Under-qualified members of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal are producing poorly drafted decisions that would not stand up legally, Labor Senator Kim Carr said on Tuesday, blasting a string of Liberal appointments to the body.
Senator Carr told estimates hearings that 65 members of the tribunal were now former Liberal staffers, donors, or unsuccessful candidates or politicians and of those 64 have been appointed in the past six years. Of the party-connected appointments, 24 had no legal qualifications, including seven of the senior members, he said.
Tribunal members make decisions on everything from refugee and migrant visas, to Centrelink, tax and other appeals.
Separately, Senator Carr asked for answers on the appointment of William Frost, who was a senior staffer in Attorney-General Christian Porter's office. He was among 34 members appointed to the tribunal in February, of which 16 had Liberal connections, according to Senator Carr.
Tribunal nominations are made by Mr Porter and Senator Carr asked whether Mr Frost's nomination might even have come under his own email. Senator Carr provided no evidence of the allegation and Labor confirmed later that it had none. Iain Anderson, from the Attorney-General's Department, said he "doubted it very much" but he would check. And a spokesperson for Mr Porter said later that Mr Frost had not been employed in Mr Porter's office at the time of his nomination or at the time of his appointment.
Liberal Sarah Henderson said Senator Carr had "unwisely opened a can of worms", and asked officials to prepared a list of all tribunal members with Labor affiliations back as far as 2007.
In a report to the government in December, High Court judge Ian Callinan criticised the use of decision templates by tribunal members, and said the practice should end.
But officials confirmed on Tuesday that they are still using templates.
Giving evidence at estimates hearings, registrar Sian Leathem said the law was complicated and templates helped "guide members through" the factors they should take into account. It was common for templates to be used as a starting point, she said.
In December, Mr Callinan said it was not appropriate that registry staff help tribunal members make decisions by preparing templates, giving legal advice or helping write decisions. Mr Callinan also said he had been told staff had "checked" decisions by members and had requested or "almost insisted" on changes.
"Any request by a member for the review or or advice on the drafting of decisions is not acceptable," Mr Callinan said. He recommended that all further appointments to the tribunal should be lawyers and appointments should be on merit.
Officials told estimates it was not uncommon for lawyers to return decisions to tribunal members and suggest they might have missed a section, but it was up to members to decide whether to take advice.
Ms Leathem said while the tribunal had no system for assessing the performance of tribunal members it was finalising a new appraisal system, which would be introduced soon.