Member for Isaacs

Parliament House Media Conference 16 December 2022

16 December 2022

SUBJECTS: Administrative Appeals Tribunal; Citizenship ceremonies; Brittany Higgins settlement; Privacy Act review; Queensland police murders.



SUBJECTS: Administrative Appeals Tribunal; Citizenship ceremonies; Brittany Higgins settlement; Privacy Act review; Queensland police murders.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL MARK DREYFUS: Today I'm announcing the Albanese Government will abolish the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the AAT, and replace it with an administrative review body that better serves the interests of the Australian community.

The AAT's public standing has been irreversibly damaged as a result of the actions of the former government over nine years. By pointing 85 former Liberal MPs, failed Liberal candidates, former Liberal staffers and other close Liberal associates without any merit-based selection process, including some individuals with no relevant experience or expertise, the former government fatally compromised the AAT, undermined its independence and eroded the quality and efficiency of its decision making. This was a disgraceful exhibition of cronyism by the Liberal Party.

The AAT's dysfunction has had a very real cost to the tens of thousands of people who rely on the AAT each year to independently review government decisions that have major and sometimes life changing impacts on their lives. Decisions such as whether an older Australian receives an age pension, whether a veteran is compensated for a service injury, or whether a participant in the NDIS receives funding for essential support.

The Albanese Government is committed to delivering a new accessible, sustainable and trusted administrative review tribunal that serves the interests of the Australian people. The central pillar will be a new transparent merit-based appointments process. The new body will be properly funded. We will reduce the ongoing delays currently experienced by those seeking review of government decisions. The new body will have a modern, reliable and fit for purpose case management system that delivers administrative efficiencies for all users.

As part of this reform the Government is committing $63.4 million over two years for an additional 75 members to address the current backlog of cases and reduce wait times while the new body is being set up and $11.7 million over two years for a single streamlined case management system.

Over the coming months the Government will consult on the design of the new body and we intend to introduce legislation to establish it next year. Work on the design of the new body will be led by a dedicated task force in the Attorney-General's Department and being formed by an expert advisory group chaired by former High Court Justice the Honourable Patrick Keane AC. I do thank Mr Keane for agreeing to chair that important group. Members of the group will be announced in due course, from today. Justice Susan Kenny will act as President of the AAT until a transparent and merit-based selection process is conducted in 2023. Importantly, current staff of the AAT will transition to the new body. As part of the reform the Government is committed to working closely with the Community and Public Sector Union and the AAT to ensure that hard working staff of the 80 are supported through this process.

For those with matters before the AAT I can assure you that the current matters will continue as usual while the reform is being implemented. Once the new body is established any unresolved matters will transition to the new body.

Today the Government is releasing new AAT appointment guidelines to restore integrity to the appointments process and provide an efficient approach to managing the appointment needs at the AAT. While the previous government made a number of clearly inappropriate appointments to the AAT it's also true that there are many dedicated and talented members of the AAT who continue to embody the best traditions of that once celebrated institution. Current members of the AAT who wish to be appointed to the new body will be invited to apply through the transparent and merit-based selection process.

Just to conclude these opening remarks, Australians rightly expect honesty, accountability and integrity in government. The Albanese Government recognises the critical role of administrative review in our system of government. The Albanese Government is committed to restoring trust and confidence in Australia's system of administrative review.

REPORTER:  Attorney, to save the village why do you have to raze it? Are you in effect sacking everyone to weed out the 85 beneficiaries of cronyism, as you call it?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  As I've just said, this is been the product of long consideration. We're proceeding in a very deliberate manner here. I'm wanting to make it clear what the future of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal is. And as I've just said, when we have established the new body, all members of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, who are currently there, are invited to apply for a position as a member of the new tribunal. In the meantime, we are proposing to appoint some 75 additional members to try and deal with the shocking backlogs in the work of the Tribunal that are presently there.

REPORTER:  Just on the allegation of cronyism, though, there might be people who have associations with the previous government, does that mean that they are disqualified from being on the new body or is mere association bad enough in your eyes?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  Our concern is with merit-based appointments. We are moving to a transparent and merit-based appointments process for both the existing Administrative Appeals Tribunal while it is in the transition phase. And of course, for the new body, our concern is that people who are appointed to this really important function for the Australian Government merit review systems, that everybody who serves as a member in such a tribunal is appropriately qualified. And that's the concern with the cronyism that was demonstrated by the Liberal government over the last nine years.

REPORTER:  What can be done about the toxic culture at the AAT in the meantime? The bullying allegations that have been raised must be of concern to you every day, given that those people remain in the workplace?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Of course they are concerns. When they were publicly raised I directly raised it with the former President of the Tribunal. We are concerned to ensure that every Australian workplace, not just government workplaces, is free of bullying and that will include not just the AAT in the meantime, but the new administrative review system that we set up later next year.

REPORTER:  Does that mean no Labor-linked people will be appointed?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  We are establishing a merit-based appointments process. The qualification for appointment to this Tribunal will be ability and experience and knowledge of administrative review processes. In some cases, members of the AAT, think, for example, the taxation work of the AAT, they need really specialist knowledge. But that is going to be the set of criteria that we applied to the appointment of everyone to this Tribunal. I'm publishing today new guidelines for transparent and merit-based appointments to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal as it exists now, in the meantime, until we get to the new body. And of course, in the new body, we will continue to apply a transparent and merit-based process.

