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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Nino Bucci

NSW government sidelined independent recruitment process when hiring child safety watchdog

NSW minister for families Natasha Maclaren-Jones at a swearing in ceremony at at Government House
Natasha Maclaren-Jones, NSW minister for families, has defended the appointment of Stephen Kinmond as NSW children’s guardian. Photograph: Getty Images

The Perrottet government sidelined an independent recruitment process and selected its own preferred candidate who had not formally applied for a $400,000-a-year position as the state’s child safety watchdog, a Guardian investigation has found.

Stephen Kinmond was appointed New South Wales children’s guardian in December 2022 after he met with Natasha Maclaren-Jones, minister for families and communities, the previous month. This was despite a recruitment firm completing a formal interview process and recommending a different candidate to the government in October.

The revelation means the Coalition is once again having to answer questions about public sector recruitment processes after an inquiry this week found former NSW deputy premier John Barilaro’s appointment to a New York trade role showed “all the trademarks of a job for the boys” situation.

Kinmond’s appointment also creates a significant issue for the government in that it must change the law if he is to fulfil his five-year term – under current legislation, he will be ineligible to serve in the role after October when he turns 65.

Given that parliament will not sit again until after the 25 March state election, which the Coalition is facing an uphill battle to win, Kinmond may be forced to step aside if Labor take power and refuse to change the law to allow his appointment.

Maclaren-Jones met with Kinmond in November after he was contacted by Michael Tidball, the secretary of the Department of Communities and Justice and asked if he was interested in the vacant role, Guardian Australia has confirmed.

In a statement to the Guardian, Maclaren-Jones defended the appointment of Kinmond, the former CEO of the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies (ACWA), who has also served as a NSW deputy ombudsman, saying that “the best candidate for the job was identified following both formal and informal searches”.

But the minister and department’s intervention in the appointment of Kinmond to lead a statutory body has raised serious concerns within the Office of the Children’s Guardian, according to multiple sources from the office who spoke to Guardian Australia on the condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to speak publicly.

Three invoked the Barilaro saga, saying that although there was no evidence Kinmond had political links to the government, the importance of the role overseeing the safety of the most vulnerable children in the state was far more significant than the trade position sought by Barilaro.

They said that Maclaren-Jones’ and Tidball’s intervention in selecting Kinmond could potentially undermine the office’s ability to properly regulate state government service providers in the sector.

“We’re a statutory authority, we’re supposed to be independent of government and we regulate them to make sure their providers are meeting child protection standards,” one source said.

Kinmond was appointed on 7 December, and started in the role, which oversees about 140 full-time staff, on 16 January.

Two women with experience working in the Department of Communities and Justice were the final candidates selected by the external recruitment agency, Omera Partners, to replace Janet Schorer, the previous guardian, sources told Guardian Australia. Maclaren-Jones said it would be inappropriate to comment on the other candidates.

After Guardian Australia shared details with Kinmond regarding his appointment process, Kinmond said he planned to contact the Labor party and other stakeholders to ensure they remained confident he could serve in the role. Kinmond said he would leave the job if he felt his position was untenable after those conversations.

He said that despite meeting Maclaren-Jones multiple times in his previous position, and having regular contact with the department, he was confident he had been selected on merit after working for four decades in the sector.

He was concerned, however, that questions about the process that led to his appointment could undermine the work of the guardian.

“I want to be able to put pressure on government and on parliament, and you do that from a position of strength not weakness,” he said. “Any suggestion there was a warm and fuzzy relationship [with the government] would be a complete mischief.”

Kinmond said he told Tidball, and then Maclaren-Jones, that he would be interested in the position if there was a commitment from government to consider reviewing oversight and regulatory systems in the state.

He said his view was that the “current patchwork system”, which gives the NSW ombudsman and his office responsibility over separate parts of the child welfare system, should be merged into one entity.

Kinmond confirmed that he had already signed his contract when he was informed by the department about the section of the Children’s Guardian Act 2019 that states the “the office of Children’s Guardian becomes vacant if the holder attains the age of 65 years”.

“I did scratch my head,” he said. “I did say, ‘How was it that they didn’t identify this in the first place?’”

Maclaren-Jones said she had also been advised by the department there were no impediments to appointing Kinmond to the position.

“When the candidate’s age was subsequently brought to my attention, I determined that I would act at the first opportunity to remove the age restriction and to undertake this before Mr Kinmond turns 65,” she said in a statement.

“I believe that this age restriction is inconsistent with community expectations,” Maclaren-Jones said, adding that the five-year term limit already acted as an “appropriate safeguard”.

She said her previous meetings with Kinmond were no different from those she had with other “key stakeholders” in the sector, and defended the process which led to his appointment.

“Before Mr Kinmond’s appointment, a number of other appropriately qualified candidates were also closely considered. It is not appropriate to comment further about these candidates.

“Mr Stephen Kinmond OAM, is highly qualified for this position and his appointment has been extremely well received by a wide range of stakeholders … [the] appointment is made with no special conditions, and I expect he will act in accordance with his duties as an independent regulator.”

Kinmond’s appointment comes at a critical time for the office. On 1 February, it started enforcing compliance with child safe standards launched in 2022, and next month the office is expected to report to parliament on the first review it has undertaken of the legislation under which it operates.

A new deputy guardian must also be appointed. Richard Weston, the state’s first deputy children’s guardian for Aboriginal children and young people, who acted in the role of guardian for three months prior to Kinmond starting, left his position on 3 February.

It is understood his departure is not linked to the hiring of Kinmond.

Kinmond replaces the previous guardian, Janet Schorer. Multiple sources said she was not offered a second five-year term. Schorer did not respond to a request for comment.

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