Wider selection criteria warranted

THERE’S a ticklish problem currently before the upper house.

Several months ago the Government announced the appointment of a new electoral commissioner.

She is Lyn Auld, someone who acted in that position many years ago, before her predecessor, Dr Ken Evans, was appointed during the Court-Cowan era.

Shortly before announcing her appointment, the Government – meaning the premier and probably electoral affairs minister Jim McGinty – chose a three-member selection panel, which included the head of the premier’s department.

The others were a mayor of a regional centre and an interstate electoral commissioner.

That panel made recommendations, which naturally remain unpublicised.

But this much can be said – the Liberals quickly pointed out that Dr Evans hadn’t resigned. He was an applicant.

The matter may have rested there if something unusual hadn’t happened.

Just before announcing Ms Auld would replace Dr Evans, Premier Geoff Gallop notified the heads of the various political parties, as required.

From his letter to the Greens it was not apparent to the minor party that Dr Evans hadn’t reapplied.

“We assumed that the current com-missioner was retiring, which was why he was being replaced and the Government’s preference was for Ms Auld, which we supported,” Greens electoral affairs spokesperson Dr Christine Sharp told parliament.

“When we subsequently found out that Dr Evans was not intending to retire, we were surprised and again wrote to the premier to ask for a further extension of time to consider our position to our surprise at the Government’s removing a serving commissioner.

“We accept that the Government has every right to apply its discretion in appointments to public office but it is also important that when governments exercise this discretion, they are transparent in their reasoning.

“If the Government considered that Ms Auld would make the best com-missioner, as it clearly did, it needed

to explain in a public way how it came to that decision and be fully accountable for the exercise of its discretion.”

Their second letter was never answered.

The next step came when Liberal upper house leader Norman Moore moved for an inquiry into the selection and appointment process.

To get this he needed Greens backing, which he got, because of the case Dr Sharp outlined.

Now, the Greens aren’t saying Ms Auld wasn’t an appropriate choice.

It’s the procedure they’ve queried; the way it was done.

Although the upper house has opted for an inquiry it’s still not certain it will be launched.

Debate on the issue was adjourned and Mr Moore and the Greens must decide on whether to proceed.

Moreover, the Greens are wondering if the inquiry shouldn’t perhaps be broadened to investigate how past electoral commissioners were appointed and perhaps consider how best to fill this crucial position in future.

I’ve had dealings with Ms Auld and Dr Evans and found both most professional in their conduct. But that’s not the issue.

The question at stake is whether governments should get the electoral commissioners they, and perhaps only they, want.

I say no.

The possible inquiry to come could thus be broadened to consider how several other similarly important positions – freedom of information commissioner, auditor-general, and ombudsman, for example – should also be filled.

Each has important oversight roles and is thus too important for only a premier and perhaps one relevant minister to oversee appointments to.

Each would be better filled by having an all-party interim appointments committee (APIAC) to firstly choose an expert selection panel.

If such an APIAC existed now it would include a member of the Labor, Liberal, National, Greens and One Nation parties, meaning the selection panels wouldn’t be responsible just to a premier, and perhaps relevant ministers, but rather to a broad parliamentary oversight and decision-making group.

After selection panels had interviewed applicants they would present an appointment recommendation – listing recommended appointees in numerical order – to the APIAC, not to a premier, and it would decide, by majority vote if need be, on who should be appointed.

All Dr Gallop was required to do in the latest electoral commissioner appointment case, like his predecessor Richard Court, was to alert the various political parties on whom he and/or Mr McGinty had chosen.

The current system is also hardly fair to incumbents of the four named positions in that they could feel bound or indebted to a particular minister or government, at least for a time.

By moving towards broadened parliamentary selection and appointment, such incumbents would truly feel they were servants of the parliament, which is precisely what they would be.

All that can be said of Dr Gallop’s handling of this case is that several MPs have at last become aware of its flaws, which have been with us too long.

Labor prides itself at being the party of progress and reform.

Let’s see how it takes to this one.


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