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Wednesday, 4 November 1992
Page: 2639

Mr PETER MORRIS (10.43 p.m.) —I acknowledge the at least partial support of the Opposition for this legislation, although I have to say that I do not have a great deal of confidence in what the honourable member for Gilmore (Mr Sharp) was saying. In his concluding remarks he said that the Opposition does agree on the need to improve the legislation and that it ought to be corrected, but not now. Not 81 years after the original Act? Will we wait until the twenty-first century?

  We have to remember that the nexus between Commonwealth employees and entitlements for seafarers was broken 21 years ago by the Opposition. There was a nexus. The States usually have a nexus in their compensation schemes with their own State employees. It is not new, it is not novel, it is not inequitable—it is sensible. Twenty-one years after, the then coalition broke the nexus on the basis that they should wait until the Woodhouse report came down. The Woodhouse report came down. Those opposite were in government for another seven years, from 1975 to 1983. They were still waiting and here we are again tonight. Yet the honourable member for Gilmore says that we should wait.

  Underneath this is a long-lasting antipathy on the part of the Liberal and National parties towards the Australian shipping industry. There is a grudging sort of recognition that tremendous progress has been made, and there is a willingness in that industry to try to become competitive in selected areas as a major service industry. But, no, they give grudging recognition but they cannot forget whatever it was that caused that animosity. I have not been able to discover it, but I can see it. It is there day after day. That grudging recognition has been expressed here tonight. Those opposite say, `Well, it is a good thing. We ought to do something about it, but not now'. Not now—which, as I said, is 81 years after this Act was introduced.

  There would be few pieces of legislation in this Parliament that date back to 1911. The honourable member for Gilmore says, `Leave it until a bit later. We will look at it in the other place'. We know what will happen in the other place. I will tell honourable members now. We will have the Liberal and National parties in the other place endeavouring to say, `Look, this needs to be held back because the CERC Act is being changed. We have to hold it back until then. We will see what amendments are made to that'. We are now into November. The House adjourns in a matter of weeks. We will come back in February some time. There could be an election. Honourable members opposite will not get in, but the whole thing will be put off for at least another half year or a year. In the meantime, seafarers' families will be seriously disadvantaged. That is the inequity of the existing scheme.

  These measures are not being pushed through; it is a just recognition of seafarers' entitlements and the needs of their families. After all, seafarers do have families: they marry, they have children, they have brothers and sisters, and they also have parents. They do have family needs, and this recognition is long overdue.

  I have to be quite scornful of the words of the honourable member for Gilmore: `We support it in principle. There are some aspects of it which I will come to in a moment, but not now'. He raised the question of suicide and said that a person who committed suicide should not be entitled to benefits. But the provisions relating to serious and wilful misconduct and self-inflicted injuries are identical to the provisions in the CERC Act. The question of whether suicide was compensable was considered in relation to the CERC Act in the case of Innes v. Commonwealth in 1979. The reference is ICCD 129. Essentially, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal found, first, that there was sufficient evidence for the Tribunal to be satisfied that the deceased's employment was a contributing factor. I repeat: his employment was a contributing factor to the development of the mental disease which led to his suicide; and, secondly, the deceased's mind was so unhinged as to dethrone his power of volition, and the claim was not barred by the subsection. It would appear that a claim in relation to suicide would be granted only where these conditions were satisfied. So I think we can dismiss that comment from the Opposition fairly quickly.

  The other comment that the honourable member for Gilmore made was in respect of common law claims. The provision covering common law actions by employees against an employer or fellow employee is again identical to the provision in the CERC Act. I am amazed that the Opposition should raise this point. In developing the CERC Bill, the Government's intention was that the Commonwealth employee should have no recourse to common law actions against the Commonwealth or fellow employees. However, that Bill was amended in the Senate by the Opposition and the Democrats to allow capped common law actions for non-economic loss such as permanent impairment and pain and suffering. In the common law actions relating to death, no Australian jurisdiction, except the Northern Territory, restricts access to common law in respect of dependants of a deceased worker. In any case, the Commonwealth does not have the constitutional power to limit common law actions by the dependants of deceased seafarers.

  Another question concerned the level of benefits. For heaven's sake, how long are seafarers' families to be denied fair recognition of their entitlements in comparison to the families of other employees? I said earlier that prior to 1971, prior to the coalition parties breaking the nexus with Commonwealth employees, there was recognition; there was a relationship. The review of the Comcare scheme carried out by Mr Ron Brown recommended that the general levels of benefit provision under the Comcare scheme should be maintained. Most of that review related to the administration of Comcare. It had nothing to do with the seafarer scheme. Many of the review's recommendations have been implemented through the Commonwealth Employment (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act 1992 and the Industrial Relations Legislation Amendment Act (No. 3) 1991.

