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Wednesday, 13 May 2009
Page: 2689

Senator McEWEN (6:30 PM) —I too would like to make a contribution to the debate about this important bill. The Employment and Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 2008 will amend the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 to increase the amount of death benefits payable under the Australian government’s workers compensation scheme to the family of a person killed in the workplace. Additionally, the bill will amend the Social Security Act 1991 to expand the assurance-of-support qualification provisions to include sickness allowance and a single parenting payment.

The government have demonstrated our commitment to working Australians. The amendments being discussed today are just a few of the many which reflect that commitment to working Australians. Indeed, just halfway through the government’s first term of office, the government have already acted to protect workers in a number of ways. In reacting to the worldwide economic slowdown, the government introduced the Nation Building and Jobs Plan. Despite opposition from the coalition, the Labor government are determined to successfully cushion the impact of the recession on Australian workers as much as we can. Last week’s release of the April unemployment figures supported that action. Despite the worldwide predictions of a further rise in unemployment, the Australian Bureau of Statistics data showed that more than 27,000 new full- and part-time jobs were created in April.

We are well aware that of course unemployment figures will rise, and we are determined to limit that rise in unemployment by preventing the worst effects of the global financial crisis into which Australia has been dragged. As well as the Nation Building and Jobs Plan and the federal budget released last night, the government recently introduced the Fair Work Bill. Yet another example of the government’s priority of worker protection, the Fair Work Bill, now enacted, abolishes the former government’s draconian Work Choices legislation and reintroduces some fairness and equality into the debate about workers’ rights.

I am delighted to be part of a progressive government, a government that does not exploit working people, a government that stands by its commitments and a government that acts to protect workers’ rights. It is with that in mind in particular that I speak on this bill today. I would welcome its speedy passage through the Senate.

I would like to focus primarily on the first mentioned amendment of this bill, which increases the death benefits for families of people killed in workplace incidents. Losing a loved one in any circumstances is devastating, and workplace deaths are perhaps even more devastating because those deaths could have and should have been prevented. People go to work to make a living, to make life better for themselves and their families. People do not go to work with the expectation that they may be seriously injured or even killed. Everyone should expect to be able to work in safe surroundings.

After the initial shock and grieving period, many families suffer from great financial hardship following the serious injury or death of a family member in the workplace. When a regular income suddenly ceases, families can be left in strife. Mortgage payments or rental commitments, school fees, car loans, personal loans, electricity and food bills all still need to be paid. Most families rely on their work incomes to pay those bills, and an unanticipated loss of income compounds the grief felt by families of those who die at work. The government is proposing in this bill that financial compensation for affected families covered by the federal government’s compensation scheme is increased. The government of course understands that nothing can be done to make up for the loss of a loved one. However, the extra certainty and security that comes from an increase in financial compensation is fundamental.

The current death benefits under the national government Comcare scheme are unfavourable in comparison to local state workers compensation schemes. Currently, compensation stands at around the $225,000 mark. If this bill is passed, the compensation will be increased to $400,000. This increase will somewhat bring the compensation into line with the state compensation schemes. For example, in South Australia the payment for work related death by WorkCover South Australia is just slightly less than $420,500. Particularly under the former federal government, a large number of companies migrated from state based compensation schemes such as the South Australian one to the Australian government’s scheme. This bill will increase the amount of compensation payable and bring some parity and fairness to those families who were part of the move to the Comcare compensation scheme.

Unfortunately, you do not have to look hard to find instances of workplace deaths. From 2001 to 2006 in South Australia alone, there were 166 workplace fatalities. In a period of just five years, 166 South Australians were killed through workplace accidents. While that number is upsettingly high, it in no way reflects the number of family members and friends also affected by those deaths. Many more hundreds of family members and friends would have been affected by those deaths, both emotionally and, directly for the families, financially. The government is attempting to make those financial effects less severe for those covered by the federal legislation.

