Thursday, February 19, 2004

Santoro Watch

With so much informed comment decrying Howard the Duck's recent, and potentially crippling, backflip on federal MP's sauperannuation entitlements, I thought it time to take another close look at one of the government's star committee performers, Queensland Senator Santo Santoro. It's a sobering thought that the recent superannuation changes mean that people of the calibre of Senator Santoro will no longer find federal politics an attractive alternative to highly paid sinecures positions in corporate management.

Senator Santoro was in fine form on Monday when he confronted his old adversary Mr Russell Balding, Managing Director of the Australian Broadcasting Commission during another session of the Senate Estimates Committee on Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (PDF File). Senator Santoro began his interrogation of Mr Balding with this clear warning that, although he had been hampered by being given only 30 minutes for questions, his forensic intelligence would not be deterred from pursuing the truth about the ABC:

Senator SANTORO — I have a great number of questions—about 80 or so—which I am not going to be able to get through in half an hour. I intend to place some of them on notice. Mr Balding, I am very grateful for some of the answers that you have provided to questions that I have placed on notice. There are some questions which I am going to refer back to in some of my oral questions, and I will be putting some further questions on notice because I was not satisfied with the answers and, in one or two cases, lack of answers. I mention too that, if I am not satisfied with the documents or answers provided in the future, I will be using the FOI mechanism to seek out further responses and further documents. It is something I do not want to do, but I intend to pursue matters under FOI provisions if I think it is necessary.

Mr Balding — The ABC takes its accountability to parliament very seriously, particularly in respect of coming here and in the amount of time and effort we put into answering the questions on notice, not just from the government senators but from the opposition. I want to assure the committee that ABC resources do go to a lot of trouble in researching and providing as comprehensive answers to the questions on notice as possible.

Well, he would say that, wouldn't he. But Senator Santoro wasn't having any of this evasive nonsense:

Senator SANTORO — Thank you. As I said, I am generally satisfied, but there are some areas which I might pursue further. Mr Balding, would you be in a position to provide to the committee, for each member of the board who made an overseas trip over the past 10 years—that is, February 1994 to February 2004—details as follows: the member of the board who took the trip; the purpose of the trip; whether the board member was accompanied on the trip by a family member, relative, friend or other person; the cost to the ABC, if applicable, of this person's travel, accommodation and any other charges incurred that were met by the ABC; the date and duration of each trip; destination or destinations visited; hotels and/or other paid accommodation; the cost to the ABC overall of each trip; and a copy of the report on the trip by the board member? Within the briefing material that you or your officers have with you today are you able to provide that detail?

Mr Balding — Definitely not over the last 10 years—that is a fair amount of time and a lot of detail. We would have to go back into our archival records and that would take a fair degree of effort to pull out. I am quite happy to take that on notice, but 10 years is a long time to go back.

Senator SANTORO — Would you take that on notice and undertake to provide the information?

Mr Balding — Yes.

Game and set to Senator Santoro; whatever finanicial skeletons the ABC has been hiding in its archives are finally going to be dragged out into the light of day. With Russell Balding committed to providing a proper accounting of ABC board members travel over tha past ten years, it was time for Senator Santoro to move on to present misuses of ABC funds:

Senator SANTORO — I would be grateful if I could have a look at that. Mr Balding, is it true that the following ABC personnel accompanied federal opposition leader, Mark Latham, on his recent east coast bus tour: a current affairs journalist, a radio journalist, a TV journalist and two crew? Can you tell the committee how many ABC staff members are employed by ABC offices in localities on the route travelled by Mr Latham and his entourage?

Mr Balding — I am aware of a number of journalists accompanying the Leader of the Opposition. I have not got the detail in respect of that with me, but I can provide that.

Again, the Senator shows his determination to get to the truth in the face of an obviously evasive answer:

Senator SANTORO — Would you be able to give me an opinion—if not now then certainly as a considered opinion as a question on notice—about whether the investment in the travelling party outlined above represented good value for money when in situ staff might have covered the Latham trip on its news value?

Balding responds with this pathetic excuse:

Mr Balding — I believe it would be of good value. The accompanying of prime ministers and leaders of the opposition is a very important news and current affairs issue. It is also important to have consistency in respect of that travel. I think it would be disjointed if we had different journalists coming in at different stages of the actual trip. I think the Australian public would want consistent reporting of trips such as that. But I am more than happy to take those questions on notice and give a detailed response.

Balding's reply misses the obvious difference between accompanying a prime minister on tripa undertaken in the performance of their office and trips taken by opposition leaders purely for the sake of electioneering. While this distinction is obviously not lost on Senator Santoro, it is lost on Labor's Senator Sue Mackay, who later in the session attempted to pull Balding's fat out of the fire with this question:

Senator MACKAY — I have one last question, before we break, to follow-up from Senator Santoro. Can you take on notice which journalists, of whatever medium, accompanied the Prime Minister on his recent trip to Western Australia, as well as the cost to the ABC of that involvement?

Mr Balding — Yes, we can provide that.

