29 March 2016
by Jacob Greber

Morrison refuses to let Labor veto top appointments

Treasurer Scott Morrison is refusing to consult with the opposition over a raft of top economic appointments in the lead-up to a likely election in July, including the promotion to governor of Reserve Bank of Australia deputy Philip Lowe, who has won Labor's backing.

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen on Monday demanded the government stop naming senior Treasury portfolio positions without consulting the opposition, because the government is now effectively on an election footing.

Describing Labor's calls for a quasi-caretaker approach to appointments as "attention-seeking", Mr Morrison made it clear he would continue making his own decisions according to "normal procedures".

"No election has been called, nor is one formally due until later in the year," he said.

"The issue of a double-dissolution election is contingent on matters in the Senate that have not yet been determined. Labor should not be prejudging these outcomes and the government certainly has not."

More than two dozen Treasury portfolio positions are due to be named between now and the end of the year, including that of Reserve Bank board member John Edwards, who was appointed five years ago by the previous Labor government and whose term expires on July 30. He would normally be given a second term, given historical precedents for board members.

Other positions on the hook include Productivity Commissioner Jonathan Coppel; Takeovers Panel member David Jones; three Commonwealth Grants Commission posts; ASIC member Greg Tanzer; and the chairperson of the Australian Competition Tribunal, currently held by John Mansfield.

The most important government appointment this year will be the next Reserve Bank governor. Glenn Stevens' term expires in September.

The government hasn't formally approached Labor about the Reserve Bank governorship. But a senior Labor source said the opposition would be amenable to replacing Mr Stevens with Dr Lowe.

Sims reappointment starts row
The appointments row erupted when Mr Bowen slammed as "highly inappropriate" Mr Morrison's decision last week to formally start the reappointment of Rod Sims as chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Mr Morrison didn't consult ​Labor on the plan to give Mr Sims another three-year term starting on August 1, which requires majority support from state and territory governments.

Mr Bowen said the August start date will be after the next government is likely to have been sworn in, making it imperative for Mr Morrison to include the opposition in any key appointments.

"It would have been more appropriate for the Treasurer to appoint Mr Sims on an acting basis and therefore allow the substantive appointment to be made in a process involving the incoming treasurer," he said.

Labor wants to be consulted on the position of Australian Securities and Investments Commission chairman, currently held by Greg Medcraft, whose five-year tenure expires on May 12, one day after the last date that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull can call a July 2 election.

The call for bipartisan consultation has echoes of the growing battle over a replacement for US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia who died suddenly last month. Conservative politicians have demanded President Barack Obama leave the decision to the next president.

The row is also one of the consequences of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's decision last week to nominate July 2 as a likely double-dissolution election.

Shades of 2013
This year won't be the first time that the timing of an election threatens to politicise key appointments. In 2013, then opposition leader Tony Abbott and shadow treasurer Joe Hockey complained that Labor had no right to make appointments after prime mInister Julia Gillard took the unusual step in February of that year of announce a September election.

Two months later, former Treasurer Wayne Swan reappointed Mr Stevens to a second term starting just days after the date nominated by Ms Gillard for the 2013 poll. He also named Wayne Byres as chairman of the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority from mid-2014, more than a year after the announcement was made.

The traditional caretaker convention dictates that governments only stop taking major decisions once parliament is formally dissolved ahead of an election. No such convention has been set for when governments flag elections further afield.

On the reappointment of Mr Sims, Mr Morrison said on Monday that the government initiated a well-established process of consultation with states and territories to ensure continuity at the ACCC.

"If Labor are opposed to Mr Sims' appointment because of his support for the government's decision to strengthen the misuse of market power rules, which they oppose, they should just say so," he said.