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Wednesday, 7 March 1973
Page: 288

Mr Clyde Cameron (HINDMARSH, SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

The principal purpose of this Bill is to incorporate in the existing legislation improvements along the lines of those that were provided for in the amendments I moved in October last year during the Committee stage of the debate on the Compensation (Commonwealth Employees) Bill 1972. Those amendments embodied the Australian Labor Party's immediate objectives in relation to this legislation which provides workers' compensation cover for employees of the Commonwealth and authorities of the Commonwealth. Honourable members will recall that at that time I indicated that if a Labor Government were to be elected in December 1972 a Bill providing for such improvements would be introduced this year. This Bill honours that promise.

Injury' and 'disease' provisions

Before going on to outline the main changes which will flow from giving effect to that preelection promise, I think I should mention here that we are taking this opportunity to remove what is considered by the Government to be a serious anomaly in the present legislation. Under the existing Act, a temporal connection with the employment is sufficient to give an entitlement to compensation in the case of an injury, but it is not sufficient in the case of a disease. The amendments proposed in the Bill will allow cases involving disease to be treated on the same basis as those involving injury. Injury will be defined to include a disease or the aggravation, acceleration or recurrence of a disease and eligibility for compensation will be established if the disease, or the aggravation, acceleration or recurrence, arises out of or in the course of the employment. Though these amendments regarding injury and disease were not included in the amendments I moved last year, honourable members may recall that amendments along similar lines were included in the series of amendments that I moved on behalf of the Australian Labor Party during the debate on the Compensation (Commonwealth Employees) Bill 1971.

Compensation for total incapacity

The major changes which the Government proposes to introduce by this Bill relate to the rates and amounts of compensation payable under the Act. In accordance with our policy that an employee in receipt of compensation should not suffer any loss of earnings, the Bill provides for the weekly compensation payment for total incapacity for work to be increased to the level of the employee's average weekly earnings, including overtime, in his pre-injury employment. Provision already exists in the Act for the amount representing an employee's pre-injury average weekly earnings to be varied, from time to time, to take into account subsequent variations in the rate of pay for his particular preinjury employment and this will now have the effect of automatically adjusting the weekly compensation payment.

Compensation for partial incapacity

The Bill retains the principle that the weekly payment for partial incapacity for work should be an amount equal to the difference between the employee's average weekly earnings in his pre-injury employment and the weekly amount he is earning after the injury. However, the limitation which the existing Act places on the amount of this payment is removed. Furthermore, the Bill proposes that the Commonwealth shall endeavour to provide suit able employment for a partially incapacitated employee and, if such employment is not provided, the employee is to continue to receive weekly payments on the basis of total incapacity.

We consider that it is fair that an obligation should also be placed on the partially incapacitated employee to act reasonably and so the Bill provides that the Commissioner for Employees' Compensation may suspend the weekly payments if the employee unreasonably refuses or fails to accept suitable employment, or to satisfactorily undertake such employment, when it is provided.

Compensation for Death

A major change is proposed in relation to the compensation payable where an injury results in the death of an employee. We propose to replace the existing lump sum payment with a weekly payment related to the average weekly earnings of the deceased employee. Because of this relationship, the weekly payment in a death case will be automatically adjusted from time to time, in line with variations in the rate of pay for the particular employment in which the employee was engaged at the time of the injury which resulted in his death. Under these amendments, a widow will not have to prove dependency if she was living with the employee on a bona fide domestic basis at the date of his death and, for this purpose, she will qualify if she was only temporarily living apart from him, perhaps because he was in hospital or she was merely temporarily away from the family home.

Where there is a widow or a wholly dependent widower and one or more dependent children, or grandchildren, the weekly payment we propose is an amount equal to the full average weekly earnings of the deceased employee. On the other hand, if a widow or a wholly dependent widower is the only dependant, she or he will receive a weekly payment equal to 75 per cent of the deceased employee's average weekly earnings. In other cases, the weekly payments to persons who were wholly or partly dependent upon the deceased employee are to be determined by the Commissioner, subject to the total of such payments not exceeding the amount of the average weekly earnings of the deceased employee if he leaves 2 or more dependants or 75 per cent of that amount if there is only one dependant.

When he is determining the weekly amount payable for the benefit of a dependant, the Commissioner is to have regard to the need to secure the proper maintenance of the dependant and, where appropriate, the proper education of that dependant. In the case of a dependant other than a widow, a wholly dependent widower or a dependent child or grandchild, the Commissioner is also to have regard to the extent to which the dependant was dependent upon the deceased employee. The Commissioner will have power to vary or cancel the weekly payments payable in death cases to take into account a change in the financial circumstances or needs of a dependant or for any other sufficient reason. The Commissioner will be required to make such a review in cases where there is a widow or wholly dependent widower and one or more dependent children or grandchildren and the widow or widower dies.

