With an unprecedented fervour, the government is filling boards and commissions with old cronies. By Mike Seccombe.

Abbott appointments are trusted class warriors

Prime Minister Tony Abbott
Prime Minister Tony Abbott
Credit: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

It was nothing personal. New attorney-general George Brandis made that quite clear on October 25, announcing the forced resignation of ABC journalist Barrie Cassidy from his new job as chairman of the Old Parliament House Advisory Council.

It was a matter of principle. Cassidy understood that, Brandis said in his media release, and “accepted the importance of the Museum of Australia [sic] Democracy [in Old Parliament House] maintaining its apolitical and nonpartisan character”.

To have someone in the job currently engaged in politics, even if only as a political journalist, was “not consistent with that character”, Brandis said. The Insiders host, appointed to the non-paying gig just a couple of months earlier, was out. Sacrificed to high principles.

So it was portrayed. Then, on December 12, Brandis put out another media release, announcing Cassidy’s replacement: David Kemp.

Not only is Kemp a long-time spear-carrier for the Liberal Party’s dominant right wing, he’s a former Liberal minister and continues to practise politics through his work with the right-wing think tank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).

Even at the time of the announcement, he was working for the Liberals, putting together a report on the party’s senate performance in the 2013 election.

Along with Kemp, two others were appointed: Heather Henderson, the only daughter of Liberal Party founder Sir Robert Menzies; and Sir David Smith, whose place in history was assured on November 11, 1975, on the steps of Old Parliament House, when as official secretary to governor-general Sir John Kerr he was required to read out the proclamation sacking the Whitlam government. Smith is a crusty old conservative, monarchist and stalwart defender, over the subsequent decades, of Kerr.

The appointments made a mockery of Brandis’s excuse for dumping Cassidy. They also served as one of many examples of the pettiness of the new government in its rush to install its own people.

Of course, the make-up of the advisory board for Old Parliament House is hardly a big deal, except as an iconic – and ironic – indicator of the Abbott government’s narrowness. The Museum of Australian Democracy, set up to document and celebrate a vigorous, diverse young democracy, is now overseen by three insular, Anglo partisans whose average age is 80.

Indeed, the board is atypical in only one way: it includes a woman.

And that’s the real point here. Not so much that the new government rushed to find jobs for the boys, but that the boys were selected from such a small and homogenous pool of people. Overwhelmingly they were older, male, heavily ideological, and closely affiliated with either the Coalition parties, right-wing think tanks or vested interests in industry. Or all three.

1 . Donnelly and Shepherd

A good example is Kevin Donnelly.

Donnelly, the IPA-aligned former chief-of-staff to Kevin Andrews, is a cultural warrior. In a slew of books, opinion pieces and other writings over the years, he has argued that the Australian school system is failing. And the reason: schools have been taken over by radical educators who see their role as being to “liberate students by turning them into new-age warriors of the Cultural Left.”

He was just the man, in the view of Education Minister Christopher Pyne, to co-chair – along with another conservative, Ken Wiltshire – a review of the Australian school curriculum.

We haven’t seen the results of that review yet, but it’s probably fair to say most reputable educators are dreading it. In the meantime, Donnelly made news on Tuesday by opining to the Fairfax media that corporal punishment, properly used, was a very effective way of disciplining kids. Even Pyne had to walk away from that one: Donnelly’s were personal views, not endorsed by him “in any form”.

Consider also the National Commission of Audit, chaired by the former head of the Business Council of Australia (BCA), Tony Shepherd, aged 69.

Such commissions have become something of a tradition for incoming governments, a tool used to portray their predecessors as fiscally unsound and to lay the groundwork for unpopular cuts. They are mostly bogus exercises, although the original template, conducted in 1992 by the Kennett government in Victoria, was a genuine – if tough – response to a genuine crisis.

The Shepherd audit commission was not like the Kennett one, though. It came out like a wish list of BCA/IPA policy prescriptions, neatly cut and pasted, but not very well backed by facts.

To cite just one example: there was a recommendation for a $15 co-payment for patients visiting GPs, justified on the basis that the average person went to the doctor 11 times a year. Shepherd notably said he couldn’t believe Australians were “that crook”.

And Australians are not, in fact, that crook. On average they go to the doctor about half that often.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the government’s intent in appointing its heavily ideological commission was to soften us up, so when the budget included a Medicare co-pay of $7, rather than $15, we would be relieved. Former Liberal senator Amanda Vanstone and Liberal staffer and Chicago-school economist Peter Boxall were on the commission’s panel. Peter Crone, director of policy at the BCA, was head of the secretariat.

But if the purpose was to scare the populace into accepting tough budget medicine, it didn’t work. The Australian public was still appalled by the budget’s cuts.

The commission report quickly disappeared from view, at least until this week, when Treasurer Joe Hockey, miffed at the senate’s refusal to pass large parts of the budget, suggested he would be forced to look for other cuts. The Labor opposition immediately dusted off the more extreme suggestions of the audit commission and challenged Hockey to endorse them. The whole exercise was a spectacular misfire.

