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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 6461

Senator ALLISON (8:23 PM) —I rise tonight to speak about the shameful activities of the Victorian Transport Accident Commission, or the TAC as it is known. The TAC was set up in 1986 to provide payouts for treatment and benefits on a no-fault basis for people who are injured in car accidents or for the dependants of people who are killed in car accidents. The TAC is Victorian government owned and operates as a commercial third-party vehicle insurer. It is funded from two key sources: premiums paid by the owners of Victorian registered motor vehicles and investment earnings on funds held to meet future claim payments. Victorians will know the TAC through its very graphic and sometimes award-winning advertising campaigns on speeding, drink driving and the like. These campaigns have been hugely successful in Victoria, reducing the road toll enormously and, of course, reducing the costs of accidents as well.

Every car owner pays third-party insurance and I think expects to be treated fairly and justly by the TAC if they are unfortunate enough to have an accident on Victorian roads. However, in recent years the TAC has ignored the human dimension of traffic accidents. Before accident victims can pursue compensation through the TAC, they are required to sign a statutory declaration giving the TAC investigators full access to the records of any doctor, including psychiatrists, ambulance, hospital, insurer and state or Commonwealth department for the past, present and future. Failure to sign that document means no TAC assistance and no chance of any compensation payments. This is outrageous and a real intrusion into people's privacy.

Complaints regarding TAC assessments must go through an internal review. If victims are unhappy, as they often are, the only other avenue for complaint is the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, or VCAT. In the case of a 15-year-old boy who was intellectually impaired from head injuries received in a car accident at the age of five, the TAC fought a claim to pay for a computer that even it agreed would help this young man's rehabilitation. Now it concedes that it was wrong. The commission only wanted to pay half the costs of the computer on the grounds that this young man may use the computer for leisure as well as for his rehabilitation.

Justice John Bowman presided over the case, and VCAT found in favour of the plaintiff. At the time, Justice Bowman said it was the third case that he had seen recently in which the TAC had fought claims of seriously injured young people where the amount of the contested claim was far less than the court's costs, which have been estimated to be about $10,000 in this case and others. Ten thousand dollars to save about $1,000 for a computer seems to me to be small-minded and insensitive in the extreme. I am concerned that the TAC seems remarkably prepared to use its well-resourced legal department to fight these small claims—claims against people who they often acknowledge need and deserve assistance. The commission also seems inclined not to settle legal challenges to its decisions, even though it has lost the majority of the cases that it has contested. Justice Bowman's comments are supported by VCAT and by lawyers specialising in personal injury cases who point out that families cannot afford to fight the commission.

The Australian Plaintiff Lawyers Association's Victorian President, Mr Peter Burt, says that the TAC denies in many cases fair and equitable treatment to road accident victims under common law. When deciding if injuries sustained by an individual were from a traffic accident, the TAC works on the principle of `on the balance of probabilities'. This concept is a lower standard of proof than the criminal standard that requires that a court must not find the charge proved if it is not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the accused committed the charge. Add to this the use by the TAC of private investigators estimated to cost around $1,500 a day. These investigators are hired to spy on victims, secretly filming them as they go about their daily lives. The TAC acknowledges that surveillance is used in around three per cent of the 42,000 claims a year, but it is estimated that this three per cent is the number of claims that involve litigation in either the county court or VCAT. Indeed, the TAC has a history of prying into personal lives, searching medical records and trying to find material that could undermine claims in an attempt to reduce payments, as is the case with the woman who made contact with my office.

What concerns me also is the known incidence of investigators filming people within their own home, which is clearly outside the TAC guidelines. My office has had representation from several people who have been unjustly treated by the TAC. One woman who contacted my office tells of a horrendous story of personal persecution by the TAC, who have argued that she received minimal injuries in a traffic accident. The commission claimed her physical and psychiatric injuries could have possibly been sustained through being raped years before and, therefore, she cannot claim any form of compensation for injuries that she says she received from the accident. I have talked with people who have severe disabilities as a result of traffic accidents whose dealings with the TAC leave them frustrated and annoyed. Arbitrary and illogical decisions and restrictions are imposed on them very often as a condition of funding.

I would like to acknowledge the Prime Minister's call in May last year for the establishment of a single national scheme for compulsory third-party and workers compensation insurance. The Democrats very much support that. That move would see traffic accident victims throughout Australia treated more equally and it would avoid the current situation which sees compensation dependent on the laws in the state in which you were injured. I understand that the Insurance Council of Australia has also welcomed the move, but of course we have also seen the Victorian finance minister, Lyn Kosky, claiming that putting state insurance schemes such as the TAC under uniform national codes could lead to disaster—why, I am not sure, but that is what she says. If the Victorian state government is not willing to sign on to a national compulsory third-party insurance plan, it must change and humanise the TAC, because it certainly is not working in the best interests of the people it is supposed to care for.

We need to ask: has the TAC's legal department become a barrier to fair and compassionate compensation for traffic accident victims; what is the culture of the TAC and what are its priorities now? We know that it is not concerned with the victims of traffic accidents. Instead, we see an interest in the economic question rather than people's lives. Those people are not in the system through their own choice. However, they have been made to feel like criminals by the TAC. We have a situation where, to access compensation, an accident victim must sign over their rights to the TAC, including the right of appeal beyond VTAC. The Democrats think that it is reasonable for people to expect and to receive compensation without being spied on or interrogated about all aspects of their lives—aspects which many people claim bear no relevance to their claims for compensation. We know that legal battles cause significant stress and inflict `psychological trauma'. Traffic accident victims are being traumatised by the TAC—there is no question about that. I encourage my colleagues, particularly those from Victoria, to consider the culture of the TAC and to try to influence the state government to change it.

Victoria's TAC needs to be reformed. I suggest that the Prime Minister revisit this idea not only because the TAC needs to be refocused on the people it is supposed to take care of but also because, without compensation, the victims of car accidents can look forward to life on the disability support pension—we know that it is not very far above the poverty line—and inadequate housing. If they are very unlucky, they may end up in a nursing home for the frail aged. I have visited many victims of car accidents who spend a miserable, very long existence without their age peers in such places.

It is another example of buck-passing and another example of the state government saving money at the expense of vulnerable disabled people. The Commonwealth is picking up the tab to some extent. Certainly, people with disabilities are the ones who are severely disadvantaged by the current culture within the TAC.