Second Reading SpeechSenator Fifield (Assistant Minister for Social Services)
That this bill be now read a second time.
I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.
The speech read as follows-
The Tribunals Amalgamation Bill will amalgamate key Commonwealth merits review tribunals-the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), the Migration Review Tribunal-Refugee Review Tribunal (MRT-RRT), and the Social Security Appeals Tribunal (SSAT).
Merging these tribunals into a single tribunal, which will be called the AAT, will support effective, efficient, and independent merits review into the future.
The decision to merge merits review tribunals
At the heart of a strong merits review system is an independent generalist tribunal boasting a range of specialist expertise. This is the direction initiated with the establishment of the AAT in 1976. The intention at that time was to have a single independent tribunal dealing with merits review of administrative decisions across a wide spectrum of Commonwealth activity.
The 1995 the Administrative Review Council (ARC) Better Decisions report recommended that various specialist tribunals should be united as a single review tribunal comprising a number of specialists divisions.
The ARC considered that a single merits review tribunal would combine the best features of existing tribunals. It would lead to better decisions, remove unwarranted duplication and be simpler for the public.
These same aims are reflected in the Tribunals Amalgamation Bill being introduced today.
The 2012 Skehill strategic review of small and medium agencies in the Attorney-General's portfolio also considered that there was merit in the idea of amalgamating Commonwealth tribunals.
Most recently, amalgamation was recommended by the 2014 National Commission of Audit report, Towards responsible government.
The 2014-15 budget measure Smaller government-additional reductions in the number of Australian Government bodies outlined the intention to amalgamate tribunals into a single tribunal. The government also announced that merits review of freedom of information decisions would be incorporated into the work of the amalgamated tribunal.
Although each of the existing tribunals does excellent work, the fragmentation of the merits review system is undesirable.
Most states and territories have merged merits review tribunals, as have many overseas jurisdictions, with considerable success.
The decision to amalgamate the tribunals represents a return to the more coherent merits review framework that was envisaged when the AAT was established.
It is time to return to the original intention of our merits review system, with a commitment to a preeminent Australian merits review tribunal.
Draws on the best aspects of each tribunal
This amalgamation draws on the best aspects of each of the current tribunals and incorporates them in the AAT. The bill also preserves the distinctive aspects of each of the tribunals that are important in their specific jurisdictions.
The amalgamation simplifies the Commonwealth merits review system. The amalgamated tribunal will be a single point of contact for persons seeking review of administrative decisions. Tribunal users will benefit from an accessible 'one stop shop' for external merits review, better services and a more consistent user experience.
The amalgamation will also create opportunities to simplify and streamline tribunal procedures to better serve users.
The amalgamation will primarily affect the tribunals' internal administrative and corporate operations with no material change to the substantive rights of tribunal users.
Back office efficiency
Currently, the tribunals each maintain their own infrastructure, including separate facilities and separate corporate administrative structures. This results in unnecessary duplication. More effective and efficient services will be delivered from the sharing of property, back office functions and other corporate overheads.
The savings from the amalgamation, totalling $7.2 million over the forward estimates, come from reduction in property costs once the tribunals are co-located and the consolidation of corporate services into a single agency.
Better services and better value for the taxpayer will result from the economies of scale that come from a larger amalgamated tribunal.
The size of the tribunal will provide members and staff with opportunities for a broader range of work and enhanced career pathways.
Members and staff will have new opportunities to share their knowledge and expertise with a larger group of colleagues. They will learn from each other and draw on the best aspects of each of the current tribunals for the benefit of all.
Key features of the Bill
Schedule 1 to the Bill will amend the AAT Act to support amalgamation.
The objective of the AAT is updated. The Tribunal will be required to provide a mechanism of merits review that is:
proportionate to the importance and complexity of the matter
promotes public trust and confidence in the decision making of the Tribunal, and
fair, just, economical, informal and quick.
The governance structure of the Tribunal consists of a President, Division heads and deputy Division heads to manage the merits review work of the Tribunal, and a Registrar to manage public service and financial arrangements.
The President of the amalgamated tribunal will be a Judge of the Federal Court of Australia. The current President of the AAT, the Honourable Justice Duncan Kerr, will continue in his role and therefore become the first President of the amalgamated tribunal.
Tribunal independence is also maintained by fixed term statutory appointments of Tribunal members and the Registrar. The membership structure will be expanded to 7 levels of membership reflecting the broader diversity of skills and experiences required in the amalgamated Tribunal.
The Tribunal will have a divisional structure reflecting the main review jurisdictions of the existing tribunals to enable specialisation. The new divisional structure will include the Migration and Refugee Division and the Social Services and Child Support Division to reflect the existing jurisdictions of the MRT-RRT and the SSAT.
Amendments to the AAT Act will also modernise and simplify a range of existing provisions to improve the clarity and flexibility of the Act.
Schedule 2 to the bill will amend the Migration Act 1958 to abolish the MRT-RRT and move its jurisdiction to the new Migration and Refugee Division of the AAT.
In practice, review of migration and refugee matters in the amalgamated tribunal will be virtually identical to review in the MRT-RRT.
The current scope and effect of provisions relating to the judicial review of migration decisions is also retained.
Contingent amendments in Schedule 2 provide for how this Bill interacts with migration matters currently before the Parliament.
Schedules 3 to 7 will amend social services legislation to abolish the SSAT and move its jurisdiction to the new AAT. Specific procedures that apply in the SSAT will be maintained for first reviews of social services and child support matters.
The right to a second external merits review of social services and child support decisions where this is currently available is maintained. Procedures will be similar to those currently used in the AAT for second reviews of SSAT decisions.
Schedule 8 provides consequential amendments to a number of Acts conferring jurisdiction on the AAT.
Schedule 9 provides transitional and savings arrangements to ensure certainty for existing members of the tribunals. There is also a time limited regulation making power to respond to further areas where clarity in transitional arrangements is required.
Given the significance of the amalgamation, the Government has introduced this Bill as soon as possible to provide transparency for members, staff and stakeholders. Transitional provisions relating to matters before the tribunals at the commencement of the amalgamated tribunal have yet to be finalised and will be introduced by Government amendments early in the Autumn 2015 sittings of the Parliament. The overarching intention of those amendments will be to:
retain applicants' substantive rights with respect to applications on foot at the time of amalgamation, and
provide certainty with respect to application of Tribunal procedures for current and prospective applicants.
The Tribunals Amalgamation Bill represents a sensible return to a more coherent merits review framework, while retaining the most successful aspects of each of the individual tribunals.
Ordered that further consideration of the second reading of this bill/these bills be adjourned to 9 February 2015, in accordance with standing order 111.