FOI Reveals Vice-Chancellor Personally Pursued Ex-Senator George Brandis' Appointment as Professor

FOI request submitted by Andre Kwok

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed details about the appointment of former senator, George Brandis, as Professor in the Practice at the ANU in July 2022.

Brandis, who served as a Liberal Senator for Queensland until 2018, was a cabinet minister under the Abbott and Turnbull governments, Attorney General from 2013-2017 and most recently the High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. His appointment at ANU consists of a three year role as Professor in the Practice of National Security, Law and Policy, split between the National Security College and College of Law.

The email chain included in the FOI release reveals that his appointment was driven personally by Brian Schmidt, beginning with the Vice-Chancellor proposing his hire to other senior ANU staff. Schmidt proposed the appointment as beneficial to the ANU on the basis of Brandis’ ability to help “…us [ANU] better understand and engage the political process” and “…help us [ANU] raise money…through philanthropy.”

An ANU spokesperson justified the hiring because “Professor Brandis’ service in the federal government and as a senior diplomat has given him experiences that will enrich our community’s understanding of national and global politics and security issues.”

While Schmidt’s email focuses on the benefit of Brandis to the University, the spokesperson elaborated that: “These roles give students the opportunity to engage directly with former senior officials who have practical experience at the highest levels of national security.”

Brandis’ appointment also appears to have been well under way by the time the first email was sent. Brandis himself told an ANU employee: “…our [Brandis and Schmidt] discussions have been fairly advanced in terms of sorting out the details.”

Schmidt deemed the appointment “high priority”, and it was done without advertisement or the use of a selection committee. The documents cite “Identified Position” as the reason for doing so.

From: FOI Document 202200031. This image is from a filled-out form included in the FOI release.

According to ANU’s appointment procedure, all appointments must be completed in a “fair and transparent manner” and are typically advertised, with some exceptions, including under the ‘Identified Position’ procedure. This procedure defines such a position as one “…with an essential personal requirement with the aim of promoting equality of opportunity for disadvantaged groups.” It goes on to list the circumstances in which positions may be presented as Identified Positions:

  1. “as part of special measures aimed at increasing representation of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander staff to meet the employment targets under the ANU Enterprise Agreement; and
  2. as part of special measures aimed at increasing representation of women in areas of the University where women are under-represented.” 

Brandis is neither a woman nor of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Island descent.

Despite the recruitment documentation, a spokesperson for ANU has attested that Brandis was not appointed via the Identified Position policy, but “…at the discretion of the University.” The university has commented that while “not typical”, these appointments are “not uncommon”, noting that there are more than 10 Professors in the Practice at ANU.

They have highlighted that the justification for the hire is strongly rooted in Brandis’ extensive professional political and diplomatic experience, making him “…amply qualified for the role.”

In his political career, Brandis was involved in several controversies, including the 2013 approval of an ASIO raid on the office of East-Timor representative Bernard Collaery, and the use of $20,000 of taxpayer money to build bookshelves for his parliamentary office.

Brandis also asserted, in relation to accusations against Andrew Bolt of racial vilification, that “…people do have a right to be bigots.” Online, the ANU states that “We do not tolerate or accept any form of racism or bigotry.”

The University also argues that “Institutions similar to ANU across Australia and around the world make similar appointments.”

While the FOI documents make reference to a donation to the University to create a Professor in the Practice position, the ANU has since confirmed that Brandis will be paid not from a donation but from central administration’s budget.

ANU is also entitled to hire without advertisement under an “exceptional case” which includes hiring by invitation, although approval must still be sought in writing to Human Resources under clause 19 of the procedure. This writing, if it exists, is not included within the FOI release which covers documents “…related to the appointment of George Brandis as a professor at ANU” including “…contact between Mr Brandis and the University regarding any employment opportunity.”

For students, the FOI raises the question of why the ANU hires high-profile ex-politicians beyond the benefit of the University’s finances and lobbying. It remains unclear which employment policy the ANU used when hiring Brandis beyond its own discretion.

The FOI also highlights the power of the Vice-Chancellor to personally fast-track appointments, at a time when the revolving door between politicians and public appointments remains a contested issue.


UPDATE: Woroni would like to acknowledge and thank Andre Kwok who originally submitted the Freedom of Information request that made this article possible.

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