Yesterday, 6 December 2017, Senator the Honourable Mitch Fifield, Minister for Communications, introduced into the Australian Senate the National Broadcasters Legislation Amendment (Enhanced Transparency) Bill 2017 (the “Bill”). This Bill proposes to amend the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 (the “ABC Act”) and the Special Broadcasting Services Act 1991 (the “SBS Act”) with the aim of providing greater transparency in the allocation of Government funding with regards to salaries and allowances paid to the employees of those companies.
Under the Bill, any employee of the two companies who earns more than $200,000 annually will be required to disclose details of their salary with the aim of providing transparency to the Australian taxpayer. As stated in the second reading speech to the Bill:
“The national broadcasters each are required under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 to prepare annual financial statements which comply with accounting standards and any other requirements prescribed by rules, as well as fairly presenting the financial position, performance and cash flow. There is however, no requirement for the national broadcasters to report on how it allocates its Government funding in the employment of high paid staff and on-air talent.
The payment of salaries and allowances in excess of $200,000 per annum is a major allocation of Government funding which should be visible to the taxpayer. The national broadcasters have an obligation to be transparent in their operations and how Government funding is allocated.
The ABC and SBS will be required to line-by-line, list the names, position, salary and allowances for employees, including on-air talent, whose combined salary and allowances brings them to over $200,000 annually.”
Prior to the introduction of this Bill, Senator Fifield requested voluntary disclosure of the names and salaries of all employees at the ABC and SBS earning over $200,000. This request was rejected by both companies with representatives from both asserting that such a disclosure, absent consent, would be a breach of the Privacy Act 1988; and would additionally place undue burdens on the employees of the companies whose details were being disclosed. Currently both the ABC and the SBS disclose the number of staff earning more than $200,000 and additionally separate these numbers into $25,000 brackets.
Dr Hass Dellal, SBS chairman gave a public statement regarding the issue:
"SBS is precluded from providing the personal information requested because the Privacy Act protects employee records for identified, or reasonably identifiable, individuals. The definition of 'employee record' within the Privacy Act includes terms and conditions of employment; and the employee's salary or wages."
Justin Milne, ABC Chairman additionally wrote that:
"The requirements are onerous, exceed best practice in the public and private sectors, and will prove counter-productive. They will also require overriding the Privacy Act. The Board notes your intention to legislate to enforce the disclosure requirement. Ultimately, this is a matter for the Parliament to decide."
The Bill as introduced amends both the ABC and the SBS Acts to allow for compulsory reporting of employees with salaries exceeding $200,000 in the annual reports of both companies. Schedule 1 of the Bill deals with the ABC while schedule 2 deals with the SBS.
Under Schedule 1 of the Bill, a new section 80A is proposed to be added to the ABC Act which is titled: “Matters to be included in annual report – salaries of senior employees etc.” Under this section, the ABC must report the salary, in the annual report, of employees whose salaries exceed the applicable reporting threshold.
Schedule 2 of the Bill introduces a similar provision into the SBS Act in the form of a new section 73A: “Matters to be included in annual report – salaries of senior employees etc.”
These amendments are discussed in the explanatory statement to the Bill:
“Section 80 of the ABC Act provides for matters to be included in the Corporation’s annual report. Section 73 of the SBS Act makes similar provision in respect of the SBS’s annual report.
The new annual reporting obligations would require the ABC and SBS to each report details of annual salaries and allowances of ABC and SBS employees, and amounts paid to ‘on-air talent’ in excess of $200,000. ‘On-air talent’ is intended to have broad meaning and be platform neutral, in recognition of the changing media landscape. The proposed reporting measures are intended to capture on-air talent (above the specified monetary reporting threshold) across all platforms used by the national broadcasters including online and podcasting services such as ABC iView and SBS On Demand. This reporting threshold amount will be indexed annually in line with the Consumer Price Index (CPI) figures published by the Australian Statistician.”
With regards to the conflict of reporting and the Privacy Act 1988, Senator Fifield said in his second reading speech:
“The Privacy Act 1988 provides for instances where disclosure is required under an Australian law. Where the enhanced transparency measure is legislated in the ABC Act and the SBS Act, it will enable the ABC and SBS to lawfully publish personal information (such as names) of the relevant employees and on-air talent individuals.
Privacy issues are of course a concern to those who will be affected by this amendment. I appreciate that. However, taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent for high profile employees and on air talent. These individuals occupy significant positions of public trust and so it is reasonable to expect greater transparency of the remuneration arrangements that apply to high-earning individuals at taxpayer-funded broadcasters. I expect the national broadcasters to manage these issues appropriately.”
TimeBase is an independent, privately owned Australian legal publisher specialising in the online delivery of accurate, comprehensive and innovative legislation research tools including LawOne and unique Point-in-Time Products. Nothing on this website should be construed as legal advice and does not substitute for the advice of competent legal counsel.
National Broadcasters Legislation Amendment (Enhanced Transparency) Bill 2017: Bill, second reading speech and explanatory material available on Timebase's LawOne.
Privacy Act 1988, available on Timebase's LawOne.
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