A job in politics is political. It requires skills in tactics, policy, partisanship, wheeling and dealing, spin and media manipulation.

A job at the top of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal is, by definition, apolitical. It’s about non-partisan independence, adherence to an Act, discretion and objectivity.

Despite that obvious disconnect, it’s a route that has been heavily trafficked since 2013 as the Coalition government has appointed 17 former LNP state and federal parliamentarians, 6 unsuccessful party candidates and at least 28 Liberal staffers to the AAT.

Helena Claringbold was Tony Abbott’s electorate office manager in 2014 when then-immigration minister, Scott Morrison, appointed her to the Migration Review Tribunal (later absorbed into the AAT).

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Her relevant qualifications? The AAT has refused to provide any information about any of its members, but when she departed Abbott’s office, the Financial Review described Claringbold as “particularly close to First Lady Margie Abbott”, and someone who “made an art form of managing the [Warringah] Liberal Party biddys and crazies”.

At Senate estimates hearings, officials acknowledged Claringbold was not among those recommended to Morrison by an independent committee. It emerged Claringbold was not interviewed by the committee, nor had she applied before the closing date.

Karen McNamara’s path from Liberal politics to the AAT was rapid, but not without its bumps. McNamara served one term, from 2013 to 2016, as federal member for Dobell on the NSW Central Coast. Less than a year after being elected, she made an appearance at a NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) inquiry into illegal political donations to NSW MPs in the state’s 2011 election.

McNamara had been campaign manager for successful Liberal candidate, Darren Webber, who was subsequently forced to resign from the party after it emerged he had accepted illegal donations from a property developer. McNamara said she had no knowledge of the payments and the ICAC made no adverse findings about her.

After losing her seat in 2017, McNamara became an adviser to the conservative NSW Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and, within months, was appointed to the AAT as a full-time member until 2024.

McNamara does not hold a law degree. She undertook a Bachelor of Legal and Justice Studies at Southern Cross University in 2002, which qualified her to enter the legal profession as, for example, a paralegal, but not a lawyer.

Ann Brandon-Baker was a deeply political animal — as she had to be — when she served as Scott Morrison’s chief of staff while he was immigration minister.

But unlike most senior ministerial staffers, the gory details of her political backroom work became public in April 2014 when a story in The Guardian revealed the personal details of almost 10,000 asylum seekers in detention that were accidentally placed on the Immigration Department’s website. The story featured an allegation that Brandon-Baker “revised a press release to remove detail about the severity of the breach”.

Two years after that episode, just days before the 2016 federal election was called, then-attorney-general George Brandis made several quick appointments to the AAT, including that of Ann Brandon-Baker (who appears to have since changed her name to Ann Duffield).

She was originally appointed as a part-time member with the authority to hear migration cases, but a footnote in the AAT’s 2016/2017 annual report revealed that, less than a year later, she was promoted to the role of senior member, one of the highest-paid positions (up to $385,000 annually) within the tribunal.

Hedley Grant Pearson Chapman was born in Adelaide, educated at Prince Alfred College and the University of Adelaide, and worked as a marketing executive in the oil industry. He was then a self-employed management consultant before becoming a one-term Liberal Party member for the federal seat of Kingston in the 1980 election. He returned to federal politics as a South Australian senator from 1987-2007. From 2010-12 he was president of the Liberal Party of SA.

Then-attorney-general George Brandis appointed Chapman as a part-time member of the AAT in October 2017. Two months later, he was promoted to the role of senior member with an automatic salary increase. He will be 75 when his contract expires in 2024.

Chapman has no legal qualifications. He has been in business with the right-wing NSW Liberal, Ross Cameron.

James Lambie is another political staffer who climbed the ranks to a senior job at the AAT. A solicitor from Queensland and a senior investigator with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), Lambie entered federal politics as a policy adviser to George Brandis in 2008. As the Coalition rose to power in 2013, so too did Lambie: he was promoted to Brandis’ senior adviser that year, and became his chief of staff in 2016.

Never straying far, Lambie was caught up in several of his former boss’ controversies. Back in 2016, Brandis was accused of misleading the parliament, claiming that they couldn’t seek legal advice from the government’s solicitor-general without his permission. During the Senate inquiry, one witness, former solicitor-general David Bennett, revealed that Lambie had turned up at his house, a move accused of “smack[ing] of interference in the committee’s work”.

In December 2017, Brandis allocated his right-hand man a seven-year contract as a senior member on the AAT.

Then there’s Chris Puplick. The 71-year-old former Liberal Party senator from NSW was appointed to the AAT in 2017. He had controversial terms as president of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board and as NSW privacy commissioner, resigning from both roles in 2003, after he was investigated for improperly acting in a discrimination case on behalf a friend who won a payout.

That investigation was recently raised by two lawyers in The Sydney Morning Herald, who called for Puplick’s removal from the AAT, because he “could not recognise a conflict of interest”.

The SMH quoted from a report on the incident in which the NSW Ombudsman wrote: “I had no confidence that he would, into the future, have recognised and acted appropriately should a similar conflict of interest have occurred between his roles as Privacy Commissioner or ADB President on the one hand and his personal or other professional relationships on the other.”

Sydney lawyer Mark Tarrant told the SMH: “Despite showing open contempt for the importance of avoiding conflict of interest, despite securing a financial settlement for a close friend who owed him thousands of dollars [and] despite having no legal training whatsoever Mr Puplick now enjoys the same protections and immunities as a Justice of the High Court.”

“Mr Puplick’s appointment as as senior member of the AAT has been a serious public policy failure.”

Have you had any dealings with the AAT? Anything you think our readers might like to hear about? Drop us a line at boss@crikey.com.au.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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