There’s a new twist to the tale we’ve been reporting of how Liberal Party loyalist Karen Synon came to be appointed to a $500,000-a-year job at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) by fiat of Attorney-General Christian Porter.
Synon, we can reveal, publicly supported Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s election campaign for the Liberal seat of Kooyong in 2019. And there’s a picture to prove it.
An image of Synon posing with a Frydenberg campaign poster, appears to put her in breach of the AAT’s code of conduct aimed at guaranteeing independence. The code says members should avoid any “activities or associations which might undermine public confidence in the impartial performance of their tribunal responsibilities”.
Synon’s open support of the Liberal deputy leader — while at the same time holding down a job doing “merit” reviews of government decisions — would seem to fall squarely into that category.
Yet no peep on the independence question from AAT president Justice David Thomas, who was appointed by the Coalition government in 2017. Thomas, who is paid more than half a million dollars to run the AAT and presumably safeguard its independence, has declined to comment to Inq about Synon’s breach.
Nor is he to be found anywhere on the public record objecting to the overt politicisation of the AAT which has happened on his watch, as we’ve documented.
Frydenberg’s safe seat of Kooyong came under threat at the 2019 election after being targeted by Green and independent candidates as well as GetUp. As a result the Liberal Party was forced to up its spending. The so-called Kooyong 200 Club, a group of anonymous donors, kicked in more than $1 million to the party’s effort, Australian Electoral Council returns show, with no information on who paid up.
Synon, who lives in the wealthy electorate and has been a party member from age 16, was one of a small throng of former and current Liberal politicians to support Frydenberg. (It is impossible to know if she donated through the club.)
Synon was then a part-time member of the AAT, making decisions on migration and refugee cases. A year and a half later Porter appointed her to one of the AAT’s most senior positions: a deputy president of the tribunal and head of its second-largest division, social services, which mainly covers Centrelink issues such as robodebt.
It means Synon has leapt from one of the lowest rungs of the tribunal to a position which is paid more than a judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal, even though her level of legal experience is less than the statutory minimum required of even a regular AAT member.
Porter’s decision has further bewildered and angered former AAT staff who Inq has spoken to, adding to a sense of despair about the government’s overt corruption of process.
AAT finally comes clean
Inq has given Synon ample opportunity to comment. More than a week ago we asked her to clarify why she appeared in a photograph with Frydenberg’s campaign material. We also asked her to clarify why she has used the name “Karen Belmont”. We have received no response, despite a further follow-up.
Thomas has also declined to comment on Synon’s apparent support for Frydenberg and whether or not he has raised the overt politicisation of the AAT with the attorney-general’s department or the attorney-general.
The AAT though has finally come clean on the lack of genuine process in Synon’s appointment, confirming for the first time that she was appointed as Porter’s pick.
A tribunal spokesperson cited a protocol which had been “agreed in 2019 between the government and the president of the AAT”. (The “protocol” allows Porter to treat the AAT as a plaything for party mates.)
The response implicitly confirms what Inq has been told: Synon was not even interviewed — let alone recommended — by an independent panel set up to fill the role.
The AAT said it had become aware of the Synon-Fryendberg fan image in September 2019: “We understand that it was removed immediately following discussion with deputy president Synon who was, at that time, a part-time member assigned to another division.”
The tribunal’s step, though, has simply buried the evidence of Synon’s political partiality.
And it would appear that breaching the codes governing independence — a seemingly basic concept — has been no impediment to Synon’s advance. On the contrary.
The Synon case is not the first time a senior member of the AAT has openly supported a political candidate with little or no consequence.
In 2019 Crikey revealed that senior member Michael Cooke — a former Tony Abbott staffer — had used his Facebook page to attack independent Zali Steggall during her campaign for Abbott’s seat of Warringah. (Cooke had worked as a Qantas steward earlier in his career. His major claim to fame was that he had been selected to accompany Pope John Paul II on the pontiff’s return flight after touring Australia.)
Cooke was later counselled on his Facebook use, the AAT said, but nothing else was done — proof that you can do just about anything in the AAT and get away with it when you have political cover from the top.
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