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Thursday, 12 February 2009
Page: 1154

Mr KEENAN (1:00 PM) —The coalition will be supporting the Employment and Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 2008. This bill is designed to increase the benefits payable to dependants of an employee in a workplace covered by the Australian government workers compensation system, in the event of a work related death, through amendments to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988.

The bill will ultimately ensure that those employees who are engaged by an employer who is in the Australian government system will receive payments that are in line with state workers compensation systems. This will deliver better outcomes for the families of employees who work for an employer which has joined the government system from a previous state system which may have paid differing compensation benefits.

One-off lump sum compensation payments following a work related death will increase from $225,594 to $400,000—an increase of some 77 per cent. Weekly benefit payments for each prescribed child of a Comcare covered employee who has suffered a work related death will be increased from $75.10 to $110 per week, an increase of some 46 per cent. Future increases to these benefit payments will be defined by increases in the prescribed wage price index as issued by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Using the wage price index means the death benefits provide compensation having regard to losses suffered by dependants as a result of the cessation of the employee’s earnings.

Various amendments are also being made under this bill to social security laws, to amend incorrect references and to clarify the operation of certain provisions in the Social Security Act 1991. The bill clarifies the method of calculating the amount of youth disability supplement that is to be added to a person’s rate of youth allowance and the definition of a partner with a rent increased benefit. The bill amends the Social Security Act 1991 to extend to sickness allowance and parenting payment (single) the provisions which prevent a person from receiving payment while there is an assurance of support in force. As members of the House will know, an assurance of support is a commitment to the government to repay certain welfare payments paid to migrants during their first two years after arriving in Australia.

The amendment will mean that a person who is subject to an assurance of support will not qualify for sickness allowance or parenting payment (single) where their assurer is willing and able to provide them with an adequate level of support and where it would be reasonable for them to accept that support. I note it is anticipated that there will be nil financial impact resulting from these amendments and that the estimated cost of death benefits over the next four years of $6.1 million will be met from the existing premium pool of Comcare.

The coalition continues to stand strongly supportive of safety in the workplace. An employee is fundamentally entitled to go to work and conduct their work feeling safe and in the knowledge that appropriate procedures and measures are in place to protect them from hazards to their health and hazardous situations. All stakeholders working together have a duty of care for safety. Employers have a duty of care for the safety and wellbeing of their employees who, in turn, should recognise and work according to the occupational health and safety practices implemented at their workplace.

Sadly, unforeseen circumstances and unexpected events are a part of life, and from time to time an unanticipated incident or work related sickness will occur. We need look no further than the tragic events of this past week, which remind us of how quickly a terrible event can unexpectedly arise and put lives at serious risk and tragically result in serious injuries and death. At such times, the financial implications are often unanticipated and significant, especially if only one member of the family was in employment. All employees and their dependants are entitled to be covered by appropriate measures and financial assistance to ensure their ongoing wellbeing in the aftermath of a tragic event, such as workplace injury or death.

Nobody wants to see the occurrence of injuries or illnesses to people whilst they go about their duties, with a work-related death being the worst possible thing that could happen for an employee and their family. It is therefore right that appropriate compensation be paid to those who were immediately dependent upon the deceased. Just as important though is the need to ensure that Commonwealth related workplaces—or, indeed, any workplaces, are safe places to work and have appropriate safety measures in place to protect employees working in potentially hazardous environments. Safe workplace environments and practices to guard against injury, sickness or death are the best measures that can be offered to employees and their dependants.

The coalition has a strong record of workplace health and safety policy and compensation measures to assist people who have unfortunately been injured whilst undertaking duties of the Commonwealth. The Compensation (Commonwealth Employees) Act was introduced by a Liberal government in 1971 and subsequent coalition and Labor governments have updated and improved this legislation, including the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991. The Howard government made further reforms which increased flexibility in workplace safety arrangements and aligned the Commonwealth more closely with the states and territories and most international jurisdictions.

The Liberal-National Party coalition will continue to maintain dialogue with government to make these further improvements to compensation laws, as it is only fair that dependants are appropriately and adequately assisted in the immediate time after and into the future, following a death in a work related event. We can all only hope that these occurrences never happen; but, sadly, there will occasionally be unfortunate circumstances in the workplace resulting in a death. We all have a duty to care for those dependants who are left behind and to make sure that they are well looked after. The coalition is therefore very happy to support these measures of appropriate, increased compensation. I commend the bill to the House.