Thursday, 2 September 2021
Courts and Tribunals Legislation Amendment (2021 Measures No. 1) Bill 2021; Second Reading
I'm pleased to speak today on the Courts and Tribunals Legislation Amendment (2021 Measures No. 1) Bill 2021. My particular focus is on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Most citizens pay little attention to matters relating to the AAT until they are confronted with an administrative decision they feel is incorrect. The AAT is a place to which Australians go to address the administrative wrongs in the federal government and bureaucracy. It's a process which should be fair, just, economical, informal and quick, and it's a process that should not be tainted by political bias and favouritism. Ordinary Australians seeking redress for alleged administrative failures don't want to turn up to find that the matter will be heard by someone who is only sitting on the tribunal because they were a former staffer, a former politician or a friend of a government minister, yet that's precisely what we are increasingly having. In a remarkable abuse of power to make appointments to the AAT, over the past seven years coalition government attorneys-general have appointed to the AAT some 80 members and senior members who have direct Liberal or National Party affiliations, a large number of them with no legal qualifications. The coalition government has gifted these appointments, which pay between $193,000 and $496,000 per annum, to former Liberal candidates, donors, staffers and former MPs.
Coalition AAT appointments include James Lambie, former chief of staff to former Attorney-General George Brandis, and Ann Brandon-Baker, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Here are just a few more for you: Gary Humphries, a former Liberal senator; Robert Cameron, a Victorian Liberal state electoral council chairman; Paul Clauson, a former Queensland National Attorney-General; Michael Cooke, a former adviser to Tony Abbott; Denis Dragovic, a Victorian Liberal state candidate; Ann Duffield, a former Liberal chief of staff to Scott Morrison; Richard Ellis, a former chief of staff to Western Australian Liberal Premier Colin Barnett; Matthew Groom, a former Liberal Party member for Denison; Donald Morris, a former senior adviser to Senator Abetz; Andrew Nikolic, a former Liberal MP for the seat of Bass; Justin Owen, a New South Wales Liberal Party office holder; Belinda Pola, a former chief of staff to former senator Mathias Cormann and a staffer to former Treasurer Joe Hockey; Chris Puplick, a former Liberal senator for New South Wales; Theo Tavoularis, a Liberal Party donor; Rachel Westaway, a former Liberal candidate for the New South Wales upper house; Antoinette Younes, a former adviser to Senator Cash; Dominic Katter, a Queensland LNP adviser; Grant Chapman, a former Liberal Party MP for Kingston, senator and president of the South Australian Liberal Party; Rodrigo Pintos-Lopez, a former legal adviser to former Victorian Liberal Premier Ted Baillieu.
The list goes on: Bill Stefaniak, a former Liberal leader in the ACT Legislative Assembly; Ian Berry, former LNP member for Ipswich; Simone Burford, former adviser to former Attorney Daryl Robert Williams and senior adviser to Prime Minister John Howard; Helena Claringbold, former staffer to Prime Minister Tony Abbott; David Crayshaw, former Liberal Party staffer; Brendan Darcy, former staffer to federal Liberal MP and minister Kevin Andrews; Phoebe Dunn, former senior adviser to former Attorney Daryl Williams; Peter Emmerton, former Liberal staffer; Shane Evans, former Liberal staffer; Joseph Francis, former Liberal member for the WA seat of Jandakot; William Frost, former senior adviser to former Attorney-General Christian Porter; Steven Griffiths, former SA Liberal member for the seat of Goyder; George Hallwood, a South Australian Liberal branch president; David McCulloch, a former federal Liberal ministerial staffer; Nicholas McGowan, former Liberal candidate for the seat of Jagajaga; Karen McNamara, former Liberal member for Dobell; Justin Meyer, former adviser to former Victorian Liberal Premier Denis Napthine and Liberal Party donor; Helen Moreland, another former adviser to Tony Abbott—I could just read on and on and on. I've got two more pages of names here of Liberal Party staffers and former members of parliament that I could read.
