Workplace Safety Minister Mick Gentleman has been accused of using his position to “influence, suggest or pressure” the Territory’s work safety regulator into issuing a prohibition notice which delayed estimates by a week last month.
The select committee on estimates – made up of Canberra Liberals chair James Milligan, Labor’s Dr Marisa Paterson and the Greens’ Andrew Braddock – stated its belief Mr Gentleman and the ACT’s Work Health and Safety Commissioner Jacqueline Agius “improper[ly]” interfered with the work of the committee.
But Mr Gentleman said there is no evidence to support this claim.
“The assertion from the Estimates Committee is wrong and there is no evidence to support it because it doesn’t exist,” he said in a statement.
“WorkSafe ACT is an independent regulator; they keep workers safe and no workplace, including parliament, should be above the law.”
This year’s estimates, a process that allows non-executive government members and the opposition to scrutinise the government’s budget, was delayed after a Prohibition Notice barred in-person estimates hearings from going ahead.
The notice related to the fact that WorkSafe ACT could not find evidence of a COVID-19 risk assessment. It was later confirmed the Assembly had a COVID-19 safe plan in place for more than two years.
An inquiry is now underway into whether issuing that notice breached parliamentary privilege.
Courts and government agencies cannot generally interfere with parliamentary activities because of privileges that essentially exempt parliamentarians from laws if those laws would stop them from doing their jobs.
The committee’s submission to that inquiry shows it has a “number of concerns that there was an interference in its free exercise of its authority”.
Behind the scenes, there was a disagreement between Mr Gentleman and the committee over how estimates should take place.
The work safety minister wanted witnesses to choose whether to attend in-person or appear virtually and he wrote to the committee to urge this repeatedly.
The committee had decided its preference was for “in-person hearings wherever possible, within COVID safe parameters”. It confirmed that online attendance would have been available and social distancing, room limits and other COVID-safe measures would have been in place.
In its scathing submission to the inquiry, the committee said it had been forced to correct factually incorrect public statements made by Mr Gentleman.
It described the consultation process which had been underway with his office as “not genuine” and questioned why a day of community hearings had been allowed to go ahead and why an improvement notice had not been issued earlier.
According to the committee, Mr Gentleman had said on radio the estimates committee wanted 40 people in one room when, in fact, the room had a limit of 21 and that COVID-19 numbers were at a record high when they were actually “at the lowest point” since February 2022.
“As far as can be identified Minister Gentleman took no steps to uphold the separation of powers or the rule of law during the week of 15 August, despite the large questions over the legality of the notice and breach of the separation of powers. In light of his actions outlined above, it can be construed that [he] acted at odds to the separation of powers and respect for the rule of law,” the committee wrote.
Further documents tendered to that inquiry confirm staffer from Minister Gentleman’s office had made contact with WorkSafe ACT to express “significant concerns” about the committee meeting its work health and safety obligations on Tuesday, 11 August. Days later, on Monday, 15 August, the Prohibition Notice was issued.
Speaker Joy Burch has previously threatened legal action and in estimates last week she confirmed she was continuing to seek advice on the matter.