The government is considering whether it can scrap a review body stacked with Liberal-linked members as integrity experts call for transparency and competitiveness around senior public appointments.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus is doing a “very serious review” of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which has taken up to two years to make decisions as case lists have lengthened, particularly for migration and NDIS matters.
The independent tribunal reviews government decisions but many observers fear its authority has been undermined by successive Coalition governments making political appointments to its ranks.
Over the past three years, 40 per cent of AAT appointments had political ties. That was eight times the level of political appointments made under the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments.
“The Liberals have repeatedly undermined the Administrative Appeals Tribunal by using it as a Liberal Party employment agency,” Dreyfus said.
“I am now carefully considering how I can undo the damage of the last nine years, and ensure the AAT once again serves the interests of all Australians, not just the Liberal Party and its mates.”
One option is disbanding the AAT and starting again from scratch, as recommended in a Senate committee report handed down in March. Dreyfus has not ruled this out.
The committee’s final report from its review of the AAT will be released on Thursday. Committee chair Kim Carr, an outgoing Labor senator, said there was overwhelming evidence the current system was not working for the benefit of Australians.
“I’m confident that the new government has read the [interim] report and will act on it,” he said.
In 2007, the incoming Rudd government scrapped four bodies that had been integral to the WorkChoices laws, including the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, and replaced them with what is now the Fair Work Commission.
The Centre for Public Integrity says all appointments to the AAT and other statutory and public service positions must become open to restore people’s confidence in politics.
This would include department secretaries, Commonwealth companies such as Australia Post, and statutory appointments including the auditor-general, electoral commissioner and the Fair Work Commission.
The NSW government is currently facing scrutiny over the appointment of former deputy premier John Barilaro to a $500,000-a-year job as a trade representative based in the US.
There is already an independent process in place for appointing members to the ABC and SBS boards.
Former ACCC chair Allan Fels, who has been on the nomination panel for the broadcasters, said the open process often ended up with people applying who otherwise might have been overlooked.
“It’s become a habit that these days, a majority of appointments are politically driven. And this is not good for public trust or integrity in government,” he said.
“We set up statutory boards to avoid political influences determining outcomes; if we wanted politics to determine outcomes, we’d leave decision-making with politicians.”
In a new paper it is releasing on Thursday, the centre says all positions should be advertised with clear criteria, an independent panel interview applicants, and ministers only appoint people from the panel’s shortlist with a report tabled in parliament outlining their qualifications and experience.
It also recommends AAT deputy presidents and senior members should be required to have legal qualifications and at least five years practising, while members without legal qualifications should not be allowed to make solo decisions.
Centre for Public Integrity chair Anthony Whealy QC said important government appointments were being made without any selection criteria or interview process. He also advocated for the AAT to be dissolved and replaced with new, independent appointments.
“Everyone is expected to apply for jobs, why should these positions be any different?” he said.
Independent MP Sophie Scamps said it was crucial the new government led by example and set up transparent and fair recruitment processes.
“[This would] ensure top public service roles are awarded to those who are most qualified for the job, rather than continuing the political practice of guaranteeing ‘jobs for mates’,” she said.
Originally written by Katina Curtis and published in the Age on June 29 2022