The audit report was also a sloppy piece of work in the assessment of one of Australia’s better-respected economists – a former Liberal and one of the architects of the Kennett audit commission – Saul Eslake.

“I didn’t think it was particularly impressive, in a number of ways,” says Eslake, chief economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch Australia. “First, there were no costings. It’s extraordinary that they could make a report like that without numbers. Second, while some recommendations, such as lifting the aged pension, were thoroughly argued, there were a lot that were simply assertions.”

Referring to his time doing a similar job for Kennett, Eslake says: “We were very careful to argue the case on the facts. But a lot of the things that were in the [Shepherd] audit commission report were just ideology, taken as givens.”

2 . Climate sceptics

You could sum up the attitudes of many of the Abbott government’s appointees with the old joke: “My mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with facts.”

And in no area is this truer than in the matter of climate change.

Shepherd is a climate sceptic. So is the head of Tony Abbott’s 12-member Business Advisory Council, Maurice Newman, aged 76, a former head of the stock exchange and the ABC and a founder of another of the right-wing think tanks, the Centre for Independent Studies.

David Murray, 65, the former CEO the of Commonwealth Bank, and the head of the government’s Financial System Inquiry, is another outspoken non-believer in human-caused global warming, though his inquiry’s first report has shown rare independence of thought.  

Of course, these people, being agents of the government but not actually part of it, can freely express their denialist views. Scientific reality and public opinion dictate that those in the ministry can no longer dismiss climate change as “crap”, as Abbott once did. But that does not prevent sly action to try to ensure nothing much is done about it.

Which brings us to the panel announced in mid-February by environment minister Greg Hunt and energy minister Ian Macfarlane to review Australia’s 20 per cent Renewable Energy Target (RET). It is being led by another outspoken climate change denier, Dick Warburton, 72, the former chairman of the petrochemical company Caltex, among other corporate affiliations.

Of the remaining three members on the review panel, none was from the alternative energy sector. Apart from Warburton, Brian Fisher is the most interesting. Under his leadership, the efforts of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) at climate modelling were heavily funded by industry. Since leaving that job, he has furthered his connections with the oil and gas industry.

Renewable energy advocates have called for his removal from the review panel on the basis that he is hopelessly conflicted. Modelling done by his firm has been presented to the panel by the oil and gas sector, as part of its campaign against the RET.

Such apparent conflicts are commonplace among Abbott government appointees.

3 . Cultural warriors

Perhaps the most glaring is another Brandis appointment. In his previous employment with the IPA, Tim Wilson called for the abolition of the Human Rights Commission. Now he’s Human Rights Commissioner, pulling a salary of some $400,000 inclusive of perks.

There are a couple of other Brandis specials. As discussed in The Saturday Paper in more detail a couple of weeks ago, he appointed Gerard Henderson, 68, founder of the Sydney Institute, former chief-of-staff to John Howard and indefatigable culture warrior, as chairman of the judging panel for the nonfiction and history category of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, Australia’s richest book prize.

Brandis was apparently untroubled by Henderson’s long, deep and public animosity towards many of Australia’s foremost practitioners in the field. Also appointed was another former Liberal MP, Peter Coleman, 85.

The latest manoeuvres in the long right-wing campaign to nobble the national broadcaster further illustrate the point.

The ABC is particularly problematic for Coalition governments. While they and their supporters in the Murdoch media hate it, the public overwhelmingly supports it. The ABC is by far the most trusted media organisation in the country.

John Howard tried effecting change from the top, appointing a Liberal chairman, Donald McDonald. But McDonald turned out to be a fair-minded defender of the organisation. In 2006 he was replaced by the aforementioned Maurice Newman. Still, the right was dissatisfied. Indeed the godfather of climate change denialism, Lord Christopher Monckton, publicly decried Newman in 2011 as “a shrimp-like wet little individual”. A badge of pride, perhaps.

The previous Labor government, in an effort to entrench the ABC’s independence, set up what was supposed to be a new, arm’s-length system for appointing board members, under which a four-member nomination panel, appointed by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, would present a shortlist of recommendations to the government for ABC and SBS board positions.

But if you can no longer directly stack the board, you can do so indirectly. Thus a couple of weeks ago, two new members were added to the nomination panel. One was Janet Albrechtsen, News Corp columnist and strident critic of the ABC’s alleged left-wing bias – she thinks it a “Soviet-style workers’ collective”. A woman, and only 47. The other was former Liberal federal minister Neil Brown, QC, 74, who has previously declared that the only way to finally fix the public broadcaster is to sell it off.

The secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ian Watt, reportedly decided the appointments himself.

Says Saul Eslake: “The people who run this government, as you will have noticed, like picking fights. In a sense they’re like the old NSW [Labor] right. They have long memories and they’re good haters.”

Even compared with the Howard government, he says, they are “very tribal”.

Indeed. An old, rich, white, blokey tribe of culture and class warriors. And they look after their own.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 18, 2014 as "Abbott stacking an ideologue pile".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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