Who will replace Elizabeth Broderick as Sex Discrimination Commissioner?

Vacancy: Previous sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.

Vacancy: Previous sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

We need a new federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

We must all call on the government to do the right thing and appoint the best woman to the job.

There is an excellent list of possible candidates: former attorney-general Nicola Roxon, esteemed law and gender researcher Susan Harris-Rimmer, former Westpac chief executive Gail Kelly, award-winning journalist Virginia Haussegger, the Australian Bar Association president Fiona McLeod and onwards. If the government needs help, we can lend a hand.

It has now been eight weeks – and counting – since Elizabeth Broderick finished her term, yet there's been no sign from the federal government about her replacement.


No transparency in the process. No guidelines for the position. Nothing.

And it's been two weeks since George Brandis stood before Senate estimates and claimed, after being pressed by Labor senator Jacinta Collins, that: "The replacement for Ms Broderick is under consideration. An appointment will be made shortly...  I have consulted with my senior colleagues and other stakeholders and am considering the appointment at the moment... you can be reassured that the choice will be of an eminent person."

But still no transparent process. No obvious applications. And there doesn't seem to be a job description of any kind.

"I asked him whether he was applying the guidelines and he responded by failed to indicate any transparency in what was occurring," Collins told Daily Life this week.

Collins fears he has tried to apply the Tim Wilson process – to appoint a yes-man – to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's position.

"I think this is standard for Senator Brandis. It is a pattern of how he has operated in his ministerial responsibilities."

And senior experienced women across Australia are also concerned. Many won't be named for fear of looking as if they are angling for the job – and Elizabeth Broderick's legacy is a big one.

But Sam Mostyn, deputy chair of the Diversity Council of Australia, is clear on this: "Given the momentum of Liz's work, it's vital that the position is filled and the office is shown the respect it deserves."

Julie McKay, executive director of the National Committee for UN Women and gender advisor to the Chief of the Defence Force, is even more specific.

"We don't want to create an old boys' network, we need to reach into the community to find advocates who can build the bridges between government, the private sector, the NGOs," she said.

And playing in the background are a thousand stories about why the position is not being filled.

By far the most terrifying story might have been a narrow escape. Could it possibly be true that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was on the verge of pushing through cabinet his captain's pick for the position, Sophie Mirabella? That might well be the reason we have a delay because, as Abbott's powers waned, he was not able to convince his Cabinet of his choice.

Others have even suggested the government might not replace Broderick's role as it is now. There are good reasons to be worried. The government has done away with a full-time commissioner before. The post of Disability Commissioner was admirably filled by Graeme Innes but, when he retired at the end of 2014, it was then rolled into the job of Age Discrimination Commissioner, Susan Ryan. Both those positions deserve someone's full-time attention. And we already know failed arts czar but still attorney-general George Brandis thinks another commissioner – Tim Wilson - is an eminent person.

The latest talk is that it will be a senior woman connected to the Liberal Party or a former Liberal politician – and from there the pickings seem somewhat slim. Judith Troeth was not a lawyer, which is common yet not essential qualification for the job, and retired from politics four years ago. Judi Moylan retired in 2013. Jackie Kelly? Amanda Vanstone? Neither of those feel like Turnbull appointments. Possibly Helen Coonan. Shame they can't go all bipartisan and pick Nicola Roxon.

It took the federal government months to replace Helen Conway, former head of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), with a permanent appointment. Career public servant Louise McSorley acted in that position from April until mid-October when she left to become assistant secretary of the office for women in department of the PM and Cabinet.

And in her place at the WGEA? Former BHP executive Elizabeth (Libby) Lyons, who previously headed BHP Billiton's corporate affairs for its Olympic Dam project, without any apparent gender equity work in her career. Insiders say the government thinks her corporate experience will help her persuade companies to goals of gender equity and women's participation.

Let's hope the federal government understands the position of Sex Discrimination Commissioner requires much more than a persuader. It requires an investigator. Anything else would be a catastrophe.

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