View from The Hill

Did the head of the PM’s department really choose Janet Albrechtsen?

Ian Watt made the choices, but who did he consult? AAP/Lukas Coch

Precisely who proposed the new members for the panel that advises on appointments to the ABC and SBC boards?

We know that Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull had no part in the selection of conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen and former Fraser government minister Neil Brown.

The panel was set up by the Rudd government supposedly to depoliticise appointments to the ABC. Now it has itself had very political appointments made to it.

Both Albrechtsen and Brown have been strong critics of the ABC and Albrechtsen, a columnist with The Australian who has served on the ABC board (put there by the Howard government), has said its managing director Mark Scott should resign.

The panel’s other members are Ric Smith, a former head of the defence department, and businessman David Gonski.

Under the legislation, the panel is appointed by the secretary of the Prime Minister’s department, who is Ian Watt.

A spokeswoman for Tony Abbott said the decision was made by the secretary. She said the appointees were not chosen by the Prime Minister. “It’s the department not the Prime Minister.”

Turnbull was not consulted, even though the panel makes recommendations to him, giving a list of three candidates, when ABC or SBS board vacancies come up.

If the choice was made by Watt, rather than the Prime Minister’s office, it would suggest the department was divining the political wishes of its master.

But Watt is a long-time public servant, and that would be an unusual course for him to take off his own bat. What advice might he have had?

We do know the selection of Brown was made a couple of months ago, and apparently relatively easily. Albrechtsen took longer, and perhaps not just because a woman needed to be found.