PETER VAN ONSELEN: So you’re NOT speaking for the ABC when you slam Peter Dutton’s nuclear policy? Chairman Kim Williams has got to be kidding himself – as he makes his own Laura Tingle-style howler

Do as I say, not as I do. That is the message new ABC chair Kim Williams sent when he publicly criticised Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s policy on nuclear energy. 

It comes just weeks after top ABC political journalist Laura Tingle was formally sanctioned for criticising Dutton’s policy on immigration at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. 

In March this year – shortly after Williams took over as ABC chair – he boldly declared that there is no place for political ‘activism’ at the public broadcaster and anyone who can’t abide by that standard should get up and leave. 

But with more than four years left on his term I can only assume Williams won’t be taking his own advice. 

I’m not sure what offends me more: the stupidity of the ABC Chair making the comments, especially in the current climate, or the obvious political bias that they so openly put on display. 

We should note that Williams isn’t bound by the ABC’s editorial guidelines. He is not a journalist. 

But if he doesn’t want to be accused of hypocrisy – the pot calling the kettle black as it were – he should have shut up. 

Anthony Albanese appointed Kim Williams the chairman of the ABC at the beginning of the year

Instead, Williams joined the After The Fact panel, alongside the director of the Vivid Festival and the CEO of IndigenousX, telling his audience Dutton’s nuclear policy is ‘absent any of the normal fabric of policy formulation’. 

Putting to one side Williams’ psychic powers (the Opposition’s nuclear policy hasn’t actually been released yet) surely the new chair of the ABC must realise how inappropriate it is for him to weigh in on such an issue?

Apparently not, because he also told his audience he was only speaking as an ‘Australian citizen’, as though it is that easy for one of the highest profile roles in the Australian media to take his ABC hat on and off whenever he chooses to throw a few partisan barbs. 

Would Tingle’s comments have also been OK had she drawn this tenuous distinction when she said ‘We are a racist country, let’s face it’? 

It just shouldn’t be so hard for someone occupying a role like Williams to do better. 

He could offer his musings about Dutton’s nuclear policy credentials in private, at home, amongst friends and family. Out of earshot of anyone with a recording device, and certainly not on stage at a public event.

Quietly think them to yourself if you like.  

It beggars belief that this comes so soon in the aftermath of the Tingle saga, and with so many parallels. The ABC managing director David Anderson even had to front Senate Estimates in Canberra and admonish the conduct of his star journalist. 

Yet Williams has now done this. Perhaps the worst part of what has happened is that Tingle and others at the ABC might learn the wrong lesson and think two wrongs make a right. If the Chair can do it so can we. 

The extent of Williams’ denial was on display when, after ripping into Dutton’s allegedly poor policy making skills, he told the audience ‘I’m not being political’. 

Really? Perhaps it was a case of emulating George Costanza from Seinfeld: ‘Jerry, it’s not a lie if you believe it.’

Would Williams have even been invited to join a panel flagged as discussing ‘soundbite politics’ if he wasn’t the Chair of the ABC? 

Given the obvious political content likely to be discussed by the panel, shouldn’t Williams have known better and politely declined?

Laura Tingle (left, with Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame) sparked controversy when she described Australia as a 'racist country' during a panel discussion

Laura Tingle (left, with Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame) sparked controversy when she described Australia as a ‘racist country’ during a panel discussion 

The rest of the ABC Chair’s attempt to diss Dutton’s policy making skills as subpar unfortunately only revealed his own ignorance of how the policy making process works from Opposition. 

Williams confidently asserted ‘I grew up at a time when governments published green papers… then they published white papers… from which debate would follow in the parliament… that was the traditional process for public policy formulation… I think it’s a pretty good system.’

Guess what Kim, it is a pretty good system – and that’s still how it works. 

But Dutton isn’t in government, he’s in Opposition. 

The same policy making processes don’t exist because the Opposition doesn’t have a team of departmental bureaucrats to design their policies. 

It also doesn’t control the Parliament, or at least the lower house. So oppositions can’t follow the traditional policymaking cycle the way governments should and sometimes  do. 

But putting to one side Williams’ (failed) attempt to school Dutton on the policy making process, he simply shouldn’t have weighed in on such a hot political topic. 

And he’s absolutely kidding himself if he thinks he can take his ABC hat off anytime he wants to weigh in. 

The real world doesn’t work that way.  

If having been appointed to the chairmanship by the current Labor government Williams can’t help but offer opinions on one of the central policy issues likely to dominate the next election campaign, he should only do so over a beer amongst friends. 

Or more likely in the case of the former head of the Sydney Opera House Trust, over a nice glass of chardonnay. 

If he can’t abide by that basic rule then he should quit.