Mates getting plum government jobs? There must be an election coming up

Seriously, this is the worst. In the last five months, 13 former Liberal MPs and political staffers have been appointed to federal government jobs. Don’t imagine it’s a burst of recent activity though. By 2019, the Liberal government had managed to appoint 65 decision-making members to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, of whom 24 had no legal qualifications.

This is an egregious case of jobs for mates and those mates never undergo serious scrutiny. According to veteran reporter David Hardaker, the vast majority of those new to the AAT were appointed without a transparent selection process.

Former Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella has just been appointed to the Fair Work Commission.Credit:Simon Schluter

Unless you consider cronyism to be a selection process.

So, you say, what’s new and who cares? It’s just the AAT. Or it’s just the Fair Work Commission, where former Liberal Sophie Mirabella now has a $387,960 a year job as a commissioner. Mirabella won’t be alone. Former Liberal deputy mayor of Campbelltown Alana Matheson, with previous gigs at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and at KPMG, scored the same lucrative prize. There is no suggestion that Mirabella and Matheson were not appointed on merit or aren’t up to the task.

Here’s the problem. Cronyism and political favouritism is having a direct impact on Australians even at the level of appointments to the High Court. It’s called the loyalty effect. These people may be the best suited to their jobs. Or not. We never get to see the art of the trade, how the sausage gets made. But it seems their decisions are nevertheless influenced by the way they came to the bench.

New research from the Australian National University’s Zoe Robinson and others shows justices appointed to the High Court are more likely to find in favour of the federal government when the Prime Minister who appointed them is in office, looking at appointments made between 1995 and 2019. Imagine how the loyalty effect plays out in the lower courts with less scrutiny and reputational pressure on the judicial officers.

The phenomenon in the High Court is a little less fixed when the prime minister who made the appointment goes. But here’s the thing. It only holds true for appointments made by Liberal governments. In other words, the loyalty effect holds for justices appointed by the Howard and Turnbull governments, not by those appointed Rudd or Gillard.

Anthony Whealy is a former NSW Supreme Court judge (appointed by Labor in 2000), former assistant ICAC commissioner and currently chairs the Centre for Public Integrity. He says the findings match up with his anecdotal experience and says judges appointed by the Liberals are conservative to begin with, often with an inability to free themselves of their prejudices.

“You’ll find Labor appointees tend to be more woke,” says Whealy. Woke, he explains, is the term adopted by the right to deride anyone who shows care or compassion for others.