For sheer political opportunism, it’s hard to beat Australia’s first law officer Christian Porter. The attorney-general chose last Friday afternoon, at the tail end of the year, to announce the appointment of yet more Liberal Party mates to high-paying jobs at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).
As regular readers will know, Inq has gone into some detail on the government’s plundering of the AAT — a practice that shows how ready it has been to use taxpayers’ money for party political purposes, as a reward for service or as a payoff for factional work.
In doing so, the government — with the attorney-general’s sign-off — trashes the independence and professionalism of a body with the quasi-judicial role of reviewing the merits of government decisions. Robodebt has been one of those areas.
Porter made 14 appointments to the AAT on Friday, five of which are linked to the Coalition. That is a strike rate of 35%, which is even higher than the ratio Inq has previously exposed. These are some of the appointments.
Leading the list is a former Liberal senator and party lifer Karen Synon. With Porter’s announcement, Synon has gone from being a part-time member of the AAT to a full-time deputy president and division head in charge of the social services and child support division.
Porter’s decision means that Synon has vaulted from a relatively low rung, over an entire echelon of senior members, to take a top position in the tribunal’s hierarchy. The position carries a salary of $496,560 per annum.
Synon joined the Young Liberals at the age of 16. She has been an ally of Victorian Liberal powerbroker Michael Kroger and, after two decades of branch service, became a Liberal senator in the federal parliament from 1997 to 1999.
Synon’s husband Giuseppe De Simone is a controversial character who has been fined for underpayment of wages to workers in a cafe he owned, after being prosecuted by the Fair Work Ombudsman.
Prentice is a former Queensland Liberal National Party MP who had a seat in federal parliament from 2010 to 2019. When she was forced to leave parliament after losing her preselection she denounced the Liberal Party process that unseated her. “Impatient ambition, treachery and lies are now, more than ever, part of our political fabric,” she said.
Prentice is a true party lifer, having joined the Liberals at the age of 15 in 1968. She served in a dozen party roles on her way up. Porter’s decision to appoint her as a full-time member of the AAT will surely be some salve for having taken a bullet for the party.
An AAT member of Prentice’s rank is paid between $190,000 and $245,000 per annum. Prentice has no legal qualifications, despite a recent review of the AAT which recommended that all new members be lawyers.
And the rest
Porter’s other Coalition-linked appointments are:
- Lawyer Rachel Da Costa, a former adviser to Howard-era Liberal MPs Helen Coonan and Daryl Williams
- Lawyer Namoi Dougall, a former staffer for NSW National Party MP Don Page
- Barrister Angela Julian-Armitage, a one-time Liberal Party candidate in Queensland.
This time around Porter has also appointed two Labor figures: former South Australian attorney-general John Rau and former Victorian government minister Philip Dalidakis.
Porter has also elevated Queensland AAT senior member Fiona Meagher to full-time deputy president and division head in charge of the NDIS. That role comes with a salary of $500,000. Meagher is the daughter of former High Court judge and well-known conservative Ian Callinan, who was appointed by Porter to conduct a statutory review of the AAT in late 2018.
As we revealed last year, Porter had failed to make public that Callinan had a potential conflict of interest, though Callinan had declared it to the attorney-general.
In his media statement last week, Porter said all of the appointees were “highly qualified” for the job.
He was silent, however, on how the appointments were made. As Inq detailed in our 10-part series last year, there has been no transparency in the interview process and no way of knowing the merit of AAT selections since the Abbott government took over in 2013 and began the wholesale stacking of the AAT and its predecessor tribunals.
According to the AAT’s latest annual report, the tribunal’s president, Federal Court judge Justice David Thomas, would conduct a “merit-based assessment” involving an “independent panel of eminent individuals” to select the two new deputy presidents and division heads, Karen Synon and Fiona Meagher.
Inq, however, understands that Synon may not have gone through that process.
In response to questions from Inq, a spokesman for Porter said all the candidates appointed last week had “the necessary skills and expertise for their roles”.
“It has never been the case that AAT appointments have been exclusively lawyers,” he said. “Indeed the system was designed to ensure a range of experience from other professions could be brought to the administrative decision making process.
“The attorney-general has, and will continue to ensure, that any appointments are made on merit. “
Porter rarely bothers to defend his appointments to the AAT beyond a perfuctory line to the effect that they have been made appropriately. He has done so in the certain knowledge that there will be no consequence for him as the media show moves on and the issue dies.
This might make Porter an astute political operator. But it also further corrodes trust in our politicians and further demoralises the AAT, whose staff have no real comeback.