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

This is the second of a two-part series. Read part one here.

When Attorney-General Christian Porter appointed Liberal Party lifer Karen Synon to head up the social services and child support division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal it capped a near five-year Coalition blitz on the AAT’s independence.

As we’ve reported, the stacking of the AAT is the quintessential example of how the Morrison government has corrupted government processes to the benefit of party members, backroom workers and failed candidates.

The social services and child support division is responsible for a third of the AAT’s work, dealing mainly with Centrelink decisions affecting the aged pension, carer allowances and support, Newstart, youth allowance and ABSTUDY, to give a partial list. Those appealing to it are, in short, the people most in need of help — and a fair hearing — when taking on Australian bureaucracy.

While the erosion of the AAT has been endorsed by the entire cabinet, it is Porter who has been the spearhead. His fingerprints are all over the stacking of that division with party loyalists who frequently do not even have legal qualifications.

Jobs attract big salaries: senior members are paid up to $360,000 a year. Many of the government’s friends are appointed on seven-year contracts. It is seemingly almost impossible to get sacked.

Crikey has established that removing those with knowledge and experience began in earnest in 2016 when George Brandis was attorney-general. But the AAT’s legislation also means the minister responsible for social services needs to be in on the decision. Back then Porter was social services minister with senior oversight of the debt recovery scheme, picking up from his predecessor, Scott Morrison.

In 2016, at least five long-serving, politically neutral members were removed without explanation. One was the most senior Sydney member, Suellen Bullock, who was then deputy head of the division.

In 2017 came the removal of long-serving member Terry Carney, an emeritus professor of law, a leading Australian expert on social services law and the author of several authoritative texts. Carney’s case became well known because he was the first of the AAT’s adjudicators to identify the illegality of the government’s robodebt scheme which used income averaging data to calculate a welfare debt, assume guilt and force a recipient to pay up.

Carney made his first robodebt decision in March 2017. By September that year he was gone with immediate effect and no explanation given.

Reflecting on the robodebt scandal he later wrote that “it surely behoves us all to reflect on why it should be that taxpayers apparently receive a higher quality of justice than do social security clients. For the rule of law supposedly applies equally to all.”

Fine sentiments, but not much use in Porter’s version of the AAT.

Carney’s AAT colleague Dr Andrea Treble met the same fate. Treble concluded — also in March 2017 — that the debt in a case before her had not been correctly calculated by Centrelink. By September she too was gone.

In 2019 the government moved on the most senior member of all: James Walsh, division head and deputy president of the AAT since 2015. Walsh was a career expert on the ins and outs of social security law and had spent close to 20 years on social security appeal tribunals. Before that he had been a lawyer with Centrelink.

Those close to the decision say Walsh didn’t see his sacking coming and was left bitterly disappointed. He was ultimately replaced by Porter’s pick, Karen Synon, who has no experience at all in social security law.

Porter’s replacements have often been paid at higher rates than the experts they replaced. Those appointed — without interview — to sit on social security appeals include these Porter specials:

  • William Frost, one-time senior adviser on Porter’s staff
  • Joseph Francis, a former member of the Western Australian parliament and a Tony Abbott conservative. After leaving state parliament he ran a bus company which lent a campaign bus to Porter during the 2019 federal campaign. Francis has no university qualifications, although he did attend Abbott’s old school, St Ignatius College, in Sydney
  • Stephen Barton, former chief of staff to Francis.

Others include:

  • Anthony Barr, a long-serving state and federal backroom apparatchik, who penned editorials for the Institute of Public Affairs’ magazine as the conservative think tank’s director of finance and development. Barr was also employed by Liberal polling firm Crosby Textor, where he spearheaded a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign to help the tobacco industry fight the ALP government’s plain packaging reforms in 2011
  • Donald Morris, who worked for the Liberal Party for much of his professional life and was a senior adviser to the federal government’s former Senate leader Eric Abetz. Morris was appointed by Brandis
  • Belinda Pola, former chief of staff to Mathias Cormann and former staffer to Joe Hockey
  • Jane Bell, who was handed a job by Porter three days before she unsuccessfully contested preselection for the Victorian federal seat of Higgins in 2019.

Out with no reason

One problem in trying to divine what’s behind removals at the AAT is that members are given no reason for being terminated.

It’s logical to conclude that at least two of Porter’s sackings — Carney and Treble — are payback for blowing the whistle on robodebt. But what of the others?

It’s tempting to interpret Porter’s actions as an attempt to engineer a partisan political culture within the AAT, making it hostile to those on government benefits and creating barriers to justice.

Yet that’s not the view of former and current members Crikey has spoken to. The consensus is that an AAT job is purely transactional, a way of rewarding Liberal Party members for services rendered to the party.

One experienced member tells Crikey that some appointees have openly stated they deserve a reward after putting in for the party. Crikey has been told of some being resentful they should have to put in the hours necessary to do the work.

As debasing as this is, the government and Porter have always got away with it. Because who really cares? The AAT’s work is overwhelmingly devoted to helping struggling people — migrants, refugees and those on welfare. No wonder the whole shebang flies under the radar for them.

What’s left after a bruising five years is an organisation within an organisation: a Liberal clique promoting each other and back-channelling against any professionally motivated or politically neutral members of the AAT who remain.

All done with political cover from the top.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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