Political Row Over Australian Migration Review Tribunal

October 22, 2014

The federal government in Australia has decided to appoint new members of the Migration Review Tribunal who are known to have ties to the country’s Liberal party. According to the findings of a Senate committee, these individuals were appointed even after they had previously not been shortlisted by a selection panel earlier in the recruitment process. In a Senate hearing held in mid-October, senator Kim Carr – who is a Labour party member - repeatedly asked questions about the validity of the appointment of no less than three new members to the tribunal because they had not received the recommendation of a joint selection panel.

Australia’s Migration Review Tribunal, or MRT, reviews a vast range of decisions in relation to visas which allow migrants to enter the country as well as other sorts of protection visas. A separate body has responsibility in Australian administrative law for refugees. Recommendations for appointments to the MRT are made by a selection panel which is made up several members. When it review cases, the MRT provides a number of recommendations to the sitting immigration minister, currently the Liberal party’s Scott Morrison. Whoever is acting as immigration minister does not have the final decision making power over membership of the tribunal, however, and a final list of its membership must be put before the federal cabinet for approval.

The political row in the country was sparked when the Senate heard that three new members of the panel – out of the 18 new appointments to the tribunal – had previously failed to make the appointment shortlist. The Senate committee discovered that Helena Claringbold, Nick McGowan and Antoinette Younes had not been recommended to the immigration minister by the selection panel, despite their subsequent selection by the government. Furthermore, two of those members – Claringbold and McGowan – are known to have well-documented links to the Liberal party, leading to calls that the MRT is being run on a party political basis.

Michaelia Cash, the assistant immigration minister who works with Mr Morrison, responded to the concerns raised about the selection process by senator Carr. “The appointment process was carried out in accordance with the Australian public service commission merit rules as well as the necessary transparency guidelines, she said. “As you fully understand being a former member of the executive,” she told Carr, “the government are allowed to appoint whomsoever they wish.” Cash went on to state that the appointments had the approval of the Australian cabinet. She said that the members of the tribunal - who have been appointed over the years - possessed a range of qualifications and experience.

Nevertheless, it is the two new members with Liberal party ties that the opposition party have been most focussed on. Helena Claringbold is a former member of the Australian prime minister’s staff. Claringbold left Tony Abbott’s team only as recently as July this year. In addition, her detractors point out that she is listed on a New South Wales electoral funding disclosure list. This shows that she is a significant party donor, having handed over a sum of AU $45,000 to the regional Liberal party in 2002. Mr McGowan was a Liberal candidate in the 2013 federal election. He ran for the party in the seat of Jagajaga during that election.

The Australian press has pushed Mr Morrison, who has overall ministerial responsibility for the MRT, for a comment in relation to the appointments which has yet to be forthcoming. However, staff at the tribunal office were keen to stress – regardless of the appointments process and the political row that has ensued from it – that their processes have recently been streamlined in order to improve services to migrants. Earlier this month, the application review forms used by MRT were updated in order to provide applicants with greater convenience. According to the MRT’s website, the three principal forms used by migrating applicants now allow them to choose to receive all case correspondence from the service by via email – although the previous forms will still be valid. “The tribunal has now introduced email as the primary communication method for case-related correspondence,” the MRT said. Despite this focus on communication, no public statement about the recent controversial appointments has been made.

In a second potential problem area for the immigration minister, the same Senate hearing also refused to table a document put forward by the senator Sarah Hanson-Young, a Green Party member. The committee chairman, senator Ian Macdonald, initially halted proceedings so that the committee could consider Hanson-Young’s document before the request was ultimately refused. However, a second political row may be on the horizon for the minister concerned.

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