New ASPI chief was a Coalition govt captain’s call

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The new chief of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute was not the preferred candidate of the influential think tank’s advisory council, which had made a recommendation to government after a “robust selection process”.

Instead the appointment of former Foreign Affairs Minister chief of staff Justin Bassi was a captain’s call by the Coalition government, made just months before the federal election.

Mr Bassi was appointed as the new chief executive of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in March, as announced by former Defence Minister Peter Dutton.

But the Department of Defence has recently confirmed that Mr Bassi was “not the candidate preferred by the ASPI Council” in an answer to a Senate Estimates question on notice.

Mr Bassi was instead selected and approved by the former Coalition Cabinet, replacing Peter Jennings in the top role at ASPI.

Parliament House

The former Coalition government also appointed former Human Services Minister Michael Keenan and former Leader of the National Party John Anderson to the ASPI Council, just two months before the federal election and subsequent change in government.

ASPI was launched by the Howard government in 2001 and offers strategic and defence policy advice. The think tank is highly influential and has grown in prominence due in part to the increasing tension with China.

Mr Bassi’s likely appointment to lead the organisation was reported in December last year and confirmed in March by Mr Dutton. From June 2019 until March 2022 Mr Bassi was the chief of staff to former Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, and was previously a national security adviser to former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull from September 2015 to August 2018.

He was also the Cyber Intelligence Mission Manager at the Office of National Intelligence.

The ASPI Council had set up a subcommittee to oversee the selection process for the new chief executive, in conjunction with recruitment firm Watermark.

The ASPI Council overseeing the selection comprised Lieutenant General (retired) Kenneth Gillespie, former Liberal leader Brendan Nelson, Macquarie University senior lecturer Lavina Lee and former Labor Shadow Minister Gai Brodtmann.

The Council provided a letter to the Department of Defence at the end of November last year with six candidates identified to be suitable for the position, and a recommendation for a preferred candidate.

The Department has now confirmed that Mr Bassi was not this preferred candidate.

“The appointed candidate was not the candidate preferred by the ASPI Council,” the Department of Defence said in response to a question from Labor Senators.

This means Mr Bassi was a captain’s pick by the former Coalition Cabinet, with Mr Dutton providing this recommendation.

“Mr Bassi was selected from a strong field of candidates, based on his significant national security experience and wide networks,” Mr Dutton said at the time.

The Department has also released the letter that was sent by the ASPI Council to Mr Dutton in November last year. The letter lists six potential candidates for the top role at ASPI, with Mr Bassi listed as being “suitable” but another candidate being the “preferred” one.

The names of the other candidates were redacted. Of the other candidates, one was listed as being “suitable and the preferred candidate”, another was “suitable” but withdrew after a second interview, and three others were “suitable but not preferred”.

“In summary, after a robust selection process, the ASPI Council recommendation for the successor to Mr Jennings is [redacted]. I remain available to discuss the process and the candidates with you as you consider your appointment to the position,” LTGEN Gillespie said in the letter.

ASPI’s constitution states that its executive director can be appointed by its directors “in consultation with the minister” and on terms “as the directors see fit”.

Labor warned that Mr Bassi’s appointment was a “political captain’s call” in the lead up to the federal election.

When announcing the appointment, Mr Dutton also unveiled four new members to be included on the ASPI Council.

These new members included former Coalition Minister Michael Keenan, and former Coalition Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson.

Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre CEO Rachael Falk and former Australian Defence Force officer Catherine McGregor were also appointed to the ASPI Council.

These new members were appointed to the ASPI Council by the Coalition just months before the federal election.

ASPI was contacted for comment.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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