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Thursday, 5 April 2001
Page: 26575

Mr MURPHY (1:32 PM) —In view of the debate I have just been witnessing, it is a great victory for the beer drinkers of Australia that they have been saved, with the efforts of the Labor Party. I am here this afternoon to speak generally in support of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2000. However, there are a few provisions contained in the bill which I am concerned about. I will go into those as I go through my speech. I understand that the provisions will be referred to a Senate committee for careful scrutiny and perusal before the bill is ultimately resolved in the parliament. The purpose of the bill is principally to amend the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1998. Five other acts have minor technical, non-controversial amendments which I support. They include the Industrial Chemicals (Notification of Assessment) Act 1989, the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999, the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936, the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission Act 1985 and the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991.

The SRC Act covers Commonwealth public sector employees and employees of licensed corporations under the age of 65 years and is the basis of the compensation scheme for these workers. The original SRC Act provides for weekly incapacity payments; lump sum compensation for permanent impairment; lump sum compensation for non-economic loss; compensation and benefits for dependents of deceased employees; and the provision for domestic and attendant care services and rehabilitation for injuries and diseases connected with or arising out of employment. Comcare administers the SRC Act under the auspices of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission. Under the bill, employers are able to self-insure against liabilities if they are licensed to do so. The SRC Act will be amended to replace five categories of licences with a single generic licence. As before, the licence applications will continue to be determined by the commission under a less regulatory framework. This bill also contains other amendments in relation to licensing arrangements.

The bill also works to streamline the funding arrangements for the regulation of workers compensation and occupational health and safety under the Commonwealth jurisdiction by providing for a single contribution. The bill includes amendments to ensure that Comcare's financial arrangements are consistent with the requirements of the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997.

A number of improvements are made to benefits under the SRC compensation scheme, including augmented access to compensation for employees who have suffered hearing loss. The bill reduces the hearing loss requirement from more than 20 per cent hearing loss to more than 10 per cent hearing loss. I support Labor's amendment to reduce this to more than five per cent hearing loss to bring it in line with the laws of South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory. All workers covered by the SRC act can receive compensation after 65 years of age if they are injured after the age of 63. Claimants may have the cost of treatment from a wider range of health practitioners than at present without having to seek referrals from a medical practitioner.

Under the legislation the basis by which compensation is calculated for the first 45 weeks of a claim will be standardised. Compensation payments for former employees will be sustained at 70 per cent of indexed normal weekly earnings. The bill also ensures that normal weekly earnings are updated in line with the prescribed index, which is proposed to be the ABS wage cost index. These are good amendments. I acknowledge that the government has initiated them. Obviously, I support them.

I turn to the provisions that particularly concern me. I refer to amendments in relation to the definition of injury or disciplinary action. Comcare claimed in its most recent annual report that it has:

... reduced injury frequency rates per 100 employees a further 6 per cent, met the majority of the Commission's claims management performance indicators, and improved performance on others, introduced a new OHS self-assessment and audit tool for employers and exceeded the national average durable return to work rate by 10 per cent.

The Howard government's reasoning for amending this legislation is questionable. Given that the workers compensation scheme is self-funded, the premiums are the lowest in Australia—one per cent—and that claims are falling, these amendments are completely unnecessary. Firstly, the bill contains a proposal to amend the circumstances in which a claim for compensation may be payable under the SRC Act by amending the definition of `disease' and `injury'. In relation to the distinction between diseases and injury, the 1971 act defines an injury as `any physical or mental injury, including aggravation, acceleration or recurrence but not a disease'. A disease was defined to include any physical or mental ailment, disorder, defect or morbid condition. In theory, this meant that any injury was subject to compensation but disease would not be compensated. In contrast, the SRC Act defines disease as any `ailment' to which employment has contributed `in a material degree' and injury is defined to include a disease.

The High Court and the Federal Court have both established that employees should be compensated for injuries at work partly arising out of an underlying disease, provided that the injury is not an inevitable cause of the disease. Under the amendments, the definition of disease is expanded to reflect the original intention behind the act and clarify the relationship between injury and disease. At present, the definition under the SRC Act is that there needs to be a `material contribution by employment to a disease before compensation is payable'. However, if the bill is passed by the parliament in its present form, it will have a more restrictive definition. Compensation will only be payable on the basis that an employee's employment is not to be taken to have contributed in a material degree to his or her disease unless there is a close connection between the employee's employment and the disease. A close connection will need to be established through length of employment, type of work tasks completed, existence of medical predispositions, unrelated activities of the employee and any other matters affecting the employee's health. I am concerned that these changes will make it more difficult for workers to prove their claims.

The SRC Act seeks to prevent compensation claims being used to thwart management action and contains an exclusionary provision. It provides that compensation is not payable in respect of a mental injury which arises from reasonable disciplinary action taken against an employee or a failure by the employee to obtain a job promotion and so on. The bill will amend this provision to include other activities seen to be normal management practices. I am opposed to this amendment recycled by the government. They attempted to pass it in 1996. I believe that Commonwealth workers covered by the SRC Act should have access to stress claims if they are justifiable.

