1 November 2022

Privileges, prohibition and death threats: what is going on at the Assembly?

| Lottie Twyford
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Planning Minister Mick Gentleman

Minister for Workplace Safety Mick Gentleman has faced questioning about his involvement in the prohibition saga. Photo: Region.

When a Prohibition Notice (PIN) was pinned to the doors of the ACT Legislative Assembly in August, no one predicted it would develop into a privileges saga replete with death threats.

It’s now before a tri-partisan committee of MLAs who are supposed to be working out whether that notice really did breach parliamentary privileges.

But politics is also playing a part.

Remind me, what happened in August?

On 15 August, a notice was pinned to the doors of the ACT Legislative Assembly scuppering Budget Estimates (the process of scrutinising the budget).

According to WorkSafe ACT’s PIN, no committee hearings could go ahead in the building due to a safety risk associated with COVID-19.

The first notice was rescinded after Work Health and Safety Commissioner Jacqueline Agius became concerned it was too broad.

The watchdog only wanted to stop the estimates hearings.

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This is where things get interesting.

The notice stated inspectors couldn’t find evidence of the estimates committee having prepared a COVID-19 risk assessment.

Before estimates could happen, they needed to do so and consult with workers.

That doesn’t sound very interesting

Fair call, but you kind of have to take a step back.

In the background, a stoush between the committee and Minister for Workplace Safety Mick Gentleman (who is also the manager of government business) was brewing.

Mr Gentleman said he was concerned the hearings weren’t being run online and the committee wanted witnesses in-person for the most part unless isolating or vulnerable.

He’s now saying he was simply echoing sentiments expressed by public servants and ministerial colleagues about the arrangements.

Correspondence went back and forth between the committee and Mr Gentleman’s office.

Then, a staffer from the latter made contact with the regulator.

Depending on who you ask, that was either a complaint or someone “seeking advice”.

Ms Agius restated the watchdog’s independence saying she had not taken any direction from the minister.

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And what’s politics got to do with it?

Well, there are a couple of levels.

Labor’s Mr Gentleman has come under particular pressure from the Liberals’ Jeremy Hanson and the Greens’ Jo Clay to explain his actions.

In particular, they want to know why he publicly made statements which they say “didn’t match reality”.

In a radio interview, Mr Gentleman said he’d been contacted by people concerned about having to go into a room with 40 witnesses. There are no committee rooms that could accommodate that many people under COVID limits.

In that same radio interview, Mr Gentleman said COVID-19 cases were at record highs in August when they were not.

He tried to step away from those comments but couldn’t explain why he had made them.

Mr Hanson has also sourced a photo of Mr Gentleman from the same day his office contacted WorkSafe where he is unmasked with emergency services workers.

Mr Gentleman then questioned how independent Mr Hanson’s position was.

Then, there’s the fact the Labor member of the estimates committee – Dr Marisa Paterson – didn’t attend the privileges hearings. However, as part of the committee, she accused Mr Gentleman of potential overreach and interference.

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Hold on, didn’t you say there was a death threat?

Allegedly, yes.

In hearings on Tuesday (25 October), Mr Gentleman said Ms Agius had received a threat against her life.

The Commissioner said that threat was reported to the police and she had scaled back operations due to concerns for her safety and the safety of her staff.

She said the threat had come to her office after media coverage of the event and the Speaker’s letter ordering the notice be rescinded was made public through the Assembly.

ACT Policing has been contacted for further comment.

Joy Burch wearing a mask

Speaker Joy Burch is standing by her position the notice breached parliamentary privileges. Photo: Region.

What’s the Speaker got to do with it?

As well as the politics of who said what and who wanted what, there’s a bigger question being examined by the Territory government.

That’s whether the notice breached parliamentary privilege or not.

You see, normally, the law can’t interfere with the operations of the government. In this case, it did. It delayed estimates and – had it gone on – could have delayed the passing of the budget.

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The day this saga unfolded, Speaker Joy Burch told WorkSafe ACT to revoke the notice.

She stands by the position the workplace was safe and the notice was an overreach.

Much of the confusion relates to the fact that the Legislative Assembly is not a traditional workplace, so it’s unclear who is in charge of what.

Ms Burch’s legal advice, which is now public, does raise the issue the watchdog did not have the power to put the notice on the Assembly.

But legal advice provided to the watchdog argues the case should go before the Supreme Court.

What’s next?

The committee will now prepare a report for the government, its ultimate aim being to answer those questions.

Reaching a tripartisan conclusion may be tricky.

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