24 October 2022

Work safety watchdog rejects any suggestion it was pressured into issuing Assembly prohibition

| Lottie Twyford
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Prohibition notice

The Prohibition Notice issued on 12 August 2022 and posted on the front doors of the ACT Legislative Assembly. Photo: Lottie Twyford.

The ACT’s work safety watchdog knocked back any suggestion it was pressured into issuing a Prohibition Notice at the behest of the Workplace Safety Minister, Mick Gentleman.

Work health and safety commissioner Jacqueline Agius appeared today (24 October) in hearings where she faced questions about the somewhat infamous notice which forced a delay to the start of this year’s budget estimates and has triggered a privileges scandal.

Estimates are the process through which the budget can be scrutinised by the Opposition and non-executive members of the government.

They were delayed earlier this year due to the issuing of two successive prohibition notices by WorkSafe ACT inspectors.

Planning Minister Mick Gentleman

Workplace Safety Minister Mick Gentleman’s office contacted the regulator to “seek advice” about estimates proceedings before the process began. Photo: Region.

Eyebrows were raised after it was revealed someone from Workplace Safety Minister Mick Gentleman’s office had contacted the regulator to air concerns about the requirement to attend hearings in person and a lack of a risk assessment.

The Minister has been accused of using his position to “influence, suggest or pressure” the regulator into issuing the notice by the estimates committee.

But Ms Agius strongly rejected this, repeatedly stating the “complaint” was treated like any other received by her office.

“I refer to that email as a complaint but … it does seek advice. We deal with every matter that comes into our office … because to do otherwise would be a dereliction of my duty,” she said.

“We are an independent office and we will not be influenced, we will not be convinced, we will not make a decision based on anybody interfering with our office. It’s as simple as that and I will not allow that to occur.”

WorkSafe ACT Commissioner Jacqueline Agius

WorkSafe ACT Commissioner Jacqueline Agius has rejected claims the “complaint” from Mr Gentleman’s office was not dealt with in the usual manner. Photo: WorkSafe ACT.

Ms Agius said she had not – and would not be – providing any details about the person who contacted the watchdog from Mr Gentleman’s office due to “privacy reasons”.

Estimates committee chair James Milligan faced questioning later in the afternoon about why they had sought that information.

Mr Milligan said the committee had wanted to understand the nature of the complaint.

Ms Agius said the complaint had not come directly from the Minister.

Furthermore, Deputy Commissioner Amanda Grey said she had been contacted by several senior public servants who also shared concerns about the arrangements for the hearings.

The Commissioner was asked why other activities – including a sitting day – at the Assembly had been allowed to continue but the estimates were scuppered. She said the inspector was only looking at the estimates.

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Questioning Ms Agius proved complicated for the committee during an at-times combative first public hearing.

For example, she couldn’t respond to the first question she was asked about why the notice had been issued.

“I can’t answer that question. That’s a question for the inspector,” the Commissioner responded.

“I can interpret the notices but that would be supposition for me to say why.”

At another point, Ms Agius tried to call a point of relevance – something witnesses cannot do – when questioned about whether she had reviewed the conduct of the inspector who had issued the notice.

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Ms Agius confirmed no one sought to review either the first or second prohibition notice but said the first prohibition notice had to be rescinded because it was “her view” the terms of it were “too broad”.

The Commissioner revealed she had to report a threat to the police a week after that notice was issued and “all the things had been in the media”.

Ms Agius said she had serious concerns about the safety of her staff and stripped back operations due to this.

“It was extremely stressful to us and our staff,” she said.

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A top legal team has raised questions about whether – under the current legislative arrangements – the regulator has the power to stop proceedings of the Assembly.

That’s supported by the Office of the Legislative Assembly.

Two members of the estimates committee – Liberal Mr Milligan and the Greens’ Andrew Braddock – also appeared this afternoon in hearings.

Labor backbencher Dr Marisa Paterson declined to attend.

Both Mr Milligan and Mr Braddock said in-person hearings were more “effective” but had always allowed for people to attend virtually if necessary, which Mr Gentleman’s office seemed not to be across.

They also questioned the “pattern of behaviour” from Mr Gentleman and stated they believed he had misled the regulator, and the public, through some of his comments.

Speaker Joy Burch has stood by her position that the WorkSafe notice amounted to “executive overreach” and that the Office of the Assembly is a safe workplace.

Ms Burch expressed concern about any delay to the budget, as did Assembly clerk Tom Duncan.

Hearings on the matter will continue tomorrow morning (25 October). Mr Gentleman is scheduled to appear as a witness.

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William Newby7:54 pm 24 Oct 22

When you consider that last year (see their annual report) only 88 prohibition notices were issued to our most dangerous industry, construction. It is impossible to believe a word of this; they went immediately to the strongest tool they have, a prohibition notice.
No warning, no improvement notice, a prohibition notice shutting down all operations. There are worksites that I have been at over the last year or two that have simply been given warnings for hazards that could lead to serious injury, and yet here they issue a shut down for a meeting (attendance optional) where you might have caught a cold or worse covid.
This was nothing other than a Gentleman stunt, dragging Aguis into this and forcing her to corroborate is a new low and devalues the good but under resourced work that Worksafe does.

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