As I said, that came later. Let's return to Senator Santoro's questioning; in the next exchange, the Senator's penetrating intelligence comes to the fore, demonstrating how little Balding knows about the organisation he purports to manage:

Senator SANTORO — Thank you, Mr Balding. Are you aware of a new IPA backgrounder just published by the Institute of Public Affairs that is entitled Anti-American bias collective: your ABC and the Iraq war, written by journalists Tim Blair and James Morrow?

Mr Balding — No, I am not.

Senator SANTORO — It is quite a major publication and quite a major backgrounder.

Mr Balding — When was it published?

Senator SANTORO — About a month ago.

Mr Balding — I can research that.

A patently inadequate response; Balding is clearly unaware of the contents of a major report critical of his organisation. Senator Santoro spares Balding nothing as he continues to probe this obvious failure:

Senator SANTORO — Within that analysis it finds examples of fairness in the face of what it terms the ABC culture. It notes these were often presented by reporters in the field who found facts at odds with what apparently their presenters wanted to hear and to broadcast. It found in the main the ABC's coverage of the war was negative, defeatist, anti-American and skewed heavily against the Australian government. Would the ABC be prepared to provide the committee with a copy of any assessment that has been made of the IPA backgrounder's contents and assertions?

Mr Balding — We would.

Senator SANTORO — Would you or your officers be able to confirm if any assessment or scrutiny has been made of that IPA backgrounder?

Mr Balding — I am not aware of any at this stage. No, we are not aware of any at this stage.

Senator SANTORO — Would you undertake to review that paper and then provide the committee with your considered response to that paper?

Mr Balding — Yes.

After pursuing Balding throught this string of terse evasions, Senator Santoro nails him on the subject of the ABC's biased reporting from pre-war Iraq. In the end, Balding is reduced to a very rude interruption of the ever polite Senator:

Senator SANTORO — I am grateful for that. One of the more interesting things identified in that IPA backgrounder was the ABC's failure to locate in prewar Iraq any significant number of citizens opposed to the regime of Saddam Hussein, and a general failure to indicate why people living in a dictatorship might be disinclined to speak out publicly against a murderous dictator. That was one of the findings of that particular paper. Given the Saddam regime's rule of fear and network of informers, do you think the prewar reluctance of Iraqis to publicly express an antiregime view was perfectly natural caution on their part? Do you think that ABC journalists sent to Iraq to report the crisis and subsequent conflict should have been awake to the possibility that individual Iraqis they approached for vox pops might not want to risk committing suicide just to get on the ABC?

Mr Balding — We will take all that on notice, and we will have to give a very considered response to that.

Senator SANTORO — But assuming that that—

Mr Balding — I am not aware of the report and I have not read the report and I do not know whether those are the findings of the report or someone else's views and opinions and I do not know what the status of the credibility of the report is. Those are things I need to look at in a more considered way, and I am more than happy to do that.

The committee took a break from 10:03 am to 10:16 am. This gave Balding enough time to get onto the Internet and come up with this ridiculous excuse for his ignorance of the IPA report and its contents:

Mr Balding — Following up on an earlier question from Senator Santoro, who referred to the IPA report and asked whether we had read it and what our views on it are, I am advised that that report has not as yet been published. I just put that on the record.

CHAIR (Senator Alan Eggleston, Liberal) — The IPA being the Institute of Public Affairs?

Mr Balding — Yes. We would not be in a position to respond to that question on notice at this stage because the report has not been published.

CHAIR — Does that report have a name or is it just as Senator Santoro referred to it?

Mr Balding — It is as Senator Santoro referred to it. Apparently on their web site it says that it will be published shortly.

CHAIR — I have not received it yet, and I am a subscriber to the IPA, so I can confirm that it has not yet been published. We will now proceed.

It says very little for the competence of the ABC's journalistic staff that they were unable to obtain an as yet unpublished IPA report, when Senator Santoro could get hold of a copy. Perhaps the Senator might be persuaded to provide ABC staff with some remedial training in the art of cultivating contacts during the next parliamentary recess.

Update: David Tiley has raised the issue of the cost to the taxpayer of Senator Santoro's inquisition into the ABC. This question was raised in the committee too:

Senator MACKAY — Out of curiosity, Mr Balding, how much has it cost the ABC to date to answer Senator Santoro’s questions on notice to date? Have you ballparked it?

Mr Balding — We have not done that detailed analysis for questions on notice but, as I said, the ABC take very seriously our accountability to parliament and we do apply a lot of time and effort on the answers. I am aware there is a question from Senator Cherry, I think, asking for information on some follow-up questions from Senator Santoro on freedom of information. We are in the process of providing that information back to the parliament.

Senator MACKAY — Is that via an FOI request from Senator Cherry?

Mr Balding — No, I think it was a question that Senator Cherry asked in the Senate.

Senator MACKAY — It was a breakdown, was it?

Mr Balding — Correct.

Senator MACKAY — Irony intended: can you take my question on notice?

Mr Balding — Yes.

Senator SANTORO — I would be very interested in that answer myself. I will give an opinion as to
whether I am getting value for money too.

Senator Kemp — If we are going to look at the costs of questions that Senator Santoro is asking the ABC, perhaps we had better do it for other senators as well.

Senator SANTORO — I made a mental note to make that an additional question on notice for you, Mr Balding.

Senator MACKAY — That is absolutely fair enough.

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