James Spigelman, the non-sceptic ABC Chairman

Gough Whitlam had two whiz-kids when he was Prime Minister. Each served as his principal private secretary for a time, and each went on to be a departmental secretary. The older was Peter Wilenski, the younger Jim Spigelman. Both had been educated at Sydney University, and both had been active in student politics. Peter Wilenski became a friend; Jim Spigelman I think I met only once or twice, in that Whitlam Government period.

Once Fraser was Prime Minister, Peter Wilenski became an academic, first at UNSW, then at the ANU, where I was, until the return of Labor to power, when he became a senior public servant again, eventually going to the UN as Australia’s permanent representative there. He had to leave that post when cancer attacked him, and died of that disease in Canberra.

Jim Spigelman went to the Sydney bar, became a QC in the mid 1980s, got involved in the Art Gallery and other organisations in the arts, and eventually became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Retired from that post, he has become the new Chairman of the ABC. He has become also a speechmaker and scholar, and I’ve read what he has published in Quadrant, which I have enjoyed. He writes well, on interesting topics.

Last week he was in Canberra for an ABC event, and was quizzed by  a few AGW sceptics about his intentions about the pronounced bias within the ABC in favour of the AGW orthodoxy, about which I have written more than once. He said to them ‘I am no sceptic’, and mentioned that he was considering setting up a panel of scientists who would rule on matters like this.

I was puzzled by that short statement of his position. Spigelman in print reads very like a classic sceptic, and I would have thought that senior judges like him almost have to be innately sceptical if they are to be good judges. Why would he not be sceptical about the notion that human activity has caused global warming, which is on a track that will be catastrophic for humanity, unless humanity unites to stop burning fossil fuels? I think that’s a crisp summary of the orthodox position.

There are excellent reasons to be sceptical about it, as I’ve pointed out in post after post. While it is generally accepted that the world has warmed, in fits and starts, over the last 150 years, it has done so before in a similar fashion. We seem to be in a long pause right now, though carbon dioxide accumulations continue to rise. On the whole, a warmer, carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere seems to be good for animal and vegetable life. All the scary stuff comes from large computer models, rather than from observations. The computer models have not been validated, and it can be argued that climate is so chaotic that you cannot sensibly model it anyway.

Despite the frequent claims that ‘the science is settled’ and that ’97 per cent of scientists agree’, new papers appear each week that nibble away at the edges and the centre of the AGW orthodoxy. The basic truth, if I can use that word, is that the orthodoxy is a political position, not a scientific one. I would have thought that former CJ Spigelman would pick that up in a little reading, if he devoted his formidable mind to it.

But even if he were sceptical about the doctrine of ‘climate change’ he would have his work cut out to shift the position of the ABC. His predecessor, Maurice Newman, is a sceptic, and has said so publicly, for which he was monstered by his former organisation not so long ago. If there is a change of government, and the carbon tax is revoked, it will be interesting to see if there is any change in the basic position of the ABC. I wouldn’t expect it, since the ABC has been on the side of the AGW angels for a long time, even during the the time of the Howard Government.

The idea of a panel of scientists who would rule on what ‘the science says’ only makes sense if the panel covers the waterfront, if they are all reasonable people, and they are accountable in some way. In the case of  ‘climate change’ the learned academies with relevance here, both in Australia and overseas, have all agreed with the orthodoxy. Once again, these are political positions, in my judgment, and are based only on what the IPCC says, or what makes sense to the current leadership of the bodies.

The notion that such a panel could come out with a statement that the orthodoxy has some real problems seems really improbable to me. And of course, it won’t make those dissenting from the orthodoxy any happier. Indeed, it will make them much angrier. It’s not the right path, at least as I see it.

In the meantime, if the new Chairman would like to have a quick read on what he has to deal with, he might like to read my piece in the Sydney Institute Quarterly, and the earlier one by Ron Brunton in the same journal about how the management duchesses the Board.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    Journalism attracts many for some of the best of reasons. Their experience in their careers points up the fallibility of humans; no wonder that many seek change that will improve the human condition. So almost by definition, journalism encourages change. Young journalists therefore will tend to gravitate naturally to the left, and perhaps become more cautious as they age. Some journalists never age, bless them, and many of those have a safe home in our ABC.

    • Don Aitkin says:


      I would agree with you. But journalists still have a code of ethics, as do all professionals. And the ABC has two important statements about its attitude to what is presented. I argued in my SIQ piece that these charters were at odds with what took place. Chairman Spigelman may not even be aware of the disjunction, but it shouldn’t take long for him to sense it.

  • dlb says:

    I really can’t see the ABC questioning the AGW hypothesis until an organization such as the IPCC or CSIRO admits there are problems. Regrettably such organizations are considered beyond reproach, much like the church was in the 1950s.

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