The pattern is very clear. Not all of these appointments are unworthy, I might stress. However, many lack legal qualifications or significant experience of public administration. All too often their only experience is politics. Some are particularly objectionable. The former Speaker of the Western Australian parliament Michael Sutherland has received a full-time AAT appointment for a five-year term. He, controversially, called refugee activists and environmentalists 'a bunch of cockroaches' during an unsuccessful bid to be elected to the Senate in 2007, yet he is now hearing matters related to both environmental matters and refugee applications. Another recent appointee to the AAT with no legal qualification is former national Liberal Party federal member Jane Prentice.
All in all, this long drumroll of coalition political appointees amounts to a gross abuse of power and process with serious effects. The AAT has been turned into a patronage bucket for a government that sees no problem whatsoever in handing out jobs as rewards to political mates. This wave of political appointments unquestionably undermines public trust and confidence in the AAT. Section 7 of the AAT Act provides for appointments of members that, in the opinion of the Governor-General, have special knowledge or skills relevant to the duties of a senior member or member. That special knowledge shouldn't be the phone number of the Attorney-General, whose advice the Governor-General must follow. In a 2018 statutory review of the AAT conducted by former High Court Justice Ian Callinan AC, QC, Justice Callinan recommended amending section 7. He stated:
There is, in my opinion, no necessity to appoint professionals other than lawyers to the AAT (except perhaps for accountants to the Taxation and Commercial Division).
My own experience in the AAT, which is extensive, strongly supports that recommendation. While the AAT is not a court, legal knowledge, training and experience is essential for rigorous review of government decisions and to ensure the integrity of the process. So I'll be moving an amendment to modify section 7 of the AAT Act in accordance with Justice Callinan's recommendation. I would hope that there would be support from the Labor opposition. After all, Labor has made a big deal about these political appointments, although, in August 2019, the opposition refused to support a Senate motion moved by me calling on the government to alter section 7. Unfortunately, I understand that the shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, has directed that Labor will oppose my proposed amendment.
Labor says that legal or accounting qualifications won't stop all political appointments. That's true, but most of the 'mate appointees' of the Liberal Party are not former legal practitioners, and so the amendment that requires a person to have held a legal practitioner's qualification for at least five years would, clearly, go a long way toward stopping this appointment corruption. The amendment would radically narrow the field and ensure that appointments have a baseline of professional qualification and training highly relevant to the work of the AAT, which, one should emphasise, can be subject to review by higher courts. That would go a long way toward ensuring public confidence in the integrity, impartiality and competence of the AAT.
All too often, Labor look at what the Liberals are doing and say, 'How terrible,' but, when it comes to actually voting, they say: 'Now is not the time. Trust us. We'll fix it when we're in government.' That's not a proper response to an abuse that we see happening right now. As much as Mr Dreyfus might be taking a positive view of the Labor Party being elected into government at the next election, that's not guaranteed. We saw that play out last time around. Labor, you cannot sit there and say, 'We're going to fix this problem when in government,' because there's no guarantee that you will be. Support my amendment, which does help fix the problem, and when you get into government you can fix it even more. Don't just ignore a fix, particularly one recommended by a High Court justice. As well, the Liberals have reigned significantly longer than Labor. If you get in next time and you don't make the sorts of changes being talked about here, we run the risk that the next time the Liberal Party are in they'll start the abuse again.
And don't think there aren't folk on the Labor side who don't already have an eye to Labor's appointments, in the event that they win government at the next election. With victory, it seems, will come the spoils, and they'll want to maximise flexibility to find their mates some comfortable spots. This is Labor again pretending they care, pretending they want to stop the stacking, but not actually being willing to stand up and do something. In this case, the public and the parliament would be better served by sticking with the recommendations of a distinguished former High Court justice, Ian Callinan, rather than those of a man lost in the quagmire of politics. Too often, Labor talk the talk but refuse to walk the walk. What a pity they can't bring themselves to act and help stop the rot in the Australian government.