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Thursday, 18 September 2003
Page: 20568

Ms VAMVAKINOU (11:24 AM) —I am happy to be speaking to this report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations on their inquiry into aspects of the workers compensation scheme, particularly because it was my first parliamentary committee inquiry. As a new member I found the process rewarding and challenging, despite of course the initial difficulties members faced in reaching an accord on the best way forward. It taught me very quickly and early about the importance and meaning of standing committees and the need for them to operate as parliamentary committees, not as tools of the executive but subject to the will of the House.

It is no secret that opposition members of the committee initially felt that the request for an investigation into the workers compensation scheme by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations had ulterior motives—not surprisingly, given his widely held views on working people. Despite the minister's not so subtle attempt to direct and even pre-empt the work of the committee, members did eventually get back on track and a moderate set of terms of reference was collectively agreed upon. The committee was then able to conduct an insightful and valuable public hearing into the area of the workers compensation scheme.

I would like to take a moment to reflect on the chair of the committee, the member for Dawson, who handled the initial tensions and awkwardness with a high degree of professionalism, which is certainly an indication of her long parliamentary experience. I can say without qualification that it was the member for Dawson's approach that saved the credibility and spirit of this inquiry, and the result was a unanimous report that carries some very valuable and important recommendations. I would also like to thank other members of the committee: the members for Brisbane, Deakin, Robertson, Shortland, Canning, Swan, Dickson, Cowper, Indi and Hume.

The inquiry was a timely review of existing workers compensation services in an area where work arrangements are changing drastically and the overall work force is ageing. A well thought out vision for workplace rehabilitation and compensation makes for a more meaningful and sustainable outcome for injured workers, because it is important for all concerned to be able to at least gauge, if not quantify, the personal and economic costs of workplace injuries. In doing so, it helps to address those areas which need improvement and to work towards a fairer system for all.

The inquiry received evidence from across the industry. We received 84 submissions and heard evidence from 82 witnesses across the country—trade unions, lawyers, employer groups, medical and health experts, community groups, service providers and, importantly, workers. The evidence and findings of the report ended up exonerating workers from the view that some employers and others in the industry have that people on workers compensation often engage in fraudulent activities by taking advantage of their injury and milking the system for all it is worth. I have no doubt that it is in the interests of some to perpetuate this perception but to say that employee fraud is endemic is to play on an urban myth.

The great majority of people who have sustained an injury in their workplace, are keen to receive rehabilitation and to return to work. This inquiry, like many others before it, found that to be the case. Indeed, the report found that employer fraud is more widespread than employee fraud. So when it comes to workers compensation fraud it is more likely to be by the boss than by the worker, as the inquiry discovered. The report also explored the need for consistent data collection on the extent of fraud and for consistent definitions of workers compensation fraud. Part of these data collection recommendations will also look at the so-called cost shifting between the Commonwealth and the states. The inquiry also identified that better measures for identifying employer noncompliance and accountability were needed, and recommendations to address this were made.

Evidence submitted affirmed that people on workers compensation generally wanted to return to work. Most people testified that they were better off working for life rather than relying on lump sum handouts which often were frittered away by legal fees, medical expenses and complicated payment schemes that more often than not meant that most people on workers compensation were almost doomed to a life of financial limitations. As the member for Shortland noted recently when speaking to the report, workplace injuries affect other parts of a person's life and reduce their capacity for other life activities.

There is honour in work, even for injured workers. We got the message loud and clear that people wanted to work, they wanted to return to work, and they wanted to be able to participate in the workplace so that they could earn a living and not be trapped in poverty or, as we learnt, be struck by the depression and mental stress that comes with being stigmatised as a workers compensation recipient. We all know that more often than not employers are loath to re-employ injured workers, whether the injury was at their workplace or at another workplace. That attitude is a national shame and a terrible loss of human and economic capital. We need to address it, especially as we face a shortage of skilled labour—one that is predicted to increase as our working population ages and retires from the work force.

The evidence submitted also indicated to the committee that there was a level of suicide amongst injured workers. That is important, given the alarming increase in the incidence of depression in the Australian population, especially amongst younger and older men. Injured or dismissed workers often lose their sense of purpose in life, and their pride and self-esteem, when their role of provider and breadwinner is lost or taken from them for a period of time. I know that because in my region the collapse of Ansett had a devastating effect on employees and there were reports of suicide as people, especially men, struggled to deal with the dramatic changes in their circumstances.

Much was also said in the testimonies in the report about the adversarial nature of the system. It was found that this was difficult for many people to deal with. The use of conflicting doctors' reports caused angst. This is best illustrated, I think, in cases of soft tissue injuries which, as we know, are often hard to identify and diagnose. An important point made by injured workers and their representatives is that it is vital that their injuries be affirmed as legitimate. Conflicting doctors' reports, although used as a part of the process to determine accountable and appropriate treatment, often unduly challenge workers on the veracity of their claims about their injuries, thus undermining them and adding to the frustration and pressure of those who are injured. Also, much was made of the occupational health and safety role in educating employers on their responsibility to prevent much of this workplace injury in the first place. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that much pain and suffering could be prevented if appropriate measures were in place to prevent injury.

Also of concern to me is the way in which investigators of workers compensation claims conduct themselves. I am sure that we have all seen or heard of these stories—perhaps we watch A Current Affair, where private investigators with cameras hide in trees, filming workers on compensation as they go about their daily routines. There is a level of inappropriate and unethical practice, and this does not help the situation for those people who have to endure the cost of the personal anguish of their injuries in addition to possible humiliation and violation by unscrupulous and overzealous investigators. Nor does it help that television current affairs programs sensationalise the issue and seem to have institutionalised news values that revolve around catching cheating compo cases.

The committee conducted its inquiry at a time when the workers compensation scheme area was under scrutiny because of the recognition of the substantial human and economic cost of work related injuries. The committee sought to examine why there has been an increase in premiums for employers, despite the drop in injuries, and also to consider the impact, if any, of fraudulent activities on rising costs. It found that the problems with the system were largely structural and that the lack of a uniform national system was a factor which produced inequality and at times confusion. The systems often overlap and this tends to add to the overall cost, burdening the system further.

Concern was also expressed about the litigious nature of the system. This leads to high legal costs and at times inappropriate advice from lawyers. It became evident that workers who were better informed of their rights were able to make better decisions on their injuries. Although it did not recommend a national workers compensation scheme, the report did recommend more cooperation and consistency between states and other jurisdictions, particularly in developing nationally consistent rehabilitation and return to work practices in order to better facilitate a best practice for rehabilitation. This will enable greater coordination and transparency in the system, and that will be useful to all concerned.

I will conclude by thanking the staff of the secretariat for their patience and professionalism. I would like to thank the secretary, Mr Richard Selth, and the inquiry secretary, Cheryl Scarlett, as well as Julia Morris, Ms Alison Childs, and the committee administrative officers Gaye Milner and Mr Peter Ratas. I would like to thank you all for enduring a process that initially seemed like it may not go anywhere. I will make a final point about the initial teething problems. At the very end, after we had completed the inquiry, the committee laboured to find a name for the report. It was the member for Cowper who must be credited with coming up with the name that best captured the overall spirit of the findings—that is, of course, Back on the job.