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Thursday, 5 April 2001
Page: 26578

Mr ANDREN (1:52 PM) —In contributing to the debate on the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2000 I will limit my comments to the amendments it proposes to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988. The act provides a framework for a fully funded workers compensation and rehabilitation scheme for Commonwealth employees under the age of 65. That includes employees of government departments and agencies and of the ACT government and employees of licensed corporations, previously Commonwealth authorities.

The act is administered on behalf of the Commonwealth by Comcare. As I understand it, Comcare's motto is `Working with you to keep you working'. While the electorate of Calare probably does not have the same number of Commonwealth employees or employees of licensed corporations as do many other electorates, it still does have significant numbers working, for example, in the ABC, ADI, Australia Post, Telstra and Network Design and Construction, otherwise known as NDC. Compared to other areas of Commonwealth responsibility, I have to say that I have received fewer complaints about Comcare than about any other government agency. However, one local case brought to my attention recently has made me seriously question just how well Comcare is adhering to its seemingly admirable motto. This case, which I will go into in a little bit more detail in a moment, has caused me in the context of this bill to look closely at what has been happening within Comcare's handling of workers compensation claims. According to the minister's second reading speech, the amendments in the bill, which the explanatory memorandum says will save Comcare some $31 million, are apparently largely of a housekeeping nature. Some of the changes the bill proposes are beneficial to employees, but some I believe are not.

The bill seeks to make amendments to 11 different parts of the act and a number of other miscellaneous ones. Notably, the bill seeks to clarify the circumstances in which compensation can be paid by amending the definitions of `injury' and `disease'. This is perhaps the most controversial amendment in the bill and appears designed to wind back the circumstances in which workers can receive compensation. I will be looking closely at the opposition amendments in this regard. I note in the Bills Digest the statement:

... many injuries that are currently compensable will not be compensable under these amendments. It all depends upon what may be included within a `natural progression' of a disease.

I want to see the government further justify these definitions. The bill also seeks to alter the way payments to workers no longer employed are indexed. Currently, compensation payable to an employee is determined as a percentage of the normal weekly earnings of the class of employees. The proposed amendment seeks to ensure that, where employees leave the Commonwealth sector, their payments are linked into the normal weekly earnings that apply to the position they had when they were working. I have no problem with that proposal but note the criticism by some that the provision is not specific enough regarding the index to be used to calculate a claimant's normal weekly earnings. I wonder whether, in the interests of simplicity and fairness, it may have been better to simply link payment increases to the AWOTE—that is the average weekly ordinary time earnings index now used for calculation of increases to parliamentarians' salaries.

The bill also seeks to clarify provisions used to calculate compensation, by standardising the calculation for the first 45 weeks of the entitlements, and removes an apparent loophole which has allowed claimants in receipt of payment but with work outside the Commonwealth to receive their compensation as well as wages. Currently, those who continue working with the Commonwealth whilst receiving a payment have any wages deducted from their entitlement. The bill also seeks to ensure there will be no entitlement to lump sum payments for non-economic loss compensation for permanent impairment occurring prior to December 1998, except if the claim has been lodged before the introduction of the bill, to enable all employees covered by the act to receive weekly compensation payments beyond age 65 for a maximum of 104 weeks if injured after age 63. It will streamline the act's licensing provisions by reducing five specific licences to one general licence and will lower the hurdle a claimant must reach to succeed in a claim for permanent impairment for hearing loss. They are all pretty unobjectionable amendments, I would suggest. I do not intend to discuss these amendments in detail but rather to draw the House's attention to some of the overall trends arising in Comcare's handling of workers compensation cases on behalf of the Commonwealth.

But first up I want to share with the House the ongoing experience of one constituent with a claim currently before Comcare. My constituent has agreed to my raising her case in parliament because she is absolutely frustrated by treatment she has received from the Commonwealth's alleged model provider of compensation and rehabilitation services. Margaret Grimley was a former employee of Australian Defence Industries, ADI, at its Lithgow small arms factory. In 1986 she sustained injuries to her right wrist in the course of her employment. She has been in receipt of compensation from Comcare since that time and has undergone surgery to her wrist, including insertion and removal of steel screws and an operation on the tendon to her thumb. She has significant scarring to her wrist and hands as a result of this.

Ms Grimley claims she has kept Comcare involved at all relevant times about any employment she has had since her injury. She has done this by disclosing the information in the claim form submitted to Comcare. But it appears Comcare have sought to use this information against her. They have sent out investigators to film her performing the work she has already admitted she performs, such as wheeling a wheelbarrow, and have used this evidence to treat her claim as a fraudulent one. I want to read part of a letter from her solicitor, Higgins and Higgins, to me dated 26 February 2001:

Our client has disclosed to the Commonwealth at all material times that she earns money from lawn mowing, and she believes if she does not take some steps in her own rehabilitation she would go crazy.

I do not think anyone in the House would disagree with the need for people suffering from such disability to be able to get out there and do something worth while to rehabilitate themselves in the workplace. I will leave my further remarks until after question time, Mr Speaker.

Mr SPEAKER —It being 2.00 p.m., the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 101A. The debate may be resumed at a later hour, and the member for Calare will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.