REPORTER:  Has the Government decided which company will be responsible for delivering the case management system yet?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: We're not proposing an independent company. In the in the short term, until the new body is set up, we're going to be appointing some 75 additional members to make sure that we can deal with the backlog that is presently there. And, of course, there will be, as we are proposing, and this is why we're going to consult through the early months of next year with the legal profession, with users of merits review systems to make sure that we get the new system right. But we're not proposing to have anything like an independent company or commercial company involved in this process. This is the establishment of a new government merit review system.

REPORTER:  In the interim, you've got people who are effectively going to be sacked and then asked to reapply. What's the process? Are they acting now? Will they stay on the AAT or whatever exists?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  In the meantime, I'm very concerned to ensure that this is as even and smooth a transition as possible. It's not a decision we've reached lightly. That's why I said, in my opening remarks at this press conference, that all ongoing matters are going to continue to be dealt with. Any matters that have not been resolved at the time of the establishment of the new Tribunal will transition to the new Tribunal. Members are to continue and are encouraged to continue and are also invited to apply for jobs in the new Tribunal. Staff, I'm giving as much reassurance as I can to staff that all Australian Public Service staff who presently serve the Administrative Appeals Tribunal will continue in the new tribunal and we will be working with the CPSU and the AAT itself to make sure that then that transition is as smooth as possible. Of course, as you rightly raise in your question, Andrew, there is a possibility for some disruption. We are concerned as far as possible to minimise that, to make sure that the tens of thousands of Australians who are using the Administrative Appeals Tribunal merits review processes every year, continue to have their matters dealt with expeditiously and properly.

REPORTER: The new body starts July 1?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  No, no, I've not given a date for the start of the new body. It will be sometime next year. I'm not prepared to put a precise date on it.

REPORTER: Will it be earlier?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  I doubt it. I'm not prepared to put a precise date on it because we're now embarked on a process of consultation and design of the new tribunal.

REPORTER: A member who's on the current AAT who's not successful in the merit-based appointment, would they have their contract paid out?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The logistics of that, that's a matter that we will deal with in the design of the new tribunal.

REPORTER: The energy legislation, there's been reports the energy companies are looking at lawsuits, potentially, as a result of legislation. How concerned are you about litigation from this energy policy?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I think those are matters that are best directed to the Energy Minister. But you can be assured that the Government has worked through details of that kind of threat in the development of the policy that was legislated in the Parliament yesterday.

REPORTER: Claims from the Coalition today that the announcement from your government that you can hold citizenship ceremonies three days either side of Australia Day is I quote, "laying the groundwork to abolish January 26 as Australia Day". What do you make of that?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  I think that citizenship ceremonies are among the most joyful and wonderful events that I get to attend in my role as a Federal Member of Parliament. I am looking forward to attending citizenship ceremonies on a number of days in the coming year. And as the Prime Minister said at his press conference this morning, we're very concerned that everybody be encouraged to obtain Australian citizenship, and the choices of their local communities should not prevent them from having a citizenship ceremony and becoming Australian citizens. So citizenship is a matter to be celebrated ad the more citizenship ceremonies we can have the better.

REPORTER:  What is your response to the claims of Linda Reynolds' lawyer that they were basically told that they could not participate in the mediation for Brittany Higgins compensation payout or that they would risk having the threat of legal representation, the payment of that withdrawn, what's your response to that claim? And can you also just explain a little bit about how this process works? Because it does seem quite opaque in terms of on what basis, what mechanism the payout was for, and how is it tested, if you're not allowing people who were apparently respondents to participate in the mediation or challenge claims?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The parties have agreed that the terms of this settlement be confidential, and I won't be saying anything more about this matter.

REPORTER: I'm not asking you a questions about the terms of settlement, I'm asking you a question about, you have here a Member of Parliament, obviously, Parliamentary privilege that also associates with those people, if they're threatened for example. Linda Reynolds seems to be, her lawyer asserting that there was a threat in some way that if she attended the mediation, that legal support would be withdrawn. Now, I'm not asking you about the settlement, I'm asking you about the process. Was Michaelia Cash and Linda Reynolds threatened that if they participated in the mediation that they would have legal support withdrawn? And if that is the case, why was that threat made?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  I'm not going to comment on this mediation. I'm not going to comment on the terms of the settlement. It was at Ms Higgins' request that this mediation, its terms and the settlement be confidential, and I'm going to honour that request.

REPORTER:  Clearly, you'd have to be worried if there was a situation in which a Member of Parliament was arguably being threatened. I don't really understand why you can't ... I mean it either did happen or didn't. Is Linda Reynolds lawyer telling the truth?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  I'm not going to comment you on the mediation, I'm not going to comment on the terms of settlement. I'll say that ministers are indemnified by the Commonwealth for matters occurring while they are ministers.

REPORTER:  Has the Privacy Act review been completed and handed to you for consideration?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's about to be handed to me. As I've said, the Privacy Act review has been ongoing. I've made sure that it's going to be completed by the end of this year, which is fast approaching and I'll have more to say about the review and reform, large scale reform, of the Privacy Act that we expect to occur next year.

REPORTER: On the shooting in Queensland, what more can the federal government do? What can federal agencies and national security agencies do to better address this sort of anti-government, anti-establishment thought that we've seen associated with this? Obviously, there's still reports, there's still investigations ongoing and that sort of thing, but broadly speaking, I mean, what can the Federal Government do in this area?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Right now, three families are grieving and the Queensland Police are conducting an investigation into these horrific murders. I think it's important that the Queensland Police be allowed to conduct that investigation and complete that investigation without speculation or any interference. Obviously, federal agencies will continue their work in the meantime, and equally clearly, the Australian Federal Police stand ready to assist the Queensland Police in any way they can with the conduct of those investigations. But I think at this time, let's remember that three families are grieving. Thanks very much.