After five years of stacking the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) with party hacks, former candidates and donors, the federal government — prompted by revelations of the widespread cronyism detailed in a two-month-long Inq investigation — is changing how it appoints tribunal members.
Attorney-General Christian Porter has confirmed in a statement to Inq that the AAT is working on “a new performance evaluation and appraisal process of its members” which “may” inform decisions on appointments made ultimately by the attorney-general.
As Inq reported in September, an AAT member is paid up to $385,000 per annum, is almost impossible to sack, needs no qualifications, has a contract of up to seven years (renewable) and has no retirement age. It is, in other words, a plum job for political mates and ideological fellow travellers.
Inq understands that work on the new process is well advanced, and will apply initially to the re-appointment of AAT members whose contracts are set to expire and that there will be an independent assessment of members’ performance carried out by a former or serving judge. The system might then be expanded to cover new appointments to the AAT.
The new process represents a major turnaround by the attorney-general, who earlier this year made 86 appointments and reappointments to the AAT as a last hurrah in the shadow of a looming federal election which the coalition was expected to lose.
Of those appointed members, 19 had close Liberal Party connections and at least eight have no law degree. The AAT’s legislation stipulates that members should be lawyers of at least five years standing, unless they bring specialist skills which make up for that.
Porter’s appointments included former WA state Liberal minister Joe Francis, who has no tertiary qualifications but who has been a Liberal Party member from the age of 18, as well as former Liberal Senate president Stephen Parry. Earlier Porter appointments included his own senior adviser William Frost.
The attorney-general has accused critics of “mud-slinging” and has routinely defended the appointments, claiming they were all made on merit, despite there being no transparent appointment process.
Inq understands AAT president Justice David Thomas and the attorney-general came under pressure to act after Inq’s revelations of rampant political stacking of the AAT — a quasi-judicial body which, in its own words, is meant to conduct “independent” merit reviews of migration, refugee, social security and other decisions by government ministers, departments and agencies.
Our investigation revealed that, in the last six years, the government has refashioned the membership of the AAT, turning over 70% of members in the name of reflecting “community values”:
- Sixty-five of the 333 AAT decision-making members are former Liberal Party staffers, former Liberal or National politicians, party donors, members, unsuccessful Liberal candidates or Liberal government employees
- All bar one of the 65 were appointed to their roles in the last six years
- Twenty-four of those 65 appointees have no legal qualifications, including seven of the AAT’s senior members
- The vast majority were appointed without a transparent selection process.
A lack of experienced and competent members has left the AAT struggling to clear cases, especially in the migration and refugee division. A review conducted by former High Court judge Ian Callinan QC also pointed to plummeting morale linked to the high number of political appointments.