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Transparent and Quality Public Appointments Bill 2023

Fed up with wave after wave of rorts, corruption, rampant cronyism, secret ministries and a lack of transparency, Australians sent this parliament a very clear message at the last federal election: clean up your act. Across the country, including in my electorate of Mackellar, building greater integrity into our political system was a core election issue, and remains so. Trust in our political system in recent years has been at an all-time low. The latest OECD trust survey report found just 38 per cent of Australians trust their national government, and Australia's score in the Corruption Perceptions Index also bottomed out in 2021, when we recorded our lowest ever score. That score recovered slightly last year, following the successful passage of the National Anti-Corruption commission legislation, which many of us here on the crossbench fought so hard for, particularly the member for Indi, Dr Helen Haines, who I'm very proud to say is seconding this bill today.

While the National Anti-Corruption Commission is a significant step in the right direction, there is more we must do to rebuild the integrity infrastructure that supports our democracy. The National Anti-Corruption Commission is a safety net. Investigations will be activated in response to corruption allegations. We now need to take steps to prevent corruption and cronyism from happening in the first place. To do this we must build integrity, accountability and transparency into every area of our political system. There are many changes this parliament needs to enact to that end, including addressing lobbying and donation reforms and implementing stronger protections for whistle blowers.

This bill that I'm introducing today, the Transparent and Quality Public Appointments Bill 2023, addresses the culture of cronyism and party friendly appointments that has distorted and undermined our democracy. My 'ending jobs for mates' bill will establish a framework to ensure that major public Commonwealth appointments are made independently and transparently and that appointees are of the highest quality and expertise. This bill would mean that appointments are no longer left entirely to the discretion of a minister and so would end the jobs-for-mates culture that has plagued our political system.

Recent history shows us why this is so critical. In just the last few years Australians have seen fossil fuel executives appointed to both the chair of the Climate Change Authority and the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission. Is it any wonder that we ended up with a gas-led recovery from COVID? Worst of all, under the previous coalition government the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, or AAT, became a byword for party friendly appointments and cronyism. The AAT is actually a crucial pillar of our democracy, as it plays a central role in holding the government to account by independently reviewing administrative decisions made by federal government ministers, departments and agencies.

But the integrity of the AAT itself was so undermined by cronyism that it is set to be completely abolished and replaced later this year. Under the Morrison government a staggering 40 per cent of appointments to the AAT had direct political connections, such as party staffers or officials. This is up from six per cent under the Howard government and five per cent under the Rudd and Gillard governments. Many of these political appointees did not have legal qualifications, which limited their ability to perform their role effectively. This unchecked politicisation of appointments to the AAT undermined the public's access to justice, so the fact that it was used to provide party allies with highly paid jobs is a national shame. Political appointees have also been found to be less likely to give frank and fearless advice.

To be clear, this jobs-for-mates culture in Australian politics damages our democracy, wastes taxpayer money, leads to poorer outcomes and decisions and erodes trust in government. That's why it's so important for the Albanese government to back my Transparent and Quality Public Appointments Bill. Drafted in partnership with the Centre for Public Integrity, this bill would see the creation of a public appointments commissioner and departmental independent selection panels. The appointments process would be overseen by a parliamentary joint committee on appointments, which would have no more than 50 per cent representatives from the government.

The public appointments commissioner and departmental selection panels would be responsible for implementing a transparent and independent recruitment process for all major Commonwealth public appointments. This would include members of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the AAT and the ACCC, for example, and would also include government business entities, such as Australia Post. If the appointment is deemed to be a significant integrity officer position, a former High Court or Supreme Court judge is also required to be on the selection panel. The recruitment process would require independent selection panels to publicly advertise the relevant position, run a competitive selection process and shortlist at least three candidates for the minister to choose from. The minister will only be able to choose from this list and cannot add to the list. Selections by the independent panel must be based on expertise, experience and integrity, and must also have a view to promoting diversity. In short, this bill would ensure that a candidate with the requisite expertise and knowledge gets the job—not the bloke who the minister went to school with or their former staffer or party official. This bill strikes the right balance between independence and ministerial discretion. Nor will this bill be a major cost burden. It has been costed by Treasury at $3 million a year to enact. I believe it is a small price to pay to restore integrity to the public appointments process.

I was also pleased that the government further acknowledged the problem of cronyism with its recent announcement of a review into public sector board appointments. However, the scope of that review is far too limited to have an impact on the jobs-for-mates culture, as board appointments only make up a minor portion of the accountable authority positions that must be captured. It is a timid step that is unlikely to have concrete benefit, unless the changes to the appointments process are legislated as outlined in this bill.

The people of Mackellar have told me loud and clear that restoring integrity into politics and tackling corruption are at the top of the list of the issues they want their MP to pursue. And it's not just the people of Mackellar; people all around this country are desperate for a return to decency and integrity in our national politics. The people of Australia want and deserve a political system they can trust. This bill aims to do just that by ending for good the cronyism and jobs-for-mates culture that has undermined our democracy for too long. I urge all members of this House to do what is necessary and right and to support this bill as another vital step in restoring integrity and decency to our political system. I would like to cede the remainder of my time to the member for Indi.