Taxpayers will foot the bill and deserve to know the details. A listed company would be forced to disclose an equivalent payment and the ABC should be no different.
The extra payment is substantially higher than the $500,000 reported elsewhere, according to Herald and Age sources. It’s on top of the $911,117 termination fee (reported previously as $800,000) paid last year, when Ms Guthrie was fired without cause halfway through her five-year term.
To put it in perspective, Andrew Thorburn, the recently departed NAB chief executive, left the bank with a payout of just over $1 million when he resigned last month. That’s a substantially lower proportion of his income, given he earned $4.3 million in the year to September 2018, while Guthrie was paid $900,000 a year.
But while Guthrie’s payout seems high on paper, it would take into account the considerable damage to her reputation inflicted by the affair. The acrimonious departure meant too much was made public, including the leak of the infamous “360-degree performance review” that showed the low opinion some staff had of their chief.
At NAB Thorburn presided over an organisation with a track record of wrongdoing that drew stinging criticism from the banking royal commission and sent billions of dollars of shareholder value up in smoke. The fact that Guthrie fell out with her chairman and was unpopular with staff is not comparable.
The funding and independence of the ABC was a key issue in the 2016 election, and it could be a headache for the government once again given the claims that former chairman Justin Milne ran political interference for his friend, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
The government is desperately trying to neutralise issues that favour the opposition before it names the election date. Cue the flurry of activity removing children from Nauru, pledging new funding for climate change and domestic violence, and promoting women to cabinet. Whether or not it’s enough to solve substantive issues, the government is plainly hoping to create political cover.
This is the context for the scrutiny of Guthrie’s payout and naming Ita Buttrose as the new ABC chairwoman. The government has made a credible appointment with broad appeal to pitch itself to a sceptical electorate as a responsible steward of the ABC.
Buttrose has deep board and media experience and will be a high-profile advocate for the ABC. Someone who stood up to Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch as a young woman is nobody’s fool.
It’s true there’s an independent recruitment panel to help select the ABC chairman. But if the final authority rests with the government, it’s only advisory.
Arguably the panel failed by putting forward a shortlist of men who had all nominated themselves. Either way, the purpose of hiring a headhunter is to broaden the selection of candidates. It’s not meant to be limiting.
Age discrimination runs deep in our society, so it’s celebrating that an older woman – Buttrose is 77 – is getting the chance to do a big job she’s qualified to do.
Buttrose plays her political cards close to her chest, which is appropriate. But as the founder of Cleo – the magazine that helped kickstart the sexual revolution in 1970s Australia – she is hardly socially conservative.
Nor is she a print dinosaur – she once chaired a digital magazine start-up Reddo Media.
In any case, digital strategy is mostly about appointing the right chief executive. Now that matters are settled with Guthrie, that’s Buttrose’s first task.
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is the associate editor of The Sun-Herald and a columnist.