22 August 2022

Estimates underway after prohibition lifted but privileges questions linger

| Lottie Twyford
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Prohibition notice

The Prohibition Notice posted on the front doors of the ACT Legislative Assembly. Photo: Lottie Twyford.

Following the work safety watchdog lifting its prohibition notice on the Territory’s Legislative Assembly last Friday (19 August), estimates hearings have commenced with “an abundance of caution” this morning.

But questions on privileges and interference in government business remain unanswered.

WorkSafe ACT issued a prohibition notice after its inspectors were unable to find evidence a risk assessment had been conducted before estimates hearings which stopped them from going ahead last week.

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Those hearings began this morning (22 August) in the large chamber with ministers and some senior public servants appearing in person.

Others appeared via video link, but there were some technical issues and those attending online were repeatedly unable to hear the witnesses on the minister’s side of the chamber.

Audio from those appearing online was also difficult to hear.

According to the estimates committee, the chamber has a maximum COVID-safe capacity of 150 people and other COVID-19 measures are in place, including cleaning between witnesses.

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The committee has since notified the Speaker of what it believed were “two alleged matters of unprecedented interference in Committee business”.

Speaker Joy Burch threatened legal action in the ACT Supreme Court if the notice was not rescinded quickly.

It was not.

The committee’s alleged interference referred to the actions of Work Health and Safety Commissioner Jacqueline Agius and manager of government business Mick Gentleman MLA.

Mr Gentleman had written to WorkSafe ACT seeking the watchdog’s advice on how estimates hearings should be held. He also wrote to the committee urging them to run estimates in a hybrid model.

The committee on Friday said it had always unanimously supported a hybrid model (offering in-person and online) for conducting estimates.

This is at odds with what was previously understood.

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In her first public statement on the matter, Ms Agius on Friday afternoon reaffirmed the watchdog’s commitment to workers’ safety in all workplaces, including the Assembly.

She said the regulator had been unable to comment while the matter remained unresolved and would not make any further comment.

She also reaffirmed the watchdog’s independence.

“As the Work Health and Safety Commissioner and the Regulator under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, my functions, and the functions of my staff, include the monitoring and enforcement of compliance with the Act. Like all of our functions, that function is exercised independently and with due diligence,” she said.

Ms Agius said this notice did not prohibit the conduct of the hearings remotely, and to remove any doubt on this point, a second notice was issued on Monday (15 August) to make it clear the prohibition notice applied only to committees at which participants were required to attend in person.

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WorkSafe ACT confirmed the ACT Legislative Assembly has now complied with all of the conditions set out in the notice, including the requirement to undertake a risk assessment.

Ms Agius said the COVID-19 risk remains serious in the Territory.

“Like any other significant risk to health or safety, it is imperative that all businesses in the Territory assess the risks from COVID-19 and implement reasonably practicable control measures to eliminate or minimise those risks,” she said.

“ACT Health requires certain facilities and businesses to develop and follow a COVID Safety Plan. Whilst the development of those plans is important, they do not obviate the need for businesses to undertake a risk assessment according to the WHS framework.”

The Territory’s Work Health and Safety Council also met last week. In a statement released after the meeting, it said the Legislative Assembly should be a model workplace for safety.

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