This week 19 new appointments were made to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, of which at least 6 have direct links to the Liberal Party. Coming on top of recent appointments to the Productivity Commission, the Australia Council, and many other government boards and authorities, this latest slew of appointments appears to be no coincidence. Can anyone smell an election?
Sadly, this comes as no surprise; we’ve seen it all before. In the three months leading up to the 2019 election there was a rush of government appointments: almost 300 of them, including many former politicians and staffers.
Of the many appointments governments make, positions that are influential, prestigious, or well-paid are more likely to be filled by politically affiliated appointees. The AAT is the trifecta in this respect. Full-time members earn between $193,990 and $496,560 a year and make consequential judgments on administrative law appeals. And the path from parliament house to the AAT is a well-trodden one indeed for staffers and politicians. Even before the latest round of appointments, 21 per cent of AAT members had a political affiliation. In the past five years that proportion has skyrocketed: among appointments since 2016, it’s a third.
Jobs for mates is not unique to the Morrison government. Federal Labor governments have been known to appoint party affiliates to the Fair Work Commission. Positions on state government boards are also commonly filled by politically connected candidates.
And some might argue that political experience is helpful in these jobs. But if merit is the sole criteria for selection, wouldn’t it seem odd that 90 per cent of politically affiliated appointees should come from the same side of politics as the government of the day – or that so many of the most meritorious candidates just happen to come from the offices of government MPs? It looks, and smells, like cronyism.
In isolation, handing out a cushy job to a political mate might seem harmless. But politicisation of public appointments, and the casually cynical way it is normalised – “everyone does it” – has real, pervasive consequences for Australian democracy. Political appointments can compromise the independence and competence of institutions, hurt public trust in government, and promote a culture where loyalty is valued over merit.
Many public appointments are highly paid. People in these roles make important decisions. And in some cases, they have significant influence over public policy outcomes and debate in Australia.
But “captain’s picks” don’t necessarily have the skills and experience to carry out their responsibilities effectively. This has been raised as a concern in relation to the AAT, and it is notable that 17 per cent of AAT members with political affiliations were under their performance targets in 2021, compared to 9 per cent of non-political appointees.
Even if the person appointed is fully capable of the job, the perception of politicisation can affect the morale and culture of an organisation and undermine public faith in the institution involved.
Organisational culture matters to decision-making and to public policy outcomes. Other members of a public board or tribunal may be less willing to provide frank and fearless advice if they think this affects their chances of reappointment or promotion. Those concerns may even be justified: one study showed that immigration tribunal members who made decisions against the minister were less likely to be reappointed.
Independence is particularly important for institutions such as the AAT, whose purpose is precisely to review government decisions. Public trust in the judicial process relies on both the perception and reality of independence. Actions that compromise this trust come at a very high cost indeed.
Still, despite all the negative consequences, the temptation to reward political mates with a nice job seems to be just too great for some. So what can be done to de-politicise public appointments?
Although ministers have a legitimate role in making public appointments we need guard-rails to protect the public interest. Advertising these positions, and running an open, competitive process, is the least Australians should expect. Ministers would still have the power to design the selection criteria, put forward candidates for consideration, and ultimately choose from a shortlist put forward by an independent panel. But if they don’t like the shortlist, they should change the criteria – and re-publish them – rather than bypass good process and resort to captain’s picks.
It’s really not that hard. Open, competitive selection processes are widespread in the private sector and apply to all public service positions. It is remarkable that appointments to public bodies such as the AAT – which have important decision-making powers and come with high salaries – can be made with so little transparency of process.
On the eve of an election, a promise to clean up public appointments would be an easy political win for any party willing to raise the bar.
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