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Wednesday, 25 November 1959

Mr CLYDE CAMERON (HINDMARSH, SOUTH AUSTRALIA) . - Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Opposition wishes to record its protest against the manner in which the Government has proceeded with this rather complex measure. We saw this bill for the first time last night. In the time that has elapsed since, we have not had a proper opportunity to consult the trade union movement, which is so much affected by it. Yet we are expected to come into the House to-night, a little more than 24 hours later, without having had an opportunity to consider the bill properly, and be in a position to move any amendments which we think are necessary.

Having looked at the bill as well as we could in the brief time available, we say that we have discovered in it enough to satisfy us that the Government does not propose to give adequate compensation for death or incapacitation, and its failure to adopt the reasonable proposals that were put to the Treasury by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, I believe, leaves us in a position in which we must attempt, at the committee stage, to remedy the oversights in the measure by moving suitable amendments.

I think we can say at once that workers' compensation benefits are a manifestation of society's recognition of the rights of man - rights which were won only about 50 years ago after more than a century of agitation by the trade union movement, with the support, later in the piece, of its political voice - the Australian Labour Party.

I think that I can begin at once by explaining to the House some of the criticisms of the bill that the Opposition has to offer. I hope that the Parliament will not feel that it is obliged to follow blindly the proposal now before Parliament if it is satisfied with my explanation. That was the spirit of the Matrimonial Causes Bill - a spirit which I think did the Parliament great credit. I hope that the Government will be big enough to accept whatever amendments we put forward that are, in its opinion, fair and reasonable. In my view, all those that we are putting forward are fair and reasonable, but I am hoping that at least the Government will be prepared to meet us on the points that have already been submitted by the Australian Council of Trade Unions for consideration but which, so far, have evidently been overlooked.

I believe that, instead of paying a limited amount of compensation to a worker while he is incapacitated, he ought to be paid his ordinary average weekly earning. Payments should not be restricted as they are under this measure to a maximum of £10 per week plus £2 10s. for a wife and £1 2s. 6d. for each child, with the proviso that where the addition of the wife's allowance and the children's allowance to the £10 would provide a person with more than his average weekly earnings, he shall receive the lesser amount. I believe that that is wrong in principle. The incapacitated employee has the same rent to pay, the same hire-purchase commitments to meet and the same family obligations to discharge as he had when he was working. His wife and children do not stop eating, nor do they stop wearing out their clothing just because the bread winner has stopped working. They do not pay reduced fares to and from school or lower charges for recreational activities during his incapacity. Indeed, it is true to say that the aggregate cost of maintaining the household is not less, but is more, than it is when he is well and working.

Several countries in Europe already recognize the justice of this principle and provide full wages for injured workers during incapacitation. Bulgaria introduced the principle nearly twenty years ago, and it has since been adopted by several other countries in Europe, particularly in eastern Europe.

It would appear that the defenders of the status quo believe that workers are fundamentally dishonest and that unless some financial penalty is imposed upon their incapacitation they will malinger themselves into receiving compensation long after incapacitation has ceased. This argument, wittingly or unwittingly, presumes that Australian workers are less honest than Bulgarian workers and that the Australian medical profession cannot be trusted to report truthfully on am injured worker's state of health or incapacitation. The Opposition rejects both propositions and we now ask the Government to take the lead among the governments of the southern hemisphere by establishing the principle that what is good enough for the workers of so many European countries is also good enough for Australian workers.

I now turn to the question of medical expenses. The Government proposes that the allowance for medical expenses and hospitalization should be increased from £200 to £350, with a further proviso that the commissioner may, in special circumstances, increase the figure beyond £350. On the surface, that seems reasonable. It might be argued that the commissioner has discretion to increase the amount beyond that figure if he so desires. But the Opposition objects to that on the grounds that it should not be left to the sole discretion of the commissioner to determine what amount of compensation is to be paid in respect of medical expenses and hospitalization. We believe that the right to completely free medical treatment and hospitalization for injured workers should be written into the act, just as it is provided in the law of Victoria. There, an injured worker has a right to have these expenses paid. Payment of medical expenses in full or in part does not rest upon the discretion of the commissioner.