Furthermore, a weekly payment being made to a widow or widower will cease upon her or bis remarriage but, if she or he was wholly or partly dependent upon the deceased, a lump sum equivalent to 104 times the weekly payment will be payable.

Compensation for Specified Losses

Another significant change relates to lump sum payments for specified losses or injuries. We propose that these lump sums be related to the national average weekly earnings per employed male unit as published by the Commonwealth Statistician and this will provide an automatic adjustment at quarterly intervals. The formula in the Bill provides for a maximum lump sum equal to the national average weekly earnings multiplied by 260 and, on the latest published figure, this gives an amount of $26,026 compared with the current maximum of $14,500 in the principal Act.

Certain losses will attract the maximum amount of compensation under this section and others will attract a percentage of that amount. The existing percentages for the latter type of loss have been reviewed and increased. As well, some new losses have been provided for. These are: The loss of binocular vision, the loss of the procreative function, bodily disfigurement and the loss of a part of the body or of a faculty not elsewhere provided for in the section.

Under the Bill all losses will be included in the one clause - the proposed new section 39 - and the amount calculated in accordance with the formula to which I have referred will become the maximum payable under the section even where multiple losses are involved. At the same time, however, it is proposed that these lump sums will be payable although an employee is totally incapacitated for work and also that they will no longer terminate any entitlement to weekly payments that an employee may have for total or partial incapacity for work.

Lump sum redemptions

Under the principal Act an employee who is partially incapacitated may request a lump sum payment in redemption of the Commonwealth liability to make weekly payments for his partial incapacity. The Bill proposes an amendment to the relevant section that will also allow a request for redemption to be made by a totally incapacitated employee who is in receipt of a pension, such as superannuation or defence forces retirement benefits pension, on account of invalidity due to his compensable injury.

Vocational training

The Bill will insert a new section of a beneficial nature for the severely handicapped. This proposed new section will apply only where an employee is totally incapacitated and would remain so permanently but for vocational training provided under the Act. In these circumstances, any earnings by such an employee during or as a result of the vocational training will no longer result in a reduction of his weekly compensation payments.

Reimbursement of costs

I come now to the question of costs incurred by a claimant in connection with a request to the Commissioner for reconsideration of a determination. At present a claimant cannot claim reimbursement for any such costs he incurs. By comparison, if a claimant institutes proceedings before a compensation tribunal or a prescribed court in relation to a determination and, before the proceedings are completed, the Commissioner varies or revokes the determination so that the proceedings are rendered abortive, then the Commonwealth is liable to reimburse the claimant for any costs reasonably incurred by him in connection with the proceedings. Under a new provision contained in the Bill the Commonwealth will be liable to meet any costs reasonably incurred by a claimant in relation to a determination which is varied or revoked by another determination as a result of a request for reconsideration. The Commonwealth will be liable for such costs when the second determination is more favourable to any claimant whose claim was dealt with by the first determination and also in the case where the second determination is less favourable to a claimant, provided he was not the claimant who made the request for reconsideration. This new provision will apply in relation to costs incurred on or after the date of commencement of the amending legislation.

Consequential amendments

Honourable members will appreciate that, with a comprehensive piece of legislation such as the principal Act, the proposed amendments which I have already outlined necessitate many minor amendments of a consequential nature. I should mention also that the Parliamentary Counsel has taken this opportunity to include some drafting changes in this Bill.

Amendment of other Act

A further matter which honourable members might like to note concerns the United States Naval Communication Station (Civilian Employees) Act 1971-1972. This is a companion piece of legislation which extends to civilian employees employed by the United States Navy in connection with the Station the terms of the Compensation (Commonwealth Employees) Act 1971-1972. The Bill provides for amendments to the Schedule to the United States Naval Communication Station (Civilian Employees) Act 1971-1972 so as to apply to the civilian personnel employed in connection with the Station the amendments to the Principal Act that I have outlined.

