When federal Attorney-General Christian Porter commissioned a former High Court judge to conduct a major review of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal last year, he did so despite being advised by the judge that someone in the judge’s own “immediate family” was a member of the AAT — a relationship Porter did not publicly disclose.
The former judge is Ian Callinan AC, one of Australia’s most distinguished jurists with a well-known conservative predisposition. Inq has confirmed that Callinan’s “immediate family” member is his daughter, Fiona Meagher — now a full-time senior member of the AAT’s Brisbane registry on an annual salary of $325,000-385,000.
While the Callinan inquiry was still underway, in November last year, Fiona Meagher was also promoted by Porter from a part-time member to her current full-time role. Her new contract expires in 2023.
Callinan’s inquiry examined, among other things, the criteria the government has used in selecting members, the increasing politicisation of the tribunal since the government created an amalgamated AAT in 2015, and the lack of transparent accountability at the AAT.
When Inq contacted the attorney-general, he issued a statement defending his decision not to reveal the relationship, denying there was any “actual conflict of issues arising” from the appointment of Callinan which would justify publicly declaring the relationship.
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Porter’s statement said: “The former justice of the High Court appropriately discharged the obligation to declare any matter that may possibly give rise to a perceived conflict of interests before his appointment so that the attorney-general could consider the matter. The attorney-general considered the matter raised — was fully satisfied that no conflicts arose and there was full confidence in the former justice of the High Court’s ability to conduct a thorough review whilst managing the matter so that no issues arose and no issues did arise.”
He went on: “If the suggestion is a former High Court judge cannot conduct a review of an organisation because amongst the hundreds of employees is a family member (which was properly and fulsomely declared), that is surely ridiculous; even more so is any suggestion that one of the hundreds of employees at the AAT cannot be considered for a merit based promotion as they otherwise would because of a broad policy review of the organisation being conducted by a declared relative. If that is the suggestion it demonstrates a complete misunderstanding about how declarations of interest processes work and how the requirements of procedural fairness operate.”
Callinan has provided Inq with his declaration of interests made to the attorney-general, dated July 14 2018. He said he does not consider that he or his immediate family “have or have had any relationship or interest that would affect my performance of this role.”
“However,” Callinan adds, “for completeness I declare that a member of my immediate family is a member of the AAT. To avoid any doubt, I will not discuss or disclose during the currency of the review any confidential matter arising from the review with that person.”
Fiona Meagher has a law degree from the University of Queensland and worked at the legal firm which later came to be known as MinterEllison. She has also worked previously for Telecom New Zealand Australia’s group of companies, law firm McCullough Robertson, and the Queensland government’s Mental Health Review Tribunal. She took the name of her husband, Toby — son of legendary Queensland horseman, the late Colin Meagher.
Inq does not suggest that either Callinan or his daughter have done anything other than act entirely properly in this matter.
But the revelation of the relationship involving the former judge and his daughter raises further questions over the attorney-general’s handling of the Callinan report. The five-month review criticised several aspects of the AAT; particularly its lack of an independent appointments process, and the appointment of non-lawyers to the tribunal, given that “much of the work of the AAT is difficult, factually and legally” and that a “capacity to undertake forensic analysis and write reasoned judgements is essential”.
Callinan quoted several former and serving AAT members who spoke of plummeting morale in the wake of a high number of political appointments made by the Coalition since it came into power six years ago.
Christian Porter received Callinan’s recommendations in December last year, but it was seven months before the report was tabled in July this year.
During that seven-month hiatus, in February this year (months away from an election the Coalition was expected to lose), Porter announced 86 new appointments or re-appointments to the AAT. Tellingly, 19 of these appointed members had close Liberal Party connections, including former WA state Liberal minister Joe Francis and former Liberal Senate President Stephen Parry. Of these, Inq has determined at least eight have no law degree.
All this was decided while the Callinan review was sitting, unreleased, inside the attorney-general’s office.