  There are other recommendations under consideration by Comcare, but they do not have any relevance to the seafarer scheme. Should it be decided in the future that benefits under the Commonwealth employees legislation should be changed, the Government could also examine the need to change the seafarer scheme.

  Again, we have put aside the point raised by the honourable member for Gilmore. I repeat that I listened to his remarks intently. Even though these recommendations have come forward from the industry, there was long consultation between the industry, the unions and government about this legislation. There was ample opportunity for all of these points to come forward. At this time the honourable member for Gilmore, on behalf of the Opposition, is looking for some reason to justify delaying or not passing this legislation or to block the legislation in the other place because of that antipathy I mentioned earlier that the Opposition has towards Australian seafarers.

  In the interests of this nation, my colleague opposite, the honourable member for Gilmore, should have a rethink and set about recognising the Australian shipping industry as a major service sector in our economy. On a tonne/kilometre basis, we are the fifth largest shipping market in the world. If we pick out niche markets in the global market, we can expand trade, earn foreign income and save this country freight. Over time, there is a major opportunity for the Australian shipping industry to grow.

  I ask the honourable member for Gilmore to start going down that track and not look every time for a reason to hold back Australian industry. There is always an argument that those on the other side can develop to say, `It is not too bad. There is a bit of an improvement, but we really ought to be doing a lot more'. It is like the Opposition's attitude to the trans-Tasman services. For instance, the Opposition says that the trans-Tasman accord is not satisfactory and should be abolished. But the people who use the trans-Tasman services have an ongoing opportunity to initiate legal action and have whatever service they want across the Tasman. The people who use the service appreciate the frequency of it. They want the 12 ports in New Zealand serviced on a regular basis. They have ample capacity to move in an east-west direction when they want to. They have had a 20 per cent reduction in real terms in rates over the last couple of years.

  They are quite happy with what they have got, but here in this place the Opposition says that it is not right and should be changed. Again, this simply indicates that those opposite are out of touch with and lack an understanding of what business needs. They can pontificate or sound off about it, but the people who have an opportunity to do something about it any time they wish—the users of those services—have not done so. They have been invited to do it by the New Zealand Government, but they have not taken up the offer because they want to retain the kind of service they have with its level of viability and rates.

  I heard the honourable member for Gilmore asking why this legislation is being pushed through. He said, `After all, the existing legislation has operated since 1911'. That is terrific. How about we apply that approach to parliamentary salaries—parliamentary salaries set in 1911? The legislation is there. Why should we change it?

Mr Hollis —That's a bit hard!

Mr PETER MORRIS —It is a bit hard? It would be a reasonable proposition along the lines of that coming from those opposite, but they would not say that. It is like the Opposition's other proposal in respect of industrial relations, but I would be outside the realm of the debate so I had better withdraw from discussing that area.

  The member for Gilmore referred to the benefits as being the penthouse level rather than the basement level of pay arrangements. What is wrong with Australian seafarers? Are they not Australians? Were they not born in this nation? Do they not go to our schools and training colleges? Do they not rise to be captains and recognised across the world?

  Australian maritime credentials in the world are top class; anybody who has trained in Australia has good credentials. The reason there are so many Australian seafarers working in Asia is that the tasks are complex and competent and reliable people are wanted. But no, the Opposition says that we should be looking at basement levels and not these penthouse levels of payment. I will come to the level of payments as I work through my notes.

  Is the Opposition suggesting that we should treat seafarers as second-class citizens? Of course it is, and it should come clean about it. We all recognise that it is. It is saying that an injury to a seafarer should be worth less than an injury to a public sector employee. Neither the State schemes nor the Northern Territory scheme differentiate between the public and private sectors.

  The suggestion by the Opposition also ignores the historical nexus between Commonwealth employees and seafarer schemes. As I said earlier, that nexus was broken by a previous conservative government while waiting for the Woodhouse committee report. When it came into government, it abandoned the concept of a national scheme and abandoned the seafarers as well, leaving them with the oldest workers compensation legislation on the Australian statute book. Why? Because of this antipathy of the Liberal-National parties to Australian seafarers.

  It is time that my dear colleagues opposite woke up and recognised that seafaring is an important industry in this country and can be a much more important industry. It can make a major contribution to our invisible earnings, the growth of this country and the generation of jobs. It is not something to be hated and despised. How long has this industry remained in this condition? Decade after decade; it is 21 years alone in this case.

