‘Jobs for mates’: political appointments to government boards rife in Australia, report reveals

by Christopher Knaus
Grattan Institute report calls for fundamental reform after finding 21% of federal board positions were politically connected

One in five lucrative and powerful federal government board positions have been handed to politically connected individuals, according to a new report warning Australia has developed an “insidious jobs-for-mates culture”.

The Grattan Institute has released a report revealing a shocking level of politicisation in government appointments to public boards, tribunals, advisory councils and agencies.

Painstaking research showed about 7% of those appointed by the federal government to 3,600 public roles have a direct political connection.

The problem was particularly acute for plum board positions – those considered well-paid, prestigious and/or powerful – handed out by the commonwealth. A staggering 21% of people appointed to plum positions were considered political appointments.

That included 22% of the 320 members of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal – which acts as a crucial and independent check on government – a figure that had increased in the final years of the Coalition government. The report said the AAT offered a “full trifecta of powerful, prestigious and well-paid positions”, rewarding members with salaries from almost $200,000 to nearly $500,000 a year.

“It is unlikely that such a high proportion of politically affiliated people would emerge from a completely merit-based recruitment process”, the report noted. “If experience in politics was judged to be useful for the AAT, we would expect to find members with political connections on both sides of politics. Yet of the 70 politically affiliated members, 64 (91%) are connected to the party that appointed them.”

The report has called for fundamental reform, including the establishment of a public appointments commissioner, to end Australia’s culture of “jobs for mates” and ensure individuals are selected transparently and on merit.

Report co-author Kate Griffiths, the deputy program director for government at Grattan, said the results were shocking and highlighted a significant danger to the health of Australian democracy.

“There’s the immediate consequences for the institutions themselves, their ability to perform and function, and then there’s the medium- to long-term consequences for Australian democracy,” Griffiths told the Guardian.

“If there’s a perception that the public office is being used for political interests, we see this erosion of trust in government and that impacts the ability of governments to do things … that impacts the ability of Australians to have confidence in democracy, that’s something that’s been falling over time. And ultimately it impacts our future decision-making and institutional capacity in Australia.”

The report also undermined the argument that political appointees were selected for such roles simply because of the value of their experience in politics. It found that political appointments closely align with the individual’s affiliation with the party in power.

Of the 21% identified as politically affiliated appointees to federal government business enterprise boards, 93% were linked to the Coalition. The trend was the same in states where Labor had been in power.

Across all jurisdictions, 87% of government-business enterprise board members with political connections were from the same side of politics as the appointing government.

The report recommended that federal and state government establish transparent and merit-based selection processes for all public appointments.

Vacancies for public boards, tribunals and statutory appointments should be advertised with selection criteria, and applicants should be assessed by members of an independent panel, one of whom would be a representative of a newly established body, to be known as the public appointments commissioner. The panel would then provide shortlists of candidates to the relevant minister, who would retain the ability to choose the successful candidate, but only so long as it is from the shortlist.

“This is a big problem, but it has an easy fix,” the report lead author and Grattan chief executive, Danielle Wood, said.

“If the new federal government is serious about improving the way politics is done in Australia, it should set about ending the insidious jobs-for-mates culture – and the state and territory governments should get on board.”

The attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, had already signalled a willingness to tackle politicisation at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Last month, Dreyfus said he was considering abolishing the AAT and was subjecting the body to a “very serious review”.

“The Liberals have repeatedly undermined the Administrative Appeals Tribunal by using it as a Liberal party employment agency,” he told the Nine newspapers.

In recent weeks, the appointment of John Barilaro to a plum posting in New York has prompted an inquiry and serious criticism of the NSW government, with former judge and the chair of the Centre for Public Integrity, Anthony Whealy, saying it created a perception of “jobs for the boys”.