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Tuesday, 30 November 2004
Page: 47


Senator MURRAY (3:30 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Defence (Senator Hill) to a question without notice asked by Senator Murray today relating to government appointments.

In my question to the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Hill, I essentially said that, if government appointments were to be made through an independent process on merit, there could never be an opportunity for improper inducements of the kind alleged, and of course I am referring to the recent allegations by a member of the House of Representatives that he was offered an improper inducement of a beneficial trade or diplomatic post.

I was disappointed with the minister's answer, because he did not accept that it is not just a point about making the appointments process better, more transparent and more accountable, but it is about maintaining an arms-length approach. It reminds me of the saying about justice: justice must not only be done but be seen to be done. Senator Hill made the point that the practice has been in existence for a long time, that all governments exercise appointments in this manner and that some extremely good appointments have been made. But that does not mean that it is working effectively from an accountability point of view, and merits based selection has to be addressed because it eliminates the sense of a possible corrupting influence.

I want to make the point that you have to address the public perception that jobs for the boys and girls go on all the time. The problem with parliamentarians is that they take one of two views. They either take the view that political patronage is perfectly acceptable and it is the loot, the benefits, that come from power or they say there is no other way to do it. I encountered that view from a Liberal senator following question time, as I walked up the stairs. It indicated thoughtlessness and a failure to follow the debate that has been going on in this chamber. Twenty five times the Democrats have put up amendments to have appointments made on merit, and 25 times, so far, those amendments have been rejected by the major party.

Why do we keep doing it? We do it because we think that appointments to governing organs, public authorities or overseas posts should be based on merit and that the processes by which those appointments are made should be transparent, accountable, open and honest. That Liberal senator asked me, `What government has done it?' I said, `The British government.' He said, `Oh, they're the worst at patronage in the whole world.' He is just not up to date with what has been done. An independent body was set up in the UK after Lord Nolan headed the 1995 Nolan commission and managed to persuade the United Kingdom government to accept that appointments should be based on merit. This process will go, and has gone, a long way towards ending the privilege and patronage associated with some government appointments.

Lord Nolan set out key principles to guide and inform the making of such appointments. They are: a minister should not be involved in an appointment where he or she has a financial or personal interest; ministers must act within the law, including the safeguards against discrimination on grounds of gender or race; all public appointments should be governed by the overriding principle of appointment on merit, except in limited circumstances; political affiliation should not be a criterion for appointment; selections on merit should take account of the need to appoint boards that include a balance of skills and backgrounds; the basis on which members are appointed and how they are expected to fulfil their roles should be explicit; and the range of skills and backgrounds that are sought should be clearly specified.

In response to that committee's recommendations, the United Kingdom government subsequently created the office of Commissioner for Public Appointments, which has a similar level of independence from the government as the Auditor-General, to provide an effective avenue of external scrutiny. The fact is that overseas precedent shows that our system can be improved and appointments could be done in a manner which advances the issues of transparency, independence and accountability. Fundamentally the population do not like the idea that political patronage operates, whether it is in a territory government, a state government, the federal government or indeed in a local council, and this parliament should be setting the standard. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.