The Morrison government has appointed a long-time Liberal Party staffer to a $350,000-a-year job heading up the agency managing the struggling Great Barrier Reef, fuelling accusations the Coalition is stacking the senior public service with its political allies ahead of the May election.
Environment Minister Melissa Price on Friday announced Josh Thomas, a former adviser to three Liberal environment ministers, including herself, had been appointed as chief executive of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. The role attracts a salary of $353,180 a year.
The press release said the "rigorous" and "merit-based" selection process was conducted by a public service panel and endorsed by the Australian Public Service commissioner. It did not disclose that Mr Thomas worked in Ms Price's office until he resigned in mid-February. He has also worked for Josh Frydenberg and Greg Hunt in the portfolio.
The appointment follows the government’s highly controversial decision to bestow the privately run Great Barrier Reef Foundation with almost $500 million in public funding to administer projects to improve the health of the natural wonder, which has suffered devastating coral bleaching as a result of climate change.
The authority monitors the health of the reef, issues permits and liaises with governments. It has identified climate change as the greatest threat facing the reef, and Mr Thomas’ appointment raises questions over how strongly the authority will lobby for climate action under his leadership.
Ms Price said Mr Thomas "brings a strong understanding of the authority with more than 15 years' experience in the public and private sector and has academic qualifications in science and international affairs".
Ms Price's office would not detail Mr Thomas' exact academic qualifications, whether he has reef management experience or has previously overseen an organisation as large as the authority, which has about 200 staff and an operating revenue last year of $79 million.
It said the qualifications of all shortlisted applicants were independently assessed through an external search agency and the appointment was signed off by cabinet.
The authority's former chief executive and chairperson Russell Reichelt has a PhD in marine science and has worked as a researcher studying the ecology of coral reefs.
The shortlist of candidates was not made public. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age understands it included several former senior state and federal public servants whose appointments would have been been considered non-partisan and welcomed by the environment movement.
Labor’s environment spokesman Tony Burke said the government had rushed "headlong to provide the best wage increases they can for anyone who has been associated with the Liberal Party and this government".
"If you look at the appointments they’ve been making across government over the last few months it is impossible to believe that all of these appointments are merit based," he said.
Ms Price said Mr Thomas' application was widely supported by non-government organisations and environmental groups and "I am confident he will make a valuable contribution to the leadership of the authority".
Australian Marine Conservation Society strategic director Imogen Zethoven said her organisation – a major non-government organisation on reef issues - "was not consulted on the appointment before it was announced".
"Now more than ever the authority needs strong, bold and independent leadership," she said.
Earlier this month Foreign Minister Marise Payne has appointed a friend and former NSW Liberal MP Patricia Forsythe to the coveted diplomatic post of high commissioner to New Zealand.
The government has also moved to re-appoint dozens of Abbott-era Administrative Appeals Tribunal members despite their terms coming to an end six weeks after the May federal election.