Killing off jobs for mates is now within reach

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The Myth in the Desert

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Killing off jobs for mates is now within reach

Voters no longer accept jobs for mates being awarded by politicians. But if we want to fix the whole broken system, we need to bypass politicians altogether.

Bernard Keane writes in Crikey

If politicians in Canberra and all the states and territories haven’t been paying close attention to the saga of the John Barilaro appointment in NSW, they should be.

The scandal is death-by-a-thousand-cuts stuff, with new information emerging every day. The evidence of senior bureaucrat Amy Brown yesterday to a Legislative Council inquiry was particularly damaging to NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, who’d claimed both that no suitable candidate had been identified for the job — Brown says in fact she congratulated successful candidate Jenny West, who had “exceeded expectations”, before Barilaro’s office got her to rescind the offer of the New York posting — and that there was no ministerial involvement in the decision.

All coverage of the state government’s budget has been blown away. No one’s talking about the massive investment in childcare or healthcare or the long-term transition to universal pre-kinder. It’s all jobs for mates.

It demonstrates two things: the public tolerance of jobs for mates is now at an all-time low, and any process of appointment of a mate to a public sector job, when exposed to the cold light of day, will look shonky at best — or much worse.

Much of this is the legacy of the Coalition government, the most corrupt in Australian federal history, and its unabashed eagerness to appoint mates to any position it could find — most egregiously the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), which is now wholly discredited by a long list of appointments of Coalition mates, starting back under George Brandis in the Abbott years.

Scott Morrison in particular took the standard but widely tolerated examples of political misconduct of the last three decades — pork-barrelling, jobs for mates, political lying, politicisation of the public service, opposing scrutiny — and turned them into central elements of his entire political strategy, dialling all of them up to 11, until integrity and his own reputation for lying became central issues of the 2022 election.

Morrison has made all of this deeply unacceptable. Every other government is now on notice.

Labor in Canberra has no option but to abolish the AAT. It cannot be regarded credibly ever again unless, somehow, it is purged of every Coalition appointee, which can’t happen under existing legislation. The whole tribunal has to be abolished and a new one established in its place, with qualified appointees — not partisan hacks, failed MPs and Liberal and National mates.

But the AAT is just the symptom of a bigger problem: the discretionary role that government ministers have in relation to appointments.

It’s the same problem as pork-barrelling and ministerial discretion in relation to grants. Governments — most especially the Berejiklian-Barilaro government and the Morrison government — proved that politicians can no longer be trusted to exercise their discretion over grant allocation in the public interest. Instead, they exercise it in their partisan interests. Ditto with appointments to public bodies.

For those hoping Labor in Canberra will take a more public interest-focused approach to public appointments, their optimism may prove justified (the Rudd government, driven by John Faulkner, actually walked the walk on integrity). But that won’t change a broken system.

The Centre for Public Integrity today called for a proper Public Appointments Framework, that would lock politicians out of public appointments. The framework would:

  • strengthen the current Commonwealth Merit and Transparency Policy to require clear criteria and minimum eligibility thresholds, public advertising of vacancies, independent selection panels and a requirement that appointments only be made on the basis of panel recommendations;
  • require that the policy be legislated and widened to all public appointments;
  • ensure the whole thing be monitored by a joint cross-party parliamentary committee;
  • make sure that departmental secretaries are much more difficult to sack, and only on legislated grounds, and;
  • recommend that the AAT be abolished and replaced.

Removing the role of politicians from appointments and giving the job to independent panels would go a long way to addressing not merely the symptoms of the problem, but the problem itself.

Now is the time to move for the federal government — and any other government paying attention.

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

Coldrake Qld Gov Review

The title ‘Let the sunshine in’ for this Final Report is deliberate. It responds to widespread disaffection with the performance of governments and rising expectation that our politicians and their officials be more accountable and transparent in their dealings, and behave with integrity.
As well as its close association with the State of Queensland, the reference to sunshine is inspired by other attempts at opening government processes to public gaze. The US Congress passed its Government in the Sunshine Act in 1976.

This Review was prompted by a number of issues, some publicly ventilated, which together paint the picture of an integrity system under stress trying to keep check on a culture that, from the top down, is not meeting public expectations. The core of the system is its people who, overwhelmingly, seek to do a good job for the community they serve.

In that context our purpose is to look at the condition of the machinery overall as well as the effectiveness of the moving parts of an apparatus which has evolved over the thirty years since the cathartic Fitzgerald Inquiry. Its exposure of major corruption and institutional failure prompted a range of reforms designed to improve accountability of both the political and administrative arms of government.

Good intentions on the part of successive governments have since led to the establishment of new bodies, though predictable new challenges have emerged in the form of overlapping activity and mission drift or creep. Meanwhile some activities of bodies which have benefitted elsewhere from greater independence have not been the subject of similar focus here.

There are good reasons, from the public’s perspective, for a dispersed system of integrity agencies. But constant attention is needed to keep it functional for purpose, understandable to the citizen who might use it and the managers who guide it. One opportunity this Review recommends is creation of a means for users to more easily navigate their way through a system too reliant on investigations rather than education. This necessarily changes some agencies’ functions but, more importantly, will require behavioural change. That is also a much better option than to create additional integrity agencies.

The integrity bodies represent only part of a very large public sector but they are the traffic control system which enables citizens to have faith that their needs are being fairly addressed. The uneven approach of the various organisations, the turf wars over jurisdiction and valid questions about effectiveness can undermine that sense of fairness.

Key to achieving lasting positive change in any organisation, and certainly in government, is culture.

And culture is shaped by leaders at all levels – the Premier of the day, ministers, MPs, Directors-General and senior executives.

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