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Wednesday, 4 November 1992
Page: 2644

Mr SHARP (11.05 p.m.) —I intend to speak very briefly to the Seafarers Rehabilitation and Compensation Levy Bill 1992 which is before the House and, in the process, discuss not only the matters specific to the Bill, but also respond to some of the comments made by the honourable member for Shortland (Mr Peter Morris), who has given us an account tonight which he will probably only get away with due to the late hour.

Mr Lloyd —Except for the bit on doctors and lawyers.

Mr SHARP —Yes, except for that bit, where some self-interest in here evoked some response. I make the point that the honourable member for Shortland—whose interest in these matters is considerable and whose expertise is recognised not only by myself but also by others—started out with a great deal of nonsense. The sorts of comments he made—that the Opposition hates seafarers, that we have an antipathy toward them and so forth—are, as is so often the case with some of the things that the honourable member for Shortland says, evidence that he is living in the past.

  I am well and truly on the record—and I have been criticised by members of the Government for this—as acknowledging the virtues and merits of the Seamen's Union and, indeed, individual members of it. I think it is very important for us all to recognise that the Seamen's Union has done many good things. My position is on the record, yet tonight the honourable member for Shortland in his utterances has tried to indicate the exact opposite.

  Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the example used by the honourable member, in saying that I would support the situation on the Burmese ship where a fellow has lost two fingers, is straight-out and utterly ridiculous. It is nonsense. I suggest that the honourable member, in implying that I or other members of the Opposition would support that situation, is not being at all honest. I think the honourable member for Shortland would concede that that was simply rhetoric and I hope other members of the House understand that as well. We simply do not support that type of activity. It is not fair—nor is it honest—to suggest that we would.

  I think it is important to recognise in the debate tonight that the Bill which is before us deals with a great deal of reform which has been undertaken on the Australian waterfront and, specifically, in the shipping industry. I note that the Government likes to take full credit for the reforms which have taken place over the last few years. It conveniently ignores—as I am sure the honourable member for Shortland would recognise—the initiatives undertaken by the coalition Government in 1982 when the then Minister for Transport, Ralph Hunt, initiated reforms which have led to considerable changes within the industry, such as reductions in the size of crew levels on board ships, and which have been followed through by this Government in the last few years.

  As we are debating these matters tonight, I think it is worth while that we recognise that these reforms were initiated by a coalition government. We would know this from the history of the Seamen's Union—it is well recognised in its comments and history books. I make that point tonight in order to keep the matters and views which are before the House properly balanced.

  The other thing which is worth remembering is that in the course of my comments tonight I have said that there is some need for further consideration of the matter. These comments have been taken up by the honourable member for Shortland. He has suggested once again that the Opposition, with its usual antipathy, hatred and lack of recognition of the seafaring industry, is attempting to block good and proper legislation. According to the honourable member, we would be here trying to block it forever and a day.

  But I make the point that we are nearly at the tenth anniversary of the election of the Labor Party to government, yet we are dealing with a matter which the honourable member claims has been in urgent need of reform for a long time. If it has been in such urgent need of reform, I put the question to the honourable member for Shortland: why has it taken this Government 10 years to do it?

  As I have mentioned in my own remarks—and I think the honourable member for Throsby (Mr Hollis) mentioned it also—this matter began in 1987 under the Luntz report. Why has it taken from 1987 to the end of 1992 for this matter to be brought forward if it is so urgent? I think the honourable member for Shortland knows the answer: this Government has not undertaken the reform of this very important issue as speedily as it ought to have. If it is going to blame the Opposition for trying to delay anything—which I contest is the case—it should recognise that it has been responsible for more delay than anything the Opposition tried to do in times past.

  I think it is also important to recognise the comments that have been made. The honourable member for Shorthand took up the point about the matter of suicide and the onus of responsibility being placed on the employer if an employee commits suicide. It is interesting that for the statement, `Well, if a person commits suicide, it is the employer's responsibility to undertake the cost of compensation', the justification is, `Well, it is in the CERC Act'.

