It must be a quiet news day. Buzzfeed’s Mark di Stefano posted a reheated story this morning, casting a close look at Attorney-General George Brandis’s appointment of 76 new members of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal just before parliament was dissolved last May.
Di Stefano highlighted a good number of those appointees have LNP connections, including as former politicians, staffers and candidates. His gist is these were blatantly partisan political appointments designed to stack the AAT with LNP hacks, rewarding loyalty over merit.
These appointments were made over six months ago, with barely a ripple at the time except that Brandis’ flurry showed a Government hastily clearing the decks for the imminent election. Partisan connections mattered little to anyone, including to shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus who criticised the rushed process, but merely noted the partisan angle.
Why miss such an obvious political free kick? Because Labor isn’t silly enough to throw stones at its own glass house.
For generations, Labor has made an art form of jobs for the boys and girls. From ambassadorships down to appointments on obscure boards and committees, federal and state Labor governments recognise the value of having as many of their own in appointed offices for three reasons: it rewards capable people who also are loyal to the Labor/union cause; it ensures there are people in positions of influence who are on the same page as the government that appointed them; and, when the electoral tide turns, there are agents embedded in enemy territory until their appointments expire.
If you want a Labor case study, just look at who’s on the Fair Work Commission, its membership totally dominated by former Labor and union figures. As for the Human Rights Commission, nothing more need be said.
Unlike Labor, Coalition governments are relatively squeamish about systematically combining merit and patronage. The Victorian Baillieu Coalition government bent over backwards to appoint Labor-affiliated people to boards and the like, for fear of being seen as partisan. As a result, it was undermined from within, and disappointed fellow travellers without. It certainly got no kudos for its pointless generosity to its opponents. The Labor governments that preceded and succeeded it had no such qualms: take the CFA board, anyone?
As far as Brandis’s AAT appointments go, the figures with Coalition connections are all highly-skilled and experienced people in their fields. Many have intimate experience in the processes of government and policy-making, which surely is desirable in people reviewing and adjudicating on the merits of contested administrative decisions and actions. By accepting appointment, those people are obligated to act impartially and provide what the AAT website calls ‘high-quality merits review of administrative decisions’. And as judicial officers their giving up their political activity is part of the deal.
For once, the political blunderbuss Brandis got it right, appointing capable people to the AAT who not only are qualified to do the jobs but are sound in all other respects. They will do their duty with impartiality, skill and ability. Dreyfus’s response back in May is one of grudging respect for George’s chutzpah. After all, it’s exactly what he will do if and when Labor wins the next election.
Disclosure: I was sounded by the Attorney-General’s Department in March about letting my name go forward. Clearly good sense prevailed and I didn’t make the cut.