PM Morrison writing at his desk in his prime ministerial office

Press Conference - Sydney, NSW

28 Feb 2019
Sydney, NSW
Prime Minister
ABC Chair recommendation; John Kennerley; Nauru; ISIS fighters; Richard Boyle; George Pell

PRIME MINISTER: Well, thank you for coming together this morning. I'm pleased to announce that I'll be recommending to the Governor-General that Ms Ita Buttrose be appointed the next chair of the ABC. The ABC plays an extremely important role in Australian life and has done for generations. It's an important Australian institution and we have seen that time and again and most recently we have seen that in the fires and the floods that have once again ravaged our nation over the summer period. It's the ABC that those who have been stricken by those disasters have turned to in their times of need to get the information and reliable news services that they have needed to cope with these debilitating disasters. But that's not the only role, of course, that the ABC plays. It plays a pervasive role throughout Australian life from our youngest to our oldest. All across the generations. And we have all had our own direct association and wonderful stories that we can tell about the ABC. So when you ask someone to take on the role as chair of the ABC, it needs to be someone you know to be trusted with that important institution. And in asking Ms Buttrose to take on this role, that's exactly who I believe we have been able to find. I'm very appreciative of her willingness to take on this role. Ita, as we know, I hope she doesn't mind me being informal…

ITA BUTTROSE: Not at all.

PRIME MINISTER: …has the strength, the integrity and the fierce independence that she is known for to take stewardship of this important Australian institution. But it is not just her extensive experience in publishing and broadcasting which equips her for this role as we know. As a former Australian of the Year, Ita's experience, whether it comes to her support for causes like Alzheimer's, arthritis, AIDS, the Smith Family, the arts, the environment, these are all issues over her professional roles both in broadcasting and journalism as well as her roles outside of those undertakings, she's demonstrated a passion, a deep knowledge and empathy for very much in line, I think, with the views and the wishes and concerns of Australians. But the other thing that I think really sets Ita apart is this: The reason she has been so successful - in publishing, in broadcasting, is she has always put her viewers, her listeners and her readers first. And you know what? That's what the ABC needs to do too. It's about their viewers, it's about their listeners, it's about their readers, and the services they provide to Australians. And in Ms Buttrose we have someone who has demonstrated throughout her career that the best way to run a broadcasting and publishing organisation is to focus on the people for whom it's for - which is the readers and the viewers, and the listeners to the ABC. Australians trust Ita. I trust Ita. And that's why I have asked her to take on this role and I'm absolutely thrilled that she has accepted our ask to take on that role and I want to congratulate her on her pending appointment obviously subject to the Governor-General and those processes we followed in the normal way. Thank you very much, Ita. I'm going to ask the Minister to make a few comments and then we'll ask Ms Buttrose to make a few.

SENATOR THE HON MITCH FIFIELD, MINISTER FOR COMMUNCATIONS AND THE ARTS: Thank you, Prime Minister. The ABC is an important cultural organisation. It is one of the important underpinnings of media diversity in Australia. It represents a significant Commonwealth contribution to civic journalism. The ABC informs us, it entertains us, it's close to the community particularly in rural and regional Australia and despite some difficulties, this important work has continued. Ita Buttrose is uniquely qualified to chair the ABC. She has worked in every form of media. She has worked as a journalist, she's worked in management, she's worked as an editor. Ita Buttrose is someone that Australians know, she's someone that Australians trust. Ita is the right person to chair the ABC at this time and, Ita, can I wish you well and congratulate you as well.

ITA BUTTROSE: Thank you so much. Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: Chair-designate?

ITA BUTTROSE: Thank you for those kind words, Prime Minister and Mitch Fifield. I am very honoured to have been asked to chair the ABC. I consider it one of the most important cultural and information organisations in our country and I'm - I'm honoured to be asked to lead it into the future. It is a voice of the Australian people, I think it reflects our identity, it tells our stories, it tells our stories not just here in Australia but to the rest of the world, and I have grown up with the ABC. I'm a devoted listener to the ABC. I start my day with ABC news radio - I don't leave home without it, I’ve got the App on my phone. My father worked at the ABC for a number of years and when he retired, he was assistant general manager. So, I do know the culture at the ABC particularly well and I wish my dad was still alive to see me here today but he's not. So I'm a passionate believer in the independence of the ABC. And I will do everything in my utmost power to make sure it remains that way.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you very much Ita, Let's take some questions on this matter. As usual I know there’ll be other questions on political matters of the day and given the fierce independence of the ABC, I won't impose on the chair-designate to be here for those questions and you might excuse Ita at that point. Yes?

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask Prime Minister why was there spending, why has the government spent money on recruiters and head hunters, if only the government has really gone against their advice with this appointment?

