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Wednesday, 1 June 2005
Page: 47

Mr DUTTON (Minister for Workforce Participation) (12:38 PM) —in reply—I thank those members who have made a contribution to this very important debate, and I particularly thank the member for Bowman for his considered words. The Asbestos-related Claims (Management of Commonwealth Liabilities) Bill 2005 will enable Comcare to manage the government’s asbestos liabilities, which is an essential component of the government’s decision to centralise management of its common law asbestos claims. Comcare already has responsibility for managing statutory asbestos claims from current and former government employees under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988. Under this bill, Comcare will also manage common law claims from former waterside workers, contractors, subcontractors, tenants, visitors and bystanders in relation to government premises.

Centralised management will lead to more consistent decision making and more equitable and efficient outcomes for both the government and claimants. There will also be benefits for the claimants. They will no longer have to identify which government agency is currently responsible for their asbestos exposure, which in some cases may have occurred 40 years ago. Centralised management will bring about efficiencies which will result in quicker processes and prompt settlement. That is important for those claimants who, sadly, are close to death.

The Asbestos-related Claims (Management of Commonwealth Liabilities) (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2005 provides for the repeal of the stevedoring legislation, as it will become redundant with the transfer of asbestos liabilities to Comcare. Amendments to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act will take account of Comcare’s new function.

In conclusion, I note the several points made by the member for Batman and others in relation to this matter and, in particular, to the Stevedoring Industry Finance Committee. There are coherent reasons for the repeal of the stevedoring legislation. With the transfer of SIFC’s asbestos liability to Comcare, SIFC itself will become redundant. At present, its only remaining function is to manage asbestos claims from former waterside workers.

Integration of management of the SIFC claims with management of other asbestos claims will be an essential component of achieving the goals of centralisation. It will of course mean less duplication of effort and more consistent outcomes for the government and the claimants. The SIFC board comprises a chair and one representative each from the Department of Transport and Regional Services, stevedoring employers and the Maritime Union of Australia. SIFC provides policy advice for the management of claims. That role is not compatible with the establishment of the new policy unit within DEWR. Whilst it was appropriate for SIFC to manage claims when its liabilities were funded by industry levies, SIFC’s liabilities are now funded directly by the government. Therefore, it is appropriate for the government to be fully accountable for expending its own funds as a matter of good governance.

DEWR already has a statutory tripartite consultative body—the National Workplace Relations Consultative Council—should there be a need to seek industry advice. SIFC currently utilises a settlement protocol, which has contributed to the efficiency of its management of asbestos claims. This protocol has similar principles to the Commonwealth’s model litigant guidelines. I am advised that Comcare and my department will be developing an asbestos litigation policy statement which will also have similar principles to those of the model litigant guidelines.

In response to honourable members who have raised concerns in relation to previous matters concerning asbestos claims in this country, the Australian Government Actuary has looked at the Trowbridge assumptions and has deemed that those assumptions are appropriate and provide for an adequate assessment of the liability of the Commonwealth. On that basis I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.