Madam Deputy Speaker, what is stress? I worked for a long time in the Commonwealth public sector before arriving in this chamber. In my possession this morning I have a document which was produced by the CSIRO on stress in the workplace. They posed the question: what is stress? They defined stress as a biochemical response to performance which is caused by work—workplace, career; knowledge; family; environment; health, both physical and emotional; values and beliefs; travel; finances; and social relationships. The paper goes on to say that stress consists of five components: stressors, for example organisational change—humans like things to be predictable; feelings—how do I feel about myself and am I in control; general adaptation syndrome—fear from presentations, manifested by sweaty palms and excessive use of the toilet, and reactions to floods, earthquake and famine; thoughts—denial, lack of control over change issues; and behaviour—negative thoughts trigger physiological effects, for example temper.

The paper goes on to also pose the question: what are the symptoms of stress? It says that positive responses to stress include performing better, acting faster, running harder, thinking quicker. Some of the symptoms of negative stress can include low morale, aggression, bad decisions, disorganisation, hair loss, eye twitches, neck stiffness, sleeplessness, increased tiredness, increased palpitation, increased smoking, stomach upsets, eating disorders, physical sickness, headaches, increased blood pressure and so on. The long-term effects, according to the paper, can result in ulcers, heart attack, nervous breakdown, weight gain or loss and dependence on alcohol, pills, drugs and smoking. These are very serious consequences of the stressful life that we all lead, but particularly in the public sector. I will talk about some of my experiences when I was there, and the implications for employees with the stressful environment that is so apparent today. This paper also gives some very interesting statistics. It says:

Reported cases of stress-related illness have almost doubled in the Australian Public Service since 1989-90 and are growing at a rate of 20% a year. The average liability associated with a stress claim is more than double that involved with other forms of work-related injuries. The estimated cost to the Commonwealth is $50 million. Research by Comcare has revealed that people with stress related illnesses have longer periods of absence and that their rehabilitation costs about $25,000 compared with $9,000 for other illnesses. The research also indicates that the cost of stress-related absences is likely to increase, and the number of cases may double again before the year 2000.

That is past, as we know, and this paper, having been prepared before the arrival of the year 2000, certainly covers that period before I left the public sector. The paper continues:

The most common cause of stress related absences are classified in this document as `workplace conflict situations'. The Comcare research breaks down the incidence of these situations as follows: interpersonal conflict (24 per cent), work pressures and deadline (24 per cent), anxiety caused by organisational change (22 per cent), and verbal or physical abuse (17 per cent). Add to this the pressure of family life and the usual stress of day-to-day existence, and it's easy to see why the problem seems overwhelming. Recent discussion suggests that stress is a global phenomenon largely affecting post-industrialised societies, however, a certain amount of stress has always been a part of the human condition.

This part of the paper concludes:

In CSIRO, work-based change is the main cause of stress. Staff are feeling less comfortable with their workplace because they have lost control over events involving them.

Staff are certainly not relaxed and comfortable. I am very heartened to see today that after question time we are having a matter of public importance debate and the Prime Minister in waiting, Mr Beazley, the Leader of the Opposition, will be talking about `the social and economic consequences of the government's failure to deliver on its promise to make Australians comfortable and relaxed'. That is a very important debate that will take place in this chamber, because there are certainly a lot of people who are not comfortable and who are not relaxed, as promised by the Prime Minister.

As I said earlier, I worked in the Commonwealth public sector for 28 years before arriving in this place. The last job I had was at the Public Service and Merit Protection Commission, running the grievance program in New South Wales. I had first-hand experience in almost all grievances lodged. I had to interview and deal with aggrieved applicants first-hand or manage their cases at the commission. Quite plainly, the decisions that have been made by the Howard government in terms of staff cuts and reductions in resources put enormous stress on employees in the public sector. It is my belief that most stress is genuine. Yes, I know that this bill, to be fair to the government, is trying to deal with what at times we thought, when I worked at the commission, was the medicalisation of a work related problem and someone then putting in a claim for something which was possibly unrelated to the work environment, but this in the overwhelming number of cases from my experience was very, very rare.

When I was working in the public sector, very senior managers would come along and lecture us and lecture the people that I saw who were suffering stress and they would simply say, `Well, you've got to work smarter; you've got to do more with less.' Quite plainly, many of these senior managers right up to, unfortunately, some secretaries of government departments had no insight into their own condition. When you are running a large organisation like the public sector, which services the work that we do in this parliament, and you savagely reduce by tens of thousands the numbers employed in the public sector, of course you are going to have stress. There is no escaping stress. Stress is an ineluctable force.

The other thing that many public servants have had to deal with in recent years is the incredible technological changes. We have all had to deal with those things in the public sector and in our working lives. About the only thing that is constant in all our lives, and certainly in the public sector where I came from, is change. Change is the only constant.

I am very, very concerned, and I will be scrutinising what the Senate does with this legislation when it goes to the other chamber, to make sure that those hardworking public servants who are working more hours than normal, are taken away from their families and their friends and are suffering severe symptoms of stress are properly cared for. It is all too easy to label public servants as bludgers, because there is a perception out there in the community—and it is a wrong perception—that public servants do not work hard. I would put to you that the enormous number of claims of stress is a clear confirmation of the stressful environment that we now work in. Unfortunately, I do not see it getting any better and, quite plainly, if the government continues to shed staff as it has done since 1996 and to contract out a lot of the work that historically was done by public servants, we are just going to see even more stress.

I think it is very, very important that this legislation, when it is examined by the Senate, is not made so tough that the very, very many people who suffer stress will not get the adequate compensation from Comcare that they so richly deserve. I have experience of many people whose lives have been torn apart because of the stress of work and whilst, yes, there were other contributing factors, in the main it was work and pressure in the public sector that brought about the manifestation of stress. (Time expired)