  The suggestion that the seafarers scheme should be based on State legislation is ludicrous. There is a tremendous variation between the States. In fact, a number of the State benefits are higher than what is proposed in this legislation. The benefits under this Bill are broadly comparable with those provided under the most popular States of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. The other States which have lower benefits have open access to common law for economic and non-economic loss. The Northern Territory is the only jurisdiction that has totally abrogated common law.

  A successful damages action has the potential to cost far more than the prescribed benefits under the no fault scheme benefits, plus the substantial legal costs. I took the remarks of my colleague opposite, the honourable member for Gilmore, in respect of rehabilitation to mean that it is something to be scorned, something that really was not desirable in the scheme of things for seafarers. Let me say to the honourable member opposite: the establishment of Comcare and the emphasis and requirement that there be a rehabilitation program where unfitness for work extends beyond 28 days has resulted in a halving of the number of claims for compensation for periods beyond 28 days.

  Work related illness and injury in this country cost some $10,000m each year. In an area where it is extremely important to try to avoid work related illness and injury and so minimise cost—and that is the benefit that can come from this legislation—rehabilitation is an important part. That $10,000m cost in work related illness and injury is something that has to be addressed by us all. The most effective way of addressing it is through the rehabilitation programs and dispensing with the idea that one can go on compensation and carry on.

  There is no doubt that the fact that a rehabilitation program has to be initiated by the employer after 28 days has altered the expectations of both employers and employees. Many of us know of cases in the private and public sectors where people have been a little iffy and do not work as well as one would like to see them work. Their cases in terms of compensation might be a bit marginal, but the employer in the private sector supports their applications for compensation to get them off the payroll. Who pays? The insurance company. Who pays the insurance company? All businesses in this country. So that $10,000m cost per annum is a heavy burden upon this nation, upon our economy and upon our becoming more competitive in domestic and international economies.

  We are bringing rehabilitation into this industry for the first time. It will ensure that vocational training is available for those who are no longer able to continue in the industry. So we have here an opportunity for people who cannot go back into the industry. The honourable member for Gilmore said that one has to be 100 per cent fit to be on a ship. Many people are hurt on ships. I will give a few examples—and these are the ships that the honourable for Gilmore supports.

  A Burmese seaman lost two fingers through sloppy practices and working in an untrained manner when moving a hawser and lifting a hatch cover. He received compensation here and was rushed home quicker than he should have been. He should have been kept in hospital until the stubs of his fingers were fully healed, but he was rushed back to Bangkok. When he got back to Burma, his compensation and wages were confiscated and he had lost two fingers.

  These are the kinds of ships and practices that the Opposition supports. It wants open slather in this country for foreign ships. I can tell my friends opposite that they will get to carry the can for the practices and the exploitations of people that are going on. In this legislation we are introducing for Australian seafarers what everybody else in industry should have—proper processes for rehabilitation.

  We have had legislation for seafarers since 1911, as I mentioned earlier. What we are moving to, for the first time, with this rehabilitation is reducing the cost of the long term injury, because currently there are no rehabilitation arrangements. If we can get people back to work quicker, and have them submitting fewer compensation claims, then the cost of the scheme will go down. There is an in-built opportunity here for employers with proper practices, good training and proper rehabilitation programs to reduce the cost of the scheme.

  The shipping sector is the only area of employment in Australia where unfettered, unlimited common law rights still exist for workers. The temptation of large lump sum pay-outs has led to many long, drawn out common law damages claims. Who are the beneficiaries? On occasions, the seafarers' families, but the guaranteed beneficiaries are the lawyers and the doctors. They win every time. They are on a no loss claim.

  Mr Sharp interjecting—

Mr PETER MORRIS —Calm down. In many cases, what happens is that suddenly employees or families have a large amount of money available to them, and many are not able to manage that money. There is a lawyer opposite here; he knows all about it.

Mr Sciacca —So do I.

Mr PETER MORRIS —You too? Shame on both of you. The lawyers and the doctors are the winners. They always win. We see case after case where families receive lump sums, the money is dissipated and they have real tragedy and difficulties following on from that. Injured workers are encouraged by the provisions of this Bill into rehabilitation. We want to get them back to work and back into training, and get their families back to having a stable source of income.

  I strongly support the legislation before us. I do not take with a great deal of seriousness the claims that the honourable member for Gilmore puts forward on behalf of the industry. Industry has had ample time to put those forward. I hope that when this legislation goes to the other place it will receive the support it deserves. I have every confidence that it will reduce the incidence of compensation claims and compensation costs to the industry, and give seafarers in this country an entitlement they should have had many years ago. I support the legislation.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.

  Bill read a second time.