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Thursday, 5 April 2001
Page: 26617

Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business) (5:05 PM) —I do not intend to delay the House for too long in summing up this debate on the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2000. I want to thank all members who have contributed to the debate. I particularly thank the shadow minister for his contribution. I thank the member for Calare for his extremely thoughtful presentation, to which I have just listened. I acknowledge the support which has been expressed by most speakers for large swathes of the legislation, even if not all of it.

As various speakers have noted, the Commonwealth Comcare scheme is a good scheme. It works well, it has low premiums and it has a good record of getting people back to work. It is a good scheme—in many respects one of the very best schemes in the country. The government's objective is not to fiddle with things for fiddling's sake but to try to make a good scheme even better and to try to make a good scheme even better represent the proper objects of workers compensation schemes.

I would like to take up some of the points that were raised by the shadow minister in his contribution. The first point I wish to respond to is the point about the change to the definition of `disease'. The bill proposes that there should be a significant contribution by employment before compensation is payable. The shadow minister said that this would mean that the Commonwealth scheme would have the most stringent test in Australia. I am advised that this is not true. I am advised that in Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia a significant `contribution' from employment is also required. I am advised that in Tasmania the compensation scheme there requires a `substantial contribution'. In New South Wales, the requirement is that employment has to be a `substantial' contributing factor. The New South Wales legislation also sets out examples of matters to be taken into account. The examples that New South Wales uses are broadly similar to the proposed Commonwealth list. For example, consider the case where an employee had, for argument's sake, been assaulted at a counter. In a stress related claim, the Comcare decision maker would obviously not consider any other factor. I am advised that the amendment would not allow the decision maker to decide that, yes, the assault was closely connected to work but that the person had a history of depression so the claim should be denied. That is not what would be permitted under the legislation that the government is proposing. However, in a case where a claimant had argued that they had a depressive condition as a result of not being able to sit, for argument's sake, next to a window but there was evidence that the relevant employee's marriage had broken down, then the decision may be that there was no close connection to work and that it was more likely that the condition was caused by the marriage breakdown rather than by the employment. Of course, in all cases of this nature, medical evidence will be sought.

The shadow minister also raised the managerial action provision. I am advised that the bill provides that actions such as reasonable appraisal of an employee's performance, reasonable counselling action, reasonable suspension action, reasonable disciplinary action and failure by an employee to obtain a promotion, reclassification, transfer or benefit would not give rise to a compensable injury but claims for stress from overwork, change management and other activities would still be covered. I am advised that reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way by the employer in connection with the employer's employment is exempted in Queensland. I am advised that it is also exempted in South Australia and in Tasmania. I want to stress that there is no intention whatsoever that stress related injuries would not be compensable in a general sense, as seemed to be the suggestion from the member for Greenway and the member for Lowe.

On the question of compensation for non-economic loss that was raised by the shadow minister, I accept that the old table has not been indexed, but it was not indexed by the former government between 1988 and 1996. If it is indexed, I am advised that it will provide people with an incentive for delaying claims, and obviously it is better to have these things considered and dealt with rather more quickly than that.

The shadow minister was rather sceptical of the consultation processes that have been engaged in. I am advised that the consultation process was conducted by the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission and consultation took place with Comcare, Australia Post, Telstra, the Reserve Bank, ADI and the Department of Defence. Under the ordinary provisions of the committee on industrial legislation, there was consultation, I understand, with the ACTU and with the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Like the shadow minister, I am looking forward to the Senate committee report and will look carefully at what it has to say.

I listened with concern and interest to the thoughtful and well-researched contribution of the member for Calare. I appreciate his decision, in consultation with his constituent, to raise a particular matter in the House. I can say that my advice is that there is another side to this particular story. Rather than put it all on the record here, I am happy to discuss it privately with the member for Calare. But let me just say that the decision is currently subject to an internal review by Comcare on the request of Ms Grimley's solicitors, and should Ms Grimley be dissatisfied with the outcome of this review she has a right to appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. As I said, I am happy to talk further about this with the member for Calare.

I have not been advised as yet on the subject of the costs of legal services in the pre-outsourcing days compared to the current costs of legal services, but I will seek that information and come back to the member for Calare. If things are as the member for Calare suggests, he has made a good point and it needs to be addressed. In closing, I should indicate that the government will be moving some technical amendments. I understand that is going to be done in the Senate.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Message from Governor-General recommending appropriation for the purposes of the bill announced.