Is it possible that Labor is genuinely interested in good governance? Its approach so far to significant appointments suggests that its rhetoric about depoliticising the allocation of positions in the gift of the Government may have some substance after all.

First there was the Prime Minister’s declaration that all current and former politicians were out of the running to replace Governor-General Michael Jeffrey, inspired by tabloid speculation about Kim Beazley. Maybe Beazley should follow Bobby Kennedy’s example and apologise to his former Parliamentary colleagues for causing their mass barring from vice-regal office. Kennedy’s popularity made a suspicious LBJ rule out any member of his Cabinet from the Vice-Presidency in 1964, eliciting a sardonic apology from Kennedy to his colleagues for “taking them over the side with me.”

Then Stephen Smith appointed three career diplomats in a row. This included replacing Liberal Party hack Bob Charles as Consul-General in Chicago with a career DFAT officer.

And recently Robert McClelland announced that appointments to the Federal Magistrates Court would be made via a recruitment and selection process. He also invited comment on using a selection process for Federal and Family Court judges, if not for High Court judges, for whom he instead promised extensive consultation.

A selection process for magistrates raises interesting possibilities for litigation for any unsuccessful candidates. In normal Public Service recruitment exercises, unsuccessful candidates can appeal if they think they’ve been dudded. It’s not clear to whom would-be magistrates would appeal, but that’s one of the downsides of a more transparent and merit-based process.

Then there’s the ABC Board. As Stephen Conroy explained at Estimates, he’s busy establishing an appointments process for the ABC and SBS Boards based on the UK’s “Nolan Rules”.

This has had the Friends of the ABC crying tears of joy into their Fair Trade organic soyaccinos. But they shouldn’t raise their Leunig mugs in celebration just yet. In the UK, the appointment of Gavyn Davies and Michael Lyons as BBC Chairmen under the Nolan Rules drew derision, due to their close relationship with Gordon Brown. That’s because, under the UK approach, Ministers still make the final decision, and Conroy’s version will be no different. That could yet mean a return to the days of unionists and former Labor premiers on the ABC Board.

Then again, Labor may have learnt from the Coalition experience. The Liberals stacked the ABC Board about as far as humanly possible. Only last year’s election, one feels, prevented John Roskam, Paddy McGuinness and the ghost of BA Santamaria from joining Ron Brunton, Janet Albrechtsen and Keith Windschuttle at Ultimo. But it made not an iota of difference to the culture of the ABC. Perhaps the Government has figured out that it can get the benefit of appearing to do the honourable thing about the national broadcaster, without worrying about its effect on its coverage.

Infrastructure Australia will be the next test of the Government’s commitment to merit. Rod Eddington has the right CV to be chairman but is also a friend of Labor. The nominations of the States and Territories will also be Labor-friendly. So keep an eye on the private sector representatives, to be announced later in March. History suggests that it’s not so much that Governments suddenly switch to appointing their mates – more that their definition of “merit” slowly expands to incorporate political factors. Power has a way of helping one see things differently.

Peter Fray

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