Lay off ‘grey cardigan wearers’: ACMA head’s career wrap

By David Donaldson

Wednesday February 10, 2016

Don’t knock public servants as grey cardigan wearers, says the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s outgoing inaugural chair Chris Chapman.

Providing his final opening statement at Senate Estimates yesterday after 10 years in the role, Chapman noted he was the longest serving of 194 current Commonwealth agency heads.

Notwithstanding a slightly rough first Estimates appearance back in 2006, which saw Senator Stephen Conroy seize on the ability of Chapman and his general counsel “to provide, without notice, an all-encompassing yet succinct definition of the ‘internet'”, Chapman said it had been an “unqualified privilege” to chair the ACMA:

“I exhort anyone who has not been on the inside of the public service to find an opportunity to do so.

“Public servants are wonderful, caring, intelligent and committed Australians (occasionally, so sadly, so pathetically stigmatised as ‘grey cardigan wearers’) who, to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt from his famous ‘Citizenship in a Republic’ speech, ‘actually strive to do the deeds; who know great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spend themselves in a worthy cause’.”

And although it’s often difficult to measure, his experience in government was “that public servants do create substantive and meaningful public (and national) value”.

Chapman himself is a late convert to the bureaucracy, having spent most of his career in the private sector. Before joining the ACMA, he held a number of senior management positions with the Seven Network, Stadium Australia Management, Optus and Babcock & Brown. During his time, Chapman noted over 10 years he had:

  • Seen: six prime ministerships.
  • Served under: five communications ministers.
  • Served with: six department secretaries.
  • Come before: six Senate Estimates committee chairpersons.
  • Regulated with: 15 outstanding authority members.
  • Chaired: 246 authority meetings.
  • Participated in: 56 authority strategy sessions.

Among his achievements in the role as the head of ACMA — the third largest collector of revenue in the Commonwealth — Chapman noted there had been “no financial dramas, no sudden discovery of unaccounted for costs or any requests for bailouts by this agency”:

“Notwithstanding the complexity of its multiple roles, the increasing uncertainties of its brief (in light of the realities of digital enablement, and digital disruption), the challenges of Australia’s massive geography and the asymmetry of its population’s density, the agency has over that decade operated with a net surplus of about $650,000, raised in income nearly 11 times its total operational appropriations, moved the percentage of funds expended on front-line staff from 61% to 74% and secured 10 successive ANAO Certificates of Compliance, all ‘unqualified’.”

All while base funding for the agency had declined by 18% in nominal terms over the first decade of its existence.

Following his 10 years in charge of the broadcasting, telecommunications, radio communications and online regulator, Chapman offered some thoughts on modern regulation. The best way to ensure the most powerful and friction-free results in regulation is when industry to “steps up and meaningfully owns the goals of consumer satisfaction and citizen protection”, he said.

Chapman said there is a need for a “flexible regulatory framework”, as well as a recognition that the regulator can’t and shouldn’t do everything. This framework should also be “unified and coherent with respect to the layered and inter-linked nature of the media and communications industries” to avoid the duplication that led to the creation of ACMA. He added:

“… none of us can ever rest on our laurels in this constantly changing world; just when you think you have ‘got it’, someone, somewhere in our global networked world will have a disruptive idea that will shortly mean you simply don’t ‘get it’ anymore!”

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