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Tuesday, 15 March 2005
Page: 72

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) (5:16 PM) —I was previously addressing the Senate in reply to the second reading debate on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Amendment Bill 2004 [2005]. I place on the record the appreciation of the government for the work of the members of the Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee, who completed the inquiry into this bill. As I mentioned earlier, the government has taken on board a number of their recommendations.

Today’s debate is important because it is about ensuring accountability and efficiency in government administrative decision making. Since it commenced operation almost three decades ago, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal has provided fair, impartial prompt and relatively cheap access to review of government decisions. The Administrative Appeals Tribunal has a longstanding, well-earned reputation for excellence. Organisations which enjoy such a reputation for excellence do so because they are committed to a program of continual improvement. The Administrative Appeals Tribunal Amendment Bill 2004 [2005] will build on the tribunal’s reputation for excellence.

As the Senate committee’s report notes, most submissions to its inquiry endorsed the initiative to update the tribunal and expressed support for those provisions of the bill that aim to improve the review process. The bill contains a range of significant reforms, including a number which have been proposed by the tribunal itself. These reforms do not involve a fundamental change to the purpose, structure or functions of the tribunal. Rather, they build on the tribunal’s experience of almost 30 years of operation to make the tribunal more efficient, more flexible and more responsive to the ever-changing environment in which it operates. The government believes these changes will assist the tribunal to better respond to the needs of users.

The committee’s report made six recommendations in relation to certain aspects of the bill. Two recommendations support the passage of the bill subject to acceptance of other recommendations. The government has considered all the recommendations carefully and accepts three of the four recommendations for change to the bill. The recommendations which the government accepts are as follows: recommendation 1, which is for the continuation of the requirement that the president of the tribunal must be a Federal Court judge; recommendation 3, which is for the provision of guidance as to the circumstances under which the president should exercise the power to remove a member and reconstitute a tribunal in the interests of justice; and recommendation 5, which recommends that the minister should consult with the president before making or altering any assignment of members to divisions of the tribunal. The government will be moving in the committee stage amendments to implement these recommendations.

The government does not accept recommendation 2, which is concerned with the time period for appointments. In particular, the government considers that setting a legislative minimum term of three years for appointments is unnecessarily rigid. It could impair the ability to make appointments in particular circumstances to allow the tribunal to respond flexibly to peaks and troughs in its workload. There is no need for such a restriction. Such a restriction is not present in relation to appointments to other federal merits review tribunals.

This is a very important bill. It is there as a safeguard for all Australians who are the subject of government administrative decisions. It is therefore very important that we keep the tribunal up to date in response to its ever-changing environment. There are a number of amendments proposed for the committee stage. I note that the opposition and the Democrats have amendments, and I have alluded to the government amendments. I will not canvass those in detail but I thank again senators who have contributed to this debate. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time