Head of board services at Korn Ferry, Robert Webster, who has donated generously to the Liberal Party in recent years. Helen Nezdropa

Search for new ABC chairman already tainted

After September's ABC controversy regarding political board appointments, you'd think the Coalition would have learnt their lesson.

24 October 2018 | Australian Financial Review | Myriam Robin | Originally published here

After it became clear that almost all the ABC’s recently appointed directors had been “captain’s picks” not recommended by the independent nominations committee – a fact revealed amid a scandal over politically minded interference by the ABC’s departed chairman Justin Milne — you’d think the Coalition would be keen for vacancies at the public broadcaster to be filled in a manner above reproach.

That might mean no longer being able to stack the board with friendlies. Though there is another solution (besides stacking the nominations panel, which has been tried). Select a friendly recruitment agency, whose board practice is led by a former NSW Coalition MP, and maybe you can have the best of both worlds.

Kristina Keneally’s Senate estimates grilling of the Department of Communications’ Mike Mrdak revealed that the Netherlands-owned Korn Ferry would be the recruitment agency in charge of encouraging applications, vetting the candidates and helping the panel come to a decision on who to suggest to the government.

Korn Ferry’s well-connected executive chairman Katie Lahey is a former CEO of the Business Council of Australia. She isn’t a card-carrying Liberal, but she’s certainly been to plenty of their functions. And the head of board services at Korn Ferry is Robert Webster, the aforementioned former NSW politician, who it seems will be leading the search.

Korn Ferry's well-connected executive chairman Katie Lahey is a former CEO of the Business Council of Australia. She isn't a card-carrying Liberal, but she's certainly been to plenty of their functions. Fairfax Media

Webster’s links to the Coalition are not merely historical. In June 2017 he donated $15,375 to the Liberal Party, according to the AEC. A year earlier, he gave $14,400. 

Someone of the Liberal Party, who still donates his hard-earned cash to the party, is hardly going to recommend (or have his juniors recommend) anyone the government isn’t going to like. And if Korn Ferry finds someone palatable to the current board as well, including whoever its new chairman is, maybe they’ll ask it to recruit the new ABC MD. 

Korn Ferry, it emerged, has been appointed to an unusually long two-year contract with the Department of Communications, conducted without the usual open tender. There’s precedent for this, though it hasn’t always worked out well. 

In 2014, Amanda O’Rourke & Associates was appointed to a $44,000 project to help find public broadcasting directors, awarded through limited tender. But the firm was left answering (or more accurately, not answering) awkward questions after the appointment of SBS chairman Nihal Gupta, a small-time Liberal Party donor whose brief and scandal-prone tenure is remembered for his having tried to fire then-SBS MD Michael Ebeid.

And twice last year, Challis & Company was appointed to short contracts awarded through limited tender (after a few months earlier running the gauntlet of an open tender) to advise on ABC and SBS board recruitment, including in January 2017. Which was two months before the government appointed Milne. Another disaster, in retrospect. 

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