1 December 2022

WorkSafe Prohibition Notice was a breach of Assembly privilege, committee rules

| Lottie Twyford
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Planning Minister Mick Gentleman

Manager of Government Business Mick Gentleman was lashed by ACT Greens crossbencher Jo Clay in the ACT Legislative Assembly on Thursday morning. Photo: Region.

A WorkSafe Prohibition Notice – which delayed estimates and triggered a constitutional scandal earlier this year – breached Assembly privileges, a final report has found.

Manager of Government Business and Workplace Safety Minister Mick Gentleman’s role in the saga and inability to provide the inquiring committee with information also earned him a lashing in the ACT Legislative Assembly.

In August, estimates (the process of scrutinising the budget) were delayed for a week after WorkSafe ACT inspectors visited the Assembly and issued it a Prohibition Notice (PIN).

Prohibition notice

The Prohibition Notice stopped estimates from going ahead for a week. Photo: Lottie Twyford.

The watchdog issued the PIN after it found no evidence of a COVID-19 safety plan for estimates.

Much confusion ensued and Speaker Joy Burch threatened legal action in the Supreme Court if the notice was not rescinded.

It wasn’t rescinded but it was reissued after Work Health and Safety Commissioner Jacqueline Agius became concerned it was too broad.

There were already concerns it could be a breach of privileges because generally the actions of the Assembly are protected from any interference.

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In the background, a stoush between the committee and Mr Gentleman was brewing.

Mr Gentleman wanted the estimates online and he’s come under pressure for making statements on the public record that were inaccurate.

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

Jeremy Hanson

Deputy Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson presented the final committee report to the Assembly. Photo: Region.

A privileges committee, chaired by Deputy Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson, was quickly set up in August to look into the circumstances.

In presenting its final report, Mr Hanson acknowledged the complexity of some of the issues it had canvassed.

He said the committee had “endeavoured” to act as parliamentarians and not politicians in undertaking the inquiry.

While the committee ruled the Prohibition Notice was a privilege breach, it did not find any of Mr Gentleman and his office’s actions were.

A phone call and email from the Minister’s office to the workplace safety watchdog – which the latter took as a complaint – was “open to the perception of intentional influence” but did not interfere with a committee and was not a breach of privilege, the final report said.

Likewise, while the committee had concerns about the ongoing actions of Mr Gentleman, they did not “meet the standard” of a breach.

In the chamber on Thursday morning, ACT Greens crossbencher Jo Clay – who sat on the committee as a member – said “a lot disturbed” her about this inquiry.

Specifically, Ms Clay said she was concerned about incorrect comments repeated by Mr Gentleman on the public record.

Ms Clay also detailed her concerns about a lack of record keeping from Mr Gentleman and his office’s inability to provide full records of interactions and notes of phone calls with the work safety regulator.

He was also unable to provide records of conversations he’d had with senior public servants where concerns of “life and death” were raised with him.

“We are in the middle of a pandemic … it is really important that our leaders act calmly and provide correct information, particularly to the media and particularly about safety,” she said.

“If a mistake is made – and we all make mistakes – please correct it.

“Ministers are in positions of great responsibility. You are the custodians of our democracy. Please take care with it.”

Ms Clay spoke in the chamber in her capacity as a private member.

Mr Gentleman declined to make comment on these matters.

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The committee ultimately made 10 recommendations and said no further action should be taken against the watchdog.

Among them, that a memorandum of understanding be developed between WorkSafe ACT and the Assembly on how the watchdog could exercise its functions within the precincts.

It also called for amendments in the laws governing WorkSafe ACT to clarify the Assembly is a workplace.

Some amendments to that effect have already been moved.

The committee also urged a review take place of whether committees should be able to compel documents pertaining to it and the identity of a person who is otherwise protected under law.

A further recommendation was that ministers should take care to provide accurate information to the media and the public “particularly on key matters that could risk the reputation of the Assembly or the Government”.

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