Christian Porter
Attorney-General Christian Porter (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

As Australia was drifting into its festivity-induced haze over the Christmas break, Attorney-General Christian Porter quietly slipped out news of a $500,000-a-year appointment he’d made to a Liberal Party lifer. Nothing unusual in that.

Even less surprising was that it was another well-paid job for life at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal which the government has relentlessly stacked with cronies.

Yet the appointment of Karen Synon, made in the figurative dead of night, deserves a closer look, not least because she is the government pick to run the very area of the AAT — the social services and child support division — which called out the illegal basis of the government’s robodebt scheme. That scheme was a scandalous abuse of power which left a trail of ruin in the name of budget repair on the way to a billion-dollar class action settlement.

The appointment also closes the circle for Porter. He was social services minister when robodebt was introduced, he defended it as questions piled up about its legality and refused to apologise for any trauma it might have caused.

For the past three or so years he has called the shots on who gets appointed to the AAT and who gets fired (or “contract not renewed” as the euphemism has it). He has plenty of power which he has exercised in secret and with zero accountability as he reshapes the division which has caused the government so much grief.

Crikey is aware of at least eight well-credentialed and politically neutral AAT members who were removed, it appears, to make way for party hacks.

Crikey has been told Porter appointed Synon to the most senior ranks even though an interview panel — which included at least one retired senior judge — did not interview her, let alone recommend her for the role. The position is paid $496,560 a year. A High Court judge’s base salary is $551,880 a year.

Synon also does not meet the requirement in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act that she be an “enrolled legal practitioner” of a state Supreme Court for at least five years — a minimum qualification for even a lower-rung member of the AAT.

Added to that she has no experience at all in social services and child support law, having previously worked in immigration and refugee appeals.

Crikey asked Porter to address each of these questions but he refused. It’s a remarkable display of contempt given the taxpayer money involved, the important role the AAT plays in the justice system, and the abuse of process involved.

All appointments, he maintains, are made “on merit”.

Who is Karen Synon, and why the special treatment?

Synon, now 61, has a Liberal pedigree stretching back to when she joined the Young Liberal Victorian branch as a 16-year-old. She found an ideological soul mate in Michael Kroger, two years her senior and as powerful as they come in the state’s Liberal Party.

She worked her way through the ranks up to a senior job in Liberal Jeff Kennett’s Victorian bureaucracy and made it to the Senate in Canberra in 1997 where she stayed for two years until her time was cut short by internal party politics. Her husband was also a Liberal Party operative. (More on that later.)

In the years since, Synon has stuck by the party, chairing the Victorian Liberal Women’s Organisation in the early 2000s. The appointments have come her way, first to the migration and refugee appeal tribunals under the Howard government. She has continued the same work at the AAT under the Abbott/Turnbull governments.

The Morrison government also appointed her to the board of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute in what looked like the government’s dying days in April 2019. (A Morrison mate from his Property Council days, Adrian Harrington, scored a gig with institute at the same time.)

Synon may not have lasted long in the parliament but she put down some big ideological markers. In her first speech as a senator, she rose in praise of Menzies-era Australian values. She argued for voluntary student unionism and decried the “sense of hopelessness” which she said had enveloped young people in Australia. Dole bludgers were in the gun. Social welfare — the very area she now oversees at the AAT — was to blame.

“In trying to put in place a safety net, we have created a security blanket that many refuse to give up,” she said. “We have bred an entitlement mentality; a culture of dependency. This assertion of rights without countervailing responsibilities is destructive of cohesion in society and ultimately destroys the individual as well.

“It is a national disgrace that some young people choose unemployment instead of working in what they see as menial jobs.”

Synon declined to comment on whether or not she still holds these views.

Synon eventually gained legal qualifications with a Master of Laws (Juris Doctor) from Monash University. The record shows she was enrolled in the Supreme Court of Victoria in late 2017, meaning she had not met the statutory minimum of five years enrolment before Porter made her a deputy president of the AAT.

Part of a Liberal power couple

Synon’s mutual obligation convictions though have been tested by her husband and fellow Liberal Party stalwart, Giuseppe de Simone. Synon told parliament back in the ’90s that she admired and respected de Simone “more than words can say”.

So what to make of subsequent events?

In the years after Synon’s glowing tribute, de Simone has had several legal run-ins, most notably over a failed business venture: a cafe, which he set up with a fellow Victorian Liberal Alan Evers-Buckland.

De Simone and his company were prosecuted by the Fair Work Ombudsman for underpaying two workers at the cafe by $7000. One was a non-native-English speaker on a temporary visa. The court found de Simone had attempted to “ride roughshod” over “established legal entitlements” and had “deliberately avoided” his legal obligations.

He was also found to have demonstrated “broad significant disrespect for government agencies”, illustrated by his tax file number declarations purportedly signed by “Captain Featherstone” and “Luigi Incredible”. Noting a “total” lack of contrition, the court fined him and his company just on $120,000.

It emerged in later Federal Court hearings brought by the Tax Office that de Simone’s company also owed $51,234.47 in unpaid taxes before it was wound up.

Crikey asked Synon if she stood by the admiration she expressed of her husband in parliament. She has not responded. Nor has she responded to our questions on how she was appointed.

Tomorrow: experts out, mates in. How Porter blitzed the independence of the AAT’s robodebt division and built a Liberal clique.

Peter Fray

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