Application of amendments

The intention is that the amending legislation will come into operation on the day on which it receives the royal assent and the Bill provides for the new weekly incapacity payments to apply on and from that date, notwithstanding that the payments relate to an injury sustained before that date. The' new weekly payments for death and the new basis of payment in respect of lump sums for specified losses will apply on and from the date of commencement of the amending Act in all cases where the death occurs or the loss is suffered on or after that date, even though the death or the loss may have resulted from an injury sustained before that date. Perhaps I should add that the new provisions relating to disease cases will apply only where a disease is contracted or the aggravation, acceleration or recurrence of a disease occurs on or after the date of commencement of the amending legislation.

Standard safety code

At this stage I think I should remind honourable members that the Compensation (Commonwealth Employees) legislation applies not only to employees of the Commonwealth and Commonwealth authorities but also to holders of statutory offices, members of Commonwealth authorities, members of committees appointed by the Government and to certain classes of volunteers. When our proposed amendments come into operation all persons covered by this legislation will have the benefits of a workers' compensation code which will be considerably in advance of the codes applying under the workers' compensation legislation in the States and this, of course, is in keeping with the Australian Labor Party's view that the Commonwealth should be the leader in this field.

However, we will not be satisfied simply with this. It is only right and proper that there should be a comprehensive compensation code to cover all workers who are injured. But there is another aspect of this matter of industrial or work injuries to which I now want to refer and this is the prevention of accidents. We are not convinced that enough attention has been given in the past to the consideration of what can be done to reduce the incidence of accidents. In fact the prevention of industrial accidents and disease is specifically mentioned in the federal platform of the Australian Labor Party. The platform notes that the toll of personal injury is one of the disastrous incidents of social progress that calls for a co-ordinated response from the nation as a whole and goes on to state the objectives of the Australian Labor Party. This is for the Government to act:

(a)   To establish mandatory occupational safety and health standards applicable to all employees of the Commonwealth, of Commonwealth authorities and of Commonwealth contractors, in the Territories and in interstate trade and commerce;

(b)   to provide for the effective enforcement of such safety and health standards;

(c)   to provide for research relating to occu pational safety and health;

(d)   to provide for training programs to increase and improve personnel engaged in the field of occupational safety and health;

(e)   vo delineate more clearly the responsibilities of the Commonwealth Government and the States in their activities relating to occupational safety and health; (fi to provide grants to the States to assist them in identifying their needs and responsibilities in the area of occupational safety and health and to develop plans to conduct experiments and demonstration projects in connection therewith; and

(g)   to provide for appropriate accident and health reporting procedures which will help achieve the foregoing objectives.

On other occasions, when speaking on this legislation in this House, I have acknowledged that some companies in Australia are doing an excellent job in this sphere. I have mentioned the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd as one company which, through a comprehensive accident prevention scheme, has substantially reduced the time lost through accidents at its works. In fact over the last 15 years it has reduced the incidence of accidents by no less than 93 per cent. So far as the Commonwealth Public Service is concerned, I know that some work has already been done in connection with accident prevention but I think it is time for greater attention to be given to this matter throughout the whole of the Commonwealth Public Service and in its instrumentalities. I have therefore decided to recommend to Cabinet the establishment of a representative committee to draw up a uniform code of safety standards for adoption by all Commonwealth departments. Once the terms of this new code have been thrashed out and approved by Cabinet I shall ask Cabinet to authorise the setting up of whatever machinery is necessary for enforcement of the new code so as to ensure that all departments will observe the new safety standards. Once we have a standard safety code it may become necessary to extend it to private industry, either through consultation with the States or by providing for it to be included in Federal awards. I am glad to notice that the honourable member for Kooyong (Mr Peacock) agrees with what the Government intends to do in the field of safety enforcement.

In conclusion I should like to make the point that, while accident prevention is of prime importance, it is also relevant in relation to the improvements in the compensation code provided for in the Bill. It is true that, under the proposed new provisions, injured employees will receive much more than they receive now under the existing Compensation (Commonwealth Employees) Act. However, if we can get a worthwhile code of safety standards operating effectively, the net result will be an immense reduction in human suffering caused by avoidable injuries at work, and consequently an immense saving in lost production and government expenditure.

It is a very proud and satisfying moment for me to be standing here on the government side of the House of Representatives to move the second reading of this Bill. I have worked on this matter for the best part of my parliamentary life. I want to pay special tribute to the unselfishness of my colleague, the Minister for Social Security (Mr Hayden), for so generously allowing me the . pleasure and the honour of presenting the Bill to the Parliament. He had every right, as the Minister administering this section of Commonwealth activity, to have insisted upon presenting the Bill himself. He was generous enough and, I think, humane enough to know how I felt about the whole matter and to know what a great joy it would be to me to be the one to do it. I thank him for that and I commend the Bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Peacock) adjourned.

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