I know of a case in which a worker who suffered from an injured spine had to lie on his back for twelve weary months in hospital before he was allowed to get out of bed and sit in a wheel chair, lt was months before he was finally allowed to work again. Some hospitals charge fees of £28 or £29 a week. However, it is not necessary to exaggerate when one has a good case to present so I shall base my calculations on a hospital charge of £20 a week. At this rate, the worker to whom I have referred would have had to pay £1,040 for his year in hospital. One could safely add to that amount another £200 for medical expenses and pharmaceutical requirements and such things as dressings. It is easy to see that under those circumstances a worker could find himself committed to medical and hospital costs of £1,200. Yet this Government proposes that all that he should be entitled to, as a right, is £350.

Whether he gets any more of the £1,200 that he has spent depends entirely on the discretion of the commissioner.

Under a common law action for damages for the very same kind of injury an employee could claim, not only full wages lost during the period of incapacitation, but also the full cost of medical attention and hospitalization. In addition, he could also claim a substantial sum for pain and suffering. No such right is provided for in this legislation and, at this stage, the Opposition is not proposing that such a provision should be inserted in the bill. We simply point out that if negligence could be proved on the part of the employer, the employee, in a common law action for damages, would get all these things plus a considerable sum of money in compensation for pain and suffering. So surely it is little enough to ask that the cost of medical and hospital attention should be paid in these cases without quibble.

Again, it seems that the only reason for not accepting this principle is that the Government doubts the honesty of the medical profession. Apparently the Government believes that if the bill were to provide for the payment of unlimited medical expenses, doctors would at once make exorbitant and improper charges for services that they render. I think that we ought to judge the medical profession by our own standards and give them the benefit of being honest and honorable men instead of regarding them as a bunch of crooks. However, it is clear that the only reason why the Government has failed to give unlimited benefits for medical expenses is its fear that the doctors cannot be trusted to make reasonable charges. Therefore, the workers are being penalized in order that doctors will not be able to run amok with the taxpayer's money. I have no doubt that there are one or two dishonest doctors just as there are, perhaps, one or two dishonest lawyers, dishonest politicians, or dishonest people in some other walk of life. But I say that there are fewer dishonest men in the medical profession than there are in many other professions.

We have to be prepared to take the risk and to treat doctors as being reasonably honest in this regard. In any event, the circumstances can be readily checked. A charge that is excessive can easily be detected by the Government's own medical officers of the Department of Health.

Now I want to turn to the principle which the Government has perpetuated for arriving at the maximum payment for specified injuries. The Government proposes in this bill that the maximum amount for specified injuries shall be increased from £2,350 to £3,000. That appears to be a considerable increase, as, indeed, it is; but it is not arrived at by a scientific or proper method. The Opposition believes that this proposed maximum of £3,000 provided irrespective of the injured workers' earning capacity is entirely wrong. We believe that it should be related to the earning capacity of a particular worker for a period of five years; and at the committee stage we propose to move an amendment to give effect to such a principle.

We will propose that a proviso should be included that if the injury results in permanent, total incapacitation, the injured worker should have the right to elect to accept a life pension equal to his full average earnings at the time of injury in lieu of the lump sum. In the case of a permanent partial incapacitation he should have the right to elect to accept a pension proportionate to the extent that his full earning capacity is impaired by the injury.

I now turn to the schedule which sets out the compensation for the various specified injuries. Fixed amounts are stated. It ignores the fact that a worker who was earning, say £20 a week at the time of his injury, loses much more than one who was earning only £16 a week. To whatever proportionate extent a scheduled injury reduces a worker's earning capacity it represents a greater loss of income to a worker receiving £20 a week than to one receiving £17 a week. By adopting the formula of 260 times the average weekly earnings which I have just mentioned for fixing the maximum compensation, and using percentages of that amount as compensation for the various specified injuries instead of the flat specified sums of money for particular injuries, a means would be provided for ensuring justice for each kind of injury and for each classification of wage earner affected.

