Former Liberal staffer on appeals tribunal quits consultancy role after potential conflict of interest

A longtime former Liberal staffer on the administrative appeals tribunal (AAT) has quit his role as a consultant to a lobbying firm after Labor uncovered what it labelled a potential conflict of interest.

Officials from the tribunal told a Senate committee in Canberra inquiring into the robodebt scheme that Tony Barry resigned his second job as a consultant after the AAT president “expressed a tentative view it was not appropriate” for him to also work as a lobbyist.

Barry, a one-time staffer to former Victorian opposition leader Matthew Guy and former federal opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull, was appointed to the tribunal in February 2019 as a part-time sessional member.

Labor complained in that jobs round, Barry was one of 19 Coalition former staffers or parliamentarians appointed to the tribunal, which reviews the merits of government decisions in areas including migration, disability insurance, social services and freedom of information.

According to the federal lobbyist register and Queensland register, Barry continued to work as a consultant for Next Level Strategic Services, which represents clients including Australian Super, Broadspectrum, Linfox, and Ramsay Health Care.

The AAT Act states that part-time members “must not engage in any paid employment that, in the president’s opinion, conflicts or may conflict with the proper performance of his or her duties”.

On Monday, the AAT registrar, Sian Leathem, said that the tribunal president, David Thomas, became aware of Barry’s employment with the lobbyist when the matter was raised in Senate estimates in October 2020. He immediately sought further information, she said.

Asked if Barry had failed to disclose the consultancy job, Leathem told the robodebt hearing the tribunal was not aware of the issue until it “positively engaged” with Barry.

Leathem explained there was “no requirement” for part-time members to seek approval for outside employment, but after Thomas expressed a “tentative view” it was not appropriate, Barry resigned his second job.

Leathem said AAT members would be reminded of their obligation to disclose potential conflicts of interest through training and inductions.

Leathem said the tribunal was “not aware of any conflicts at all” with parties that had appeared before Barry and the president’s concern related to “whether he was able to exercise his responsibility as a member – not any specific conflicts”.

The Labor senator, Deborah O’Neil, asked if the tribunal was not aware of conflicts because they “hadn’t looked” for any.

Leathem took on notice whether the deputy president and division of the social services and child support division, Karen Synon, had undertaken such a check. This prompted further outrage from O’Neil who noted Synon was a former Liberal senator for Victoria.

Liberal senator Hollie Hughes – herself a former Liberal appointee to the AAT – interjected that it was an “inappropriate line of questioning” to inquire into which party appointed members to the tribunal.

Leathem said the tribunal had no power to reopen cases or revisit decisions – so any allegations of a conflict should be levelled by parties accessing their review rights. No such issues had been raised, she said. O’Neil queried why the AAT had not written to parties to alert them to the issue.

Later in the hearing, officials took on notice how many decisions related to robodebts were made by Liberal appointees to the tribunal, including Barry.

The shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, accused the Coalition of treating the AAT like “a taxpayer-funded employment agency for former Liberal party politicians, staffers, donors and failed candidates”.

“It’s deeply concerning that one of those appointments, former Liberal staffer Tony Barry, was being paid by taxpayers to review government decisions at the same time as he was being paid as a lobbyist to influence government decision-making,” he said.

Dreyfus noted that many people “may have a ground to challenge” Barry’s decisions and called on the new attorney general, Michaelia Cash, to “explain what steps she is going to take to clean up the mess” left by her predecessor, Christian Porter.

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