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Wednesday, 25 November 2009
Page: 12830

Mr CLARE (Parliamentary Secretary for Employment) (1:24 PM) —I thank all members who spoke—the members for Stirling, Deakin, Flynn, Shortland and Solomon—for their contributions to this debate. The Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill 2009 needs to be viewed in the context of the government’s response to the review of the Comcare scheme and the significant progress that has been made by the Rudd government towards nationally harmonised occupational health and safety arrangements. In December 2007 the government initiated a review of the Comcare scheme. The purpose of the review was to ensure that Comcare was a suitable OH&S and workers compensation scheme for self-insurers and their employees. The government at that time also announced a moratorium on new companies joining the scheme pending the outcome of the review. Since that review commenced, significant milestones have been achieved towards the long sought after goal of nationally harmonised OH&S arrangements.

In July 2008, the Commonwealth and the state and territory governments formally agreed, through an intergovernmental agreement, to develop and adopt a nationally uniform OH&S legislative framework. All the states and territories and the Commonwealth have committed to adopt uniform OH&S laws by 2011, complemented by nationally consistent approaches to compliance and enforcement. The government has established a new agency, Safe Work Australia, to develop the new laws. Following the passage in September 2009 of the Safe Work Australia Act 2008, Safe Work Australia has been established as an independent statutory agency with its primary responsibility being to improve OH&S and workers compensation arrangements across Australia. An exposure draft model OH&S act has recently undergone a six-week period of public consultation, led by Safe Work Australia. The Workplace Relations Ministers Council will consider the amended draft for endorsement when it next meets in December.

In June 2009, the Workplace Relations Ministers Council noted that it was proposed to transfer OH&S coverage of self-insured licensees from the Comcare scheme to state and territory jurisdictions following the implementation of uniform OH&S laws in all jurisdictions. Uniform OH&S laws and nationally consistent approaches to compliance and enforcement will remove the need for Comcare’s OH&S coverage of licensees. The transfer of OH&S coverage will also reduce the number of dual jurisdiction work sites. These developments mean that the landscape in which self-insurers under the Comcare scheme and their employees are operating has changed significantly since the government initiated the Comcare review. In September 2009, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations announced a number of improvements to the Comcare scheme arising out of the review. These included the introduction of a statutory time limit for the consideration of workers compensation claims and reinstatement of workers compensation coverage for off-site recess breaks. In addition, medical and rehabilitation costs will continue to be paid where a worker’s weekly compensation benefits are suspended for refusing to participate in the rehabilitation process.

The government has also recently increased substantially the lump sum and weekly death benefits under the scheme and Comcare is undertaking a review of the permanent impairment arrangements under the scheme. The minister will direct Comcare to strengthen its enforcement of OH&S and will write to Comcare and ask it to issue guidance material to assist employers in improving consultation with all workers at or near the workplace, not just their direct employees. These measures are designed to improve the Comcare scheme by reducing injuries, strengthening the focus on rehabilitation and return to work and increasing benefits for injured workers. The minister also announced that the government will maintain the moratorium on new companies joining the scheme until 2011, when uniform OH&S laws will have been implemented in all jurisdictions. Given the proposed transfer of OH&S coverage of Comcare self-insurers to states and territories, to do otherwise would be disruptive to new entrants to the scheme and their employees, who would need to adapt to Comcare’s current OH&S arrangements and then quickly change again to adapt to the new harmonised OH&S laws.

Now that the moratorium is to continue for a further period, the government considers that it is appropriate to formalise the arrangements for the moratorium through legislation. The bill amends section 100 of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act in order to maintain the moratorium until 2011. Section 100 provides for the minister to declare corporations that meet certain criteria to be eligible to apply for a self-insurance licence. The proposed amendment will give the minister greater flexibility in dealing with applications under section 100 of the SRC Act.

The amendment will enable the minister to consider important developments, such as progress with OH&S harmonisation, in deciding whether to consider any applications to join the Comcare scheme. The proposed amendment provides that the minister is not compelled to consider a request for a declaration of eligibility under section 100 by corporations seeking to join the Comcare scheme as self-insurers. This would apply to new applications, and any existing applications that have been made but not determined.

The bill will provide the minister with a clear discretion on whether or not to consider a request for a declaration. It makes it explicit that section 100 of the SRC Act empowers, but does not oblige, the minister to consider requests for declarations of eligibility. This measure is part of the government’s broader strategy of improving workplace safety arrangements for all workers and for all businesses, irrespective of the scheme under which they operate. With those comments, I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.