Let me give some examples. On this basis an employee receiving average weekly earnings of £18 would be entitled to a maximum of £4,680. An employee whose average weekly earnings amounted to £20 would be entitled to maximum compensation of £5,200 instead of the £3,000 provided in this bill. May I say at this point that in New South Wales and Victoria the maximum amount of compensation, though lower than the figures I have quoted to illustrate my point, is £4,000. That is £1,000 more than the new proposal in this measure and nearly double the amount provided in the principal act. The principle I have suggested would surely be preferable to the present system which fixes a set amount for specified injuries, regardless of changes in cost of living or earning capacity and which remains rigid until varied by act of Parliament. The principle of using percentages rather than stated sums of money for specified injuries is not new in Australia. For many years now the South Australian Workers Compensation Act has provided the principle of quoting percentages of the maximum amount rather than specified sums of money for particular injuries.

Another aspect of the schedule is that certain injuries are not even covered by the existing act. When I mention the kind of injuries I have in mind, honorable members will recognize that here is a serious defect in the legislation which should have been rectified under this bill. There is nothing in the present Commonwealth Employees' Compensation Act to cover employees of the Commonwealth who suffer serious facial disfigurement. Provision for this benefit is made in the Queensland act. This happened as a result of a man being injured in an explosion in a quarry. He was brought to the Minister in charge of the legislation and because he presented such a sad and pitiful figure the Minister was moved immediately to have the act amended. The whole of the injured man's face had been blown away and the bare bones were held together only by thin tissues of skin. He was hardly recognizable. One of his eyes was blown out, but the only compensation he received was the amount payable for the loss of an eye. He received no compensation at all for the terrible damage to his face. He could not close his mouth, and will not be able to do so until the day he dies. He received no compensation for these terrible disfigurements simply because the act recognizes only injuries affecting his earning capacity. The compensation authorities argued that the disfigurement to the worker's face did not affect his earning capacity as a quarryman; and they were thus able to escape responsibility for paying compensation.

It is true that if a theatre usherette or a receptionist at a hotel suffered facial injuries as a result of acid burns or from some other cause she could claim some compensation if she could show that as a result of being disfigured she was no longer acceptable for that position. She could get some form of compensation. But I am talking about the person suffering a form of injury which does not affect his earning capacity and as a consequence he is denied any compensation at all. I believe that there ought to be provision in this bill to cover that kind of injury. The Commonwealth does employ men in factories handling dangerous acids and they could be seriously disfigured if they met with an accident in those occupations. But if they were disfigured they would have no claim for compensation if their earning capacity was not affected. It is a wrong, inhuman and an entirely uncivilized approach to the injuries that unfortunate people suffer.

No compensation is provided for loss of speech or the senses of taste or smell. It is argued that if a worker is injured and loses his senses of taste or smell his earning capacity is not affected. If a worker loses his power of speech he has no claim for compensation unless it can be shown that speech was necessary for his occupation. A man doing any sort of work in which speech was not essential would not receive compensation if, as a result of shock or injury, he lost his power of speech. No compensation for such injury is provided in this bill. I turn now to other forms of injury, such as injury to internal or external organs. Although such an injury may not affect a person's earning capacity it may have a grave effect on his future happiness and that of those surrounding him. But again the principle is applied that unless it can be shown that such an injury affects his earning capacity, he has no claim for compensation. I believe that that is entirely wrong.

