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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12187

Ms VAMVAKINOU (Calwell) (13:04): It is great privilege to speak to this bill and to have moved these important amendments on behalf of the government. This is a significant moment for the professional firefighting community in their quest for presumptive legislation as today this parliament moves to deliver the legislative framework necessary to protect Australian firefighters from the health hazards posed to them by the very profession they serve with such courage and professionalism.

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the work of the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Chris Evans. I also commend the bipartisan support of the member for Melbourne and the Member for McMillan and the work of Senator Gavin Marshall, who chaired the Senate inquiry. I thank them for their contribution to this very important issue.

The government supports the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (Fair Protection for Firefighters) Bill 2011 and will table several technical amendments to ensure that it operates in a fair and sustainable way and that it is consistent with the requirements under the rest of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. Every day firefighters risk their health and safety to protect the lives and property of other people. Their contribution to the community cannot be underestimated. The government therefore supports the removal of any unnecessary barriers to firefighters having their workers compensation claims recognised. The amendments that the government will move today have been the subject of consultation with the ACT government, who is a major employer of firefighters covered by this bill, as well as the United Firefighters Union.

Item 1 will replace the term 'first diagnosed' with 'sustained', which is the terminology already used throughout the act and which determines how the date of an injury is to be determined. The government will also move an amendment to allow additional conditions to be attached to cancers which might be added over time by way of regulation. Subject to passage of the bill, the government intends to prescribe primary site lung cancer. This is consistent with the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee's recommendation and North American firefighters' legislation. However, also in line with North American firefighters' legislation, the addition of primary site lung cancer will be limited to nonsmokers. The proposed amendment will allow that condition to be included, which the government intends to develop in consultation with experts and key stakeholders.

Item 4 proposes to replace the phrase 'dominant cause' in the current bill with 'significant degree', which is the terminology currently used throughout the act. The government will also move an amendment to replace the term 'several periods' with the phrase 'more than one period'. This will avoid the risk of not covering firefighters who have accrued two rather than several periods of employment.

Item 7 proposes an amendment that would further define 'firefighter'. The amendment would limit the provisions of the bill to a firefighter employed by the Commonwealth, a Commonwealth authority or a corporation licensed under the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. The effect of this amendment would generally be to limit the bill to career firefighters who are mainly involved in fighting structural fires. This reflects the current state of scientific knowledge about the links between cancer and firefighting work.

Proposed item 8 clarifies that the bill does not limit an employee's right to have their claim assessed under other provisions of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. The government will also move an amendment to require an independent review of the bill to be conducted by 31 December 2013. This is consistent with best practice regulation and will require that a written report be provided to the minister and published on the departmental website. Finally, item 10 will set an operative date for the legislation, with the new provisions applying to diseases 'sustained' on or after 4 July 2011, the date the bill was introduced into the House.

In moving these amendments, I would like to pay tribute to the late senior firefighter Robert Reed, his widow Janet Reed and their children Sarah and Corey Reed. Robert passed away in October 2009 as a result of kidney cancer. I also want to acknowledge those firefighters who bravely shared their experiences with cancer, knowing they would not benefit from this legislation. They are: station officers Dean Symanns and Phillip Wigg; leading firefighters Scott Morrison, Mick Busst, Philip Brown, Ross Lindley and his wife Karen Lindley; senior station officer Paul Henderson; and commanders Frank Besanko and Guy McCrorie. I also want to acknowledge International Association of Fire Fighters General President Harold Schaitberger, international expert and senior firefighter Alex Forrest and distinguished fire chief Ken Block. I also acknowledge pioneers such as retired superintendent John Berry, who had the foresight to commission a report into cancer related illness in firefighters in 1991. I want to thank the National Committee of Management of the United Firefighters Union of Australia, who made available the expertise of various Australian firefighters who assisted the Senate inquiry. I also give a warm acknowledgement and thankyou to Peter Marshall and his team for their tireless efforts. I commend the work of all those involved and welcome these amendments. (Time expired)