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Monday, 29 August 1994
Page: 507

Senator WEST (5.30 p.m.) —I am a little disappointed that this matter actually has come on today because approximately two hours ago Senator Watson, on behalf of the Senate Select Committee on Superannuation, tabled report No. 13—that is probably an ominous figure and an omen for what was about to happen. The report is entitled Super Regs 1 and it relates to the Superannuation (Resolution of Complaints) Regulations. It deals specifically with section 4 on which the Australian Democrats have moved the disallowance motion. I think it is important to look at the conclusions and recommendations of that committee—a select committee; not a committee that has a watchdog role over anybody. The report recommended:

6.1  The committee is not convinced that there is not a role for the Tribunal to play in dealing with medical complaints.

6.2  The committee recommends that, notwithstanding the outcome of the disallowance motion, the government re-examine the issue in the light of:

(i)the evidence presented to the Senate Select Committee on Superannuation;

(ii)the experience of the Tribunal over its first six months of operation; and,

(iii)a review of the range of mechanisms available to the Tribunal to deal with medical complaints.

6.3 The committee further recommends that the Government:

(iv)amend the legislation to remove any doubt that may exist in relation to the handling of procedural complaints by the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal; and,

  (v)seek advice from the Regulations and Ordinances Committee on the appropriate legislative instrument for defining the jurisdiction of the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal.

That was a mechanical matter because we received some evidence which indicated that somebody thought one could not do this. However, the regulations and ordinances committee raised no objections about this when it examined the regulation, so that needs to go there to be looked at. Two hours ago we had the tabling of the report in which the committee said that the government should review this issue after it has looked at the first six months of operation. It should look at what other alternatives and mechanisms are available. Now what do we have? Two hours later we are being told to rescind the regulation. This raises a whole series of problems.

  As for the claim that no negotiations and discussions had taken place, given that the government had always opposed the disallowance motion and the fact that we did not know until question time what position the opposition would take, it is a little difficult for us to be culpable in that regard. But I can say that the government agrees that it will amend the regulation so that it has no effect after six months from today. This will enable full consideration of the Senate select committee's report and ensure that the question of any exclusion of medical evidence comes before the Senate again within six months. The government has demonstrated very clearly its commitment to reviewing this particular issue. That does not seem to be enough for some people; they choose not to believe us, and I am very sorry about that.

  What will be the effect of the disallowance of this regulation? It means that, as of whatever time it is disallowed, medical matters can go before the tribunal. That means that there will be a backlog and a delay because those people who did not take their matter to the tribunal as it was a medical matter will now be able to do so. There is no increase in budget for the tribunal. This is a tribunal that was designed to be cheap, speedy and fair in dispute resolution. But in one fell swoop we are increasing quite dramatically the workload of this tribunal, without giving any compensation or recompense for the budgetary constraints and considerations that might result. That is something that I think all members should be concerned about—what we do about that sort of thing.

  Also I do not think there is anybody on the tribunal with medical expertise or knowledge. It can be quite complicated to work through and understand different medical problems and issues. There is no point in the tribunal just appointing one medical officer, because we are going to get—and we have all seen it, I guess, with our constituents—people with a variety of problems coming through the doors. We might have one with a veterans' affairs problem relating to medical issues or another with a social security problem relating to complex medical issues. So we get into very specialised areas involving a great deal of specialist knowledge and consideration, and we expect a person who may be either generally trained or specialist trained in one area to look at another area. The medical problems there are quite considerable and, I think, need to be taken into account.

  Senator Watson suggested that there could be an expert medical panel. Doctors are a bit like lawyers; they do not come cheap. If we are going to have a medical experts panel, we are going to have to pay them for their time. So we should because we are not asking specialists to give up their time for nothing. They could be providing assistance or providing a service elsewhere and being recompensed, as they should be. It is their livelihood. But that is another issue that has to be resolved. How are we going to overcome these differences of medical opinion and disputes in which two doctors disagree? If we pull up two different experts, we may find that the doctors disagree with one another on very complex issues. They are not quite like economists where we have two economists and get three opinions or solicitors where we would get a lot of opinions.

  These issues need to be considered. This is why the government is saying, `Whoa, look, we will review this but just hold it and in six months' time we will be able to bring in something that will possibly enable a flow-on and a transition to take place.' We cannot just sort of snap it off in mid air and leave everybody to take what they want, with no guidelines, no mechanisms worked out for how this issue is to be addressed and resolved. That is a very sorry situation.

  The government has a very good record with this particular Senate select committee of accepting 99 per cent of all of its recommendations. For people to suddenly decide they do not trust the government, when the committee's record has been so good, is quite unjustified. The recommendations, the deliberations and the work of this committee have been taken seriously and have been upheld 99 per cent of the time.

  Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator WEST —I am sorry that coalition senators choose to laugh about that, but at least we have leaders who know where they are going and we do not have to wait for them to put out a directions policy. I suppose that is part of the problem that the coalition is suffering at present.

Senator O'Chee —We were just laughing at you, Sue.

Senator WEST —Well, be careful you do not look in a mirror. One of the issues I think we have to keep going back to is what this will do to the workload of the tribunal. As I said earlier, this tribunal's process is for cheap and speedy dispute resolution. We are adding, without any extra resources or guidelines, a whole new area for it to look at and one has to ask what the impact of this will be. We also need to be aware of the possible effect of this on some of the companies. Disability benefits are usually paid in a lump sum. They are generally larger than the benefit available for resignation and retirement. This therefore is an incentive for people to—and I am not saying this without justification—attempt to become eligible for disability benefits.

  Within the different superannuation funds we have differing medical disability regulations and agreements. There is nothing common about the guidelines for provision of benefits. This lack of standard format will cause the tribunal quite a deal of problems. It will also cause the industry itself a problem. If we give the industry six months, we will be sending a message to it that it has to look at a way in which it can get some commonality in its definition of its guidelines. This will have a beneficial effect on the people who are joining these funds because they will then not have to read the fine print in each one of them to see precisely what each one offers.

  A question has been raised about the prudential costs to a small fund if somebody gets a very large disability payout. The other thing that has to be asked is: what will the impact be in the future for those future superannuation contributors? Will some of the funds just opt totally out of disability and death benefits? Are those the sorts of things that might happen? Are we going to cut something off? We cannot answer those questions here tonight. These are the sorts of questions that can be resolved in this six-month buffer period that the government is offering to people, but people do not seem to want to do things in an ordered and sensible manner.

  We certainly heard the opposition leader saying that he wants things that have commonsense to them. It strikes me that, if we do not allow people to amend their current situation and to address some of the issues before something is implemented, that is not a particularly commonsense point of view. Maybe it is commonsense when it applies only to things of the opposition's making and not anybody else's. Perhaps those opposite are the only ones who think they have commonsense. This obviously proves that they do not.

  I do not want to add a great deal more except to just repeat that the government agrees that it will amend the regulation—well, it would have amended the regulation. The signs from the other side indicate that the regulation will be disallowed. The government will amend the regulation so that it has no effect after six months from today. This will enable full consideration of the Senate select committee's report and ensure that the question about any exclusion of medical evidence comes before the Senate again within six months. That obviously will not happen because the coalition does not want it to happen.