I turn now to another matter which may appear to be less important, but which is quite important to those who are affected. I refer to damage to a worker's artificial limb, artificial teeth, glasses, hearing aid, or clothing and so on, in an accident in which the worker himself is not injured. I believe that, irrespective of whether or not the worker himself is injured, if it is proved that he is involved in any pecuniary loss as a result of an accident causing damage to clothing, hearing aid, false teeth, a glass eye, glasses or an artificial limb, he ought to be fully compensated. Suppose a man with a wooden leg was in an accident at his working place which smashed his wooden leg to pieces. Had it been his other leg which had been struck, it would have been smashed and he would receive compensation, but because it is his wooden leg that suffers the damage, he receives no compensation. Perhaps that is only a small matter, but the ordinary worker who lives from day to day finds the cost of this kind of accident a very serious financial handicap. I realize that it is too late for the Government to do anything about such a position at this stage, but I hope that as the Minister is not an unsympathetic person he will instruct his officers to give serious thought to my remarks so that perhaps next year it will be possible for the Government to make the provision that I suggest.

I want to deal now with a more serious aspect of compensation. I am referring to cases of workers who sustain at work injuries resulting in death. Here again I believe that the present principle is completely wrong - the fixing of a specified sum of money as compensation irrespective of the earning capacity of the worker who has been killed. Some two or three years ago the Opposition set up a committee to study workers' compensation, and that committee unanimously recommended to Caucus - and the recommendation was adopted unanimously - that a new principle ought to be injected into workers' compensation legislation. The committee recommended that the new principle ought to be the payment of a life pension to the dependents of a worker killed while at work. The committee recommended that in the case of a widow with dependent children the life pension should be an amount equal to the full average weekly earnings of the deceased employee. It recommended that where there were no longer any dependent children the pension ought to be 75 per cent, of the average weekly earnings of the deceased breadwinner. Because we realize that, unfortunately, an amendment to give effect to that proposition would involve such tremendous difficulties in drafting, we have shrunk from the task of moving the amendment, and have decided, for the purpose of improving the bill, to compromise on the basis of 260 times the average weekly earnings of the deceased employee to be paid to the dependants.

I repeat what I said earlier - that it is entirely wrong to say to the wife of an employee whose training and skill enabled him to bring home £20 every week, " You are going to get no more compensation than the widow of a worker whose income was only £16 a week". We believe that in order to compensate the dependants of a worker adequately, it is necessary to have some regard to the worker's earning capacity, and we have taken 260 times the average weekly earnings as the basis of the formula for fixing the maximum amount, because 260 weeks is five years, and we believe that five years is a reasonable time to provide for.

Many lives have been lost, and many men have been maimed, through lack of safety precautions, because the industry in which they were employed had not given sufficient attention to safeguarding against accidents and deaths. Some firms have done a magnificent job in this respect. The very fact that some firms have practically eliminated fatal accidents while other firms in the same industry continue to have the same high rate as they had 30 or 40 years ago, indicates that it is possible to eliminate or reduce very substantially the number of fatal accidents in industry. To do so it is necessary only to take enough care to prevent such accidents.

I believe that the Government ought to establish, through the Department of Labour and National Service, a special research bureau to go into the question of safety precautions in industry. Such a bureau could perhaps invoke the assistance of the Department of Social Services or the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. Such things as lack of light, lack of ventilation, lack of proper temperature control and lack of guards over moving machinery cause high accident rates in industry. Bad ventilation causes a man to become a little less alert than he would normally be. Bad light prevents a man from seeing danger as sharply as he could see it in proper light. Bad temperature control, with extreme heat in hot weather and extreme cold in cold weather, can also cause a high accident rate in industry. If the Department of Labour and National Service branched out into this form of activity I am certain that the majority of employers - and I know that the whole of the trade union movement - would be glad to co-operate. By so doing they could save industry hundreds of thousands of pounds, and perhaps over a period of years millions of pounds, by cutting down losses in manhours and the need to pay compensation. No worker wants compensation. He would sooner be fit and well and able to earn his full average weekly wage doing a worthwhile job.

I believe that carelessness leading to death or injury should be heavily penalized. Every incentive should be given to safety research and to the encouragement of safety precautions in industry. It is far better to save life than to compensate for its loss. The adoption of such a proposal as I have made, given Government support, would mean that tremendous steps could be taken towards eliminating the high accident rate which occurs in some branches of industry although other branches of the very same industry, whose employees are doing exactly the same class of work, have a very low accident rate.