PRIME MINISTER: Well the Labor Party put in place a process when they were in government which was this independent process of the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet appointing a panel. And that panel undertakes that process at complete arm's lengths from the government. I have no involvement in it, the Minister has no involvement in it. They appoint the recruiters who are involved and provide the terms for those recruiters. So, the Labor Party set up a process, we have followed that process, but where I don't believe that process actually meets the requirements, then the government of the day has the ability to make the right appointment and that's what I have done today.

JOURNALIST: Ita, you have worked for Kerry Packer as a boss. You know you'll be working for the Australian public as your boss. Which do you think is the more terrifying prospect? 


ITA BUTTROSE: I don't have a problem with the Australian public. I believe the main shareholders of the ABC are the Australian public. I have always had a very good communication with them and I think through the ABC we'll be able to continue that conversation. The ABC does it very well. It does it much better than the commercial networks.

JOURNALIST: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the ABC at the moment?

ITA BUTTROSE: I think the most important - and in my role as chair, I think my most important role is to restore stability to the management of the organisation, to reassure the staff that life will go on as usual and to reassure the board who has also been through a period of unrest that, you know, it's time to get - it's time to get the ABC functioning again with proper stable management and good frank discussion between the chair and whoever is the managing director. If there's not a close relationship between the chair and the managing director, you cannot make an organisation work efficiently and well.

JOURNALIST: Ita, did you apply for the role when it became available and if not why not?

ITA BUTTROSE: No, I didn't.

JOURNALIST: Why didn't you?

ITA BUTTROSE: Well, I just didn't. Maybe that was a mistake on my part, but I just didn't do it.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you said on Monday that you knew Ita for years, is this a captain’s pick and can you assure the public that you won't be leaning on that relationship when it comes to matters of editorial and you will go through the formal complaints process?

PRIME MINISTER: That's the process I have always followed by the way. And from time to time I have had my complaints with the editors and I have dealt with them through those processes and I have been able to find some satisfaction in how those processes are followed. It hasn't been uncommon for the ABC to actually issue apologies to me in the past on air, in fact, and so I followed those processes and always will continue to. I respect the independence of the ABC as our Government always has, and in the new chair-designate, I know there will be a fiercely independent chair and who, I think, commands great respect for the Australian people when it comes to the integrity of the journalistic process. And that means getting facts right. It means getting things right and that's why I have great confidence in making this recommendation to the Governor-General. So, you know, we'll continue to follow that Process and I was very pleased to invite Ita to consider this role earlier this year and I'm thrilled that she's taken up the challenge.

JOURNALIST: Ita, do you believe the ABC requires more funding to fulfil its commitments to the Australian people?

ITA BUTTROSE: I haven't been through the accounts yet. I haven't discussed anything with the acting managing director or with the acting chair. And I need to look at those things. I need to look at those figures and see what's what. I'm aware what the current funding is, but, look, let me assure you that if I think there is a need for more funding, I won't be frightened to ask for it.

JOURNALIST: With the acting managing director, one of the key jobs of the chair is to find a CEO who is going to be running it. How does that process go? Does the acting managing director already have the inside track on that or is it generally an open field in your mind?

ITA BUTTROSE: Well it would be an open field. I mean, I know that the acting managing director has applied and his hast is in the ring, but the applications for the managing director role do not close until tomorrow, March 1, yeah, tomorrow. And so, therefore we'll have to look at the acting managing director's credentials in line with all the other people that have applied. I'm assuming there are quite a few.

JOURNALIST: Is there a leaning to keep someone internal given Mr Anderson’s long experience at the ABC?

ITA BUTTROSE: I have not had that discussion with anyone.

JOURNALIST: And Ita, In terms of your digital experience, some people say you haven't been a full time media executive for a while, what’s your knowledge of how the landscape has changed for media companies given Facebook and Google's dominance?

ITA BUTTROSE: Well, I think anyone working in the media knows the impact that digital has had on all our operations in whatever line field, whatever line of media work we're in. And I think it's - I actually think it's improved, opened so many new doors for all of us, things we can now do that we couldn't do before, that the fact that we can have instant communication is something that's really excited me. When I started as a very young journalist, it used to take 40 hours to fly film out from London before we even knew if we had a decent shot. Look at what we can do now. I think I have never been frightened of what technology offers to us in the media. It is the way of the future. We all know that. And the ABC has a part of that and it's already working very hard in this field and I don't intend that it shouldn't keep doing so. We have a right to be there. It is the way of the future and the ABC must have that future.

JOURNALIST: There is a loud view by some of the community that the ABC is a nest of left-wing vipers in terms of its journalism that it doesn't represent - I see nods and smiles from the Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: I'm just amused.

JOURNALIST: What is your take on it?

