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Politicisation: the attack on merit and our way of life

By Scott Prasser - posted Thursday, 31 August 2023

Why is 'politicisation' a concern?

Complaints about 'politicisation' in public appointments are not new, but until recently were largely thought to have been addressed in most Westminster type democracies like Australia, especially at the national level.

While concerns about increasing levels and forms of 'politicisation' have been growing for some time, several recent events and scandals have put 'politicisation' back on the agenda as a serious issue to be addressed, and has prompted this review.


One recent example was the new Labor Albanese government's announcement in December 2022 that the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) would be abolished and replaced by a new body. The Albanese government believed it was riddled with "political appointments" made by the former Coalition government.

At the state level the NSW Coalition government's attempt to appoint retired National Party leader and one time Deputy Premier, John Barilaro, to a lucrative overseas post was assessed by an independent review (Head Review) as having "brought the integrity of Public Service recruitment processes into some disrepute and undermined the traditions of an independent, merit based public service as developed from the 19th Century British Northcote-Trevelyan Report.

In Victoria, media allegations about appointments to a host of public service positions by the Andrews Labor government prompted the Legislative Council to require the Victorian Ombudsman "to investigate some matters, including issues relating to the alleged politicisation of the public service". That review is currently being conducted by former Commonwealth Ombudsman and Australian National University Emeritus Law Professor, John McMillan. Adding to those concerns have been further complaints that retired Labor ministers like James Merlino have been appointed to positions with State authorities..

In Queensland, the 1989 Fitzgerald Commission of Inquiry sought to set new standards in integrity. Numerous new institutional arrangements followed including establishing Australia's second anti-corruption body, the then Criminal Justice Commission. Nonetheless, issues of integrity and politicisation have plagued successive Labor and Coalition administrations. During the last twelve months there have been three major commissions of inquiry into scandals concerning the Palaszczuk Labor government. Little, it seems, has really changed in Queensland's 'winner takes all' political culture.

Federally, the recent report by the Grattan Institute assessed that "across all federal government appointees, 7 per cent have a direct political connection and this figure rises to 21 per cent among those positions that are well paid, prestigious and powerful".The Grattan Report concluded that similar problems existed across state governments.

The 2019 review of the Australian Public Service, the Thodey Review, acknowledged it was "aware of claims that, at times, the appointment of secretaries (departmental) reflects political patronage and does not follow due process – that who you know can be more important than what you can do" and could lead to a "loss of trust by the public and fear among public servants". However, it made no recommendations to remedy the situation.


The election of a new Albanese government in 2022 has seen sackings of some senior departmental secretaries and new appointments to key portfolios and pivotal bodies like the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), the Productivity Commission, and the Fair Work Australia. While not new, this reminds us once again how such appointments remain the sole prerogative of executive government with little external oversight and how Australia has moved from the Westminster model to the now 'Washminster' system. That a number of these appointments are seen to be for those closely politically tied to the new government has raised complaints of politicisation and "stacking".

Another form of politicisation surfaced during the pandemic (2020-22) with concerns that advice from key government agencies and senior staff in Australia was too tailored to meet political exigencies rather than to provide the full range of available scientific evidence including that which did not conform to then current government preferred actions.

These concerns about politicisation of the public service have extended in recent years to complaints about appointments to the judiciary and calls for a more transparent process including a formal independent advisory body to draft nominations for governments to consider. An Australian Law Reform Commission's (ALRC) report recommended that the Commonwealth "adopt a more transparent process for appointing federal judicial officers". That a major appointment is soon to be made concerning the Chief Justice of the High Court again brings this issue into focus.

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For further development of these arguments read 'Politicisation – the attack on merit and our way of life' authored by Dr Scott Prasser and published by The Centre for Independent Studies on 3 August 2023.

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About the Author

Dr Scott Prasser has worked on senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments. His recent publications include:Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries in Australia (2021); The Whitlam Era with David Clune (2022) and the edited New directions in royal commission and public inquiries: Do we need them?. His forthcoming publication is The Art of Opposition reviewing oppositions across Australia and internationally. .

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