There is one matter which, unfortunately, we cannot include in the bill by way of amendment, but which I shall mention for the Minister's benefit. It concerns the failure of this act and, so far as I am aware, all other compensation acts in Australia, to make provision for men who lose their lives or are injured in the course of saving life or property. It seems to me to be a pretty tough thing that a man who voluntarily, and without any prospect of remuneration, goes into a bush fire to try to save life and property, can lose his own life without any compensation being paid to his dependants. That kind of thing happens frequently. I know that in South Australia some time ago three policemen were burned to death while trying to save lives. These policemen had no compensation rights. They were not covered by workers' compensation, and they were not insured in the ordinary way. That their widows received anything at all was the result of a public appeal. What about the floodings that occur in parts of Australia? Courageous men risk their lives in floods in order to save other people's lives and property. They rush in without thought of reward or remuneration, or of the danger involved, and try to do their part to save other people. If those brave men are injured or drowned in the course of that exercise, their widows are left without any compensation.

I believe that the Commonwealth ought to take upon itself the responsibility of paying compensation for any person who in any emergency and without remuneration or reward, voluntarily and without obligation assists in saving or attempting to save life or property, and, while so assisting, suffers injury or is killed. For the purposes of this legislation, such a. person should be deemed to be working under a contract of service with the Commonwealth or with the Administration of the Territory of the Commonwealth, as the case may be, where the emergency occurred in any case considered proper by the Commissioner. This would not place a very big financial obligation on the Government but it would show that the Government is willing to recognize the man who risks his life in a flood, a bushfire or in the case of a drowning, to save the lives of others and to save property - and every person in Australia is sympathetic towards these men. A move by the Government on these lines, I am sure, would meet with the unanimous acclaim of every one of Australia's citizens, because it would show a recognition that so far has not been given to people who act in this way. If the Government decides in the next session of the Parliament to deal again with worker's compensation, I hope that it will direct its attention to this matter. If, for constitutional reasons, it is not able to assume responsibility for people acting in this way in the States - though I cannot see any reason why it should not - the Government should at least assume responsibility for people who act in this way in the Commonwealth Territories.

I come now to another matter that I believe has not been properly covered by the provisions of the bill, and that is the cost of burial or cremation. I do not think that the act at present deals with cremations, but the cost of burials is limited to £60. That amount has been in the act for a long time, but the cost of burials and cremations has increased over the past few years. This £60 may have been the proper amount when the provision was first inserted in the legislation, but it is certainly most inadequate now. I do not think that any sum should be specified for burials; the cost of a burial or cremation varies from time to time. If the trend continues, in the way that has been evident in the past three or four years, burial costs will continue to rise steadily. The Government should adopt the Victorian proposal which does not limit the amount that the dependants of a deceased worker can claim for burial expenses. There, the full cost of burial is met by worker's compensation, and that provision ought to apply in the Commonwealth legislation. Surely, it is bad enough for industry to deprive a woman and her dependants of the company, protection and maintenance provided by the husband, without their having to pay even a part of the cost of his burial. As I said before, £60 is quite inadequate, and in fact no amount should be set as the limit for burial expenses.

Another matter that has caused much concern with the trade union movement arises from the administration of the act as it is and as it probably will be after this bill becomes law. We are not happy with the delays that have occurred in dealing with matters that have been raised. I, myself, cannot speak too highly of the attention that I personally have received from Sir Roland Wilson when I have written to him on compensation matters. If one were to speak of the administration of the department as one found it, I personally would have to say that I have no complaint to offer. But, nevertheless, I have seen correspondence from union secretaries which indicates that the attention I have received is not the general rule. In many instances, union secretaries have had to wait for months before a decision has been conveyed to them. I understand that that is not perhaps the fault of the Treasury, but is possibly the fault of the Public Service Board for not giving to the Treasury the staff that it has sought. I know that the Treasury has tried for a long time to obtain additional staff, which, it is felt, is necessary for the expeditious handling of claims for compensation. Although staff is just beginning to be appointed, by the time the appointees are processed and trained, and advertisements notifying the filling of the positions inserted in the " Gazette ", some months will elapse before the staff that is needed is available.