It is perhaps even more alarming when you look at the statistics of workplace deaths over a shorter period of time. I was very surprised to find that, in the six months from October last year until April 2009, 13 South Australians died in workplace accidents. Three of the most recent fatalities occurred only early last month. A 24-year-old backpacker was killed on a potato farm after falling two metres from the doorway of a harvester, and two professional fishermen lost their lives in a boating tragedy. Those deaths could have and should have been prevented. South Australia’s statistics in this regard are nothing to be proud of.

Apart from the devastation wreaked on families, workplace injury and death result in a serious economic problem for the whole community. In the 2007 South Australian House of Assembly inquiry into workplace injuries and death, alarming statistics were revealed, reiterating the seriousness of the incidents. Dr Rick Sarre, Professor of Law and Criminal Justice at the University of South Australia, indicated that the number of workplace deaths and injuries is far too high. He stated in his submission that one in 20 workers suffer a work related disease or injury each year; someone is injured seriously enough to lodge a workers compensation claim every 2.4 minutes; and 50 workers will suffer injuries each day, with five of them suffering permanent injuries.

Another South Australian researcher, Dr Kevin Purse, a Senior Research Fellow from the University of South Australia’s Education, Arts and Social Sciences division, contributed to the same South Australian government inquiry. His 25 years of practical experience in the field of occupational health and safety led him to indicate to the committee in his submission that ‘the incidence of work related injury and death is an ongoing epidemic’. He told the inquiry that many workplace injuries were likely to have gone unreported, resulting in difficulty comparing statistics across the nation. However, he did state that in the 2004 National Occupational Health and Safety Commission report, the cost of work related injuries to the Australian community totalled about $43 billion per year. Many of those injuries were predictable, he said, because:

… we know that these types of injuries occur as a result of unsafe systems of work, which can be determined and may be prevented.

News reports of deaths in the workplace make for unwelcome and disturbing stories. A number of those stories appear on the website, which was set up with the intention of improving the safety of Australians at work. It tells the stories of workplace injuries and deaths across the country. Earlier this month, a story was featured about a prominent Adelaide scrap metal business that was convicted and fined in the South Australian Industrial Relations Court over the death of a truck driver on its premises in 2006. In that incident, the truck driver, 33-year-old Brian Murphy, was killed after a bundle of steel tubes was dislodged by a forklift operator and struck him. SafeWork SA later found that there were no safe operating procedures in place for the loading and unloading of trucks at the workplace. It was also found that a few simple and inexpensive safety measures could easily have prevented Mr Murphy’s death. The Industrial Relations Court heard that Mr Murphy’s death had a ‘devastating impact’ on his partner of 10 years, his three children and his extended family.

Instances such as that one are unfortunately not uncommon. The Adelaide Advertiser published a similar story in April last year, where a couple who had been together for more than half their lives were parted by a workplace fatality. Di Groeneveld lost her husband in 2005 when he was working on a neon sign which electrocuted him. Mr Groeneveld’s hand came into contact with the end of a loose wire while he was changing one of the sign’s light tubes at a suburban Adelaide car dealership, resulting in his death. Mr Groeneveld’s employer was subsequently charged for failing to provide a safe workplace. Not only was Mr Groeneveld not provided with any safety protection; his employer had never established a set of written safe work procedures in the workplace. Mr Groeneveld was just one of the many people whose lives are suddenly and without warning taken from them—and of course his wife’s life was turned upside down, as were the lives of his children and his extended family. It is for those sorts of reasons that this bill needs to be passed. It needs to be passed to enable greater financial security to those affected by workplace deaths.

While I have mentioned the increase in the lump sum payout to $400,000, I have yet to mention the increase proposed in this bill to the weekly benefits for dependant children. I note that both the examples of workplace fatalities I spoke of earlier resulted in children losing a parent. This bill proposes to increase the weekly payment for dependant children from $75.10 to $110 per week—a $35 increase in compensation that hopefully will go some way to assisting the families affected by workplace deaths. These payment increases, for both the lump sum and the weekly dependant child allowance, will also be indexed annually by the wage price index, as issued by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Currently, the escalation is done through the CPI. In many respects, the CPI has become a very difficult index to utilise. It is hoped that using the wage price index will give a truer representation and therefore provide a fairer benefit increase for families on the whole.

