A new report from the Australia Institute’s Democracy & Accountability Program represents the largest and most comprehensive domestic study of the practice of cronyism in relation to appointments to a government agency ever conducted in Australia.
This detailed deep dive report has investigated every single appointment made to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) since 1996 – almost 1,000 appointments in total, and reveals that the proportion of political appointments to the AAT has 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 current government alone.
- The research analyses every single appointment (974 appointments in total) to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and its precursors between 1996 and 2022.
- The share of political appointments to the AAT has skyrocketed from 6% under the Howard Government and 5% under the Rudd/Gillard Government to 32% under the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison term of government.
- Under John Howard political appointments were 6 in 100, current Government 2 in 5.
- Under the current Government, the share of political appointments has surged from 23% in 2013–2016 to 40% in 2019–2022.
- AAT Senior Members who are political appointments are much more likely to have no legal qualifications than Senior Members who are non-political appointments (26% vs 1%).
- Political appointees were more likely to be appointed on a full-time basis (47% of political appointees) than non-political appointees (22%).
- Most political appointees had served the party or parties that appointed them.
10% of political appointees had education levels below the level of a bachelor’s degree, compared with 2% of non-political appointees.
- Since 2016, the current Coalition Government has appointed seven Senior Members without legal qualifications, and all were political appointments.
- Of the 61 Senior Members appointed by the Coalition Government since 2013, 22 were political appointees.
- The report makes 10 recommendations for improving the AAT selection process.
“Across almost 1,000 appointments to the AAT since 1996, a worrying pattern emerges: appointments have become increasingly political under the current government,” said Ben Oquist, executive director of the Australia Institute.
“When John Howard was Prime Minister, only 6% of appointments to the AAT were political, but in the most recent term of the current Government 40% of appointments were political.
“These political appointments are much more likely to have no legal qualifications than non-political appointments, even though AAT decisions must consider facts, laws, and policy.
“The AAT is responsible for reviewing life-changing decisions by the federal government including deportations, migration visas, NDIS payments, welfare payments, workers’ compensation, and veterans’ entitlements.
“Members of the public should be able to trust that their case will be heard by a tribunal member who is qualified and not appointed for political reasons.
“A complete overhaul is needed to ensure that the AAT selection process is open and transparent, and not subject to political manipulation. This is now not only important for the AAT but is essential to fix integrity, accountability in government and protect democracy itself.”
Lead author of the report, Deb Wilkinson is an expert in the study of cronyism and is completing her doctorate at the Australian National University.