Senators tell AAT it can’t keep secret the names of its slow workers

Senators have told the Administrative Appeal Tribunal it can’t keep secret the names of members who have only worked on a handful of cases while earning hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The government-led Senate legal committee has unanimously rejected the AAT’s claim it was an unreasonable disclosure of personal information and could bring the tribunal into disrepute.

Administrative Appeals Tribunal registrar Sian Leathem has claimed the names of members who only finalise a handful of claims each year must be kept secret or risk affecting their mental health.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Labor senator Kim Carr, the committee’s deputy chair, says the position of the AAT – which reviews government decisions – showed an incredible arrogance towards the role of Parliament, which was becoming a pattern.

Tribunal registrar Sian Leathem has refused to answer more than a dozen questions from Senator Carr, making a public interest immunity (PII) claim.

Senator Carr sought information about which tribunal members had not met benchmarks for the number of cases dealt with, the names of members who finalised less than 25 cases or no cases in a year, and which part-time members worked no hours or less than 10 and 24 hours in a year.

Senator Kim Carr said public officials had to recognise they had obligations to Parliament and politicians were entitled to judge their performance.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The tribunal has previously revealed that in 2020-21 one full-time deputy president – earning $496,560 – finalised only 21 applications, compared with an average of 131.

In the same year, one full-time ordinary member only finalised three cases, another got through four, and a third finalised five cases. The average for all full-time members, who earn between $193,990 and $249,420, was 177 applications.

Ms Leathem said it would be “an unreasonable disclosure of personal information” to identify individual members, it presented “a genuine risk” of harming their mental health, and could “have an adverse impact on the proper and efficient conduct of the operations of the Tribunal”.

She cautioned the committee there was “clear potential for the information to be misrepresented”, that it could expose members to “misinformed commentary” and undermine the AAT’s processes for managing workloads.

“Publication of the requested information, which is not otherwise publicly available, will result in simplistic judgements being made about the competence, diligence and/or effort of individual members which do not reflect a fair or proper understanding of their overall work and performance,” she wrote.

Committee chairwoman Sarah Henderson this week wrote back to Ms Leathem to say the committee had unanimously rejected this reasoning.

“The committee does not consider that the AAT outlined acceptable grounds in support of its PII claim,” the Liberal senator wrote.

“The committee suggests that the AAT familiarises itself with the potentially acceptable grounds for PII claims outlined in Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice and also summarised in the Government Guidelines for Official Witnesses before Parliamentary Committees and Related Matters.”

Senator Carr, who has been in the Senate almost 19 years, said public officials had to recognise they had obligations to Parliament and politicians were entitled to judge their performance.

“What we’re seeing here is a decline in the standards that we’ve come to rightfully expect from our public officials,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

“There’s an arrogance that’s being displayed and which simply will not be tolerated.”

Senate clerk Richard Pye advised Senator Carr and the committee it was difficult to imagine the circumstances in which information about the performance of statutory office-holders could be considered private.

“The blanket claim that the provision of information in response to your questions would unreasonably disclose private information does not appear to me to have a firm basis,” he said.

Mr Pye also suggested if the AAT was concerned the information provided could be misrepresented, there was nothing to stop it from providing extra context in its answers.

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