The act gives the delegate of the Commissioner the right to vary a determination once it is made. The only recourse now available to an employee who is dissatisfied with the determination is to appeal to the court. He may brief counsel to handle his appeal. After he has involved himself in this expense, he learns that the delegate to the Commissioner, on discovering that an appeal is to be made, amends the determination and raises the amount to a higher figure. If the employee is still dissatisfied, he must commence his proceedings all over again in order to challenge the second figure. These alterations to determinations could, in theory, go on ad infinitum. T am not suggesting that they do, but it is wrong that a determination should be altered even once. In committee, the Opposition will move an amendment to provide that, once a determination is made, it shall not be varied or revoked without the permission of the employee concerned. This will mean that, when proceedings are necessary to challenge a determination, the determination cannot be amended unless it is amended in a way satisfactory to the employee. If the employee does not consent to the amendment, the matter will have to be adjudicated upon by the courts. This matter, of course, requires serious consideration.

The question of costs also needs consideration. We have had cases where a union, on behalf of its members, or members of their own volition, have appealed against determinations by the Commissioner. If the appeal is lost, the appellant has to pay not only his own expenses, but also the costs of the Commonwealth. Out of the cases dealt with in recent times, 22 appellants who lost their appeals had costs awarded against them, and the costs amounted to about £300 in each instance. The Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. McMahon) should use his good offices with his colleague, the Treasurer (Mr. Harold Holt), and ask him to persuade the Treasury to forgo claims that it now has against those 22 unsuccessful contestants for workers' compensation entitlement. Two of the 22, I understand, have already paid the costs. It seems entirely wrong that ordinary working men, with only their labour to sell, should have to involve themselves in the risk of litigation in order to get what they believe to be fair compensation, only to find that when they lose, they not only lose what they considered was their just claim but they must pay their own costs and the costs of the Commonwealth as well. This, I believe, is entirely wrong.

Mr. Speaker,another thing that we will ask honorable members to consider at the committee stage is the proposal put forward by the Australian Council of Trade Unions. The Minister for Labour and National Service, who is a lawyer, will at once recognize the importance of this proposal when I explain it. The present act states that any worker suffering an injury as a result of an accident arising out of or in the course of his work shall be entitled to certain benefits. The legislation in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria makes no stipulation about the injury arising out of an accident. The acts in those States simply state that any employee suffering an injury arising out of or in the course of his work shall be entitled to certain benefits. The employee is not required to prove that there was an accident, because it is possible to suffer injury without being involved in an accident.

I can recall when I was a shearer and the cold winds would blow through the chutes of the shearing shed on to my back, which was always sweaty because of the nature of the work. Every shearer's flannel, once he begins to work, is saturated with perspiration. Shearing under those conditions I suffered a mild form of pneumonia. 1 could not work for a fortnight, but I got no compensation because I could not show that there had been an accident. Being unable to show that I had been involved in an accident, such as being kicked by a sheep, or falling out of a chute, I had no claim. Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria recognize that weakness and say that so long as you can prove an injury irrespective of accident, you should be entitled to the benefits of compensation. Many injuries, some of a serious nature, can be brought about without any actual accident. At the committee stage we will move for alterations to the definitions of injury and of disease. We also wish to propose certain amendments with regard to the travelling provisions. We want to alter that part of the act which talks about death caused by an accident and add the words " or is materially contributed to by the accident " so that one does not have to prove that the accident was the sole cause of the death. We think it should be sufficient to prove that the accident did in fact materially contribute to the death.

I regret that my time has almost expired. This is an important measure. I regret that we have not had time to deal with the matter as thoroughly as we would like to have dealt with it, but at the committee stage we will move certain amendments in order to give effect to the improvements in the bill that I think should be made and in order to deal with the criticisms of the bill that I have made in the course of my remarks.

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