ITA BUTTROSE: 80 per cent of Australian’s say we're unbiased. 80 per cent of Australians say that they trust our news more than they trust any other kind of information. So we must be doing something right. But look, there's always room for improvement.

JOURNALIST: If you had a politician or someone from the Prime Minister's office make contact with you about a journalist or a story or something of that nature, how would you handle an issue like that?

ITA BUTTROSE: I'd listen and I want you to know that, you know, I'm sure - it's not only the ABC that gets complaints from politicians. I have copped plenty of complaints from politicians in previous roles especially when I was editor-in- chief in News Limited.

JOURNALIST: Do you think we need to you do away with the independent panel process, if they are not providing us with the most qualified candidate?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm not proposing that. But what I can assure you is that all the processes of the Act have been followed. You asked about the process through cabinet as well. It followed the normal cabinet process. It went to cabinet. It's my responsibility as Prime Minister to put forward a nomination to cabinet which I did and that was enthusiastically supported earlier this week and to work with the Minister for Communications in that process in the department. All of those processes were followed. I think that's the important point. And when you follow all the important processes and you make decisions having followed those processes, which is what we have done, which leaves open where I feel that the recommendations that were made to me, if in my view and the government's view, don't meet the standard or the requirement that we have, then we're at liberty to make a further nomination which we have and we'll be doing that to the Governor-General. We will table our reasons for doing so in the Parliament in the normal process which is required under the Act. So the processes have been followed. That's including the requirements for official consultation with the Leader of the Opposition which was done earlier today.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you said in your opening remarks that we all have a wonderful story to tell about the ABC. What's the wonderful story you have got to tell about the ABC?

PRIME MINISTER: Behind The News. I remember it as a kid and that's where I started getting my first current affairs reporting from - was Behind The News. And it was a bit different back then than what it is today, but - the fact it's still there, I think is great.

JOURNALIST: Has there been nothing since then?

PRIME MINISTER: No, there has been a lot since then, obviously. I always understand in all the roles that I have had, the importance of, you know, appearing on the flagship interview programs on the ABC. I have never been a stranger to those whether it's the 7.30 or Insiders in the past or most recently AM, all of these. I mean they play an important role. I have always treated those with the respect they have earned and their presenters as well. And I have dealt with many of those presenters and they're always a gruelling and tough interview, I have got to say. And that's as it should be and I think as leaders we - we are in a position to having to put ourselves forward for that as indeed we are here today. So look, there are more, Hugh and we'll have a coffee one day and I'll share more with you. But the one - perhaps the first engagement is always the sweetest and that was Behind The News all those years ago.

JOURNALIST: Ita, do you consider one of the main responsibilities of your role now to rebuild trust from the public after the Michelle Guthrie, Justine Milne situation?

ITA BUTTROSE: I don't - I don't think the public has really lost trust in the ABC. You know, I think the - you know, I think the ABC occupies a very special place in the hearts and minds of Australians. The Michelle Guthrie matter is something else again. It's a management issue. It's being dealt with. It's still in mediation and I'm not sure how that's going to end yet.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, have you conveyed or communicated or spoken to Ita about any concerns or thoughts or improvements that could be made to the ABC?

PRIME MINISTER: I can assure you that any conversations I have with the chair-designate on these matters will always remain between the Chair’s designate and indeed the Chair and I. If I have any formal issues that I need to raise with the ABC, then there are appropriate channels for doing that.

JOURNALIST When do you expect the Governor-General to sign off or to give (inaudible) on this?

PRIME MINISTER: That should be in place next week.

JOURNALIST: And when do you intend to start working at the ABC as the Chair?

ITA BUTTROSE: I've already had a text message from the Acting Chair, so I would think not long after I leave here, I will give her a call.

JOURNALIST Ita, what’s the best piece of reporting you have seen?

ITA BUTTROSE: I'm sorry?

JOURNALIST What's the best piece of reporting that you have seen from the ABC recently?

ITA BUTTROSE: Oh there are so many. I'm a big fan of Leigh Sales and the 7.30 report, I think it consistently breaks stories, it gives you views on the world. Four Corners is without doubt the leading investigative program in Australia. ABC news radio consistently breaks stories. ABC News Breakfast, the TV show, is a good little show and its doing lots of great work there, there’s so many parts of the ABC that are breaking news and again, they’re stories we wouldn't get on commercial networks.

JOURNALIST Is the Project Jetstream dead?

ITA BUTTROSE: I have read about it, of course, but I need to have that discussion with the board and the Managing Director and we haven't had that yet, so I can't really comment on it.

PRIME MINISTER: Any more questions on this issue before we move on?

JOURNALIST: Your good friend Kerri-Anne Kennerley, you might be aware she suffered the loss of her husband this morning.

