Administrative Appeals Tribunal replacement promises qualified appointments made on merit

by Bill Browne

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The Australia Institute’s Democracy & Accountability Program welcomes Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus’ bill to establish the Administrative Review Tribunal and replace the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. 

Last year, the Australia Institute conducted the largest and most comprehensive domestic study of the practice of cronyism in relation to appointments to a government agency ever undertaken in Australia.

After reviewing almost 1,000 appointments to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), it found the proportion of political appointments to the AAT skyrocketed from ~5-6% under the Howard, Rudd and Gillard Governments to almost one in three appointments (32%) across the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Governments and two in every five appointments (40%) under the last term of the Morrison Government.

The ART would: 

  • Spill AAT positions, allowing new appointments to be made under an open, merit-based process.
  • Require members to have been enrolled as a lawyer for a certain period (depending on the position) or have specialised training or experience in relevant subject matter.
  • Make appointments for a fixed term of five years (unless a shorter term is justified) and only allow reappointments in the final six months of a member’s term.
  • Allow for multi-member panels to be used for a single proceeding, allowing for those with particular expertise to be included (for example, a two-person panel where one member has medical expertise and the other is legally qualified).

“The proposed Administrative Review Tribunal has clearly been guided by the Government’s extensive consultation process, and places transparency and merit-based selection at its heart,” says Bill Browne, Director of the Australia Institute’s Democracy & Accountability Program. 

“Australia Institute research found that in the last term of the Morrison Government, 40% of appointments to the AAT were political appointments, with political appointments much more likely to have no legal qualifications than non-political appointments, even though AAT decisions must consider facts, laws, and policy.

“Political appointments to the AAT undermined that body’s independence, trust and capacity, which is intolerable for a tribunal responsible for life-changing decisions including deportations, NDIS payments, child support, visas, veterans’ entitlements and Commonwealth workers’ compensation.

“The proposed ART would have qualified appointments, public advertisements for positions and a clear role for the ART President in the appointments process.

“Not all Australia Institute recommendations are reflected in the bill: there is no cooling-off period before those who have worked for a political party can be appointed to the ART; no requirement for ART members to publish details of their qualifications and prior work experience; and the legal experience required of members is lower than recommended. I encourage Parliament to adopt these measures, which would further the stated objectives for the ART to be accessible, independent and fair.”

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