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Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe on how key bodies have been politicised beyond recognition and what to do next.
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New figures show that the Morrison government stacked government boards and tribunals at a level unprecedented in Australian politics.

These appointees were sometimes unqualified and incompetent. They particularly affected the Administrative Appeals Tribunal - where members can be paid up to $500,000 a year.

Now it is clear that they have badly altered decision making processes.

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe on how key bodies have been politicised beyond recognition and what to do next. 

Socials: Stay in touch with us on Twitter and Instagram.

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

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[Theme Music Starts]

##RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*. 

New figures show that the Morrison government stacked boards and tribunals at a level unprecedented in Australian politics.

These appointees were sometimes unqualified and incompetent. The appointments particularly affected the Administrative Appeals Tribunal - where members can be paid up to $500,000 a year.

Now it’s clear that they have badly altered decision making processes.

Today, National Correspondent for *The Saturday Paper* Mike Seccombe on how key bodies have been politicised beyond recognition and what to do next. 

It’s Tuesday, July 26.

##RUBY:
Mike, the AAT which is the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. It's really a place of last resort, isn't it? If you're someone who's interacting with a government agency and you don't agree with the decision that's being made, that's where you go, the AAT, to make your final appeal. But what do we know about what happens when a person actually gets there? How is a decision ultimately made about their future? 

##MIKE:
Well, well, that's right. That's where you go if you have a dispute with, you know, government agencies in a wide range of areas.

The AAT covers everything from tax disputes to family assistance and social security to the NDIS, to freedom of information requests, to worker's compensation, you name it. 

You know, it's supposed to be the place that can identify unfair decisions and hold government agencies accountable and even in some cases, ministers of government accountable. The reality, though, is that it's becoming increasingly apparent that there are great inconsistencies in the determinations made by members of the AAT. 

To illustrate the point and and and the data on which this depends, I guess, a group of academics from Macquarie University managed to get under FOI the records of all 18,000+ decisions made by the AAT in relation to asylum seekers over more than five years from 2015 to 2020. And what that data shows is just extraordinary. If, for example, you're an Iranian, seeking protection because you have a fear that you could be killed, you know, if you're sent back to Iran. Well, if you're a lucky one and you come before the right member of the AAT, you have a 93% chance of success, which is pretty good. If you're an unlucky one and come before the wrong member of the AAT, you have a zero chance. 

Frankly, the data makes it quite obvious that these inconsistencies are not explained by the merits of particular cases. They are explained by the merits of the people making the decisions. 

That’s because the appointments have become increasingly political. So we see increasingly appointed to the AAT ex-political candidates, former politicians who've lost their seats, a lot of political staffers, a lot of other people directly connected with government. And over recent times, of course, almost exclusively connected with the conservative side of government. And this is disturbing and it's disturbed some members of the tribunal, I might add. 

I spoke to one, Jennifer Strathearn, who was a former AAT member based in South Australia and she was so distressed by the increasing politicisation of appointments that she quit. 

##Archival tape -- Jennifer Strathearn:
“I'd still be there if I could have confidence that it would be an organisation based on accountability, integrity, and the rule of law. And I had no confidence at all about that.”

##MIKE:
She saw Michaelia Cash just a few days before the last election. Appoint a whole swag more people with political backgrounds to the tribunal. 

##Archival tape -- Jennifer Strathearn:
“Then Attorney General Michaelia Cash just appointed another batch, and look, it was just the straw that broke the camel's back.” 

##MIKE:
And within a couple of days she sent off a note to the Governor-General saying, I'm resigning from my job.

##Archival tape -- Jennifer Strathearn:
“I thought, Jenny, this organisation is not worthy of your services anymore.” 

##RUBY:
Hmm. And can you tell me a bit more about what she said to you? About what she'd seen at the tribunal?

##MIKE:
So what Strathearn told me was that she perceives a lot of these political appointees to be insufficiently qualified, to have obvious conflicts of interest, to have not performed up to required standards, resulting in huge backlogs of AAT reviews due to incompetence or lack of motivation. And she describes it as blatant cronyism. 

##Archival tape -- Jennifer Strathearn:
“And the ones who are appointed as political appointments and have been, um I don't seem confident that they would actually observe the rule of law to the required degree….”

##MIKE:
You know, and she says that you can't help but draw the conclusion that a lot of these political appointees see it as incumbent upon them to do the government's bidding. 

##Archival tape -- Jennifer Strathearn:
“When you are employed by someone, and you just don't have to go to any merit-based selection process, this is a bit of an obligation to sort of play the game isn't there, I would have thought…”

##MIKE:
And, when she talks about this cohort of people, it's a pretty large cohort. The Grattan Institute just this week released a report which looked into the numbers of the AAT and found that of 320 members, 70 had direct political affiliation.

##RUBY:
Hmm. Okay. So it seems pretty clear, Mike, that many of these appointments, that they aren’t based on merit, necessarily. It's more of a who you know, kind of situation. This report found that somewhere between a quarter and a fifth of people on the AAT on the tribunal, which is not supposed to be political at all, actually did have political affiliations.

##MIKE:
Well, that's what they found. Yes. Some other counts put the number higher. 

It really depends on who you count as a political appointment. I mean, the Grattan Report had quite a narrow definition. It said an appointment was political only if the person had previously worked as a politician or as a candidate or a political adviser or an employee of a political party. 

