An Adelaide lawyer has told the ABC he has stopped hearing welfare debt cases at the Administrative Tribunal (AAT) because he has made too many decisions against the government.
Most important points:
Barrister Michael Manetta says he was removed from hearing AAT cases over Social Security last September. He says it was because he made too many decisions in favor of the citizen.
Michael Manetta, a member of the AAT since 2016, was banned from hearing Social Security matters last September by the tribunal’s new vice president, Karen Synon.
“Because she was essentially concerned that I was deciding too many cases for the benefit of the citizen and against the government,” he said.
Mr. Manetta said he had found that the Department of Social Services is not applying the law correctly when calculating people’s Centrelink debts.
“I had found areas of concern in the department’s usual practice and the way it calculates Social Security debts and in other matters, which were recurrent miscarriages of justice that I thought was unjustified and not allowed by law,” he said.
Mr. Manetta said the vice president, a former Liberal senator, had moved him to another area so he could no longer settle benefits cases.
“I got a percentage of child support, which is the department’s latrine duty,” he said.
Mr. Manetta also alleges that the department secretary met Ms. Synon and the former president of the AAT to complain about a case he had ruled.
“I was appalled that a litigant before the tribunal had private access to the decision-makers without the knowledge or consent of the other party,” he said.
Mr. Manetta said he was told his findings did not match other decision-makers, and he was effectively removed.
“It is not difficult to see how damaging that could be to the tribunal’s independence, its appearance of impartiality, it encourages members to check their track record, and it erodes public confidence in the quality of the administrative jurisdiction,” he said.
Jo Dyer, the independent candidate for Boothby’s South Australian seat, first voiced Mr. Manetta’s concerns. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)
In a statement from the AAT, Ms. Synon denied that she had discussed specific cases – or Mr. Manetta – at that meeting.
“Vice President Synon confirms that she and the former AAT president met with the Secretary of the Ministry of Social Services as part of the routine stakeholder engagement with the tribunal,” the statement said.
“Specific cases and individual members were not discussed at this meeting.
“The tribunal is aware of matters raised by Member Michael Manetta, and they are currently being considered in consultation with Vice President Synon.”
Political interference claims
Jo Dyer, the independent candidate for Boothby’s South Australian seat, who was the first to raise Manetta’s case, said the problem was due to political interference in the nomination of AAT members.
“What you see with what he says are the real implications of the ongoing coalition stacking up of the AAT with their friends,” she told ABC.
“Australians think they can trust government agencies like the AAT to give them fairness; instead, they have a corrupt and compromised process driven by ideology.”
“People don’t get justice. They are not cared for by members who are supposed to be there to uphold and protect the rule of law.
“The government is unaware of or cares about the separation of powers.
They are trying to interfere with the legally protected independence of decision-makers within the AAT.”
The government says all appointments to the AAT are on merit and meet the requirements of the 1975 Administrative Appellate Body. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)
All appointments at AAT ‘on merit.’
The coalition stated to the ABC in response, which read:
“The government is committed to providing the AAT with the resources it needs to assess high-value merits with minimal delay.
“All appointments are made on a merit-based basis. This means ensuring that the AAT comprises people with diverse experiences and different service records to our community.
“All appointments to the AAT meet the requirements of the Administrative Appellate Body Act 1975 for their appointment class.”
Mr. Manetta was affiliated with the Liberals and fought for the party in Torrens’s seat in the 2014 state elections.
He said his complaint was not about politics but the qualification level of appointees at the tribunal.
“I think there’s a problem with non-legally qualified people being hired at the higher levels of a typical legal institution,” he said.
Mr. Manetta said he had stopped hearing AAT cases until his concerns were resolved.