In a rare attack of common sense that rolls back years of cozy jobs-for-the-boys ABC chair appointments, Malcolm Turnbull has continued his series of quiet wins in the battle to drag Australia kicking and screaming into the 21st century by naming Justin Milne to run the national broadcaster’s board.
The appointment is an acknowledgement that technology at the heart of the role, and that Mr Milne’s experience in communications and multimedia will be crucial to the ABC’s future. It’s not rocket science, right?
Perhaps most importantly a tech industry executive has – 15 months after the Prime Minister placed the sector at the centre of a stuttering political narrative – been elevated into the corporate elites, with industry veteran Justin Milne joining Rupert Murdoch at the top of Australia media tree.
Mr Milne’s appointment as chair of the ABC is as terrific and note-perfect as the appointment of former Telstra boss David Thodey was to the chair at the CSIRO.
That Mr Milne’s was given the appointment over better known, better networked, and more polished performers is overdue recognition of a sector that has been too long on the fringes (even as it moved to the centre of everything across the rest of the developed world.)
In Australia clubby and outmoded chauvinism is still in embarrassingly rude health. Women and migrant business representation on boards remains poor.
And so it is perhaps not surprising that Australia has also has dragged the chain on bringing technology skills into the mainstream light.
The nervous, embarrassed reactions of Australian business to Malcolm Turnbull’s technology moment on the night of his elevation to the Prime Ministership was telling.
Here was a mainstream business community too lazy and too cosy to apply any understanding of the new regime’s message. It was just another passing fad, they said. Just buzzwords, they said.
The PM was actually only giving public voice to what markets already knew: That a national understanding of technology and of high-tech companies is at the centre of our most important economic challenges and opportunities.
The Prime Minister has now placed one of the most important executives in the short history of the internet in this country at the nexus of technology and media.
Mr Milne is the industry’s unfussed champion, admitting to InnovationAus.com that “I’ve been lucky. I have been in the right place at the right time a few times in my career.”
Since leaving Telstra, in the past seven years he has collected eight board positions, including chair of legendary Australian software group MYOB, as well as a seat on the resurgent Aussie fixed-wireless hardware maker Netcomm Wireless, a Tabcorp Holdings directorship, and a seat in the National Broadband Network alongside his former boss Ziggy Switkowski.
That’s a busy workload for an ABC chairman. And the government has made it clear that some things will need to give.
But Mr Milne is determined to remain on the board of the NBN Company.
“I have made a commitment to reduce my overall board commitments, but I am still working through which ones I will let go,” he said.
“But I will definitely (some might say defiantly) be staying at the NBN as there is absolutely no conflict between the ABC and the NBN. The only relationship is that the NBN may carry the ABC signal and internet site.
“I am very keen to keep going with the NBN, it really has been a text-book turnaround story under Bill Morrow who has done a terrific job.
“Here is a company that was known for never hitting a target, and now they hit every target like clockwork.
“I have approached my non-executive career not as a retirement option, but a second part of my career.
“Eight boards means you can take experiences from one to the others, use experience in companies in similar sector to add value.”
For ever, it seems the chairman of the national broadcaster and all but a couple of board seats on the ABC have been reserved for the incumbent Prime Minister favourite mates from the corporate and legal elites.
Mr Milne’s appointment was made through an arms-length process; he was selected as the best of a short list by an independent appointments board, who recommended him to the Communications Minister Mitch Fifield (who is the ABC’s sole shareholder on behalf of the taxpayer) who got the final sign of from the PM.
No mates deal here, and in any case, the PM and Mr Milne are hardly close. Mr Turnbull’s tech bestie is Milne’s former BigPond deputy and NBN chief operating office JB Rousselot, which has confused some newspapers.
As well as his board positions, Mr Milne says he also taps the experience of his second wife, the scientist and tech industry maven Anna Cicognani, who runs New Zealand listed tech start up GeoOp.
Mr Milne credits the products of his second marriage with helping him understand the peripatetic technology behavior of the first digital natives, the millenials.
Despite the Milne and Thodey appointments, it’s now a very dangerous game, expecting any consistency from the PM who has had more turning points than a steep mountain pass.
Public sector reform is so far arguably his most tangible success, albeit one that is far too dull for the tabloids.
Of course, the invisible hand of Mr Turnbull’s right hand man, the increasingly powerful public service chief Martin Parkinson is moving the pieces around the board, making up at least some of the talent deficit in Cabinet.
So, it’s three cheers for Justin Milne, the PM, and the tech sector. And fingers crossed that the Milne and Thodey appointments are not anomalous black swan events, but rather the end of a not-interested-in-tech era that should have ended decades ago.
Certainly in the ABC’s case, disruption on many levels is far from finished. Mr Milne and ABC CEO Michelle Guthrie – who he only met last Friday – are an interesting combination of skills and experience
He has found a fellow traveller who has taken the journey from old to new media, with technology playing as significant role.
We wish them well.
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