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Monday, 29 August 1994
Page: 510

Senator FERGUSON (5.45 p.m.) —I rise to speak briefly on some of the comments that have been made and to support the comments that have been made by Senator Watson. A couple of issues have been raised by Senator West that probably require some response. Firstly, the matter of whether or not medical complaints could be taken before the tribunal was an issue which was discussed at great length by the Senate Select Committee on Superannuation and also, I guess, was one that we agonised over for some time because of the complexities involved in it. There was a certain amount of give and take and a certain amount of trying to get to the bottom of exactly what we were going to do that would be in the best interests of Australians for whom we are providing by way of superannuation and would give them the ability to resolve complaints, particularly medical complaints, that arose. The Insurance and Superannuation Commission in its evidence before us said:

. . . the assessment of medical evidence . . . is a highly complex function. It does not really rest easily with the tribunal type process, which is informal, economical and quick. It really rests better in a court type process where dealing with that type of disagreement. . . is well established.

Senator West said that if we disallowed this regulation we would have a backlog and an enormous number of medical complaints would be brought before the tribunal. Quite frankly, the evidence that we received suggests that that would not be the case. In the initial stages of our hearings I had some concerns that we would be opening a floodgate of complaints where the tribunal would be hard pressed to handle the number of cases that might come before it.

  But the evidence that has been presented to us suggests that that will not happen. We can use as an example the number of cases that have already been appealed to the Life Insurance Complaints Board. Disability constitutes roughly 10 per cent of the total number of complaints to that tribunal. To suggest that immediately allowing medical complaints to go before the tribunal will put an enormous workload on it is pure speculation. Nobody knows what the workload of that tribunal will be. The suggestion that our disallowing this regulation will somehow render the tribunal inoperative because it will be flooded with medical complaints should not concern us.

  I find it rather strange that the government is defending a process which would make all people who have concerns about medical complaints or medical appeals go before a court system. That is a far more expensive system than the one that is being proposed by the complaints tribunal. The coalition and the Australian Democrats are defending the rights of people who are quite often unemployed and people on low incomes to have a forum or a body that they can appeal to in order to have their dispute heard and resolved. I find that a little odd, but I guess in this committee various points of view have been expressed at times. I am glad to see that people are dealing with things on their merits rather than from any philosophical background.

  In response to Senator West, the complaints involving medical evidence form a very small minority of disputes with regard to superannuation. The experience of the Social Security Appeals Tribunal is that it has not resulted in a spate of appeals. The one thing that we should remember is that close to 50 per cent of the appeals that go to the Social Security Appeals Tribunal are successful. So what should be kept in mind is not the number of complaints that go there but the fact that a considerable number of them are successful.

  That factor ought to be taken into consideration in determining our attitude towards whether or not medical complaints can go to the tribunal. So, particularly, should the fact that disability claimants are normally unemployed and in a weak financial position and, therefore, ordinarily unable to take issue with adverse decisions that, in the end result, have a dramatic effect on the lives of the people involved. The cost to the community, superannuation funds and individuals of resolving disputes in a forum other than a court is very much lower than that of resolving them through a court procedure.

  For those reasons the coalition, after a fair bit of consideration, will be supporting the disallowance motion. Although we have tried to settle our disagreements this afternoon in a short time, in general terms, the idea of allowing six months is not unappealing to us; but, as I understand it, we cannot amend a regulation, and there is nothing wrong with the government putting in another regulation tomorrow setting out exactly the things that it is trying to amend in the current regulation. I understand that that is the case and stand to be corrected if I am wrong. If that is the case, I think that would be the sensible way to proceed because it would achieve the result that the government would choose to have.

  The other thing that is important to remember is that we were very concerned throughout the whole of these hearings about maintaining community confidence in the superannuation system. One of the things that has disturbed us as a committee in general is that a lot of the evidence we received would suggest that confidence in the superannuation system is currently on a downward trend rather than one of total support. In a period when people cite distrust of the system and distrust of legislative changes as one of the reasons behind this decline in confidence in superannuation, we really ought to take consumer confidence as a vital consideration in determining our position. Consumer confidence is one of the reasons why we believe that this regulation should be disallowed.

  We could then see what comes by way of an amended regulation before the parliament, if the government so desires, and whether it comes in a form we feel we can support. I understand that Senator Woodley, in moving to disallow this regulation, is aware that we understand some of the difficulties that may arise. But, should a compromise regulation come into this place as early as possible, I am quite sure that Senator Woodley would be pleased, and I think that probably those of us on this side of the chamber would agree that that might be the way to proceed.

  With those few remarks, let me say that we will be supporting Senator Woodley's move to disallow the regulation. But we do hope that this matter can be resolved to the benefit of the superannuation system and those people who are affected by it adversely at times. I am thinking particularly of those people who, under our current system, have no forum other than the courts where they can redress any situation where they feel they have been treated less than fairly.