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Wednesday, 4 November 1992
Page: 2637

Mr HOLLIS (10.34 p.m.) —I am pleased to speak in this important cognate debate on seafarers legislation, which essentially is a complete overhaul of seamen's compensation. I was also pleased to hear the honourable member for Gilmore (Mr Sharp) indicate that the Opposition supports these Bills which we are debating this evening. I was interested in what he said about the likely flow-on. As seamen have waited since 1911 for their Act to be brought up to modern day accepted standards, I think that the benefits they are getting are generally accepted out there in the community.

  I have another small, niggly point. The honourable member referred to aircrews and how they are often bound by State jurisdictions. He pointed to Cocos and Christmas Islands. As the Minister for the Arts and Territories (Ms Fatin), who is at the table, well knows, having introduced the legislation, Cocos and Christmas Islands now come under Western Australian jurisdiction.

  The Seamen's Compensation Act 1911 has not been significantly amended since it was first enacted. As a consequence, the Act does not reflect the modern rehabilitation, compensation and social concepts which have been progressively introduced since the early 1970s into the workers compensation scheme for Commonwealth employees and into State schemes. Prior to the substantial review of the Commonwealth employees workers compensation scheme in 1971, there had been a close nexus between the seafarers and the Commonwealth employees scheme.

  As has been indicated, this is the first major reform since the Act was introduced in 1911. I do not know why, but it seems that the Act missed out on the two waves of reforms of shipping legislation which were implemented in Australia during the conservative legislation period in the 1970s and early 1980s. I do not like to say it, but it appears to me that the conservatives were not much interested in seamen's conditions. Reform was ignored. I guess this was because it was a small area and nobody paid it much attention. The attitude was: why should we do anything for the seamen? The conservative Government did not regard seamen as important enough to implement legislation to reform the Act.

  In 1987 the then Minister for Social Security commissioned Professor Harold Luntz to conduct a review of seamen's compensation. This review was part of the reform of the shipping industry and, as part of that process, the Luntz inquiry went ahead. The inquiry first produced a discussion paper and then a report designed to bring the legislation up to date with generally accepted community standards.

  Following extensive consultation with industry parties, the Government agreed to the development of the new workers' compensation legislation for seafarers. I make the point that there had been 1 1/2 years of consultation before the final report by the Luntz inquiry. A Cabinet decision was taken in June 1991 to authorise the Department to draft legislation to be brought before the House. That process involved consultation with employer bodies and unions.

  An undertaking was given by shipowners to the Ship Industry Reform Authority that they would support reform of the compensation regime in order to complement the other reforms that had been taking place in the shipping industry during the last seven or eight years. These reforms have seen a reduction in the manning levels on ships from 35 in the early 1980s to average levels today of 21 for existing ships and 18 for new ships. I make the point, which is not very often made in this House, that all this has been achieved without any significant disputation.

  I suggest that few industries in Australia have successfully undertaken more dramatic change than the seagoing industry. This dramatic change has involved retraining, multiskilling and a reduction in the number of unions. But to listen to the conservatives in this House, one would think that nothing had happened in relation to the seagoing unions. I suggest that the conservatives are out of touch with what has happened in relation to the seagoing unions, as they are out of touch with the reforms that have been carried out on the waterfront.

  The momentum of change in the industry will continue. Earlier this year the industry established the Seafarers Assistance Service. Following negotiations between unions and employers, the Seafarers Assistance Service was established to provide a professional counselling service to deal with a whole range of problems that can be faced by workers, including drug and alcohol problems, marital problems and other stresses, all of which can lead to difficulties in the workplace.

  The Seafarers Assistance Service is funded by shipping employees and represents the first such national industry-wide scheme anywhere in the world. A recent ILO conference in Geneva congratulated Australia and the Australian industry on this development.

  In addition, the Government has already taken steps towards the adoption of occupational health and safety legislation for the maritime industry. The maritime industry is one of the few industries in Australia which does not currently have comprehensive health and safety legislation. When this compensation reform and occupational health and safety legislation are enacted, the Government and industry will have put in place a comprehensive regime to reduce occupational injuries and diseases that will be of lasting benefit to seafarers and the Australian shipping industry.

  The honourable member for Gilmore seemed to be saying, `Why go ahead with this at this time when other matters have not been fully worked out?'. I might make a point about this desire for delay with this legislation. There has been no delay to the reform process in the shipping industry and there is no reason why the reform process of compensation should be delayed.

  The honourable member for Gilmore also made points about the differences in the CERC Act. While the benefits provided in the Bill are identical to those available in the CERC Act, there are a number of areas where it has been necessary to finetune the arrangements to reflect the differences between private and public sector employment. There is a significant range of differences between the two schemes, not least the superannuation schemes, rehabilitation, time limits for determination, curtailing of common law action in respect of industries occurring before the commencement day and provision of application of certain retired employees. There is a whole range of finetuning that is very necessary.

  I welcome this reform. I very much welcome the fact that at last this Act is being brought up to date to reflect modern standards and modern conditions in the seagoing union. I have great respect for those who go to sea around the Australian coast. I think they are unsung and underpraised people. I am always thankful when I look at some of the conditions on Australian shipping that we do not have the same sorts of conditions that exist in some other countries' shipping that the honourable member for Shortland (Mr Peter Morris) and I have been investigating over the last 12 or 18 months and will be reporting to the Parliament about shortly.

  In conclusion, this Bill will create a progressive compensation and rehabilitation system comparable to other modern workers compensation arrangements in Australia. The measures will ensure that injured seafarers are quickly and effectively rehabilitated. This in turn will cut the time lost through work related injuries and the associated compensation costs and human suffering.

  This reform represents another step in the Government's comprehensive shipping reform program which has resulted in significantly increasing Australian shipping competitiveness, including a 50 per cent reduction in crew sizes on modern, technologically advanced ships. I have great pleasure in commending these Bills to the House.