Secrecy around salaries is a somewhat unusual concept in Canberra, where so many people work, or have worked, in government. Public servants become quickly used to the idea that the level at which they are employed, and the salaries they receive (or at least close estimates of those salaries), are public information. Every appointment and promotion is published in the Public Service Gazette. Every job’s salary range is also published, either in the gazette or elsewhere.
Most public servants don’t think twice about this; it’s simply a consequence of working for the government. But the reasons for this transparency are worth reflecting on. Its origins lie in the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms to the British civil service in the 1850s. Those changes aimed to wipe out the then widespread nepotism in the bureaucracy and to entrench the principle of merit in government employment decisions. Put simply, it’s harder to indulge in patronage and jobbery, or to offer a friend or a relative a sinecure, if everyone can see who you offer it to and how much it’s worth.
The ABC is not part of the Australian Public Service and hence has no statutory obligation to be transparent in this way. But it is a government-owned entity that receives almost 90 per cent of its funding from taxpayers. As a matter of principle, if not legal compulsion, it should have at least considered publishing the remuneration of its staff, as do many other government organisations. Indeed, as a broadcaster whose journalism regularly scrutinises public office holders and seeks to hold them to account, it would seem only natural that the ABC adopt a voluntarily open approach to its own administration.
It’s a shame that, rather than take the principled high ground years ago by embracing transparency in this way, the ABC is resisting requests from One Nation, some tabloid media (particularly News Corp) and now the Turnbull government to publish its employees’ salaries. To be clear, none of these parties are seeking this information for altruistic reasons; their sole intent is to embarrass the broadcaster and its higher-earning personnel, because they perceive the ABC to be an ideological opponent. Their demands are driven by shallow politicking and populism.
Yet their motives don’t dilute the importance of the principles involved: transparency and merit in public-sector employment decisions, including those about pay.
There will inevitably be some tabloid outrage when the broadcaster reveals its top staff’s pay packages, just as there was when Britain’s public broadcaster, the BBC, was forced to do likewise. (Indeed, the ABC, perhaps ironically given its current stance, reported in detail on the BBC revelations.)
Nonetheless, the ABC won’t collapse, nor will it likely lose any of the affected staff. It will remain a much-loved, highly trusted national institution. And its journalists will be in an even stronger position to demand accountability from those who fear scrutiny.
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