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Tuesday, 11 December 1973
Page: 2645

Senator WRIGHT (Tasmania) - I took Senator Bishop to be speaking for the purpose of enabling the Senate to resume its debate in the Committee stage of the Bill. That is the matter to which I wish to address myself. Senator Bishop quite rightly reminded us that we had had quite a forceful debate on this matter and a reference to a committee. The debate was deferred to enable the matter to have consideration. The Government has indicated that it will introduce at least one substantial amendment to the Bill. Instead of the compensation being, as under the present Act, about $60 a week, under the Government's proposed amendment it may come to about $260 a week, that is to say two and a half times the average weekly earnings as computed from the statistician's figures. Previously the Bill allowed compensation to the extent of full salary, but the substantial amendment proposed by Senator Bishop today limits that amount to 2.5 times the average weekly earnings. I submit that the Government's approach, although a contribution in one respect to an understanding of the problem, does not meet the situation at all.

Although that may have been a grossly misunderstood part of Labor policy, another part of Labor's policy was that it would consider at the earliest possible moment a national compensation scheme. Mr Justice Woodhouse, with his experience in New Zealand, has been brought to Australia to work with Mr Justice Meares to formulate such a scheme. The Liberal Party Opposition is so dissatisfied with the shortcomings of the Government's amendment that at a later stage I shall move that the Committee report progress and ask leave to sit again, with a view to deferring consideration of this matter until at least February, by which time, it would be hoped, some report on the proposed national compensation scheme will be before us. The difficulties can be understood if I mention that in New Zealand all that Mr Justice Woodhouse was able to recommend was originally compensation up to $80 a week which has since been lifted, I believe, to $120 a week; but it has been confined to accident injuries as distinct from illness or disease. Since the new Government came into office there has been some intention of extending the scheme to that sphere. An extension of this scheme to include illness or disease obviously poses fundamental problems of the relationship between this field of compensation and the assistance which is given under social services legislation in the form of invalidity payments. Once we get to that stage we get, I suggest, problems which are quite comprehensive and fundamental and which are similar to those in the social services legislation or in the national health insurance scheme. That is the situation in New Zealand.

In Australia the Government's Bill proposes a dimension of workers compensation for Commonwealth employees that is quite out of range with any comparable scheme of compensation in the State sphere in relation to. either State public servants or employees under State awards. The original Bill provided, in the case of death, full salary to the widow for the remainder of her life, irrespective of the remaining earning life of the husband and irrespective of the comparatively junior years of the widow. If the deceased had been on a salary of $20,000 a year, the widow, per se, would receive $15,000 a year, and if she had one child she would receive $20,000 a year. That amount is being limited to about $ 13,500 a year, that being the yearly equivalent of 2.5 times the average weekly earnings. Under State legislation the highest amount that a widow would receive would be about $15,000. She receives that as a lump sum, once and for all. It is inconceivable to me that the Government could put forward a proposition that a widow of a Commonwealth public servant should receive that amount each year for the remainder of her life. The disparity exists not merely between Commonwealth public servants and State public servants but between Commonwealth public servants and the great body of people in industry who are required to rely upon this form of compensation.

There is the same disparity in the case of a claim which is not a death claim but a claim for total incapacity. The injured Commonwealth public servant, whether he is injured by accident or by disease, receives full salary up to the limit of 2.5 times the average weekly earnings, on the proposed Government amendment, for the remainder of his life. There is a closer approximation between that benefit and the benefit paid to workers in industry, but the Commonwealth public servant would be very greatly in front of his brethren in the State public service and his brethren in industry. The payments to widows now are made weekly. Total or partial compensation payments are made weekly. To them was added years ago an adjunct for specified injuries -say, the loss of a hand. In addition to the weekly payments for total or partial incapacity, the Act provides a Schedule of specified lump sum payments. In the Commonwealth Act of 1 97 1 , the payment for a loss of an arm below the elbow was $9,450. Under the proposed Act it is $20,800. The ultimate limit for these specified injuries under the present Act is $27,000 lump sum payment in addition to weekly compensation.

Senator Byrne - Under the present Act or the present Bill?

Senator WRIGHT -The 1971 Act provides for a payment of $9,450 for the loss of an arm below the elbow. The Bill provides $20,800 for the same injury.

Senator Byrne -What is the $27,000 which you mentioned?

Senator WRIGHT -It is the ultimate limit for the loss of an eye or for the loss of both eyes.

Senator Byrne - That is under the Bill. You said' under the Act'.

Senator WRIGHT -That is under the Bill. I thank the honourable senator for correcting me. That dimension of lump sum payment as an adjunct to the weekly payment throws the whole system out of gear. The industrial worker and the State public servant would be greatly disadvantaged if those provisions were enacted.

The extreme step has been taken of including a Schedule of specified injuries and of providing that, if the worker suffers a loss of any ability or faculty which is not specified in the Schedule, the Commissioner for Employees Compensation shall award a lump sum payment relative to the specified amount for this general range of accident or disease incapacity. That is a principle which, as I have said, balked Mr Justice Woodhouse and the New Zealand legislature up to this time, and it is such an extension of this Bill, making the ambit of the compensation so wide ranging, that we feel we would be quite irresponsible in the interests of the industrial worker, the State public servant and the selfemployed person if we did not try to fix a level of compensation that shall apply to people entitled to this form of compensation not restricted exclusively to Commonwealth public servants but available to the other classes of employees on a basis that can be provided. It is quite obvious from the figures that are talked of in New Zealand that it would be completely impossible for this legislature to provide a general range of compensation on a basis that is being provided in the Bill before us, even as limited by the amendment now stated by Senator Bishop. This is not a case of arguing the merits of any particular provision of the Bill; the question is simply, in my submission, whether it would be wise to defer the matter to ensure that we have all the best information available as to what benefits could be extended to other sections of employees before this very exceptional range of benefits is carried into law for the benefit of one class of persons, namely, Commonwealth public servants. There is no wish to deny them what is properly to be paid by way of compensation, but at the same time, if any adjustment is to be made, it is imperative that other classes be given the same treatment. It is for that purpose that I move:

That progress be reported and that the Committee ask for leave to sit again.

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