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Thursday, 25 August 1983
Page: 267


Mr HAND(10.55) —In my first grievance debate I raise a question that concerns a large number of people living in the Melbourne electorate. It concerns compensation within the Commonwealth area. Commonwealth workers compensation legislation reads like a boss's manual on how to keep the workers in their place. It reflects a scandalous disregard for the rights of workers. Ironically, the Commonwealth workers compensation legislation gives workers in the public sector far fewer rights than afforded those in the private sector operating under the various State workers compensation legislation.

In summary, the gravest injustices in the system are: One, the level of payments which is unrealistically low and not related to the pre-injury earnings and earning capacity of the worker; two, the fact that superannuation and other benefit payments are taken into account by the Commonwealth in making the payment; three, the arbitrary termination of payment rights afforded the Government and the lengthy delays in the workers' right to have an appeal heard against determination; four, the lack of penalties written into the Compensation (Commonwealth Government Employees) Act against the Commonwealth when lengthy delays have prevented workers having use of the money that is finally deemed theirs by right, without penalties and interest loadings-it is in the Commonwealth's interest to delay claims as long as possible; five, the failure to make the Commonwealth liable to find light duties for workers deemed to be capable of performing light duties; six, the loaded system where officers responsible for making an initial assessment of a claim in a so-called independent capacity become the prosecutors in a hearing if the claim is denied; seven, the failure to observe patient-doctor confidentiality between government doctors and workers; eight, the requirements on workers to lodge claims as soon as possible after receiving an injury, but the failure to place any time limit on the Commonwealth in responding to a claim; nine, the long delays in cases being heard; and, ten, the intricate and often legal detail and knowledge required to lodge a claim which necessitates use of lawyers at the worker's expense.

The level of payments under Commonwealth legislation needs some discussion. Under the legislation workers are placed in a precarious position whether their claims are accepted or not. If it is denied, the long delays in hearing cases force workers on to the breadline. But if the liability is admitted, the levels of payment are so inadequate that the workers are still forced into a reduced standard of living compared to the one they were used to when they were able to work. It is grossly unfair to force workers into a position when the fault lies with the employer who is paying the miserably low weekly sum and who in this case is responsible for the laws which reduce workers to poverty levels. Even the inadequate sum now paid is not extended or adjusted in any regular way. This is not the answer either. The answer must lie in making payments at or near the level of income earned by the worker before his or her accident. In regard to superannuation and other benefits paid to people, the Commonwealth also takes into account superannuation and repatriation benefits as weekly income when assessing the amount to be paid. This does not apply in any other compensation scheme and is a disadvantage to Commonwealth employees. People working in this Parliament are affected by this legislation. These payments have nothing to do with the worker's work capacity and should not be taken into account when assessing payments for work capacity loss.

The termination of payments needs to be discussed. Under the Act the Commissioner for Employees' Compensation can issue a determination stating that an incapacity has ceased and terminate payments. The worker can appeal, but appeals involve long delays during which the worker is deprived of an income to which he or she is entitled. If the worker wins the appeal, he or she receives no compensation for loss of income and the lump sum back pay is taxed at a higher rate than if it had been paid weekly for the whole period. Surely it must be incumbent on the Commonwealth to prove its case before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal before it can terminate payments.

Lack of penalties or interest provisions is a further problem. After lengthy delays a worker can receive back payments, but no interest is paid on the money denied that worker for so long, nor are there any penalties on the Government when the delays have been blatantly the fault of the Government. Under this system it is clearly in the Commonwealth's interest to delay claims as long as possible. This is grossly unjust to the workers affected.

I am sure that all people involved in industry have come across the problem of light duties. There is also no requirement on the Commonwealth to provide light duties for workers who are deemed to be capable of performing those light duties ; in other words, the Government can cease or cut back payments on the grounds that the worker is capable of light duties but expect some other employer to provide those light duties. It is basic natural justice that the Government should be responsible for providing light duties if it declares a worker capable of performing them.

The system is certainly loaded against the workers. The Commissioner for Employees' Compensation, allegedly unbiased and independent, receives his advice from delegates in the appropriate department who instruct the Government in any litigation. It is similar to Caesar appealing to Caesar. At this point the Commissioner often requests all evidence available to the worker. This prejudices the worker's later case if the Commissioner denies liability. One side of the case is presented with the opposition's evidence. Further, government doctors, with whom a worker ought to have a doctor-patient relationship, can be used to break confidentiality during hearings. The worker surely must expect the normal confidentiality in all areas in which it normally applies. This area ought to be examined by the Government.

The lodging of claims is another problem area in the Act. Another loaded aspect of the legislation is the requirement for workers to lodge their claims as soon as possible after the accident or injury; yet there is no similar requirement on the Government to answer the claims. The Act must be amended so that after a reasonable time-say, three months-the case automatically goes to the AAT. But even at the AAT there are long delays. Workers compensation cases must join the long queue with pilots' licence applications, pension appeals and a range of other appeals that go before that Tribunal. Clearly, there should be a separate tribunal, or preferably tribunals, to hear workers compensation cases. There should be enough tribunals to ensure prompt hearings so that workers are not prejudiced or suffer financially from delays when they are denied money to which they are justly entitled.

But even when liability is admitted, the procedures for lodging claims and filling out forms are so technical and fraught with dangers that workers are forced to use lawyers. Either the claim process should be simplified or the Government should bear the cost of any legal expenses. For instance, a case brought to my attention involved a worker who was prejudiced because he did not know the difference between an injury and an aggravation and lodged a claim under the wrong section of the Act. Such actions should have no place in the system. Workers' rights ought not be denied by crawling through loopholes in the Act. The worker was denied his rights in that case because of this biased and unjust Act and the system it allows to operate. It is a system we have inherited . The Government is concerned about the rights and interests of working people in this country-those workers who serve under it and have served under other governments for many years and the newer members of the work force. I say to those people in my electorate who work under this Act that I am sure a government of our persuasion will bring this situation to a drastic end and undertake the necessary and required surgery to the Act.