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Thursday, 9 December 2004
Page: 75

Senator HUMPHRIES (2:41 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Coonan, the Minister representing the Assistant Treasurer. Will the minister advise the Senate how the Howard government has helped make public liability insurance more affordable and more available? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I thank the senator for what is a very important question. As senators would be aware, the issue of public liability insurance and the skyrocketing cost of claims and premiums was a huge issue facing the community in the last term of this government. Businesses, tourist facilities and community and sporting groups were facing premiums that were beyond their means and, in some cases, they were unable to find insurance at all. The government responded by bringing together the states and territories and embarking on a range of reforms to restore some balance to a system that was creating serious difficulties across the community. In my previous role as Assistant Treasurer, I had convened an expert committee, chaired by Justice David Ipp, to review the law of negligence and to develop principled options to limit liability and the quantum of damages. It was a reform program that was then agreed with all states and territories.

The broad thrust of the reforms implemented across Australian jurisdictions has resulted in a rebalancing of the rights of the individual against those of the community as a whole and striking a reasonable balance between the two. Happily, I can inform the Senate that the positive results of these reforms are already being seen across the country. CGU, a large insurer, has recently announced a 10 per cent reduction in premiums for public liability, citing a fall in the frequency of small claims. At the same time, QBE Australia chair Raymond Jones was quoted in the media as saying there had been a fall in the number of court cases and legal challenges.

As well as these general improvements, I have been advised of a number of positive outcomes. Senators would be aware of troubles, for instance, faced by many railway historical societies around the country. I am advised that, in an effort to resolve these problems, a group of dedicated individuals began work about 18 months ago looking at pooling insurance and working with others in their sector. We have now got, in an environment of tort law reforms, some really significant results. For example, I am informed that the Australian Railway Historical Society, based in Canberra, was just two years ago facing public liability premiums of $75,000. Members were even considering selling some of their heritage objects to be able to keep going. Now those premiums have almost halved. I am also informed that the Australian Narrow Gauge Railway Museum Society reopened on 28 November after being offered affordable premiums. The list goes on and on.

I would also commend all those involved in the good work of trying to get this liability problem under control and those involved in the government's swift and effective response to public liability concerns, including state and territory governments who worked alongside the Australian government to bring the system back into balance. Federal Labor really does need to take a leaf out of the book of its state and territory counterparts from the Labor Party. Despite the importance of this issue, we did not see anything positive from federal Labor. There was no plan, no solution and no attempt to resolve the issue. In fact, Labor only got involved in the last stages with, I think, Senator Conroy throwing a spanner in the works and trying to send the whole thing off. It has not worked. The government's reforms are already delivering benefits and I hope we will shortly be able to bring back the reforms to finalise what we started. We know it works. Labor should get behind what the government have done, as have their state and territory counterparts.