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Julian Hill MPFederal Member for Bruce

Julian Hill MP

Merits review of administrative decisions is so important for Australians who need on an independent review of government decisions.

Administrative Review Tribunal

House of Representatives - 20 March, 2024

The federal Administrative Review Tribunal has a nice ring to it. For those who've already put up with the discredited AAT for years now, it's a work of art, no doubt. It is a critical generational reform to replace the sadly discredited and, not to put too fine a point on it, the stacked AAT.

The Attorney-General is a man of detail, and with this bill he has surgically taken the scissors to the old AAT and is reconstructing it in this new form.

I record, right at the outset, why merits review of administrative decisions is so important for Australians who rely every year, day after day, on an independent review of government decisions.

For many Australians, there are major life-altering impacts as a result of the decisions of an administrative review tribunal: whether they will receive an aged pension; whether Services Australia has fairly and correctly made a decision about their disability support pension; veterans being compensated for a service injury which was incurred in doing their duty for their country; businesses being stuffed around by government departments having a right of redress that's fair, independent and impartial; visa and citizenship decisions; and decisions regarding the NDIS and all manner of government agencies.

Australians expect, rightly so, professional decisions and an impartial tribunal when they turn up, but unfortunately the truth is the government inherited a horrible mess: a backlog of tens of thousands of cases, languishing. Australians were waiting for their review to happen, month after month, year after year, desperately writing into that black hole that had developed under those opposite in their wasted decade of decay, division and dysfunction.

It was an inefficient tribunal with outdated IT systems and long Liberal lunches—so the gossip goes from some of the members who just don't seem to do any work once they're appointed. When they appoint their mates, they turn up, collect their large salaries and don't actually write judgements and do their work. The thing is close to broke, frankly, and through the government's reforms this bill will put it on a financially sustainable footing.

It was stacked to the rafters with Liberal hacks. There was a perception that there was no merits based appointment. The people who were appointed to these jobs were not put there on merit; they were put there because of their mateship with the Liberal Party. It was so stacked even the member for Mitchell would have blushed, maybe. It was more stacked than a Deakin Liberal branch. Even the Western Australian clan have nothing on this!

Mr Conaghan: A point of order: there were inferences on members and parties. Branch stacking certainly couldn't fall under the appropriate definition in this House.
The Deputy Speaker (Ms Vamvakinou): The Member for Bruce will refrain from any imputations that are inappropriate and—
Mr Hill: I'll refrain. I won't draw those inferences, and I no longer need to.
The Deputy Speaker: all inferences and will continue with his commendable speech in relation to this bill specifically.
Mr Hill: Thank you. Let's not draw as many inferences—
Mr Conaghan: A point of order—
Mr Hill: They're quite touchy, aren't they?
Mr Conaghan: I ask that the member withdraw.
The Deputy Speaker: The member for Bruce may assist the chair by withdrawing that which has created—
Mr Hill: I will withdraw the inference with relation to the member for Mitchell.
The Deputy Speaker: Thank you.

Mr Hill: I don't think I need to withdraw a reference to the WA clan or a Deakin Liberal Party branch; they're matters of public record. But they are touchy, because as many as 85 former Liberal members of parliament, failed Liberal candidates, former Liberal staffers and other close Liberal mates were appointed to the tribunal. Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven, not eight, not nine, not 10, not 20, not 30, not 40, not 50, not 60, not 70, not 80 but 85. A handful of these people may be competent, but how would you know? There was no merit based selection process. There were no ads and no job descriptions. There was no paperwork. There was no transparency.

And they're not bad jobs, Deputy Speaker Freelander. They're very secure jobs—more secure than your job or my job; more secure than the jobs of millions of Australians. Members may be appointed for up to seven years and can also be re-appointed. And, once appointed, they can only be terminated by the parliament, in response to an address by the Governor-General, for misbehaviour or incapacity, or by the Governor-General in the case of extended absences or bankruptcy. I think one of those Liberal MPs did get necked for extended absence; I'll have to check that. But they're well paid. A full-time Deputy President—one of the Liberal Party mates appointed as a Deputy President—can get $496,560 a year; a full-time senior member, level 1, $391,940; then $329,000. Then you fall down the ladder of Liberal mates; they only get $249,000, or, for a full-time member level 2, $221,000; or, for a full-time member level 3, $193,000.

Of course, it must be just a coincidence—do you reckon, Deputy Speaker? It must be just a coincidence that the only people the Liberal Party thought were eligible for those 85 positions were their former failed MPs, their former staffers or their mates. The best people for the job were just random Liberal hacks, as it turns out, with no qualifications, in many cases. Well, this bill could well be renamed 'Stop the stack'.

To be clear, though—I'll say this very clearly: being a member of a political party in this country, I believe, is a public good. It's a good thing. Being a member of a political party should not disqualify anyone from being appointed, whatever party they belong to. In fact, I'd expect that, if we looked across an institution like the AAT, just like other institutions in our country, we would see members of our political parties. That's a good thing.

