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Thursday, 18 September 2003
Page: 20571

Mrs CROSIO (11:33 AM) —I too join with other colleagues who have spoken on this report, Back on the job. As I said when speaking on a report earlier in this place, I am pleased that we are finally seeing reports such as this coming to the Main Committee for debate. I think that this report provides an opportunity for all of us to speak not only on the report but also particularly on matters associated with it—that is, on aspects of Australia's workers compensation scheme. I commend the Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations. As we all know, the report was commissioned by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. I would like to read out what he commissioned the committee to do. The terms of reference say that the committee should inquire into:

the incidence and costs of fraudulent claims and fraudulent conduct by employees and employers and any structural factors that may encourage such behaviour;

the methods used and costs incurred by workers' compensation schemes to detect and eliminate:

(a) fraudulent claims; and

(b) the failure of employers to pay the required workers' compensation premiums or otherwise fail to comply with their obligations; and

factors that lead to different safety records and claims profiles from industry to industry, and the adequacy, appropriateness and practicability of rehabilitation programs and their benefits.

The terms are very wide ranging—that is why I have read them into my part of the debate today—and they appear, on the surface, to be quite prudent and justified. However, I was particularly appalled by the attempts of the minister to railroad this inquiry or to determine its outcome. As you would be well aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, standing committees are independent from the executive and have been formed for the specific purpose of providing recommendations to government on specific issues. Commonsense must prevail and our committees must continue to be independent; otherwise, the committee system we have put in place in what we believe is a democratic parliament will become irrelevant.

I am very pleased to say that, despite pressure from the minister, the committee completed its task with aplomb and has provided the House with a well-written and well-researched report. I would like to put on record my congratulations to all members of the committee for the work they did in compiling this report. Unfortunately, the minister did not receive the outcome he had hoped for. He was not able to blame employees for the widespread culture of workers compensation fraud because, as anyone can see, after a thorough investigative and consultative process there was little evidence of a culture of fraudulent practices by employers or employees.

I find it galling that members of the government, particularly the minister, are so crusader-like in their attempts to impose their prejudices and ideologies upon society. With great conviction, I can state that I have never been an ideologue. I have always seen myself as a representative and, dare I say it, as a servant of my community. I have never attempted to impose my opinions on them and I have always respected and represented their views. I have endeavoured to do this over my 33 years in public life. When ideology is followed with a maniacal passion it can be especially dangerous. That is why I am pleased that the committee was able to withstand the pressure imposed on it. I advise all members of parliament and those who may be listening to this debate that, if they have not read this report, they should avail themselves of it. I wish that the minister would show as much energy in being willing to implement a system of workers' entitlements that would guarantee workers 100 per cent of their entitlements.

For the past six years, the government have refused to even countenance my bill which would have established this system. Why do they believe in a master-servant system where the employer is not obliged to provide a thing to their employees? I sit in question time, day after day, listening to the Minister for Small Business and Tourism castigating the Labor Party for not having on our benches any experience in business. I would like to see if the minister or any member of the government could match my 26 years of experience in owning and running a small business. I note that the minister was a banking and finance lawyer and an adviser to former premier John Fahey. So I ask: where is his experience? I think the government should occasionally take a step back and think before they speak.

I too employed people over the years and was always conscious of their safety and their entitlements. The people who worked for me were long serving which, I might say, shows that I was not too bad as a boss. I want to place on the record, during this particular debate on the report Back on the job: report on the inquiry into aspects of Australian workers' compensation schemes, that I do understand the employers side of the equation. The government do not have a mortgage on this. In fact, they are quite unlikely to understand what small business is all about.

Having read the report, I am pleased that the committee has recommended that the government examine the feasibility of establishing a national standard for workers compensation so that the largest possible number of workers can be covered. I understand that, over the years, there have been problems in some states—particularly in my state of New South Wales—in terms of the sustainability of certain schemes. Those problems have not been specifically stated in the terms of reference; however, they are all linked to being able to maintain a system where employees have the right to work in a safe environment.

