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Wednesday, 29 May 2002
Page: 2641

Mr WINDSOR (4:41 PM) —Mr Deputy Speaker Jenkins, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak during this debate. This is the first time that this parliament has actually debated what is probably the most critical issue in Australia at the present time. I attempted and successfully suspended standing orders about four or five weeks ago, with the support of the member for Calare, to have this very issue debated. The government decided that it was not important enough and, using its numbers, moved on to other business. Yesterday this debate was taken out of play in relation to being discussed in this House. There have been on a few occasions a number of members of this House who have raised the issue in the grievance debate and in other forms of the House, but this is the first time that this parliament, the elected representatives, have actually discussed this issue within each other's presence.

That is something that none of us can be very proud of because this issue, in regional Australia particularly, but in Australia generally, has the capacity to do more damage to the development of our social fabric and community wellbeing—and the smaller the communities the more damage it can do—than any other issue that we have before us at this time. I am very pleased, even though I do not particularly agree with the politics of the way in which the MPI is written. I did write to the Speaker with slightly different wording to say that the parliament should develop a strategy in relation to showing some leadership on this issue. So I do not particularly agree with the Labor Party's wording of the MPI and the politicisation of it but, having said that, I thank the speakers who have spoken. If we look past a bit of the bluster, we have started to put some points down that could lead to being part of the solution to this particular dilemma. So I congratulate those speakers for being involved in this process.

There has been a lot of talk about who is responsible. I know the member for Calare and the member for Kennedy are also very concerned about this; we do not want this issue to be driven into the blame game that is always played, particularly between the states and the federal government. I think the states and the federal government do accept some responsibility. The Prime Minister, in answer to a question from me on this issue, made that point very plainly: that he did not think this would be solved by one level of government. I agree with him; I do not think it can be, but I think it requires a degree of leadership from all governments.

I was very interested to hear what the member for Braddon had to say about how this issue has been driven by this parliament or other parliaments: it has been driven by the community. I think that that is saying something about the way in which the community have been represented on this issue. The community have had to absolutely scream that they are in agony about what is going on in relation to public liability. Politicians generally have sat back and watched to see who can be advantaged by the play of the day. The community has kept on saying, `We want you to address this.' This issue has not come out since Joe Hockey mentioned it in January. I would have been one of the first—and I am sure the Minister for Small Business and Tourism would endorse this comment—to send him a message saying, `Good on you, Joe; that's the sort of thing we need. You've raised the issue of a national plan, of some sort of national leadership.' He was quickly jumped on from a great height and disappeared for a month or so. But I congratulate him for at least having the intestinal fortitude to raise the issue and raise the possibility of some sort of national process to come to grips with this issue.

It is an issue that has been out there for a long time. The medical profession in particular have been screaming for five or six years about what is going to happen, and now it has arrived. All of a sudden, we are all surprised and heading for cover, making some efforts here and there to try to organise a result. I would hope that at the summit tomorrow—and hopefully the Prime Minister will be involved as well—we have some real leadership at a federal level. That does not mean that the federal government has to do it all; obviously the states have a role. Bob Carr, for example, has been on the front foot in relation to this issue in New South Wales. Obviously the states have a role to play in terms of tort law. But it is not right to say that, just because the states have dealt with this issue in the past, they should deal with it. Under section 51 of the Constitution, the Commonwealth can be involved in insurance. Even though it has only been involved at the contractual level, the company level and one other level that I cannot think of at the moment, that does not mean that the Commonwealth cannot be involved at other levels in coming to grips with solving this problem.

One of the members who spoke today mentioned the firearms issue. Firearms are a state issue. They have always been a state issue, but for some reason in 1996 the Prime Minister of the day, John Howard, decided to show some leadership on firearms. I personally disagreed with him on that issue but that is neither here nor there. Other than some minor Customs variations, we do not have any national firearms law, but we have what is essentially a national law driven through the states. What is wrong with the federal government showing the same sort of leadership on something that is much more important than the money that was wasted on the firearms buyback and those sorts of things? This is a critical issue that concerns the wellbeing of everybody. Our communities are at real risk in relation to this issue.

The Minister for Small Business and Tourism mentioned market failure, and I think he has highlighted a particularly important issue. We are seeing—and I will make a recommendation on this in a moment—a situation where big business, in this case the insurance companies, are looking at some of the very minor parts of their business and determining that they are not interested in them. You can see it in relation to horseriding and pony clubs et cetera. There are small organisations out there that have not paid enormous premiums in the past but are part of our social fabric and are unable to obtain insurance. We had an instance in my electorate where a business that has been in business for 20 years providing trail rides et cetera and has never had a claim could not get insurance. It is dealing with some dodgy brothers in the Philippines trying to get some form of insurance. It is highly inappropriate that we are allowing that sort of thing to happen in Australia.

We know the problem; what are the solutions? There are a few things that I would like to put to the House. We have two distinct but similar problems: medical indemnity—that is the one that is screaming at us now—and the public liability issue generally, which is of concern to everybody. In my view, the government should underwrite the non-profit and community organisations, those volunteers within our system. On analysis, they are the groups that are not costing the insurance companies money. The government should analyse that and, if need be, should underwrite those organisations. The government should underwrite medical indemnity beyond June 2002 to give some degree of certainty. That does not mean that it does so for the rest of the decade but it puts in place some certainty; it gives the doctors of our community some certainty as to the way they can operate.

The government should investigate—and it could involve the Law Reform Commission in this—a possible federal claims act or some form of no-fault insurance that could be derived through the Law Reform Commission. I think that anything that comes out of that must look very seriously at structured settlements, which have been mentioned before, and the possible capping of claims, which some of the states are looking at. We should look very closely at supporting the states and having some overarching framework at a national level. It would not mean that all the legislation has to be catered for at a national level but that the system actually works across the nation; that may be through various state agencies.

I would encourage the ministers and the state premiers that are going to be at the summit tomorrow to look beyond the politics of this, for God's sake, and do something for the people that are out there screaming for a resolution. They want this fixed. It can be fixed. If it costs us some money by way of a levy, that is what has to happen, but we cannot let our society disintegrate, which will happen if medical indemnity and public liability are not fixed.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—Order! The discussion is now concluded.