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Thursday, 18 September 2003
Page: 20577

Mr ADAMS (12:00 PM) —My colleagues on the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations tell me that the opposition members mainly started with the view that they were going to work out how workers were falsifying claims and costing workers compensation enormous amounts of money. I understand that there was not much evidence to that effect at all. The committee got down to doing some pretty fine work and put out a pretty substantial report. I remember from my days in the trade union movement in Tasmania that lawyer and medical costs came down to 40 to 45 per cent of what workers were paid out after they got workers compensation claims. So there could be a lot of costs for the worker other than the actual payout.

The text of the report tells me that generalised fraud is generally considered to be very low in Australia. That is for employers and also for workers. I believe, of course, that workers compensation is about putting workers back together, getting those that have been injured back to work where practical and, as my colleague who has just spoken, the member for Stirling, said, finding them another direction when rehabilitation is not possible. I have seen, and am sure many others have seen, many people's lives totally ruined because of injuries at work. I have seen people's families deteriorate and I have seen divorce occur. Workers compensation is not about fraud; it is about people being able to be rehabilitated, mended or put back together so that they can get on with their lives. That is what workers compensation should be about.

I see recommendations in this report that I have a lot of time for. Recommendation 9 deals with whether the cost of medical expenses of injured workers is being met by Medicare and not by the workers compensation system. That is one area which needs to be constantly monitored. There is a recommendation that the Commonwealth government do that. We should make sure that the industry is paying for itself and not being subsidised in some other way.

Recommendation 5 deals with income support entitlements and whether there is a subsidy for the workers compensation industry in that area. It recommends that the Commonwealth, states and territories conduct some studies to see what occurs there and also what occurs after people get lump sum payments. The Howard government have made it enormously difficult for people to get a lump sum payment from workers compensation or from anywhere else, and then they have to face unemployment. The government have made the figures enormously hard, so they have to use that money to live on before they can get any sort of benefit.

Recommendation 4 deals with bringing together some data—to have a national data set for workers compensation statistics. I remember making a speech in the Tasmanian parliament many years ago about how statistics were not available. They were never available. Insurance companies have always said that statistics are part of their in-confidence information that they never put out. So you could not get stats to say that a particular machine that was manufactured somewhere had over the last five years cut off four hands. You would not know that because you never had anyone analysing the statistics to say that there was some problem occurring with that particular machine.

There is a great need to put together statistics. I see that the committee has recommended that confidentiality must be maintained, and of course it should be. But we need to bring statistics together as a nation and deal with them in a proper way so that we can use that sort of statistical base in policy formation. I certainly give the committee full credit for dealing with that and for getting a national database on workers compensation claims. Identifying the problems et cetera would be of great help to everybody within this industry, especially working people. The executive summary deals with safety and says:

Workers' compensation schemes should foster a safer working environment ...

Of course they should. It has been my experience, until some recent changes in workers compensation laws, that it was always the worker's fault when an injury or an accident occurred. Accidents do occur and injuries can be sustained in all workplaces. If good health and safety policies are conducted within workplaces, you can bring the accident rate down and sometimes eliminate accidents totally. I remember that when the accident levels went up and workers compensation premiums went up, employers screamed about the price of workers compensation. They would go through and look at who was sustaining the injuries and they would then try to put more safety equipment on the worker—build a bit more armour onto the working person to try and stop them injuring themselves. Of course, the answer is always that you engineer the risk out of the problem and out of the job. That is what should have been occurring for a long time.

I see that we are now going down the track of duty of care, though I do not think it has been particularly successful in some areas. In my own state and in my own electorate, the miners on the west coast have been arguing about their hours of work. The 12-hour shifts and the 56-hour blocks that people have been working are destroying some of our communities. There is no family life. There are no fathers at the school, no coaches for junior football and no scout masters because everybody is so involved in their work situation and trying to survive that that they cannot participate in their own communities. When the Howard government and Minister Abbott talk about industrial relations policy and then talk about family policy, I can tell you that there is a great deal of connection between both of those issues. If you have not got it right, you help to destroy communities.

In regard to duty of care and the boards that want to make sure that people are working certain hours to get the production out, when accidents do occur responsibility may fall on the very board that makes the decision to force people to work these hours. Maybe the full legal weight of one of our state governments will come down on them and ask one of those boards to justify the deaths or injuries of some working people.

Recommendation 15 reminds me of my days years ago in the trade union movement in Tasmania. It recommends a national code for investigators and those engaged in investigating and pursuing potentially fraudulent claims and that there be some sort of decency in that work. I remember being involved with some investigators once and pursuing them because I did not think they were doing the right thing by some working people. Several months later I got a phone call from the investigators asking me to go to a meeting with them. They were being treated so badly by their employer that they wanted to join my union. They wanted me to get them an award so that they did not have to urinate in bottles in the back of vans and did not have to climb up high hills and take photographs of people hanging out their washing. I believe that we had a wage rate at the time which covered them and we were able to sort them out. I think there is a need to have good and proper codes of practice in place for that sort of work and for the people undertaking it.

I saw no recommendation in this report in relation to this—and I saw it as something that maybe they did not get any evidence on—but I have had a lot of experience with working people in Tasmania who have been paid out or injured and who have maybe gone into the social service structure and who want to go back to work but cannot get back to work because of the condition which they have or because no employer will pick them up because they cannot get insured. So we are pushing some people out the door and prohibiting them, in a structural way, from being able to get back into the workplace, which is what many of them want to do. It is a very difficult area, but I believe we need to tackle it. It is unfortunate that it did not get up before this committee or come up in evidence before this committee.

We seem to take people through the processes—of course involving the legal profession, the court structure and the insurance industry—and we get a result, and then people are pushed out and expected to deal with their lives. I have nothing against people getting on and looking after themselves, but there are situations where people want to work but, because of the way the insurance structures work, employers will not pick up somebody who has been injured previously and has had a payout. That person may have recovered over the last four or five years and might be quite capable of working and undertaking certain work situations but cannot get started because the employer will not pick them up and because the insurance industry will not give them any coverage. We need to find solutions to that issue. I know one particular guy who had to go into small business in growing vegetables and carving wood—which he does very, very well—because he just could not find a job; he just could not get a start anywhere.

In summing up this report, I think that having more statistics and a database so that people can use it for policy development is a really important recommendation. I certainly hope that it gets picked up and I hope that the states, the territories and the Commonwealth can work on that and get something operating along that line. To make sure that we are helping people back to work and that we have really good processes of rehabilitation, I see the recommendation is that the insurance companies should not own rehabilitation providers. That would be a very good idea, from my experience in this area. There are some very good rehabilitation workers in Australia who are very well trained and very motivated and who are very good at helping people get back into the workplace. But insurance companies have got the block in to get people back into work as soon as possible, and sometimes a fair bit of conflict occurs in that area.

Making sure that the insurance industry and the workplace pay the bill for workers compensation is important to make sure that it is not costing Medicare or Centrelink money. That is another good recommendation that needs to be taken up. Overcoming the structural issue I just spoke about, where people cannot get back into the work force because they have had a claim through the system, needs to be looked at. I think overall this committee did a very good job. I commend them for it. I also commend our whip for being able to get this report on the deck so that some of us who are interested can comment on it. I commend the committee for their job on Back on the job.

Debate (on motion by Dr Southcott) adjourned.