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A raft of Labor affiliates have been appointed to water boards across Victoria amid increased scrutiny over whether the Andrews government finds “jobs for mates” in senior positions.
Three months after Victorian Labor was criticised for appointing former ministers to key board positions, another set of people with links to the party have been added to paid seats on boards managing the state’s water corporations and catchment authorities.
Bob Cameron has been named chair of Coliban Water.Credit: Jason South
The appointments come as former deputy premier John Thwaites departs as chair of Melbourne Water.
The most high-profile of the appointments is Bob Cameron, who served as police and local government minister during the Bracks and Brumby governments. He has been named as chair of Coliban Water after last year being appointed chair of WorkSafe Victoria.
Tien Kieu, a former Labor MP for the South Eastern Metropolitan seat in Victoria’s upper house, was appointed to the board of Greater Western Water.
Kieu, a physicist and adjunct professor, was elected to parliament in 2018 and ran again for the party in 2022 but was lower on Labor’s ticket and was unsuccessful.
Tien Kieu was a Labor MP in the upper house until last year.Credit: Jason South
Ari Suss – a former senior adviser for Steve Bracks and senior executive for transport boss Lindsay Fox – was reappointed to the board of Yarra Valley Water and 2018 Labor candidate for Mildura Tony Alessi was kept on at the Mallee Catchment Management Authority.
A 2022 Grattan Institute analysis found 12 per cent of plum board roles in Victoria were held by political appointees, and that most of those appointees had ties to Labor.
Since that analysis was published, former deputy premier James Merlino was appointed chair of the Suburban Rail Loop Authority, former health and arts minister Martin Foley was made chair of Alfred Health and the Melbourne Arts Precinct Corporation, and former police minister Lisa Neville became the chair of Barwon Health.
The Age does not suggest the water appointments were not made on merit, only that the appointees have links to Victorian Labor and that it comes at a time when public positions have come under scrutiny.
Former deputy premier James Merlino shakes hands with Premier Daniel Andrews.Credit: Justin McManus
Last month, the opposition asked the Victorian Ombudsman to look into allegations of a jobs-for-mates culture after Foley’s most recent appointment.
Former Animal Justice Party MP Andy Meddick, who was a key figure in Victoria’s upper house during the Andrews government’s last term, has been added to the Corangamite Catchment Authority.
The shake-up of water boards means Thwaites will no longer serve as chair of Melbourne Water. He did not seek reappointment.
In a statement announcing the water boards, the Andrews government said the selection process was overseen by an independent panel, with an increase in culturally and linguistically diverse appointments, which now make up 19 per cent of appointments in the sector.
Female representation has risen from 38 per cent in 2014 to 57 per cent, and 17 out of 28 chair roles are filled by women. The number of Aboriginal board members has also risen, from 11 in 2019 to 21 in 2023.
“Victoria’s water entities have a strong history of dedicated representatives and these appointments continue our work in establishing a culture of fairness, diversity, expertise and equity,” Water Minister Harriet Shing said.
A government spokesman said there had been more than 14,400 board appointments since 2014, “each selected on merit and the basis of their diverse backgrounds, gender and ethnicity to ensure our boards reflect the Victorian community”.
The Andrews government recently flagged an intention to add more paid directorships on public boards as part of its push to increase diversity across this sector.
Water Minister Harriet Shing.Credit: Chris Hopkins
This has prompted speculation the newly vacated role of chairman of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation could be a paid position, with former major events minister Martin Pakula believed to be the front-running candidate.
Grattan Institute senior researcher Kate Griffiths said her think tank’s 2022 analysis focused on those “directly affiliated” with parties, such as MPs, staffers and candidates.
“There’s obviously a whole set of other people who might be deemed friendly to a particular party,” she said. “Unions in the case of Labor, or donors. That’s not to say these people might not be the best person for these roles. But if there isn’t a proper process conducted, including advertising, people have a right to be sceptical.”
Accountability Round Table chair and former Democrats senator Lyn Allison said enough was enough, and called for greater declaration of conflicts.
“For the general public to have trust in these boards, political party affiliation should be declared a conflict of interest for government boards,” she said. “Public service positions need to be independent and not improperly influenced by party loyalties.”
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