Page 1106 - Week 04 - Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Other statutory positions exist to protect the integrity of democratic processes, for example, the Electoral Commissioner; or to protect the public interests, the Commissioner for the Environment. In all cases, they had been established at arm’s length from government and in statute because the satisfactory performance of their roles requires independence from government and adherence, first and foremost, to the principles and requirements of their enabling statute. These roles are never easy and generally require detailed understanding and delicate balancing of individual rights, the public interest and government responsibilities.
It is vital, therefore, that the persons appointed to these positions are the very best people that can be found for the jobs. They must be people with good character, reputation and integrity. They must be highly regarded in the community because their decisions set the community standard in relation to public service, human rights and care for our most vulnerable people.
They must be fearless in confronting injustice, poor process and damage to the public interest, whether perpetrated by government, bureaucrats, services or community members. They must be highly skilled and experienced in interpreting and implementing complex legislation, and they must be knowledgeable about the challenges and issues facing the people or interests they are charged with protecting. In spite of their positions of power, they must also understand what it means to feel powerless and marginalised in the Canberra community and be prepared to advocate relentlessly for a society which values and includes all. This is no small list of selection criteria and may not accord with the kind of criteria that the government would like to apply to such positions.
Those who rely on statutory officers to keep the government and the community on track in relation to their interests and needs are entitled to be clear about what is expected of incumbents and the basis upon which they are chosen. Political appointments to these kinds of positions can be particularly damaging because they have the potential to seriously jeopardise the ability of the officers concerned to be critical of government and bureaucratic activity.
Many statutory office holders are charged with investigating complaints about government behaviour. If they are perceived to be or are in fact too close to government, then they will not be able to perform their statutory roles effectively; nor will they be effective protectors of the interests of the people they are charged with looking out for.
It has been suggested that, while it is okay to have a merit-based selection process for the initial appointment of commissioners and statutory office holders, it is not appropriate for the government to be put to the considerable expense of re-advertising and re-interviewing potential office holders when a contract falls due for renewal. Currently, most statutory office holders are appointed for a five-year term. In this time they will have developed a good deal of knowledge about their role and have established many relationships.
In many cases they will have invested enormous emotional and intellectual energy in achieving gains for vulnerable people or for the public good. Inevitably they will also be tired and perhaps somewhat dispirited because it is impossible to continually hold the large bureaucracy to account without some sense of weariness setting in. It is impossible