Anna Bligh was premier at the time husband Greg Withers worked as director of climate change. Photo: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sometime in the 14th or 15th century, the term “nepotismo” was coined to describe the practice of illegitimate sons, passed off as nephews, being appointed to papal positions by relatives.
We know it as nepotism. And it is as contentious now as it was then.
Queensland Integrity Commissioner David Solomon has given the practice a lot of thought.
Former LNP Federal Treasurer Peter Costello was appointed by Premier Campbell Newman to lead the commission of audit for Queensland.
In a paper presented at a Thursday function for the TJ Ryan Foundation, a think tank established by Labor and the Queensland Council of Unions, Dr Solomon questioned whether it was time to examine how public appointments were made.
“... 'Should government/political appointments be subject to parliamentary probity or scrutiny by an independent body',” he said, posing a question asked by the LNP in a submission to the Bligh government's discussion paper on integrity and accountability in 2009.
“That is already the case in relation to various integrity officers in Queensland, where the relevant parliamentary committee is involved in the appointment process.
“But it is not the case with the appointment of directors-general and other chief executives.
"If we are to permit and favourably sanction the exercise of 'good patronage' do we need to adjust the system to provide more openness and transparency, in ways such as those mentioned in the LNP submission?
“I think it's time these issues were examined and proper safeguards adopted.”
Both major parties have over the years been accused of nepotism or cronyism, the practice of appointing friends to positions.
New governments replacing existing appointees with those considered more sympathetic is not rare in modern politics.
“Such appointments have become relatively common since the Australian public services came to be managed by men and women appointed as chief executives for relatively short (five years or less) fixed terms, rather than by 'permanent' secretaries,” Dr Solomon said.
“Notoriously, when Labor's Wayne Goss became Premier in 1989, a significant number of senior officers were sent to what came to be described as the 'gulag' to work on 'special projects'.”
Dr Solomon said John Howard sacked six departmental heads upon becoming prime minister, while Tony Abbott has dismissed three, with another effectively given six months notice.
And Premier Campbell Newman dismissed seven chief executives when he took power “and others followed later”.
He did not give any recent examples, but government leaders have always been criticised for appointing those close to them – among questioned Labor appointments were Bill Ludwig to the racing board, Greg Withers, the husband of former premier Anna Bligh, as the director of climate change, and former Attorney-General Kerry Shine's appointment of “life-long friend” Damian Carroll to the bench.
Among the storms the LNP have weathered are the appointments of Mr Newman's close friend Mark Brodie to the Gladstone Ports Corporation, Peter Costello as the head of the Commission of Audit and Melissa Babbage, the wife of federal Treasurer Joe Hockey, to the QSuper board.
The experience and qualifications of the people appointed to these positions is not being questioned.
Quoting American author Adam Bellow from his book In Praise of Nepotism, Dr Solomon raised the issue of fairness – that while someone should not be advanced because of their connections, they shouldn't be precluded either.
“... 'What is essential, however, is that an independent observer, fully informed of the facts, can conclude that the person deserved to be appointed for reasons other than the nepotistic relationship',” Mr Bellow wrote.
“'This would normally mean that the position has been opened to all, and the merits of those interested in taking it have been properly and independently assessed'.”
Dr Solomon said that approach implied nepotism was “invariable or inevitably improper or unethical”.
“It is necessary to determine the facts about its exercise in any particular case before reaching an objective conclusion about whether its exercise is wrong,” he said.
“The fact that there is a word for it does not mean that nepotism must always be condemned.”
Dr Solomon concluded the “roles and relationships of and between ministers and chief executives of the public services in Australia have changed considerable, perhaps fundamentally” over the past decades and there needed to be a discussion about how to properly deal with the issue as it stood today, and adopt safeguards to protect the public interest.
"And this may well mean that there are some circumstances in which it may be perfectly acceptable for a Premier or Prime Minister to make a patronage appointment because trust and/or commitment and/or loyalty, etc, may be just as important, or more so, as merit in delivering the best performance by government, that is, by elected and appointed officials jointly," he said.
"We may need to change the rules and/or make them more flexible."