But there should be a merit based process—that's the point—so that people have confidence in the people sitting in front of them deciding whether they get a disability support pension, or whether they get yet another decision about a robodebt case that might embarrass the former Liberal government, or whether they get their veterans entitlements, or whether they get their NDIS claim through, or whether their small business gets redress from an unfair decision of a government department. They should feel assured that the person sitting in front of them is qualified to do the job, and that they got the job not because they were a failed Liberal MP or a hack but because they went through a process and were actually the best person for the job, not because the AAT is a Liberal Party employment service.

I do want to stress—I really do—the importance of trust in institutions. When you look across the democratic world, we're not exempt. When you see the 'firestorm'—I was about to say a word that started with S and ended with 'show', but we'll say the 'firestorm'—that is social media these days, you see disinformation and misinformation aplenty, with right-wing and left-wing populism, whether it's Pauline Hanson's One Nation or the Greens political party—two sides of the same coin, they are.

You also see the decade of Liberal government decay, dysfunction and division. Take the scandal that is robodebt. The royal commission revealed nearly half a million Australians were served with fake debt notices, with the Commonwealth logo on them and the power of government compelling them to pay, for money they didn't owe. The AAT belled the cat—a few of them. But they buried that. Take their rorts: sports rorts and car park rorts. In response to that, they cut the Auditor-General's budget; we won't forget that. They tried to abolish the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, which reviews national security laws. They tried to abolish the Australian Information Commissioner. They refused to establish a national anticorruption commission. Former prime minister Scott Morrison—we can say it now, because he's gone—appointed himself, in secret, to multiple ministries. And they stacked the AAT. The greed and self-interest of the Liberal Party know no bounds.

So it is important, after that decade, that we do what we can to restore trust in government and integrity and accountability. This government is implementing the recommendations of the robodebt royal commission. This government and this parliament established the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which is up and running, properly resourced, and undertaking the investigations right now. This government has followed what we said we'd do.

There have been more than 100 appointments made to the AAT, which—now, I'm glad they're sitting down— were merit based appointments! We put job descriptions and we put ads in the paper and people applied for them and advice was given, and the people that we've appointed to the AAT are there on merit. They're quality appointments; people can be confident in that. Now we have the federal Administrative Review Tribunal stopping the stack.

The government is committed to restoring trust and confidence in Australia's critical system of administrative review, beginning with the establishment of this body that will be user focused, efficient, accessible, independent and fair. This time the member's not sitting down, but I'm going to say again—don't die of shock!—that it'll be a transparent and merit-based process for the appointment of nonjudicial members. The bill will also recreate the Administrative Review Council, which Tony Abbott shamefully abolished.

All matters before the AAT when the new tribunal is in place will automatically be transferred across. There will be no break in continuity; Australians won't need to relodge their appeals. The tribunal's objective will be to restore that public confidence as an independent mechanism of review that's fair and just and that actually gets through things in a timely manner. We would all have cases in our electorate of people who have been waiting for months or years for that critical hearing from the AAT—desperate. In some cases it's about being reunited with their children or husband or wife, whom they have been separated from because of a bad visa decision for—literally—years. People who deserve the DSP and who meet the criteria for the DSP but may not have provided the right information or might have had an unfair decision shouldn't be waiting months or years to get the help that they need.

Properly resourcing and setting up a modern, efficient tribunal and review system is really important. There will be as little informality and expense as is consistent with reaching the correct or preferable decision. This is surgical; this really is taking the scissors to the mess we were left with. It will be accessible and responsive to the diverse needs of parties and it will promote public trust and confidence in the tribunal.

Some of the key features to improve merits review include simpler and more consistent processes, and a greater emphasis wherever possible on non-adversarial approaches to resolving disputes through the new federal ART. As much as humanly possible, you don't want the battle of QCs and lawyers through administrative review. The courts are still there—people can seek redress through the courts following this—but the whole point of administrative review is that there's an independent check on the power of government and the misuse of that power that citizens can access in a timely, cost-efficient and effective way, and that they feel it's fair. It's resolving most stuff quickly, cheaply and efficiently without having to seek recourse to lawyers and the court process.

It will have simple membership structure with clear qualification requirements and role descriptions—job descriptions. You write the job description and you put it in the newspaper or online, people apply and then you pick the best people for the job. It will have clear and delineated roles and responsibilities for those who hold leadership positions in the tribunal, including the president and the principal registrar. We could have put in there something to abolish the Liberal Party long lunches—if you look at the productivity of some of these stooges whom they've appointed, who were not qualified, it seems to be the last land of the Liberal Party long lunch at the AAT. That will be gone.

It is disappointing, isn't it, when you think about all the benefit that can come from the new federal Administrative Review Tribunal, that the Greens political party has done a dodgy little deal with the Liberal Party yet again to stall this reform in the Senate. It's absolutely shameful, the way they were mucking around with the committee process and taking their time.

In conclusion, I really commend the Attorney-General on the precise work that he has done—surgical work —in these bills. It will improve the lives of tens of thousands of Australians when they can again —finallyseek quick, efficient, fair, effective redress for government decisions with which they don't agree. That's a really important part of our public administration system in Australia; you don't just cop the decision from government when it's unfair or wrong. It's not like dealing with a toddler.

The citizens are not toddlers. It's not: 'Because I said so! You're going to bed now.' If you get a decision, you're entitled to reasons for that decision and a fair process of review, and that's exactly what these bills will do.