So they didn't include members of political parties. They didn't include political donors. They didn't include prominent supporters or union officials or friends or relatives of those engaged or people engaged in what they termed other forms of political activity. And nor did they count appointees that they identified as having appeared to be chosen for their loyalty to what they called a particular political ideological position. 

So, you know, their count is probably a significant underestimate and their report conceded as much. And furthermore, it's not just the AAT that's being stacked in this way. It's all sorts of other government tribunals, boards, commissions, you know, regulatory agencies as well. 

##RUBY:
We’ll be back in a moment.

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##RUBY:
Mike, we've been speaking about appointments at the AAT and how they're becoming increasingly politicised, but you're saying that it's not only the AAT this isn't the only place where this kind of thing happens. So could you tell me a bit more about other kinds of political appointments we're seeing and I suppose the effect that this is having.

##MIKE:
Well, Ruby, it's rampant. Grattan found that about 22 percent of board appointments to government business enterprises, such as the Defence Housing Authority, the Railtrack Corporation, Snowy Hydro and others were political. And 93% of those political appointees were aligned to the Liberal National Parties. In the case of Australia Post, half the board were political appointees. It was the same with regulatory agencies. A lot of them had up to 50 percent political appointees. 

Now, we should probably say all governments, you know, state and federal Lab or and Coalition have made political appointments and continue to do so. But no one's ever done it on the scale of the last coalition government. So there's a number of consequences of this, you know, for a start. A lot of these appointees aren't very good at their jobs and they underachieve. And bear in mind, these people are very well paid in their jobs. Tribunal members are paid from about 200,000 to almost 500,000 for making these decisions. So, you know, we've got a lot of people here who are doing very well on the basis of political patronage. You know, as the old saying goes, I guess it's not what you know, it's who you know.

##RUBY:
And so what happens now? What can the government do to address these issues?

##MIKE:
Well, one one very radical suggestion that came out of the legal and constitutional committee, which was looking into the AAT. And in its recent report, the majority of the committee proposed a very dramatic solution. It suggested. It suggested and I'll read the relevant recommendation, quote, The committee recommends that the attorney general disassemble the current administrative appeals tribunal and re-establish a new federal administrative review system by no later than the 1st of July 2023.

##RUBY:
Right. Okay. So they're suggesting that the tribunal should be completely disbanded. 

##MIKE:
That's right. Blow the whole thing up and start over. 

##RUBY:
And does that seem likely? Is the new government considering anything as radical as that to deal with what are obviously pretty significant issues with the tribunal? 

##MIKE:
Well, I got in touch with Mark Dreyfus’ office, and they sent me a response. And it had obvious political elements to it. You know, it said that the it had become increasingly a quite Liberal Party employment agency, which I guess on the evidence is, is really, you know, pretty substantiated. 

##Archival tape -- Mark Dreyfus:
“We want to return to a transparent and merit based appointment system for those courts and for the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.”

##MIKE:
It also referred to the huge backlog of cases that as a result resulted in people waiting months or, you know, in some cases years to have their cases heard and adjudicated. 

##Archival tape -- Mark Dreyfus:
“People who are seeking a review of all manner of government decision making. They deserve to know that the very best people have been selected to sit on those merit based review processes. And at the moment, you cannot have that confidence in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.”

##MIKE:
And then it said, and I'm quoting, I am now carefully considering how I can undo the damage of the last nine years, ensuring the AAT once again serves the interests of all Australians, which sounds noble but is really a less than definitive answer.

##Archival tape -- Mark Dreyfus:
“I'm engaged right now in a very serious review of the way in which the Administrative Appeals Tribunal is serving Australians, whether or not there are sufficient members, the settings for decision making, the reasons why there are such big backlogs in particular areas of the decision making in the tribunal.”

##RUBY:
Mike, when you think about the people who are actually coming before this tribunal, who are really having to roll the dice on who it is that they get to judge their case -  in some instances, the stakes are really high. It's a decision about whether or not a person can stay in the country. It’s sort of extraordinary that a political appointment with no qualifications could make that decision.

##MIKE:
Well, absolutely. I mean, as you said, the AAT makes decisions that can potentially affect almost anyone in Australia who thinks they've been the victim of a bad bureaucratic decision. I focussed on asylum seeker applications for a couple of reasons. One, of course, is that probably more than anything else that comes before the AAT, these can literally be life and death matters. 

You know, imagine being an Iranian refugee, in fear of your life if you’re sent back to Iran, and knowing that just because you had the misfortune to come before a particular member of the tribunal, you had zero chance of success, you know, based on the historical record. 

That, I think should concern us all. You know, regardless of what we think about refugees or anything else, it shows that once you start down the slippery slope of political appointments and ideological appointments, things can get very, very, very ugly.

##RUBY:
Hmm. Mike, thank you so much for your time.

##MIKE:
Thank you for having me.

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[Theme Music Starts]

##RUBY:
Also in the news today, 

Opposition leader Peter Dutton has called for Australia to close its borders to Indonesia to prevent a foot-and-mouth outbreak from devastating Australia’s agricultural sector.  The highly infectious livestock virus has not been detected in Australia for more than 100 years.

And, 

The Aged Care and Community Care Providers Association has said that 6000 residents and 3400 staff are currently infected with Covid. The Association has called for urgent action to protect residents and staff during this Covid wave, amidst fears that up to two thirds of aged care homes could be affected by outbreaks over coming weeks. 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*. See you tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends]

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