Lehrmann and the engagement of ministerial staff

Apr 24, 2024
The national flag flutters on the Parliament House.

In the oceanic commentary on the Bruce Lehrmann cases, little attention seems to have been given as to how he got into Minister Linda Reynolds office in the first place. If he hadn’t all could have been spared the terrible things that have happened as a consequence of his admission – the catastrophic ignominies he brought upon himself, the agonies of Ms Higgins and the reputational injuries to many who’ve got within a bull’s roar of the saga – Minister Reynolds and her chief of staff, the ACT public prosecutor Drumgold, Judge Sofronoff and Channel 7 and some of its unadmirable staff and on and on it goes.

Lehrmann would have been employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act (the MOPS Act).

When it came into effect in 1984, that Act contained summary recruitment and dismissal procedures giving Ministers (and other MPs) no-frills powers to employ staff.

Nevertheless, the Public Service Minister at the time provided his colleagues with detailed guidance as to how they should exercise their new powers. And prior to the Act, the Hawke Government had an advisory committee vet appointments to more senior positions in Ministers’ offices. From time to time over the years other governments have used similar procedures – it is rumoured that Ms Peta Credlin did a spot of ministerial staff vetting for the Abbott regime before she helped guide it into oblivion and was given an Order of Australia.

But the MOPS Act did not include or mandate specific means for the assessment of prospective ministerial staff. It made the assumption that in their own interests Ministers would “do the right thing”. That assumption was more than heroic; it was ill-founded.

In the light of recent history the MOPS Act has been reviewed and amended.

Unfortunately those amendments do virtually nothing to minimise the rise of other Lehrmanns.

The MOPS Act now:

  • includes a general principle requiring employment decisions to be based on “capability”
  • says that “before employing a person…[a Minister] must assess whether the person has the capability to perform the role”, and
  • says the Prime Minister “may” approve arrangements and conditions under which Ministers will exercise their employment powers.

These amendments are an improvement but they are weak because they are proverbial and permissive.

Proverbial because even the most moronic of Ministers would not employ persons on their staff without some assessment of capability? And permissive because the Prime Minister is not required to determine detailed arrangements for the engagement of ministerial staff. They could always do that and, as indicated, sometimes they have.

Whether Prime Minister Albanese has exercised his new powers is not known. Maybe he’s been too busy churning out blathering platitudes about the subs or crudely ticking off people who have had the effrontery to question his crazy “Made in Australia” push, people who know more about economic and industry policy than the Prime Minister could learn if he were to live for a thousand years.

It is inconceivable that Lehrmann’s “capability” for the position he secured in Minister Reynolds’s office was not assessed in some way although it’s hard to believe that would have been done within a strict framework of Prime Ministerial requirements. While it’s easy to make mistakes in recruitment, it must be wondered how a person of Lehrmann’s qualities got through even the security checks.

The amendments to the MOPS Act should have required the Prime Minister to establish, by a legal instrument disallowable in the Parliament, detailed assessment procedures for ministerial staff and to provide an annual report to the Parliament on the operation of those procedures.

By not requiring the Prime Minister to determine specific and accountable arrangements for the assessment of ministerial staff, the gate is left open for more Lehrmanns to get into the inner sanctums and for the grief to be repeated.

The early US President John Quincy Adams said that “To form principles of government upon too advantageous an estimate of human character is an error or inexperience.” It’s puzzling therefore why Albanese did not insist that the revisions of the MOPS Act were more rigorous. He’s been a ministerial staffer and he’s had plenty of experience of them. Maybe he’s not learned much as a result.

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