Joe Francis is the kind of guy profile writers euphemistically label a “big personality”. A former Western Australian state Liberal minister and one-time submariner, he was described in his hometown newspaper The West Australian as a “self-confessed bogan who loves high-powered cars” who once “used the ashes of his beloved dog Sasha to ink a tattoo of her paw prints on his chest.”

In late February this year, three months before a federal election the Coalition expected to lose, Attorney-General Christian Porter appointed Francis as a full-time member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). His term runs until 2026, during which time he will be paid up to $245,000 a year. (At the same time, Francis’ former chief of staff, Stephen Barton, was also handed a part-time posting at the AAT). 

WA emergency services minister Joe Francis arrives at Parliament House, Perth in 2016. (Image: AAP/Richard Wainwright)

At 47, Francis’ political career had hit a roadblock. He’d enjoyed the highs of life as a state minister until losing his seat when the Barnett government was swept out of power in 2017. Once considered a future party leader, Francis instead picked up a job running a bus company. 

In fact, it was the buses that turned Porter’s appointment of his fellow WA Liberal to the AAT into a political circus. Dubbed “Bus-gate” by the West, Francis was accused of lending Porter one of his company’s buses for this year’s federal election campaign — an allegation that turned an already controversial appointment into a public nightmare.

According to the West, Francis oversaw the loan of company buses to Porter and two other Liberal MPs fighting to hold their seats, with Porter’s name “displayed across two star-spangled buses that traverse his electorate of Pearce.” Only after the furore erupted did the Liberal Party agree to pay for the buses.

Source: Facebook.

What justified Porter’s appointment of Francis to such an important judicial role? After all, the former minister had no law degree or any other tertiary qualification. 

Whatever the answer, there seems little doubt that his connections helped. Francis is a religious conservative Liberal. In his maiden speech to the WA parliament, he described how at the age of 18, “one of the first things I did … was join the Liberal Party.” He listed those to whom he would always be indebted “for their influence and help”: former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott, as well as the late B.A. Santamaria, an avowed anti-communist and Catholic social conservative. 

Francis is originally from NSW. Like Tony Abbott, he attended the private Catholic school, St Ignatius College (Riverview), before joining the navy. His network of fellow political travellers includes the hard-line right-wing NSW Liberal Ross Cameron.

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His political network also includes AAT senior member and Tony Abbott loyalist Michael Cooke, the subject of earlier stories in this Inq series.

Inq’s investigation shows that Francis has been part of Cooke’s circle going back to at least 2010. In a Facebook post at that time, Francis takes a friendly shot at Cooke over his choice of football team: “U know deep down ur a Collingwood supporter also mate!” he jousted with Cooke. “Welcome to the dark side.”

Another name raised in that 2010 Facebook conversation — “JO” — would ultimately also find a home at the AAT alongside Cooke.  

Justin Owen, who was appointed to the AAT in 2017, was president of the Australian Liberal Students Federation in the mid-1990s and worked in the office of former Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop, whose electorate adjoins Tony Abbott’s. Owen angled for preselection for a state seat in 2010 before withdrawing from the contest. He went on to hold office in the party’s constitutional standing committee and served as a member of the Liberal’s state executive. He holds a law degree and worked as general manager of the powerful industry lobby group, the Australian Hotels Association, for close to a decade.

Joe Francis and John Howard meet during a Perth shopping centre visit in 2016. (Image: AAP/Rebecca Le May)

AAT colleagues Cooke, Francis and Owen have shared good-natured barbs on Facebook about football, politics and real estate investment going back years. In January 2014, Cooke posted a message referring to a story about real estate buyers in the inner Sydney suburb of Redfern: 

“Great news for Justin Owen with his proposed next move to the heartland. Good luck JO – no-one needs white picket fences when you can breathe the red and green air.”

… then added:

“Double whammy = easy walk to Redfern Oval/Souths Leagues and dilute the ALP vote. Win/win situation.

Cooke and Owen also have a shared passion for Brexit. Owen took time away from his job in government relations at the National Australia Bank in mid 2016 to join in the Tory party’s Leave campaign, then wrote about it in the conservative British magazine The Spectator

His first person piece appeared under the title “Nude at 40,000 feet”, a reference to taking a shower in first class on Emirates Airlines. It concluded with commentary on the Brexit result which, he wrote, “seems to have leftists rhubarbing their grave concern about ‘Global Markets’ and ‘The Economy’ for the very first time. Another great outcome of this referendum.”

By mid-2017, Owen and the National Australia Bank parted ways. That’s when then-Attorney-General George Brandis appointed Owen to the AAT, where he joined his old sparring partner Michael Cooke as a full-time senior member, making decisions on migration and refugee appeals, on an annual salary of up to $380,000 and a contract that runs through to 2024.