Australian politics has a growing ‘jobs for mates’ culture and it’s undermining our democracy, according to a new Grattan Institute report.

New politics: A better process for public appointments shows that many federal and state government boards, tribunals, and agencies are stacked with people who have worked in politics – almost always for the party that was in government when they got the job.

It reveals that political appointees occupy 21 per cent of federal government board positions that are well-paid, powerful, and/or prestigious.

Half of the Productivity Commission’s board members have a political connection to the Coalition.

More than one in five members of federal government business boards have a political connection — including businesses such as Australia Post that employ thousands of people and manage income in the billions. In many states, it’s one in 10. By contrast, fewer than 2 per cent of ASX100 company board members – who exercise very similar responsibilities – have a political connection.

Political stacking is especially evident on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), an independent expert body that reviews government decisions on everything from child support to migration status.

The AAT offers the full trifecta of powerful, prestigious, and well-paid positions – AAT member salaries range from nearly $200,000 to nearly $500,000 a year.

Twenty per cent of the AAT’s 320 tribunal members have a direct political connection to the government that appointed them. And the problem is getting worse.

Political appointments to the AAT have grown substantially in the past five years, and many of these appointments were made on ‘election eve’ – in the lead up to the 2019 and 2022 federal elections.

‘When mateship prevails over merit, we all suffer,’ says report lead author and Grattan Institute CEO Danielle Wood.

‘Of course not all political appointees are without merit, but politicising public appointments can compromise the performance of government agencies, promote a corrupt culture, and undermine public trust in the institutions of government.’

To put an end to jobs for mates, the report calls on federal and state governments to establish a transparent, merit-based selection process for all public appointments, overseen by a new Public Appointments Commissioner:

  • All public board, tribunal, and statutory appointments should be advertised, along with the selection criteria for each position.
  • An independent panel, including the Public Appointments Commissioner, should assess applicants against the selection criteria and provide a shortlist of candidates to the minister.
  • The minister should be required to choose the successful candidate only from the shortlist.

‘This is a big problem, but it has an easy fix,’ Ms Wood says.

‘If the new federal government is serious about improving the way politics is done in Australia, it should set about ending the insidious jobs-for-mates culture – and the state and territory governments should get on board.’

This report is the first of Grattan Institute’s New politics series, examining misuse of public office for political gain. Subsequent reports will investigate pork-barrelling and the politicisation of taxpayer-funded advertising.

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