  As I have said before, it should be remembered that the CERC Act is under review. It is not under review because everything within it is right. It is under review because people recognise that some things in it are wrong. If we have to justify the responsibility of the employer under this Act, including suicide, on the basis that it is in the CERC Act, then I make the point that two wrongs do not make a right. Indeed, it is rather ironic that, if a person wants to commit suicide at work, then the employer is totally liable whereas, if the same person commits suicide in his home, the employer is not.

  The whole matter is quite illogical and deserves further investigation and debate. It is this very point that I make tonight. It is one of the reasons why I suggest that this matter needs to be looked at by the Government between the time it leaves this place and the time it moves into the Senate for further consideration.

  The honourable member for Shortland made an appeal to our emotions. He said that the Opposition's attempts to deny the passage of this legislation is to treat seafarers differently from public servants. Indeed, an injury to a seafarer has to be equal to an injury to a public servant. One would say, by logic, `Yes, of course it is. An injury to anybody is equal to the other'. But the point is that, under the current compensation for injury and death that prevails right throughout the work force, there are differences.

  One person in one State is treated differently from another person if he is injured or killed in the course of his employment. Indeed, the same applies between different industries. So there is already a difference. I am not arguing that a Commonwealth public servant's injury is greater than a seafarer's injury. I am arguing that for the first time we see the terms and conditions of a Commonwealth public servant being imposed by legislation on a sector of the private industry. I make that as a point for recognition. It is a point that certainly some members of the industry are concerned about.

  Anyone who listened to the honourable member for Shortland in this debate tonight would have sworn that the Opposition was opposing this legislation. Indeed, listening to him, I thought to myself: my goodness I must have got my speech wrong, because I thought I was getting up here and saying that the Opposition was not opposing the principle and main effect of this legislation. Indeed, it supports the need for change, the need for upgrading of this legislation, to bring rehabilitation and compensation for seafarers into line with modern day standards. Listening to the speech of the honourable member for Shortland, one would have thought that I was totally opposed to it, and the Opposition subsequently totally opposed to it.

  For the record, let me reiterate tonight that the Opposition does not oppose the upgrading of this benefit, compensation and rehabilitation for seafarers. It is long overdue. It needs to be done. But we do raise some legitimate points, points which Luntz raises in his own review that was commenced in 1987, where he talks about the need to establish a community level or a community standard for compensation, for death benefits and for rehabilitation.

  Indeed, I would say that the community standard that Luntz talked of in his recommendation a few years ago has not been established. The Government, in lieu of establishing a community service, has simply grabbed the CERC Act off the shelf and said, `Let's apply it in this particular instance to seafarers'. I think Luntz was right in his recommendations a few years ago. That was the very thing I raised today. I believe there is a need for this to be properly considered and properly debated, as I am sure it will be between now and its passage through the Senate.

  It is a Bill which the Opposition at this point does not oppose. However, we have particular concerns which we have tried to raise as honestly and as comprehensively as possible. The old rhetoric that comes from experienced members of the Labor Party, such as the honourable member for Shortland, do not do justice to the Opposition's attitude to the maritime industry. We recognise the importance of it. I have made speeches on previous occasions which highlight the very things that the honourable member for Shortland has tried to highlight tonight; that is, the potential income earning capacity of the shipping industry, and the need for it to expand in order to create jobs and to earn foreign income for Australia. We all recognise that.

  I am certainly not the sort of person who goes against seafarers simply because they are seafarers, or wharfies simply because they are wharfies. Indeed, on many occasions I have gone on the record being critical—and in many cases most critical—of management in the shipping industry. I think that the management within our stevedoring industry is equally if not more to blame for the inefficiencies that are inherent within that industry. So let us not get carried away with the old, tired rhetoric that comes from experienced members of the Labor Party. I just make that point because I think we need to get some balance into the debate tonight. I thank the House for the opportunity to make those points, and I thank the honourable member for Throsby and the honourable member for Shortland for saying things that have brought me to my feet for a second time this evening.

Mr Tuckey —Are you going to have a go, too?

Mr Hollis —I was complimentary to him.