ITA BUTTROSE: Look I did just hear the very sad news that Kerri-Anne’s husband John died. And I am really to sorry to hear it because I liked them very much.​

PRIME MINISTER: Can I also pass on my best wishes to Kerri-Anne as well. We, Ita and I just heard about that before we came here. 

ITA BUTTROSE: They were a great couple and she adored him. 

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah. That is a true love story, a love story that shows how lucky we are to have people who we love in our lives and I'm sure Kerri-Anne will be deeply comforted by that relationship over such a long period of time and I'm sure she will get enormous waves of comfort and support from the Australian people. They shared their story openly with the Australian public and they let people into a very private part of their lives and I think the strength and determination, care and compassion that was shown in that relationship was an encouragement to all Australians. We love you, Kerry-Anne and we just hope that these days and weeks ahead are not too arduous, but we know they will be, and you have the love and care of the nation with you. So with that, we might thank Ita again and we will get on to the other matters of the day. Thank you. 

ITA BUTTROSE: Thank you very much everybody.

PRIME MINISTER: Can I also thank the acting chair Kirstin Ferguson for the role she’s been performing since taking on the role of acting chair, and she’ll obviously be engaging with the chair-designate as we move through that next phase and after those events of last year that required quite a bit of skill and experience to ensure that the ABC could get back to what they need to focus on, and that, I think, has occurred and I want to thank Kirstin on what she has done, I'm sure Mitch would, too.

SENATOR THE HON MITCH FIFIELD, MINISTER FOR COMMUNCATIONS AND THE ARTS: Yes, I thank Dr Kirstin Ferguson for her work as acting chair. She is a substantive deputy chair and she will continue in that role, but in what has been a difficult time for the ABC, Dr Ferguson has led the organisation well.

PRIME MINISTER: On other matters today, as you know, the last four remaining children who are on Nauru at the regional processing location - of course, they hadn't been in detention for quite a period of time, they were living on Nauru - they have been transferred to the United States and that means there are no longer any children on Nauru at the regional processing location. There were no children on Manus Island, it was the former government that put children on Manus Island in an inexplicable decision to that that in the first instance. That was rectified a long time ago.

And so I am very pleased that were are in a position now to say that has been achieved and the only way you can ensure that children don’t go back on Nauru is to ensure that your border protection regime is not compromised and that you do not allow vessels to legally enter Australia with children on board. And the only way you can do that is maintain the strength of our border protection regime. That’s what our Government is doing and that’s what Bill Shorten and the Labor Party demonstrated they do not have the ability or conviction or determination to do. They will just blow over in a hair’s breadth, whether it’s in the people smugglers or indeed from other sections of the community which would have them undermine our border protection. 

JOURNALIST: Is the Government interested in pursuing prosecution in relation to the Jihadi bride that has fled Syria?

PRIME MINISTER: This will be a very complex case and Australia will make decisions consistent with our national security interests. Obviously the issue of the children involved is also a very sensitive one. The children can’t be held responsible for the crimes of their parents. They are in a very dangerous part of the world and Australia is not in a position to offer any safe passage for people who are in that part of the world. And that is very concerning for the fact that there are children involved in this and their parents, Khaled Sharrouf in particular who committed despicable crimes, have placed their children in harm’s way. So look, we will deal with that issue sensitively but we must remember that both parents, including Khaled Sharrouf’s wife, committed crimes being where they were and doing what they were doing.

JOURNALIST: On another matter, there’s a case involving an ATO tax office whistleblower Richard Boyle is processing through. It’s been reported that he faces potentially six life sentences for breaching privacy rules and informational laws that are based around his role formerly in the ATO. Do you have any concerns about the circumstance in which a public servant who has revealed problems with the practices of the tax office faces more time in jail, theoretically, than a mass murderer?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I’m not familiar with the circumstances of that case, Hugh, so I can’t really comment.

JOURNALIST: With Cardinal Pell, former Prime Minister John Howard wrote a reference to him at his sentence hearing. Many of his supporters believe his claim that he is innocent of these crimes. What do you think, Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: Well Australians, whether they’re former Prime Ministers or not, have every right to express the views that they have. What I have said about this issue is my thoughts remain with all victims of institutional child sexual abuse. Having, as I said yesterday, led the national apology following the Royal Commission – which I must say, Hugh, is one of I think the outstanding achievements of the ABC in the way that they addressed that issue of institutional child sexual abuse – my thoughts are with them. Because all of this will be stirring up all of those most horrific and painful of experiences they endured. And to be honest, that’s what I’m particularly focused on at the moment in my concern for them and how they’re processing all of this. Having met so many of them through the process of the apology, it just… it really just makes my heart terribly sad to know the pain they will be feeling today. It just… they just relive it all, and it’s just horrendous. So to be honest, I’m more concerned about that.

OK, thanks very much.