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Putting the Politics Into Public Appointments

The 2013 election result is almost set in stone. In that case, the Liberal and National Party coalition will form government after the September 14 poll, leaving the Australian Labor Party to do some soul-searching on the opposition benches. That means that from late this year, the incoming government would have the ability to make appointments to the various offices and positions across government and the public service. Almost on cue, debate has occurred over these potential appointments.

It has emerged that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott sent a letter to Prime Minister Julia Gillard urging that she not announce a successor to Governor-General Quentin Bryce whose term concludes next March, about 6 months after the election. The letter also chastises the PM for the recent reappointment of the Australian Electoral Commissioner and other public service appointments made recently.

In the letter, the alternative Prime Minister writes: ”The decision to announce these appointments subverts the established convention that no government should make decisions that are legitimately the province of a potential successor”. Yes, that old nugget again about the caretaker conventions which we have already debated during this, the 43rd parliament. You would have thought that little debate was well and truly settled. It is quite surprising it is being raised again, albeit in relation to a different topic.

Under the caretaker conventions, appointments should not be made by a government during the caretaker period of government. Further, if it is necessary for there to be an appointment made once parliament is dissolved, then it should be deemed a temporary role where the person nominated is acting in the role for a short period of time, If it is deemed necessary for the government to make a permanent appointment then, under the conventions, it is agreed that the Opposition be consulted with on that position.

As there was with the earlier protestations about the government following caretaker conventions, there is a slight problem – they do not apply to the present political situation. The Prime Minister has still not visited the Governor-General to ask that parliament be dissolved and that writs be issued for a general election. We are however in the unusual position where we have an election date. But for all intents and purposes, it means nothing in this scenario.

Where there is scope for some debate, at first glance anyway, is around the rumour of a government intending to make an appointment at a point in time so far from the present date and one which would take effect after an election they are likely to lose. And that is what has apparently prompted the letter from Tony Abbott to Julia Gillard. There is also a rumour going around the political world that an incoming Coalition Government would seek to make former Prime Minister John Howard Australia’s next Governor-General.

Quentin Bryce was announced as Australia’s Governor-General approximately five months before replacing outgoing vice-regal representative Major Michael Jeffery in 2008. A rather lengthy transition period seems to be the norm and that is not particularly problematic, given that it often involves relocation, though people often move at shorter notice for employment.

It is strange, if true, that the government would seek to make an appointment to the office of Governor-General some time before the election in September. There is absolutely no reason for any government to need to contemplate making an offer of employment for a position which is not vacant until March 2014.

The potential future appointment and the response to the whispers about it point to a disturbing part of our political culture – the need to make senior public service appointments political. Who lands senior public service roles should never be the plaything of political parties striving to make a point and stamp their authority, but it is. The so-called ‘jobs for the boys (and gals)’ culture is an unfortunate blight which rankles with voters in the early months after each election, to the point where many of us now accept it as the norm. Unfortunately, it colours our altogether negative view of politics and politicians.

Who lands what role should be less, though preferably devoid of politics and more about merit. We are a meritocratic society elsewhere, and when it comes to the public service, even largely ceremonial roles should be filled by the best, most accomplished fit.

When will politicians learn that their search for power shapes the way we view them?

Happy International Women’s Day, But Sorry Quotas Still Aren’t the Answer

Today, Thursday the 8th of March marks a very important 24 hours in the international calendar of days, a day for roughly half of the world population, women. To all women, my mother, sister, friends, followers and strangers I wish you the happiest day today on International Women’s Day.

Women are an integral part of society, without whom there would be no future population unless we suddenly discovered and were legally and ethically allowed to clone human beings in place of the natural act of reproduction. Women are the givers of life, they go through about 9 months of mood swings and childbearing weight gain and then hours of pain to bring new life into the world. For that alone women deserve unending praise and awe the world over.

For the integral part that women play in society, not just in childbirth but in the broader day-to-day motions of life, women, even in a prosperous nation like Australia, are still not treated as equal to the fullest possible extent. There is a low concentration of women in senior management roles and women are still not paid equally to men, even though that statistic is slowly creeping up to the parity line. The equal pay case success in the community services sector will certainly aid that important aim.

While women are not on an equal footing with men in positions of authority, that has certainly been evolving over recent years in Australia. We now have a female Premier of Queensland, even though that is about to end, a female Governor of Queensland and other states, a female Governor-General and even a female Prime Minister. One of the most powerful bank bosses in Australia is also of the fairer sex, namely Gail Kelly from Westpac and over time the representation of women in these positions will surely continue to grow.

The question is what is the way to achieve greater representation of women in the workplace? There continues to be a debate in this country, made even stronger and more public on days like this as to whether or not quotas on boards or in political parties is the answer.

The quota argument says that businesses must choose a certain number of women from a pool of candidates of men and women for board and senior management positions after appointing a maximum number of men, regardless of exact levels of experience and skill base, a kind of positive discrimination for the workplace if you will.

Quotas simply are not the answer, not forced ones at least, voluntary ones are a totally acceptable option for businesses to undertake to implement because there are certainly always a suitable array of female candidates available for any role in any occupation, whether it be at board level, senior management or otherwise.

Merit is by far and away the best option for the appointment of women to any role, the problem is that women are often overlooked for equally meritorious male candidates for various reasons, none of which are suitable and are often very discriminatory.

Merit in a perfectly pure sense should allow for the equal allocation of positions to women, particularly with women taking up a large percentage of undergraduate and further degrees, particularly in the recent decade or thereabouts.

To be able to use merit effectively though, to the advancement of women requires a change of mindset on the part of employers from the frankly pre-1950s view of women that must surely continue to exist in some businesses across the land, most notably in the higher echelons of management in these businesses.

Businesses must also openly encourage women to apply for positions, no matter what and do what they can within their means to identify and foster identified female talent, to keep them connected with their respective companies through practical measures that suit the circumstances of women.

To break down these barriers will not be easy but it will a better, more fair outcome for both men and women and will, in a pure way of the practise of merit, likely lead to the same outcome. Women deserve an equal chance at being chosen for jobs based on the skills that they have gained and practised to the same extent as men.

Again a thank you to all women and may all of you have a happy 2012 International Women’s Day and may the next year be even better for you in all that you do.

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