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Former Liberal adviser appointed head of Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

A former policy adviser to multiple Liberal party environment ministers has been appointed the new chief executive of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the government body responsible for managing the reef.

Josh Thomas, who worked as an adviser to current minister Melissa Price, as well as former environment ministers Josh Frydenberg and Greg Hunt, will start a five-year term in the role on 18 March with an annual salary of $353,180.

In a statement on Friday, Price said “after a rigorous merit-based selection process Mr Josh Thomas has today been announced as the new chief executive of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority”.

“Mr Thomas brings a strong understanding of the Authority with more than 15 years’ experience in the public and private sector and has academic qualifications in science and international affairs,” she said.

Neither Price’s statement, nor a statement and biography published by the authority mentioned Thomas’s past work as a Coalition staffer.

“His application received widespread support from non-government organisations and environmental groups and I am confident he will make a valuable contribution to the leadership of the authority,” Price said.

She said the selection process was conducted by a public service panel and endorsed by the Australian Public Service Commissioner.

Thomas is respected by both sides of politics and within the environment movement, and it has not been suggested he will display any partiality in his role.

But his appointment will fuel accusations the government is moving to appoint its political allies to the top tiers of the public service before the May election.

The government has faced scrutiny over recent appointments to the administrative appeals tribunal and the appointment of a former NSW Liberal MP to the post of high commissioner to New Zealand.

The opposition’s environment spokesman, Tony Burke, said the government had rejected the idea of improving wages for ordinary workers “but rushes headlong to provide the best wage increases they can for anyone who has been associated with the Liberal party and this government”.

Price said Thomas’s qualifications and those of shortlisted candidates were assessed independently by an external agency. Her office did not supply the names of the other candidates.

“During the recruitment process, the government adhered to all requirements of the APSC Merit and Transparency Policy, and the process itself was endorsed by the Australian Public Service Commissioner,” she said.

“Applicants who best met the position requirements and addressed the selection criteria were screened by an external executive search provider and a list of potentially suitable candidates was developed.”

The marine park authority said in a statement Thomas had “15 years of high-level experience in the public and private sector in Australia and overseas, including leadership in environmental policies and programs”.

“Mr Thomas is committed to enhancing Australia’s natural environment and has been a strong advocate for incorporating both contemporary science and Indigenous traditional knowledge into environmental management throughout his career,” the authority said.

The appointment is part of a new governance structure for the authority that separates the roles of chairman and chief executive.

A spokeswoman for GBRMPA said “the marine park authority as an organisation wasn’t involved in the recruitment process nor did we recommend any particular candidates”.

She said the position was advertised in media and in online recruitment forums in July last year.

“The Marine Park Authority chair, Dr Ian Poiner, was a member of the recruitment selection panel that provided advice to the minister for the environment.”

“Questions relating to the selection process should be referred to the Department of the Environment and Energy, who coordinated the selection process.”

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