The shifting environmental policies of the former Labor Government created havoc in the Environment Department, the Federal Court has heard. Photo: Supplied
Sections of the Environment Department were driven to breaking point by the shifting environmental policies of the former Labor government, the Federal Court has heard.
Court action against the government by a manager in the department has revealed a workplace plunged into chaos by sudden policy reversals, with staff looking for hiding places from an onslaught of irate phone calls from the public.
But former senior officer Toni Iliffe, who said her time in charge of up to 75 bureaucrats trying to manage the solar panels rebate scheme in Canberra left her mentally scarred, has lost her fight for workers' compensation.
The scheme, which offered up to $8000 to householders who installed solar electric panels, was abruptly scrapped by then environment minister Peter Garrett in June 2009 after the cost blew out from an original estimate of $150 million to $750 million a year.
The cancellation was a political headache for the Rudd government, but a nightmare for the Environment staffers, according to the evidence in Ms Iliffe's case.
The sudden policy lurch left firms seeking that rebate only about two weeks thereafter to submit applications, the Federal Court was told, resulting in about 45,000 claims for the rebate and a massive impact on already short-staffed sections of the department
''Ms Iliffe began handling complaints from about June 2009, and there were many complaints,'' according to the judgment by Justice Steven Rares.
''She had to field abusive emails and phone calls on a regular basis, because of the government's delays in paying the rebate,'' the court decision notes.
''On occasion, she had to go to the kitchen at work to avoid phone calls.
''When her section was busiest in about the first half of 2010, over 70 officers worked in the program. However, by July 2010, a strategy had been developed to close the program down gradually.''
When Ms Iliffe's team had to move offices not once but twice after the worst of the crisis had passed, the results were ''dislocation, loss of processing time, loss of some files and, of course, no doubt, further complaints''.
By July 2010, the staff had been reduced to 25 and Ms Iliffe's workload had decreased, but she was still processing applications and receiving abuse from unhappy, unpaid installers until Christmas 2010, 18 months after the minister pulled the plug on the rebate scheme.
But she told workplace insurer Comcare that as a contract worker, she was unwilling to take time off for the stress in case her bosses decided not to renew her job.
After transferring to the Department of Climate Change, Ms Iliffe was refused a permanent job and then dropped completely when in May 2011 her contract was not renewed.
After she applied for workers' compensations for her stress-related condition and periodic migraines, the insurer argued that both of those decisions were entirely reasonable workplace actions: the choice not to hire her permanently or to renew her contract.
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal backed Comcare last year and in a decision published this week, Justice Rares of the Federal Court upheld the tribunal's decision, ordering Ms Iliffe to pay Comcare's costs.
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