Giving a comfortable job to a fellow politician may seem harmless; after all, everyone does it, right? – but the politicization of public appointments has real and widespread consequences for Australian democracy. Increasingly, many government boards, courts, and independent agencies are filled with people who have worked in politics.
A new report from the Grattan Institute, released today, shows that political appointments are common at the state and federal level. It reveals the costs that all Australians bear when governments choose partners over merit.
Political appointments are widespread
About 7% of federally appointed positions in public agencies are held by people who have worked as politicians, political advisers, candidates, or party employees.
But this is just the baseline. Political appointments triple to 21% for well-paid, powerful and/or prestigious board positions. That’s one in five of these top public roles. Individually, many of these people may have the right qualifications, but collectively their presence undermines these important positions.
On the directories of the Australia Post and other federal government companies, companies that employ thousands of people and manage revenues of billions, more than 20% of members have a political connection. In most states, the figure is above 10%. This contrasts sharply with ASX100 boards with very similar responsibilities, where less than 2% of board members have a direct political connection.
The boards of powerful independent government agencies, including regulators and commissions, are also littered with political appointments. Half of the board members of the Productivity Commission, for example, have a connection to the Coalition.
While the skills established in a political career can be valuable, most political appointees belong to the same side of politics as the government that appointed them. The signs are that fellowship is taking precedence over merit.
Political stacking is especially evident in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), a body of independent experts that reviews government decisions on everything from child support to immigration status.
The AAT has become an attractive destination for political appointments, offering the full trifecta of powerful, prestigious, and well-paid (AAT member salaries range from nearly $200,000 to nearly $500,000). A staggering 20% of the 320 AAT tribunal members have a direct political connection to the government that appointed them.
And the problem seems to get worse. Political appointments to the AAT have grown substantially in the last five years. Many of these appointments were made in the run-up to the 2019 and 2022 federal elections.
Political appointments damage institutions and trust
Public appointments should not be considered as “nice things to give to colleagues.” People in these roles make important decisions that should be kept away from the government. In some cases, political appointees have significant influence over public policy.
Politicizing public appointments can compromise government regulation and oversight, promote a culture of corruption, and undermine public confidence in government institutions.
The “Captain’s Pick” do not always have the necessary skills and experience to carry out their responsibilities effectively. An analysis of performance data from the Grattan Institute shows that AAT members with political affiliations perform worse on average than those without. Nearly a quarter (24%) of political appointees fail to meet their performance goals, compared to 17% of non-political appointees.
Even if the designated person is fully capable of performing the job, their presence may compromise the perceived or actual independence of the institution. These appointments promote a culture of patronage in which loyalty is assumed to be more important than merit. Such a culture can have a chilling effect on non-political candidates and appointees alike: They may fear that rocking the boat or providing frank and fearless advice will limit their careers.
a better way
If Australia had a better process for making public appointments, we could be sure that appointees were there on merit, whether they were politically affiliated or not.
This problem has an easy solution. The federal and state governments must establish a transparent merit-based process for all public appointments. As the chart below shows, the new process must be legislated for and overseen by a dedicated public appointments commissioner. The commissioner’s work would restore public confidence in appointees and improve the performance of public sector boards and courts.
This process could help change the culture: searching for the best person for the job would become the only consideration ministers would take into account in their decisions. If the new federal government is serious about doing politics differently, this is an easy change that would make a real difference.