The politicisation of appointments to statutory offices has been an ugly scab on Commonwealth public administration for a long time.
It's been regularly scratched and kept suppurating by all the major political parties, if in varying degrees of flow.
Does this matter? Yes it does.
Making appointments on the basis of political fealty displaces, fairness and equality of opportunity and so compromises the efficiency and effectiveness of organisations.
Yet for appointments to statutory positions these sacrifices are secondary.
Parliaments create statutory offices to public functions from political subversion, either direct or indirect. Citizens have a right to be confident that the services they get from public broadcasters, the judgments of judicial and quasi-judicial offices, the payment of various benefits, the running of cultural institutions, the consideration of complaints about government administration, the auditing of government accounts and so on and on are not being politicised by governments and ministers.
Watchers of the ABC television news should not be concerned content has been manipulated, however indirectly, by Messrs Morrison, Albanese, Joyce or any other politician. Unlike some other countries, it's the ABC's news, not the government's, thank goodness.
But procedures introduced a decade or so ago to see that merit rather than politics governs appointments to the ABC and SBS boards have not worked as was hoped. Sure positions have been advertised and advice on appointments provided by an independent committee but that advice has been regularly ignored at no political cost.
"Oh, we all know Ita," Mr Morrison said upon the appointment of Ms Buttrose as ABC board chair. Quite so. And we all know Tony Abbott too but his appointment to the council of the War Memorial gives new meaning to the word "appropriate".
Perhaps the most egregious example of concentrated politicisation in recent times has been the Morrison government's appointments to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. It was so debauched that the current government intends to abolish the Tribunal and replace it as that appears to be the best way of cleaning out the stables.
In December 2022, the government brought in revised procedures for appointments to the Tribunal - these are an improvement although are open to ready manipulation and are far from adequate.
The heart of the problem is the keen appreciation of ministers and governments that control is the key to political success. It's bad enough for them when auditors-general tip buckets on the inept administration of "border security", defence procurements or community development grants, still less having museums, art galleries and the War Memorial presenting histories that may not coincide with world views of governments that could have unfortunate political consequences or, to use Australia's most over-worked word "impacts", or even "multiple impacts".
Thus ministers have too often wanted the scope to appoint pals to run public bodies in ways congenial to their political interests. It's all so natural for them and so unfortunate for the public interest.
Almost exactly a year ago, the government appointed a former Public Service Commissioner, Ms Lynelle Briggs, to review procedures for appointments to statutory boards and to provide a report by June 2023. This is not difficult stuff and Ms Briggs should have been able to complete her report well short of her deadline. Yet nothing has as yet seen the light of day and who knows where Ms Briggs's report has gone.
It's to be hoped it hasn't been plunged into the suffocating maw of the Secretaries Board where the risk of the lowest common denominator is high and where integrity too often flourishes in the platitudinous cliches of that Board's "communiques" rather than in real life.
Something needs to be done and that something should be to further constrain by law the scope of ministers to dole out jobs to their cronies. They won't like that but sacrifices have to be made. Thus, ministers should be restricted to making selections for statutory appointments from lists of suitable candidates advised by expert panels entirely independent of their departments. It will be disappointing to say the least if Ms Briggs's report does not contain such a recommendation.
Happily the member of McKellar, Sophie Scamps, has done the job for the government. On March 6, 2023 she introduced an excellent bill with all the necessary frills into the Parliament to clean up statutory appointments. The bill, which has remained cruelly unattended to, provides for the creation of a Public Appointments Commissioner who would lead independent selection panels, to advise ministers on statutory appointments that have been advertised and with candidates being assessed against selection criteria. Crucially, ministers would be required to make appointments only from those recommended by the independent advisers.
Scamps's bill would bring the days of cronyism to an end and greatly ease public apprehensions that independent statutory functions are being tainted by partisan politics.
MORE PADDY GOURLEY:
So the government should move to have it made the law, if with one small amendment. That is, it would be better if departmental secretaries or any other departmental officers were not included on the committees providing advice. While Dr Scamps's bill wisely includes a provision prohibiting governments directing the independent selection panels she proposes, the awkward fact remains that departmental officers are properly subordinate to their ministers and having them on the panels could affect public confidence in the independence of those panels.
As the Barilaro case in NSW shows, there can be untoward finangling between ministers and their officials the possibilities of which would be better avoided in the Commonwealth. Department officials could provide advice on selection criteria and they could, of course, be involved in advising ministers on who they might select from those recommended by the panels but that is enough the howls of protest from departmental secretaries from their exclusion notwithstanding; indeed, they prove the point.
There's been too much waffle from ministers and their officials about integrity and not too little action.
They should now do the right thing and propose to the Parliament that Dr Scamps's bill be made the law.
- Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant. email@example.com.