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Politicisation of senior government appointments: the Lesson of History (Email sent 10/2/10)

Sid Maher,
The Australian

Re: Labor MP hired `on merit, not mates' , The Australian, 10/2/10

I noted your article concerning the competing claims about whether a former Queensland ALP MP (Mr Mike Kaiser) had been appointed to a federal government controlled company (NBN) on the basis of 'merit', or because he is a 'Labor mate".

While I have no knowledge of the circumstances of Mr Kaiser's appointment, I should like to suggest that this question needs close attention because of:

  • the clear and demonstrable falsity of claims that 'senior' appointments were being made on merit under an earlier Government in which Mr Rudd had a central role (as head of first the Queensland Premier's Office, and later the Cabinet Office); and
  • the seriously damaging consequences of politicisation of senior government appointments.

The Goss Government frequently claimed in the early 1990s that appointments were made on the basis of 'merit', but enacted legislation which (according to the Ombudsman's Office) made it impossible to appeal against 'senior' appointments - an action which, of course, made it unnecessary to seriously consider merit in making such appointments (see Ombudsman's reasons). The latter refers to the present writer's experience of seeking a remedy from an abuse of natural justice associated with the then Premier's Department's blatant refusal to allow merit to be considered in relation to making a senior appointment.

The consequence of thus eliminating merit as a factor in making 'senior' appointments to the Queensland Public Service was not primarily to result in the appointment of 'Labor mates' (though there certainly were some who gained key positions). Rather the main effect was that 'senior' Public Service positions were often filled by 'yes men' - a problem to which the retiring head of Queensland's Crime and Misconduct Commission recently drew attention (see Transforming Public Servants into 'Puppets'). As a result of demanding unquestioning compliance with the opinions of (at times) ignorant and inexperienced political advisers, Queensland Governments have tended to be dysfunctional and crisis prone ever since (see The Growing Case for Professionalism).

While the latter suggests that other Governments (including those controlled by Coalition parties) have also been guilty of blatant politicisation, the adverse impact on public functions surely demands that processes be put in place to ensure that checks of professional merit can't be politically manipulated.

John Craig