural life.
If Labor wins an election in May all of the above positions would be conservative government appointees of recent standing. Two of those appointments would take office, either on the cusp of an election in the case of the ABC, or afterwards with the Governor-General.
David Hurley takes over as the Queen’s representative from Peter Cosgrove in June.
Morrison had on his desk the shortlist for ABC chair for about a month. Now that shortlist has been put aside, what seems likely to have weighed in his calculations is the sort of appointment that would reflect well on the government in constituencies over which it has a tenuous hold.
Ita Buttrose, whose own politics would not seem to be conservative with a big "C", would certainly appeal to voters in seats such as Wentworth and Higgins, and even Warringah, who have drifted from the Liberal fold. Whether her appointment would satisfy the culture warriors on the right is another matter.
If there is one issue that animates conservatives it is a perceived left-wing bias in the national broadcaster. While some of this criticism may be valid, the suggestion the ABC is in thrall, generally speaking, to a “Green-left collective’’ is ridiculous.
Such criticisms do not correspond with community perceptions of the national broadcaster as the media’s most trusted news source.
You can be sure that ABC independence and its funding will be an issue in the forthcoming election. A good appointment as ABC chair might salve some of the anticipated criticism.
Given the turmoil at the national broadcaster in which not only the managing director but its chair were forced out in ugly circumstances in latter 2018 a new appointment in the gift of the government of the day assume much greater moment.
The corporation is now being run on a care and maintenance basis by a temporary chair and a temporary managing director. This is neither sustainable, nor desirable, and reflects poor decisions about managing director and chair appointments in the first place.
To its credit Labor has, over the years, sought to make appointments to the ABC board more transparent but these attempts have, for the most part, been honoured in the breach by the current government. At least half the board members are grace and favour appointments based on their political affiliations.
Labor’s Communications spokesperson Michelle Rowland has sought to invoke Section 24X of the ABC Act of 1983 that requires the Prime Minister to “consult the Leader of the Opposition before recommending to the Governor-General the person to be appointed as Chairperson’’.
Rowland tells me that repeated requests to be consulted on the ABC appointment had gone unheeded. She will have receive news of the proposed Buttrose appointment with interest. I would be surprised if she objects.