In other words, the political cronies got cozy jobs in March in exactly the same way Morrison has gotten extra jobs in recent years: a legal instrument signed by Hurley. At least in the AAT case, there was a press release to confirm the appointments.
Despite this, there was no transparency about the appointment dates and there was a general problem. Morrison and Cash did not list the appointments in the Commonwealth Gazette.
Mason and Katz wrote to Attorney General Mark Dreyfus this week about their concerns. Dreyfus has criticized political appointments to the AAT in the past and has spoken of a review of the system. The new government has started a more open process to decide on the next round of appointments.
But that doesn’t end the questions about those who now sit before the tribunal through an opaque procedure to install them in statutory positions.
Mason and Katz cited one person as an example: Karen Synon, a former Liberal Senator for Victoria. Lost in the 1998 election, she was appointed to the Refugee Review Tribunal in 2001 and the Migration Review Tribunal in 2004, and then, after the coalition’s return in the 2013 election, to the AAT in 2015. She was appointed Non-Judicial Deputy President of the Tribunal in 2020. Her appointment was extended by Cash in instruments signed March 31 and announced via press release on April 4, so that her tenure at the Tribunal now runs through 2027. The full-time salary for a non-judicial Deputy President is $496,560 per year.
The legal conundrum is that the start date and terms of her most recent appointment are unknown. Synon is just one example of the problem with the trial: this is not a reflection on her character, her decisions as a member of the Tribunal, or her ability to carry out her role. She was just one of 26 members whose terms were renewed just before the election, along with 19 new appointments that day.
“It is misleading to announce appointments for March 2022 as extensions of existing appointments that have months, if not years, remaining,” say Mason and Katz.
“Which appointment of Ms. Synon is currently valid? The original that starts in 2020 and ends in 2023, or the one that was manufactured in 2022 and ends in 2027? If the latter, was the required oath or assurance taken before May 9, 2022?”
If not, they suggest, the decisions of those 26 members could be challenged. After all, these are legally required positions, not office jobs where promotions can be agreed by handshake or letter.
Concerns about the AAT are not new. The tribunal is now occupied by Liberal and National allies after nine years of coalition rule. It includes former Western Australia Liberal MP and Attorney General Michael Mischin, former NSW Liberal MP and Minister of State Pru Goward, and former Liberal Federal MP Jane Prentice and Andrew Nikolic.
In recent years, when the Attorney General’s office has been held by two WA Liberals, Cash and Christian Porter, no fewer than four former Liberal state MPs have been appointed from that state: Mishin, Peter Katsambanis, Michael Francis and Michael Sutherland.
This is not a reflection on the ability or impartiality of any of these individuals. The coalition government also appointed some former Labor politicians to the AAT, including South Australia’s John Rau and Victoria’s Philip Dalidakis. But the pattern is the problem.
When the Australia Institute examined all appointments to the AAT from the election of the Howard government in 1996 to the end of the Morrison government that year, it found that the coalition made 109 political appointments in its 21 years in power and Labor has made 10 political appointments over its 6 years in power. Debra Wilkinson and Elizabeth Morison’s detailed analysis classified members of the tribunal as political appointments if they had ever worked for either side of politics in a paid or unpaid capacity.
More political colleagues have gotten more jobs in recent years. The analysis found that 8 per cent of appointments in the three years after the Labor Party took power in 2007 were political. In the first term of the coalition from 2013 it was 23 percent and in the second term 35 percent. By the time Morrison was in control, it was reaching 40 percent.
Mason and Katz have been trying to find out more about these dates for months. Their efforts highlight a fundamental weakness of our system: when prime ministers and ministers want to ignore or bend best practice, the safeguards that could prevent them from doing so are too weak.
Political allies can be the best choice for key posts like the embassy in Washington DC or the High Commission in London, but an independent court should not be a retirement home for liberal friends. Every step in this direction is a step in the direction of the toxic politics of the United States.
Now it’s up to Dreyfus to find a better way.
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