Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Friday, March 31, 2006

Dictatorship by Stealth

Today, the government announced that Nicholas Wilson will be the new head of the Office of Workplace Services, a previously underfunded office which will now be elevated to a `one stop shop' for the investigation of possible breaches of the Workplace Relations Act. It will receive $100m in funding over four years, and has received an extra 200 inspectors to ensure compliance with the new laws. In other words - if your boss is being a bastard, don't call your union, call the Office of Workplace Services - a non-independent government body.

This follows a troubling pattern on the part of the government, and one identified by Dr Judith Brett in her recent Fabian Society lecture - the granting of ultimate oversight to government bodies rather an independent arbiters, in the mistaken perception that this is somehow more `democratic'.

Compare this to the recent abolition of the staff-elected board member of the ABC. Communications Minister Helen Coonan justified the move on the basis of `accountability', suggesting that an ABC staffmember would hold the best interests of the organisation second to the interests of other staffmembers. The current staff-elected board member, Ramona Koval, comprehensively rebuts this position in an article in The Age, also pointing out that the abolition of her position means that there are now no positions on the ABC board that are completely independent of the government:

The election of a staff director means that at least one member of the board brings expertise in journalism, broadcasting and a working knowledge of the role and functions of the public broadcaster and its importance in the cultural life of the country.

Since the creation of the corporation in 1984, the staff-elected director has provided balance to party-political stacking of the board. Previous incumbents have also been publicly engaged in defending the role and independence of the ABC and making sure that its obligations under the charter were upheld. The position has evolved as a vital structural element in the protection of the ABC's strategic and editorial independence. The staff-elected director raised concerns in the early 1990s about the ABC's proposed commercial partnership with Fairfax and Cox (US) in pay TV in Australia.

Stateline host Quentin Dempster - who had also previously held the role - was widely tipped to take the position once Ms Koval's term had expired. It is important to note that the process of elections is already underway, meaning the government has had to intervene in official AEC processes to push through its legislation. The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance are lobbying for the retention of the position, and their petition on preserving independence on the ABC has already gained a massive 42,000.

Blind Freddy (but not Blind Johnny) can tell that this is not increasing democracy or independent oversight in either case. Those who argue that democracy works because those who don't like what they see can register the fact with their vote forget that an awful lot can occur in the three years between elections, and that people have awfully short memories.


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