Budget estimates have now been called off for the rest of the week after an apparent clash over COVID-19 safety practices between the government and the estimates committee, which has since prompted questions over Assembly privileges.
The Territory’s workplace safety regulator has slapped two subsequent prohibition notices on the ACT Legislative Assembly, effectively banning committee meetings and hearings from going ahead in the building until a risk assessment is undertaken.
The regulator also demanded consultation with workers who would be affected.
In a statement issued late yesterday (16 August), the estimates committee confirmed consultation is now underway with witnesses and two weeks of hearings will commence on Monday (22 August) as long as the prohibition notice has been lifted.
The statement confirmed that ACT public servants will not attend the hearings in person.
Hearings will now take place in the chamber – a much larger room than the committee meeting room – and “other COVID-safe protocols will be in place”.
The hearings which were scheduled for this week will now begin on Monday, 29 August, and the schedule for next week will remain as planned.
The committee confirmed a COVID-19 risk assessment has now taken place.
“The office has in place the Legislative Assembly Health and Safety Committee, the Assembly COVID-19 Plan and Legislative Assembly Work Health and Safety Risk Register and last year received an assessment report from the CMTEDD Executive to Deputy-Director General Dr Damian West [which said it] met the requirements of the COVID-19 Assurance Program,” the statement read.
“It is the Committee’s view that its constitutional power of inquiry can be upheld to effectively scrutinise the budget in a COVID safe manner.”
Earlier this week, the Legislative Assembly voted to establish a Select Committee on Privileges to look into the situation to determine if WorkSafe ACT’s issuing of the Prohibition Notices – which prevented estimates from taking place as scheduled – amounted to a breach of privileges.
On Monday, Speaker Joy Burch called into question the timing of the notices and threatened to take the matter to the ACT Supreme Court if the order was not rescinded within a stated timeframe.
It was not.
In the Westminster system, courts and government agencies cannot generally interfere with parliamentary activities, that’s thanks to parliamentary privileges, which essentially exempt parliamentarians from laws if those laws would stop them from doing their jobs.
Ms Burch is concerned the notices have now interfered with these parliamentary activities and, as such, constituted a breach of privileges.
So far, the government has backed the regulator.
It’s understood Manager of Government Business Mick Gentleman was at odds with the committee’s views in calling for hybrid in-person and online hearings rather than requiring everyone to attend face-to-face.
The government has also confirmed that the regulator’s advice had been sought on the matter.
Deputy Chief Minister Yvette Berry said yesterday she was not concerned by the delay to estimates, nor was she worried by the potential for issues of constitutionality to arise.
“Those hearings will go ahead; they will just take place in a different room so we can make sure all those witnesses are safe,” she said.
“We are still in a COVID-19 pandemic and we still need to keep employees safe in their workplace – the Legislative Assembly.”
Ms Berry said it was not for her to say whether the regulator had gone beyond its remit in issuing the notices.
WorkSafe ACT hasn’t commented on the situation.