Several former AAT members hired before 2015 told Inq they had gone through a similar hiring process, including a written application, interviews and providing multiple referees.
As well as stacking the AAT with party loyalists, the Coalition has singled out decisions it doesn’t like, usually on the grounds that they don’t reflect “community values”. The government’s modus operandi is to attack the individual AAT member who made the decision, often with the help of its media allies.
In 2017, senior tribunal member Miriam Holmes was on the receiving end of a media mauling over her decision to grant a bridging visa to an Indian man who’d been convicted of sexual assault, under headlines like “Tribunal allows sex creep to stay” and “Tribunal lets migrant riffraff run rings around us”.
Former colleagues describe Holmes as someone with all the attributes needed in a senior member — strongly independent, an accomplished lawyer and a good caseload manager — but her contract was not renewed when her term expired in 2017.
In his review of Holmes’ decision, the AAT’s then-acting president, Justice John Logan, called on the government to respect the separation of powers that underpins Australian democracy.
“The very existence of the Tribunal and the independent, quasi-judicial model adopted for it means that, inevitably, there will be tension from time to time between Ministers and others whose decisions are under review,” the judge wrote.
“That does not mean that Tribunal decisions are immune from criticism. Any member who allowed himself or herself to be persuaded as to an outcome by partisan or political rhetoric by a Minister, any other administrator or the popular press would be unworthy of the trust and confidence placed in him or her by His Excellency the Governor-General and untrue to the oath or affirmation of office which must be taken before exercising the Tribunal’s jurisdiction. For those members who do not enjoy the same security of tenure as judges, that may call at times for singular moral courage and depth of character.”
Miriam Holmes, now assistant Victorian Government Solicitor, declined to speak about her time at the AAT. Sue Raymond, who watched the attack on her former colleague, questions the government’s motives. “There’s pressure to make decisions that reflect ‘community values’,” she says. “But what are ‘community values’? As a member you have to apply the law.”
Another former member (an experienced lawyer) who left rather than wait to be pushed — “I walked out in anger” — described adjudicating a case that found in favour of an ALP politician. “I remember thinking ‘oh my God’, I felt pressured that the decision could jeopardise my reappointment. I had friends working in the migration tribunal and got to know what they went through on a daily basis. They told me they feared that if they ever found against a minister they would get rolled. I advised them that they just have to find according to the law.”