May 06, 2004 | Jeff Wall

The real issue in the Professor Flint matter

My fellow blogger Graham Young totally misses the point in his “defence” of the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) Chairman, Professor David Flint.
To illustrate what the real issue is in this matter, I need to go back to an experience in my career as a Ministerial Advisor – 30 years ago.
At the time, I was Press Secretary to the Queensland Minister for Justice and Attorney-General, Bill Knox. Among his ministerial responsibilities was liquor licensing.
Early in his term he was told by reliable sources that two part-time members of the Liquor Licensing Commission (a quasi judicial body not dissimilar to the ABA) were receiving “freebies” from sections of the liquor industry, and had been doing so for years.
In one case, the member received a week’s free accommodation each year at a hotel on the Gold Coast, while the second member had a carton or two of “tallies” delivered to his house every couple of weeks – free of charge of course.
There was no allegation that either benefit resulted is biased decisions, or any favours for the licensees involved. Indeed, an examination by Justice Department Officials of decisions by the Commission over a period of years actually showed that one or two decisions had gone against the licensees involved!
The Attorney-General called in the two commission members and interviewed them separately. They readily owned up to the benefits. He demanded their immediate resignations – which he received.
Within hours their appointments were formally ended.
As a young enthusiastic advisor, I wanted to tell the media the full story. It would show up the Attorney-General in a good light – but he would have none of it. Given that he was an industrious and effective publicist, that surprised me.
Looking back, he was probably right – both were in their 70’s, they had given otherwise long and good service under both Labor and Coalition State Governments, and there was no evidence of actual bias as a result of the favour they were given.
But here is the point that is relevant to the Flint issue.
Bill Knox served in the Parliament for 32 years – the only MP to serve during the whole of the non-Labor period (1957-1989). He was a Minister for 17 years and 7 months. Only four Ministers in the history of the state have served longer.
In the whole of that time, there was not the slightest hint of scandal or impropriety in his Ministerial service. There is a simple reason for that.
The standard he set in regard to the licensing commission members was consistent with that he followed in all the portfolios he held. Conflicts of interest, whether real or perceived, were rigorously avoided in the appointments he made – and especially those of a judicial or quasi judicial nature.
That annoyed some of his colleagues, but it made no difference. But it gave this state judges and other officials who served it with integrity. It is just a pity that his successors did not follow that example.
I note that the Prime Minister overnight argued that the ABA is not really a quasi-judicial authority, even though he made some criticism of Professor Flint’s letters.
If that is one of the arguments for the retention of Professor Flint, then it is a weak one. Just as the Queensland Liquor Licensing Commission was deemed to be a quasi judicial body, so must the ABA be. It holds public hearings, it takes evidence, barristers appear before it on behalf of clients, witnesses are examined and cross examined, its hearings are held in a court room like environment, and, importantly, it has wide powers to impose penalties.
The argument that the ABA is not a judicial or quasi judicial body is a poor one.
The argument – advanced by Graham – that there is no evidence any of Professor Flint’s decisions have favoured friends or associates is inadequate.
The Professor has answered the “perception” that he might have a bias by standing aside – after obvious encouragement from his fellow ABA Commission Members – from the ABA’s hearings into the ABC’s coverage of the Iraq War.
He is an active, partisan participant in the political process. As such, he surely forfeits the right to judge the integrity of the broadcast industry on issues relating to its fairness and impartiality, or integrity?
Professor Flint claims to believe in the nation’s traditions, its institutions, and its constitutional structure and history.
What a pity that belief does not extend to upholding these tenets in judging his own suitability to continue in the high office he holds, even if only for the few months that remain?
Sorry Graham, Professor Flint has publicly humiliated himself. Execution? Like the two hapless Liquor Licensing Commission Members he could depart in a much less dramatic, bloody, way…………..but he had better do so before the “firing squad” takes aim again, as it most surely will in the coming months.
The departing press statement could begin something like this – “In the interests of preserving the impartiality and integrity of the ABA, even though I believe my actions have not impinged on either, I accept the reality that the perception may be otherwise, and am therefore resigning as Chairman forthwith”.
One can only hope.

Posted by Jeff Wall at 12:42 pm | Comments (1) |
Filed under: Uncategorized

1 Comment

  1. Mr Wall picks up on a very important point which can be developed further: Professor Flint holds a quasi-judicial office. It could accurately be termed “judicial office” if it were not for the fact that he acts with the authority of the executive branch.
    He comments on politics. He engages in politics. He has published a book about those sections of the community with which he disagrees and whom he apparently dislikes.
    Contemporaneously, he sits in judgment over those who bring news to the public of the very issues in which he engages as a partisan. He does so with significant influence over whether those persons should continue to be able to do so.
    Judges must disqualify themselves from hearing matters in court in circumstances where there is good reason to apprehend bias or (more seriously) when actual bias has been displayed. Professor Flint is heading toward the more serious end of that spectrum being openly and publicly biased against some of the opinions expressed by those whom he seeks to regulate.
    As an emeritus professor of law, one assumes that he would understand this.
    His position is so obviously untenable as to make his continued occupation of it a complete joke.
    He must go.

    Comment by Nick Ferrett — May 11, 2004 @ 7:17 pm

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