In a further sign of support for Australian workers and their families, just last week the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations announced a plan to backdate the increase in death benefits for employees covered by Comcare. That announcement will ensure all families covered by Comcare who have suffered the loss of a loved one in the workplace since 2008 will receive a back payment of the increased amount of compensation, should this bill be passed in the Senate—and, indeed, we expect it will be. That announcement is of particular significance to the family of ACT firefighter Mr David Balfour. Mr Balfour was a professional firefighter who died whilst helping his Victorian colleagues fight the Black Saturday blazes. He was the first ever firefighter from the ACT to die whilst on duty. He had previously fought the 2003 Canberra fires and went to Victoria to help out as he saw it as his chance to return the favour to all those who had come from Victoria to help save his city from the fires. It was a choice that ultimately cost him his life. The announcement last week that the increased compensation would be payable to his wife and children will hopefully provide some relief for his family.

If the bill is passed, there are a number of other amendments which will affect families in other circumstances. The bill seeks to amend the Social Security Act 1991 to extend sickness allowance and parenting payment (single), the provisions which prevent a person from receiving payment while there is an assurance of support in force. This would mean that a person who is subject to an assurance of support will not qualify for sickness allowance or parenting payment (single) where their assuror is willing and able to provide them with an adequate level of support and it would be reasonable for them to accept that support. Currently, where a person who is subject to an assurance of support receives sickness allowance or parenting payment (single), the payments they receive become a debt of the assuror to the Commonwealth rather than the person being excluded from payment and supported by the assuror.

The amendments that are being proposed in this bill would align the qualification provisions for sickness allowance and parenting payment (single) with those other working-age income support payments such as Newstart allowance, parenting payment (partnered), youth allowance, Austudy and widow allowance, for which a person does not qualify if they have an assurance of support in force. Under the proposed amendments, migrants will still be able to receive sickness allowance or parenting payment (single) if their assuror is unwilling or unable to provide them with an adequate level of support. Any income support payments made to the migrant would become a debt of the assuror to Centrelink. All these proposed amendments are consistent with the January 2008 reforms to the Assurance of Support scheme, which, amongst other things, added sickness allowance and parenting program (single) to the list of payments that are recoverable under the Assurance of Support program. There are other minor and technical amendments to this bill, including amendments to the Social Security Act.

In conclusion, I would like to note that critical accidents and death in the workplace are a serious problem which should be addressed in every workplace across the nation. Indeed, I am pleased to say that the South Australian government in particular has done a lot to ensure that tough laws and heavy penalties are in place for workplaces that are unsafe. But we should remember that it is only at the workplace that the prevention of workplace death and injury can occur. You can have as many penalties in place as you like, but we need to encourage all employers to implement safety measures and ensure compliance. This a much better course of action than punishing employers. Employers need to keep their employees safe. It is essential that workplaces deliver the highest standards of safety to protect the rights and lives of every Australian worker.

In the debate about workers compensation schemes and, as Dr Purse calls it, the epidemic of workplace death and injury, it is also very important to recognise and remember the role and the rights of trade unions and health and safety representatives in the workplace. In this debate, we often neglect to give due acknowledgement to, in particular, health and safety representatives in the workplace. They often have a very difficult job in raising workplace safety issues with their employer. In my experience they take their responsibilities very seriously and have directly contributed to ensuring that there are not even more workplace deaths and injuries.

As I said at the outset, the government can do little to relieve the heartache of losing a loved one through workplace death or injury. However, if this bill is passed in the Senate today, we will at least have done something to alleviate some of the financial woes of the families, who are of course the unintended victims of workplace deaths. I would therefore like to thank the Senate for this opportunity to make these comments about this very important piece of legislation today. I know that, in this budget week, there are many things occupying the minds of senators and there are many serious issues to be debated. But it must be said that being able to go to work knowing that you are going to return home safely is as important as understanding the complexity of any of the budget measures that were announced last night. I am pleased that the Senate is giving due regard to this very important piece of legislation and I urge all senators to support it.

Debate interrupted.