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Tuesday, 15 March 2005
Page: 74

Senator LUDWIG (5:25 PM) —Labor is pleased that the government has backed down in the face of overwhelming opposition to the changes that were proposed in the original Administrative Appeals Tribunal Bill 2004, particularly in relation to the presidency. I think it is a significant step forward for the government to adopt the position that was recommended by the committee report and advocated by the shadow Attorney-General. It is a significant step forward in that it maintains the status, the role and the perception by outsiders of the AAT. It ensures that people can believe that the AAT is an important tribunal.

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal acts as an appeal mechanism against matters that have been brought to government to review internal mechanisms and the like. In a broader sense, it allows people who have veterans’ issues or other issues with Centrelink to be able to say, ‘If we are not happy with the government’s decision, we have a body that we can appeal to and say, in a relatively informal and quick process, that the decision was not right and it was not the position that should have been adopted, for argument’s sake, and that there is a preferable decision that the tribunal should take in this instance.’

People are encouraged by that process. They think that they are going to be heard, that it will be independent of government and that they will be able to have their day in court, as many say—although, as we know, it is not a court but a tribunal, but I think people regard it as having their day in court. They are able to have their appeal heard and they go away satisfied—some more than others. The appeals are either successful or unsuccessful, as the case may be, but they at least have the knowledge that they were heard and that they got justice in that respect.

Labor have continually voiced our strong concern about this aspect of the original bill. In the face of opposition from all submitters, I think the government could have pursued this in this last sitting week before we break until May, but it saw that a more sensible position had been put forward by the committee and it has adopted some of the recommendations. We are disappointed, however, that the government has not accepted recommendation 2 of the committee report—that the AAT members be appointed for a minimum term—but I will come to that later. We will continue to agitate for that matter to be heard and we will move amendments to give effect to what we think is an important bulwark for democracy and for the independence of the tribunal.

Labor are also concerned about the working of the government amendment clarifying when the president has discretion to reconstitute a tribunal in the interests of justice. We do not believe that this adequately addresses our concerns and those raised by the Senate committee. We do not think that the government is trying to be half-smart about this. The government has tried to address it in a broad way, but when we look at it we are not convinced that it can actually achieve the purpose that it was designed for.

In terms of amendments (1), (2) and (3)—save, I understand, for amendment (2), which has to be dealt with differently because of the way it works—Labor will support the amendments. Labor has always held the view that the downgrading of the AAT president should not be allowed. The independence and the status of the AAT president must not be compromised. From the start, Labor has been concerned that the government’s bill goes too far. It could go so far as to be perceived in some quarters as politicising the AAT such that it becomes an apparent arm of the executive or of government.

These amendments vindicate Labor’s position. They are sensible and they ensure that the position is tenured and that the president will be sufficiently independent from the government. That means that the president will be able to have and maintain actual and perceived independence in their decision-making capabilities. Labor will therefore support these amendments as they go a long way to addressing our concerns and the concerns expressed by the Senate committee.