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Jobs for mates is corruption. Dangerous corruption

Jobs for mates is corruption. Dangerous corruption

Bernard Keane reports in Crikey

The Grattan Institute has spelt out in methodical detail just how thorough the Morrison government — and Victoria — was at stacking boards.

For generations, jobs for mates — or what used to be labelled jobs for the boys — were treated as an unfortunate but inevitable tendency by political parties to look after their own, with both sides disinclined to criticise the other for the practice given both saw it as one of the perks of power.

As Crikey has noted recently, in relation to the appalling award of a $500,000-a-year New York posting to former NSW Nats leader John Barilaro by the NSW government, public tolerance for practice has dwindled rapidly.

Much of that is to do with how egregiously the Morrison government abused the practice. As with pork-barrelling, as with ministerial misconduct, as with abuse of office, the Morrison government wildly exceeded all norms in the extent to which it pushed practices tolerated but not liked by the electorate deep into a red zone of voter anger. Other parties, state and federal, can thank Scott Morrison and his complete lack of standards or political norms for turning the electorate febrile about what used to pass for acceptable conduct.

Just how much Morrison and his ministers abused their power is methodically detailed by the Grattan Institute in its new report.

It shows around 20% of government business enterprise board positions were stacked by the Coalition, compared to 14% in the ACT and Queensland, less than 10% in Victoria and less than 5% in NSW (ironic, given the Barilaro scandal). The Grattan figures are conservative, because they don’t count political party members or union officials or ideological fellow travellers.

The Commonwealth’s outlier status is even greater in relation to board appointments for powerful bodies that influence, or make, policy: 20% of such appointments were of Coalition mates, compared to 12% in Victoria.

This is corruption, and undemocratic. Not merely does it mean political mates enjoy the rewards of often well-remunerated board positions, many of which come with six-figure salaries, but it locks in partisan appointees to positions beyond the life of the government appointed them, able to exercise power despite voters dumping that government.

The worst institutions in this regard are the Productivity Commission — one of the few sources of independent economic advice, but which has been noticeably quieter and less critical of government policy since former Liberal staffer Michael Brennan replaced Peter Harris — and the Commonwealth Grants Commission, which plays a crucial role in Commonwealth-state fiscal relations.

Sustainability Victoria and Worksafe Victoria are two examples from the Labor side, though neither are as badly stacked as a number of Commonwealth policy bodies.

The worst example, of course, is the one that Crikey has been assiduously reporting on for years now: the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the most corrupt legal body in the country that is riddled with partisan hacks. According to the Grattan report, 22% of AAT appointees are Coalition figures, such as Andrew Nikolic and Pru Goward, but that omits Liberal and National party members, mates and fellow travellers unless explicitly identified by ministers as such. Moreover, Coalition mates were appointed to longer terms than non-mates — the majority received appointments of six to seven years, compared to five years for non-mates.

The report also shows how the level of partisan appointments rose significantly under the Coalition and dramatically accelerated under Morrison.

More than half of politicians retire to positions of power in lobby groups or big industry.

Michael West’s Revolving Doors series details the movement of Australian politicians, senior staffers and senior bureaucrats into the industry they oversaw, and vice versa.

This means that scores of former Coalition MPs, staffers, mates, party members and supporters remain embedded in the primary legal apparatus for challenging government decisions, discrediting the body for many years to come.

The corruption inherent in these appointments isn’t confined to the abuse of office by a minister in handing an appointment to a less competent but politically connected individual — leading to poorer management, oversight and decisions in government bodies — but extends to the implied threat behind widespread stacking: MPs and party functionaries who “behave” and do not offend party leaders know they are more likely to receive a plum appointment.

This creates a disincentive for MPs, staffers and party officials to reveal misconduct or corruption within parties and governments that will prove embarrassing. The senator who lashes out at wrongdoing within their party branch, the departing minister who reveals the truth about what a new prime minister is really like, know they can never expect to receive a lucrative board appointment.

Other than the AAT, the most egregiously and outrageously stacked body is the Australian War Memorial, a once-revered, now-discredited institution that has transformed a national icon into a disgusting military theme park funded by defence contractors, with 40% of the board Coalition mates, not including now-departed billionaire Liberal mate Kerry Stokes.

The Grattan report suggests a legislated appointment process that requires public advertising, independent assessment and a rigid requirement for ministers to appoint recommended candidates. They are sensible reforms but they should go further: anyone who has been elected as a federal or state MP should be banned from government boards. Or, if that’s too much of a crimp on the post-political careers of politicians, they should not be paid in such jobs. They have their parliamentary pensions, which are ample.

Let’s see how many political appointments there are if they have to do it for free.

This article was 1st published in Crikey

Politics Editor @BernardKeane

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

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