How The Attorney General Stacked An Independent Tribunal With His Liberal Mates

    Lots of jobs for the boys.

    Attorney general George Brandis has been slowly stacking an independent tribunal with failed Liberal candidates, unemployed political staffers, and party donors, with some of the jobs worth more than $300,000 per year.

    Lukas Coch / AAPIMAGE

    Earlier this year, Brandis quietly announced a number of appointments to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), which deals with complaints and appeals made against federal agencies.

    The tribunal has multiple divisions and makes important decisions around refugee applications, freedom of information requests, disability and veterans' appeals, and determinations around child support payments.

    Brandis' AAT announcement came on the final work day before the election date was announced, ensuring his choices would be appointed even if the government lost the election.

    As BuzzFeed News previously revealed, among those appointed to the tribunal is Brisbane lawyer Theo Tavoularis, who donated to the Liberal National Party in the lead-up to the 2013 election and recently represented Brandis's son in court in a criminal matter.

    Since then Brandis has revealed he did not raise Tavoularis's party or family connections with federal cabinet before his appointment, and could not remember if he received discounted legal services from the lawyer. Labor has called for the attorney general's resignation.

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    But Tavoularis is far from the only well-connected individual Brandis has appointed to the AAT in the past 18 months.

    In the same pre-election period, Brandis appointed Ann Brandon-Baker (pictured), who was Scott Morrison's chief of staff during his time as immigration minister.

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    Brandon-Baker will consider appeals as part of the tribunal's migration and refugee division, making determinations on refugee applications, part-time, for the next five years.

    There was also Dr Denis Dragovic, who had just failed in his bid for Liberal preselection in the prized Victorian seat of Goldstein. He was appointed by Brandis to review refugee appeals for the next seven years.

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    Dragovic also failed to get on the Liberal Senate ticket in Victoria. His new job will see him pocket more than $300,000 a year until 2023.

    John Sosso also scored a last-minute Brandis appointment. The Queensland lawyer served as a departmental head under Liberal National Party premier Campbell Newman until last year, when he was sacked by the incoming Labor government.

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    Sosso's association with LNP governments goes back decades: He served in a powerful branch of government under former premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

    Liberal MP Tim Wilson left the Australian Human Rights Commission earlier this year to run for parliament, but his senior adviser Louise Bygrave was taken care of – she was appointed to a seven-year term in the disability services division of the tribunal.

    Fresh from failing to win a seat in the South Australian parliament as a Liberal candidate in 2014, Michael Manetta was given a part-time tribunal place for the next five years.

    Saxon Rice, who served as a Queensland LNP MP for just three years before losing her seat at the 2015 state election, was rewarded by Brandis with a seven-year appointment.

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    Former Liberal candidate in Victoria for the federal election of 1998 Peter Vlahos got a seven-year appointment.

    The final familiar name in the pre-election announcement was former Liberal senator Judith Troeth, who was tapped to join the migration and refugee tribunal for five years.

    Six weeks earlier, Brandis quietly made more appointments to the tribunal. Among them were unemployed staffers, failed candidates and donors.

    Justin Meyer, who was appointed for five years full-time, was an adviser to former Victorian Liberal premiers Ted Baillieu and Dennis Napthine.

    Former ACT Liberal leader Bill Stefaniak was appointed for five years and now sits on the freedom of information division of the tribunal.

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    Dr Bennie Ng, who served as head of social policy in former prime minister Tony Abbott's office, was also given a seat on the tribunal's FOI division for five years.

    Then there was Anne-Marie Elias, who was a former senior policy adviser to NSW minister Andrew Constance. Elias got a part-time, five-year term on the tribunal's social services and child support division.

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    On her LinkedIn profile, Elias describes herself as a one-time "chief disrupter" within the NSW government.

    She also reportedly ran an "online network club" that aimed to get unemployed Liberal staffers jobs with government agencies and "Coalition-friendly lobbyists".

    It's not the first time Brandis's appointments to the AAT have raised eyebrows. In mid-2015, as some members' tenure on the tribunal expired, the attorney general staged what was considered a "purge" of the migration and refugee division.

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    As reported by The Australian, 38 members had terms expiring, and Brandis reappointed only seven of them.

    One of the new members of the tribunal was Helena Claringbold, a former staffer to Tony Abbott who, according to electoral returns, donated $45,000 to the Liberal party in 2002.

    Another was Nick McGowan, who ran as the Liberal candidate for the Victorian seat of Jagajaga in 2013. He failed to win, and was appointed by Brandis for two years on the tribunal.

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    Starting at the same time, in July 2015, was Brendan Darcy, who had recently served as adviser to former Liberal defence minister Kevin Andrews.

    There was also David McCulloch – who had recently worked as a policy adviser to Liberal MP Paul Fletcher and as a staffer to former Liberal immigration minister Amanda Vanstone – and Michael Cooke, who was an adviser to Tony Abbott.

    Former Liberal party senator Karen Synon had her term extended full-time for another five years on the tribunal.

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    Bruce MacCarthy, who was a NSW Liberal MP during the 90s, was appointed for two years in the migration and refugee division.

    And finally, George Brandis's former Senate colleague ACT Liberal Gary Humphries found himself appointed deputy president of the tribunal for four years, on a salary of $450,000 a year.

    Alan Porritt / AAPIMAGE

    CORRECTION

    Justin Meyer is not a Liberal party donor. An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated he had donated to the Liberal party in 2010-11.

    Mark Di Stefano is a media and politics correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

    Contact Mark Di Stefano at mark.distefano@buzzfeed.com.

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