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Thursday, 12 February 2009
Page: 1156

Mr PERRETT (1:07 PM) —I too rise in support of the Employment and Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 2008 and thank the member for Stirling for his contribution. I am not sure how many people listen to parliament outside question time, but hopefully there are not too many Victorians listening at this time, while we basically talk about death, who are connected with the horror which began on Saturday and which will continue for some forever. I apologise to those who are listening for the insensitivities of this legislation, but the reality is that it is the work of the House and it must continue. As a solicitor in a former life, I worked in estate and succession law, so death and its ramifications were something I had to deal with and talk about with families all the time. Normally that was when someone died in hospital under supervision and not via the horror that has occurred in Victoria. Even with the little that I have had to do with death, I cannot imagine what the people of Victoria are going through.

The first and most significant measure in this bill is an amendment to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1998 to increase the amount of death benefits payable under the Australian government’s workers compensation scheme. The one-off lump sum death benefits will increase from $225,594 to $400,000. Similarly, weekly periodic payments for dependent children will increase from $75.10 to $110. This will bring death benefits under the Australian government scheme more closely in line with death benefits under the state workers compensations schemes and should ensure some greater peace of mind for Commonwealth employees and their families.

As a result of union activism and greater community awareness, we have seen great improvements to workplace health and safety practices in recent decades. Tragically, despite these improvements, there are still some workers who go to work one day but never come home. Having been a lawyer and a teacher, I do not think it is something that happens particularly in those white collar jobs. But, having brothers in the building and construction industry—unfortunately, it happened to one of my brothers when the two guys standing right beside him were killed—and having worked in the mining sector, I am all too aware of how it does happen to too many people. So it does occur, and I think it is entirely appropriate that our hardworking Commonwealth public servants be entitled to the same benefits as their state counterparts should such an unfortunate tragedy occur at work. These benefits will also cover those employed by corporations who have joined Comcare.

This bill also amends Centrelink’s Assurance of Support Scheme. This is about tightening up the way the Rudd government deals with people who come to our shores. This scheme allows migrants who do not meet certain financial conditions to have a visa granted if an Australian resident or organisation agrees to provide support so they do not need to rely on Centrelink payments. An assurance of support is the legally binding agreement between the Australian government and the assurer. If the migrant or their dependants receive one of the social security payments recoverable under the scheme while an assurance of support is in place, the assurer must repay the amount to the government—that is, the migrant is not a drain on the public purse.

This bill amends the qualification criteria for payments that are recoverable under the scheme. It will address an inconsistency and align the qualification provisions for sickness allowance and parenting payment with the qualifications for other income support payments. These changes will help ensure that sickness allowance and parenting payments are not made unnecessarily. It will also help avoid assurers accumulating debts with the Commonwealth. If the changes are not made, migrants may qualify for sickness allowance or parenting payment even though their assurer is willing and able to support them. However, migrants will still be able to receive sickness allowance or parenting payment if their assurer is unwilling or unable to provide them with an adequate level of support. This may apply in a small number of cases, such as those involving domestic violence where the relationship has broken down.

This bill also makes some minor changes to rent assistance. It amends the Social Security Act 1991 to rectify a loophole for the calculation of rent assistance for Austudy and Abstudy recipients who are partnered. It will ensure that rent assistance received by the partner of the Austudy and Abstudy recipient is taken into account in calculating the recipient’s own rent assistance. This change brings it into line with rent assistance for other income support recipients.

While this bill is mostly technical, the measures to increase death benefits are particularly important as they will make it fairer for families of deceased workers. As I said at the outset, it is a difficult week to talk about legislation that deals primarily with death. Much has been written about death, loss and grief, probably ever since writing began. The human condition will always draw artists and authors to explore the deadly dance we are all engaged in. So, in light of the fire horror in Victoria and the floods in Queensland, I sought some words that might be of assistance to those coming to terms with recent loss.

I turned at first to Australian poets, looking to our own backyard first. Obviously I could have turned to Dorothea Mackellar’s My Country—I know it is a favourite poem of the member for Forde—where she talks about flood and fire and famine. However, I rejected that poem. Most people know it inside out anyway. I taught it for too many years to embrace it lovingly. I thought too about a poem by Christopher Brennan called The Quest of Silence, which talks about:

Fire in the heavens, and fire along the hills,

and fire made solid in the flinty stone …

But I rejected that one as well. Unfortunately I did not have with me the collected works of Les Murray—my favourite Australian poet—so I was not able to choose one of his appropriate works. I turned to another one that is a bit of a favourite of mine, and of many Australians, which is John O’Brien’s Said Hanrahan. That poem is quite humorous in its way—

Mr Champion —‘We’ll all be rooned’!

Mr PERRETT —‘ “We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan’—that is right. The reason why it is funny and is such a favourite poem of so many Australians, I think, is because it touches on that essential Australian characteristic of enduring. It is an Australian characteristic that started with the First Australians, the Aborigines, I would suggest, and then the settlers. It is a tough land, a very tough land, a land of flood and fire and famine, and that idea of enduring is something I wanted to touch on in the poem. But I am not going to read Said Hanrahan by John O’Brien. I will leave that to the speakers following me, perhaps.

Instead, the poem I am going to read is called The Dead Woman, or ‘La Muerta’, by Pablo Neruda, who is not Australian. I went offshore to a Chilean poet, writer and socialist politician, who won the 1971 Nobel prize in literature—quite an epitaph to have on your gravestone. I am no Alan Rickman, for those who know the movie Truly, Madly, Deeply, but I will do my best:

If you are not alive; if you, beloved, my love, if you have died,

All the leaves will fall on my breast, my darling;

It will rain upon my soul night and day and the snow will burn my heart,

I shall walk through cold, and fire, and death, and snow;

My feet will want to march toward where you are sleeping,

but I must go on, because you wanted me to be, above all things, indomitable,

and, my love, because you know that I am not just one man but all men.

I commend the bill to the House.