People who attempt to attack workers compensation should stop and think about the consequences of an accident for a worker. That worker has been hardworking and has contributed significantly not only to the running of the business which employs them but also to its economic success. The worker himself or herself is also a provider for the family. What happens when that worker is seriously injured in a workplace accident? This is what I would like government members to ask occasionally. Read the report: there is time off work resulting in lost income, the costs of rehabilitation, and the incalculable cost of the stress and psychological damage that can arise in the aftermath of an accident.

In a society that prides itself on the rule of law, the individual should always have the right to seek compensation. I am aware of the dangers of creating a culture that is over-litigious, and there is some evidence that we are entering that realm. However, it is a small cost to pay to maintain the rights of the individual. If the Commonwealth is able, in some way, to coordinate a more efficient and cohesive way for workers compensation schemes to work, then I am in total support. I believe that every member who sat on that committee and put in weeks and months of work to bring down this report, and who read and listened to a large number of submissions both given as evidence at the hearings and presented in the appendices, would agree with that as well.

I also support the recommendation that the Commonwealth, with the states and territories, should develop a program to implement the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission's guidance notes for best practice rehabilitation management of occupational injuries and disease nationally. The promotion of an early return to work is important in a number of ways. For the injured employee, it is good for their morale and wellbeing. Being able to make a contribution allows them to feel that they are once more a part of normal society. For the business, it means a reduction in ongoing costs.

What this report does show, much to the displeasure of the minister, is that the incidence of fraud is quite low. Contributors to the inquiry—including the Australian Plaintiff Lawyers Association, the Queensland government, the Western Australian government, Comcare, the ACT government and even the Australian Industry Group—contend that the incidence of fraud is very low. I note a submission by Dr Paul Pers and Ms Anita Grindlay in which they said that there is `only a very small amount of true workers compensation fraud'—to use their words. A number of chapters of the report are given over to that.

In particular, I was pleased that even the Australian Nursing Federation questioned the disproportionate amount of resources allocated to the detection of employee fraud, when, as they said, there is already a vigorous set of procedures and medical tests, both before and after a claim is accepted. The Injured Persons and Action Support Association commented that some people are forced to sell their homes and cars, live off the Salvation Army and go to soup kitchens, and sometimes they have to get money from Anglicare while waiting for insurers to accept claims.

Reading this report, it would seem that the minister was way off course in his misguided belief. If he is really concerned with the increasing costs of maintaining a workers compensation system, there are other techniques which he could use to attempt reform, and I believe that he would have the cooperation of the states and the territories. A vicious and pernicious attack on the workers of this country is not the way to achieve it. A spirit of cooperation must ensue. I commend the committee for its diligence and the conclusions reached in its report. I reiterate that the chapter and verse of this report is well worth reading. I think everyone should avail themselves of this report, particularly in the parliament where, as a general rule, a number of bills dealing with workers are brought before us.

Too often we seem to have one-sided debates. This report has proven—even with some of the doubts I had when I read it very thoroughly—that at all times we must look at both sides of the story, particularly when we are going to say the word `fraud'. We cannot, because of one or two particular instances, use the broad brush and say that therefore fraud exists across all aspects of a particular contract or whatever. What I am really saying is that you cannot say that because one per cent are caught out the other 99 per cent are guilty—we know that is not the case. This report has clearly shown that.

You cannot have a term of reference in a committee structure when you want an outcome—I would classify that as fraud. It would be fraud for that committee to bring down that report knowing full well that they are only hearing the evidence and writing the report because certain direction has been given to exercise their ability to make sure the recommendations are what the minister giving the terms of references really wants. That did not happen here. This report has also clearly shown that fraud in workers compensation claims, while it exists, does not exist to the extent that was originally perceived by the government and the minister in particular. So I say again to the minister: `Read the report thoroughly. Take a step, draw a breath, and join with me in commending the committee on being brave and diligent enough and on working as hard as they did to put this report before the House.'