Administrative Review Tribunal Bill 2023

20 March 2024


Ms CLAYDON (Newcastle—Deputy Speaker) (10:45): Thank you, Deputy Speaker. It's with great pleasure that I rise to speak in support of the Albanese Labor government's Administrative Review Tribunal Bill 2023. This bill is being debated with two consequential bills in a cognate debate: the Administrative Review Tribunal (Consequential and Transitional Provisions No. 1) Bill 2023 and the Administrative Review Tribunal (Consequential and Transitional Provisions No. 2) Bill 2024. Collectively, these three bills will abolish the, sadly, now much discredited Administrative Appeals Tribunal and replace it with a new and much improved Administrative Review Tribunal. In doing so, these bills represent the most important reform of the federal system of administrative review in decades.

The former body, the AAT, as it was known, was established to conduct independent merit reviews of administrative decisions made under Commonwealth law. It's important to note that its decisions had life-changing impacts for the thousands and thousands of Australians who took decisions before the AAT. These decisions might have been around child support matters, workers compensation, migration and visa issues, social security, veterans' entitlements and indeed these days increasingly matters from the National Disability Insurance Scheme—a huge gamut. These are all matters that have had profound impacts on people's day-to-day lives when Commonwealth laws might not have delivered the intended outcomes for people seeking support or redress.

Sadly, despite the importance of the AAT and the significance of the decisions made by that body for thousands and thousands of Australians who have cases and matters before it, its standing had been irreversibly damaged as a result of the actions of the former coalition government over a period of almost 10 years. The former government had so severely eroded trust and confidence in the former Administrative Appeals Tribunal. That erosion was ongoing but came in the wake of pretty overt, blatant political stacking of the ranks of the AAT. There were very blatant political appointments made that really undermined public confidence in the independence of the AAT and, likewise, eroded the quality and efficiency of the decision-making within the AAT.

These were profoundly worrying issues for Australian citizens but really should have been very worrying for this parliament as well. In fact, if ever the Australian people need reminding of just how little regard the former government had had for good governance and due process, they need not look any further than the operations and the appointment processes of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

There were as many as 85 former Liberal MPs, failed Liberal candidates, former Liberal staffers and people who had close associations with the Liberal Party who were placed into what were pretty good jobs, it has to be said, at the AAT—jobs that were well paid with good conditions. I don't begrudge good pay and conditions for any worker, but there was a very, very blatant process underway that really failed to address the need to ensure merit based selection processes were in operation when appointing people to critically important roles administering the operation of Commonwealth laws. They were on salaries that were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. I know there were part-time tribunal members, as well as full-time, but, as I said, that steady erosion of public trust and confidence had really become intolerable, hence the need for these bills before the House today, which I will come back to.

When we reflect on those 85 former Liberal MPs, failed candidates, Liberal staffers and people with close associations with the Liberal Party, there were some very significant appointments during that time and there were people very close, even, to the then government. So we saw appointments like the one for the former chief of staff to the former Prime Minister—now former member for Cook—Scott Morrison. His chief of staff was appointed as a senior member in the month just before the 2022 federal election. She was certainly not alone in that appointment process. I don't mean to suggest she was the only person given a plum job on the eve of an election where people were worried about not being re-elected again, but that job received a pay of $330,000 a year. I think the Australian people have every right to expect and, indeed, demand that there be good governance processes in place for those kinds of appointments.

As I said, I do not mean to single out that appointment because there were many, many, many others in the lead-up to the dying days of the former government. There were appointments in 2019 that I recall well. All of this is well researched and recorded. The Grattan Institute did a paper on how many of these appointments had been made. Indeed, there was an observation that appointments to the AAT under the former government really represented one of the most egregious examples of political stacking in recent times. As I said, the 2022 paper from the Grattan Institute noted that a staggering 20 per cent of the AAT's 320 tribunal members have a direct political connection. It is hard to argue publicly that every single one of those members are indeed there on the basis of pure merit based recruitment processes. It is that public perception and the weight of the sheer numbers—as I said, 85 blatant political appointments—that made it utterly intolerable for the AAT to remain ongoing in the form it had been prior to the Albanese Labor government being elected. If ever the Australian people needed reminding of just how little regard the former coalition government had for good governance and following due process, they need look no further than the outrageous actions that took place with blatant political appointments to the AAT.

There was a repeat of those kinds of appointments in 2019 and again in 2022, on the eve of the last election—the swansong of the last government. I remember one from my own region: Mr Baldwin, the former member for Paterson. Whilst I recognise his skills as a former member, it was uncertain to me as to how a merit based appointment had been followed in his case and in the case of so many others. It really looked like a whole lot of people looking after friends who were no longer going to be gainfully employed either in the Australian parliament or elsewhere. I think it was the preference of the former government to be blind to the structural inequities that can exist both in appointment processes and the way in which we think about the bodies that oversee the operations of Commonwealth laws.

I was thinking about this earlier today, and it really comes off the back of—let me put it this way: for a party that insists it is unable to lift its female representation in this place without a merit based appointment process, it astonishes me that this was a process totally ignored in the appointment and recruitment process for members of the AAT beforehand. It's utter hypocrisy, and I'm sure that the Australian people have well and truly seen through that. Indeed, they have said, 'Enough is enough; no more of that kind of behaviour.' We were left with no choice, really, but to demand the abolition of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and to replace it with a new federal administrative review body—one that is in line with our commitment to proper merits based appointment processes and proper due process being followed.

We embarked on a consultation process that started in 2023. Over the course of the last year, the Attorney-General's Department had significant consultation with AAT staff and members, AAT users, the peak bodies, legal assistance providers, advocates and other experts. There were 120 responses to a public issues paper and 287 short survey responses, and there was consultation with 147 stakeholders at 80 consultation events in April and May 2023. We have the benefit of nearly 50 years of experience since the AAT was established, and multiple reviews, both old and new, into the AAT and the administrative review system more generally. This consultation has provided the government with an in-depth understanding of what does not work within the current system, and we have drawn on the knowledge and wisdom of an expert advisory group. This group was led by the former High Court justice the Hon. Patrick Keane, and had a list of eminent persons to assist. The outcome of all of that consultation process is the legislation that is before the House today. It's a legislative package that aims to create a unified cohesive tribunal with flexible powers and procedures that meet the best needs of the applicants. I think it's high time that our tribunal reflected the needs of applicants. These bills are ambitious and they are comprehensive because we are rebuilding an institution that's intended to serve the community and drive better decisions and outcomes for many years to come.