‘Not above scrutiny’: Morrison backs Senate inquiry into ABC complaints

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has backed a Senate inquiry into the ABC and SBS’s complaints handling processes, rejecting ABC chair Ita Buttrose’s accusation that it amounted to an attack on the public broadcaster’s independence.

Ms Buttrose has blasted the inquiry and its instigator, Liberal senator Andrew Bragg, chair of the Senate standing committee on environment and communications, saying it was an act of political interference. She has called on the Senate to suspend or terminate the inquiry until a separate independent review, commissioned by the ABC board, is completed.

ABC chairwoman Ita Buttrose and Scott Morrison. Mr Morrison said on Monday no government agency, including the ABC, was above Senate scrutiny.Credit:Jessica Hromas

Asked about the brewing stoush, Mr Morrison said no government agency, including the ABC, was above Senate scrutiny, adding the inquiry was “businesses as usual” for the Senate.

“That is a matter for the Senate,” Mr Morrison said. “There is nobody above the scrutiny of the Senate. I don’t understand why that would be an extraordinary initiative to take.

“Yes, they have their independence and no one’s questioning that, but they’re not above the scrutiny for how they conduct themselves using taxpayers’ money.”

Mr Morrison compared the inquiry to scrutiny faced by other agencies and government departments.

“We have had a Senate committee that has been inquiring into the management of COVID since the start of COVID. They look into what the Chief Medical Officer does, there is no government agency that is beyond the scrutiny of the Senate.”

The inquiry, announced by Senator Bragg last Thursday, has triggered a major split in the communications committee, with deputy chair, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, calling it a “witch hunt” and vowing to use a motion to attempt to overturn it.

“I’ll be moving as soon as Parliament gets back next week to stop this witch hunt from going ahead. It is an abuse of proper process. It’s an attack on the ABC [and] their independence,” Senator Hanson-Young told ABC radio.

“If there are government members who are not happy about this inquiry, they should vote next Monday for my motion, which will stop this witch hunt in its tracks.”

Without government support, the motion faces tough prospects for success, requiring Labor and the crossbench, including One Nation, to back it.

Ms Buttrose doubled down on her criticism on Monday, adding that the broadcaster’s relationship with the Morrison government was “strained”.

“I think it is strained and it’s a matter that concerns me very much,” she said on ABC radio.

She accused Senator Bragg of trying to subvert an independent inquiry launched last month by the board after scrutiny from federal and state politicians about how the broadcaster’s internal division reviews complaints about programs such as the Ghost Train series into the 1979 Luna Park tragedy.

Former Commonwealth and NSW ombudsman John McMillan and former SBS, Seven and Ten news boss Jim Carroll will run the review – the ABC’s first official examination of its complaints handling in 12 years – which will hand down its findings by April. The Senate inquiry is scheduled to report by February 28.

“Senator Bragg has chosen to use the device of the legislation committee, where the government has a majority, to force an inquiry into the ABC’s complaints handling,” Ms Buttrose told ABC radio.

“I’m advised that it’s highly unusual for a government to use a legislative committee to specifically investigate one of his agencies and indeed I’m told that it is so rare that when it does occur, it’s usually on a bipartisan basis.”

Senator Bragg used a Senate standing order to establish the inquiry, breaking from the typical procedure under which inquiries are established and led by a references committee following a vote on the floor of the Senate. While the government controls the communications legislative committee, it does not control the communications references committee.

Defending his decision on Monday, Senator Bragg said the inquiry was “my idea”, describing it as a “pretty run of the mill thing for the Senate to do”.

“My view is the Senate has stronger powers to look into these issues and to do it in a more independent fashion,” Senator Bragg told ABC radio.

A spokesman for Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said: “This is entirely a matter for the Senate. The minister has not been involved.”

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