CTP jury had 'pre-determined outcome': Maurice Blackburn
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CTP jury had 'pre-determined outcome': Maurice Blackburn

Canberra's citizens' jury on reforming compulsory third party insurance had a "predetermined outcome", law firm Maurice Blackburn has alleged, after releasing an embarrassing trail of government emails.

The firm has also alleged insurer Suncorp had greater access to the government before and after the citizens' jury than other stakeholders.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr announced a citizen's jury to reform the territory's compulsory third party insurance scheme last year.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr announced a citizen's jury to reform the territory's compulsory third party insurance scheme last year.Credit:Fairfax Media

The allegations stem from a tranche of documents the firm obtained from the Chief Minister's office under freedom of information laws. The government denies it had a predetermined outcome or was unduly influenced by Suncorp.

Maurice Blackburn and a host of other personal injury law firms in Canberra stand to lose when the ACT moves to a no-fault capped model of third party compulsory insurance in 2019.

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According to the emails, a month after the citizens' jury was announced, the Chief Minister, Treasury and Economic Development Directorate's financial framework management and insurance director Lisa Holmes wrote to Andrew Barr's director of budget and economic policy Jennifer Rayner with a timeline for introducing the proposed reforms.

Ms Holmes said the tight timeline assumed that the jury's process of deliberation could run in parallel to government deliberations.

"It is assumed the government will be able to ascertain the direction of deliberations throughout the process allowing for the creation of a framework that can be finalised once the final report is received," Ms Holmes wrote.

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"If the jury recommendations go in an unexpected direction then additional time will likely be required for extra Cabinet processes and scheme design."

Maurice Blackburn principal Walter Hawkins said this exchange indicated there was an "expected predetermined outcome from the jury".

“These documents raise questions about what we have long feared in this process,” Mr Hawkins said.

However a spokeswoman for Mr Barr said the "unexpected direction" comment was evidence that the government was not sure where the citizens' jury would land.

"In referring the CTP scheme to the citizens’ jury, the government indicated that we were open to wide-ranging reform depending on the jury’s advice and did not have a specific scheme design in mind. This is why the jury was first asked to identify objectives for a well-functioning scheme before they were then presented with a range of possible models which met these objectives," she said.

"Because the government did not specify a particular model or approach, we were not able to anticipate the final direction the jury would take. This meant the government needed to build flexibility into the internal decision-making processes following the jury to account for uncertainty regarding their final direction."

Concerns about insurer access

Mr Hawkins also asked why Mr Barr met with Suncorp during the formative stage of developing legislation following the citizens’ jury process.

Maurice Blackburn was part of the stakeholder reference group that formed part of the citizens' jury and had spoken to ministerial staff and MLAs about the new scheme.

However Mr Hawkins said the firm had not been given the level of access afforded to Suncorp.

Instead the company was directed back to the stakeholder reference group as the main way of having their concerns heard.

Mr Barr's ministerial diary shows he met with Suncorp's executive general manager in May, after the jury had concluded but before the government released its exposure draft of the legislation.

The emails show government officials were provided with details about how a first-party scheme would work in the ACT ahead of the meeting.

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Suncorp has separately told an ACT parliamentary inquiry that the draft CTP scheme had the potential to be "further enhanced" by converting it into an own-insurer or first-party claims management model, where the insurer of a particular vehicle manages the statutory benefits claims of all people injured in that vehicle.

Suncorp's executive general manager of personal injury portfolio and products, Chris McHugh, confirmed he met with the chief minister to advocate for a no-fault system and an own-insurer model, which he said "guarantees that motorist and their families will be looked after by the CTP insurer they choose".

Mr Barr's spokeswoman said Suncorp sought meetings with the government to understand the citizens’ jury process and the legislative steps which would follow this. She said formal minutes of stakeholder meetings were not kept as a matter of course, and were not made during this meeting.

The insurer also offered to help with the citizens' jury process in September 2017.

Dr Rayner emailed back saying while the chief minister's office was taking a back step from the process now it had begun, the directorate's communications team was putting together a program of activities to help Canberrans better understand CTP, the jury process and how they could engage.

"I've cc-ed a couple of contacts here so that they can be in touch to discuss opportunities for your team to feed in there," Dr Rayner wrote.

Mr McHugh said Suncorp did not have any input into government communications about the CTP reforms, and noted the company was not aware of the degree to which other stakeholders engaged with the government and opposition during the citizens' jury.

Mr Barr's spokeswoman also confirmed the company had no input on government communications, and said the invitation was for the company to put out its own information regarding CTP in Canberra.

However Canberra Liberals leader Alistair Coe said the emails showed the government "seems to be doing the insurance companies' bidding".

Make sure the Greens are 'in the cart'

The emails also reveal the government tried to push through the reforms as quickly as possible to avoid them falling over.

A war strategy sent out by Dr Rayner dated March 25 this year identified the Greens as "vulnerable" to arguments the legislation did not represent the wishes of the jury and that parts needed further work or scrutiny.

She said the Greens were unlikely to succumb to arguments about the citizens' jurors not being competent enough to propose the reforms, as they were strong supporters of deliberative democracy.

“Delay is the enemy of progress here - if we allow the legislation to get bogged down or pushed off into next year we significantly reduce our chances of actually delivering the reform," she wrote.

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As well as "pushing the bureaucracy hard to get the legislation ready asap", they planned on giving the bill maximum exposure to address problems early, and building in a committee inquiry to the process.

"Liberals will move to refer it anyway, so giving the Greens a nod that we’d support them doing so early on may assist in keeping the legislative process moving," Dr Rayner wrote.

In September, Dr Rayner asked whether it was certain Greens crossbencher Caroline Le Couteur was "definitely in the cart and not going to spring any changes on us last minute particularly re. the reporting date" when the legislation was introduced.

Mr Hawkins said the Chief Minister's office seemed "dismissive" of the Greens.

However Ms Le Couteur said some of the comments were "out of context" and that she did not believe anything "sinister or biased had occurred".

Maurice Blackburn is not the only group to accuse the ACT government of having manufactured its preferred outcome through the citizens' jury process.

The CFMEU ACT branch also levelled the accusation at the government through the inquiry into the proposed legislation, while the Liberals also felt the process had been undermined.

Mr Coe said the emails proved: "this is clearly a pet project that they are determined to ram through, no matter what the cost."

However one of the Canberra Liberals' biggest donors last election was a personal injury lawyer, a fact the government appeared keen to exploit as part of its war strategy.

Dr Rayner wrote that the legal fraternity's campaign against the citizens' jury process would likely give the Liberals enough "cover" to oppose the scheme when it came before the Assembly "despite their compromised position".

The Motor Accident Injuries Bill will be debated in the new year, with the committee due to report back this Friday on the exposure draft of the scheme.

Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.

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