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Wednesday, 13 May 2009
Page: 2688

Senator BRANDIS (6:26 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Employment and Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 2008. The bill amends the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 to provide for increased benefits payable to the dependants of an employee in a workplace covered by the Australian government workers compensation system in the event of a work related death. This will deliver better outcomes for the families of employees who work for an employer which has joined the federal 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. 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. Future increases to these benefit payments will be defined by increases in the wage price index issued by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Various amendments are also being made under this bill to social security laws to amend incorrect references and 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 also amends the Social Security Act 1991 to extend the provisions which prevent a person from receiving payment while there is an assurance of support in force. An assurance of support is a commitment to the government to repay certain welfare payments made to migrants during their first two years after arriving in Australia. The amendment will mean that employees who are subject to an assurance of support will not qualify for sickness allowance or single parenting payment where the assurer is willing and able to provide them with an adequate level of support and it would be reasonable for them to accept that support. It is anticipated that there will be no financial impact resulting from these amendments. The estimated cost of death benefits over the next four years will be $6.1 million, which can be met from Comcare’s existing premium pool.

Naturally the coalition is strongly supportive of safety in the workplace. It is of fundamental importance that appropriate procedures and measures be in place to protect employees from hazards to their health in the workplace. Employers have a duty of care for the safety and wellbeing of their employees, who in turn should observe the occupational health and safety measures at the workplace. However, it is a tragic fact of life that fatalities and serious injuries do occur in the workplace despite the best precautions. Nobody wants to see the occurrence of injuries or illnesses to people whilst they go about their duties. A work related death is the worst possible thing for an employee and his or her family.

It is unquestionably right that an appropriate level of compensation be paid to those who are immediately dependent upon the victim. Just as important, though, is the need to ensure Commonwealth related workplaces—indeed any workplaces—are safe places to work and have appropriate 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 been injured while undertaking duties for the Commonwealth. The Compensation (Commonwealth Government Employees) Act was introduced by a coalition government in 1971, and subsequent coalition as well as Labor governments have updated and improved this legislation. 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 coalition will continue to cooperate with the government to improve workplace health and safety measures and to ensure that dependants are adequately protected. We are therefore pleased to support the amendments proposed in this bill.