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Smyth appointment ‘a cynical political exercise’

By John Hargreaves - 25 July 2016 10

Brendan Smyth

It’s not the manner of how a man came into this world that matters but it is the way he leaves it. I don’t know who wrote this saying (paraphrased by yours truly) but it is so true and no more so than in the political arena.

Almost all of the pollies I have known (with some notable exceptions) go into the profession with the highest of motives and with their integrity intact.

Regardless of party ideology, most pollies have an ethos of service at the beginning of their journey but few exit with their integrity intact and with a continued ethos of service. Some just fade away, some continue community service in a voluntary capacity, some go back into the profession (for lack of a better word) from which they came and some go on to bigger and better things.

We can all think of examples though of how people have been “removed” from the political game and been rewarded with sinecures which are interesting at best and mind blowing at worst.

Appointments to ambassadorships come to mind, high paying corporate boards come to mind, appointments to commissions or senior bureaucratic positions come to mind.

As I wandered about Tuggers and elsewhere in this past week, I have been approached by many people of all manner of political affiliations who have wanted to discuss the appointment of the Commissioner for International Engagement. Some have defended the creation of the position and some have suggested that it is a cynical political exercise. A few have done both. Most are unhappy with the smell of the appointment.

The most common comment has been that it is the type of politics which is not acceptable to them. One said to me that the appointment said a lot about both sides. The offer should not have been made without due process and there is no transparency evident and the appointee should not have accepted the position without that due process. I agree with this view.

The need for such a position does not have resonance with many in the community who have stopped me for a chat. The expenditure of a salary package of $300,000 per annum, support staff, office costs, inherent extensive travel costs and necessary entertainment allowances is of such size as to call into question the wisdom of such expenditure. I estimate the cost to be around $2.5 million over 5 years.

In each budget round, the community at large are invited to submit proposals for support from the public purse. Some are successful and receive one-off funding and some are even more successful and receive ongoing funding for a number of years. Many NGOs depend on these funds to provide assistance to the vulnerable in our community in a variety of aspects.

We have support organisations providing assistance to families suffering debilitating disease, mental health support, victims of crime support, drug and alcohol support, post-prison social support, support for refugees and these are but only some.

But many who seek support are denied that support because their activities don’t gel with the political imperatives of the government of the day, they are seen as being in competition with government agencies or are told there is just not enough money to go around.

These NGOs view the creation of this Commissioner position in a very cynical light. They would argue that $2.5 million over 5 years would be better spent on support for our vulnerable members of the Canberra community that spruiking Canberra’s virtues overseas. They could argue also that the bureaucracy is capable of doing this job as it has since self-government.

So I have sympathy for this view.

Then there is the view expressed to me, described earlier, that this is an exercise in political expediency.

It is not without precedence in the ACT, let alone elsewhere. Some view the appointment of Rosemary Follett, former Chief Minister, to the position of Discrimination Commissioner as political expedience. Some thought that Terry Connolly’s appointment as Master of the Supreme Court was another. Almost everyone I spoke to thought that Bill Stefaniak’s appointment to the ACAT was another. But all of these appointees had qualifications for the positions and all of the positions existed well before the appointment.

But precedence does not make for moral correctness nor community acceptance and approval. Most regard this one as being too smart by half. Politics 201.

It is said that everyone has their price. Thirty pieces of silver in whatever currency is the price. This can take the form of monetary reward, exalted positions in society, or honours and awards.

But inducements to act in a certain way, accompanied by the breaking of undertakings to the constituency which elected a Member, are not acceptable behaviour in people entrusted with public welfare.

It now appears that the new Commissioner actually approached the Government indirectly to be considered for the job.  That the Government actually thought this was a good idea is questionable and this process where the Government, gave the job to this “applicant” without interview, without proper process, without transparency, smacks of political opportunism.

That the Liberal Party hierarchy think, publicly at least, and contrary to my inside information, that this appointment is a good thing for Canberra, speaks either to their naivety or to their antipathy towards one of their own.

But it takes two to tango and I’m not happy with either side of this arrangement.

As for the Commissioner, twenty years in public life deserves a better legacy.

File photograph of Brendan Smyth

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