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Wednesday, 21 October 2009
Page: 10466

Ms GILLARD (Minister for Education, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister for Social Inclusion) (9:35 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Prior to the last election, the government committed to examining the operation of Comcare to assist in the formulation of a policy on the future of migration by companies into the Comcare scheme. The Comcare scheme provides workers compensation and occupational health and safety arrangements for employees of the Australian government and of some private sector companies that self-insure their workers’ compensation liabilities under the scheme. The Rudd government placed a moratorium on companies seeking to join the Comcare scheme while this review was conducted.

Concurrently, the Commonwealth, states and territories have been working towards the harmonisation of national occupational health and safety legislation. As the House is aware, the harmonisation of occupational health and safety legislation is progressing well—indeed, better than many observers expected.

As part of the harmonisation of occupational health and safety, at the 82nd Workplace Relations Ministers Council it was proposed that, following the implementation of uniform OHS laws, OHS coverage of Comcare self-insured licensees would be transferred to state and territory jurisdictions.

The rationale for this is that uniform OHS laws and nationally consistent approaches to compliance and enforcement will remove the need for Comcare’s OHS coverage of licensees. The transfer of OHS coverage would also reduce the number of dual jurisdiction worksites.

Given the progress towards harmonised national OHS laws and the anticipated transfer of OHS coverage for Comcare self-insurers to the states and territories, it is the government’s intention to maintain the moratorium until uniform OHS laws have been implemented in all jurisdictions. To do otherwise would cause unnecessary complexities and duplication in that companies would be required to adapt to Comcare and then quickly change again to comply with the new model laws.

The Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 establishes a statutory framework of workers compensation and rehabilitation for employees and employers in the Commonwealth jurisdiction. It also covers private corporations that are licensed to self insure their workers compensation liabilities under the Commonwealth scheme. Currently, applications for inclusion in the Comcare scheme are automatic, bar for the moratorium put in place at the time of the Comcare review.

The bill I am introducing today amends section 100 of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act in order to maintain the moratorium until 2011. Section 100 provides for the minister to declare corporations that meet certain criteria to be eligible to apply for a self-insurance licence. The amendment will give the minister greater flexibility in dealing with applications under section 100 of the SRC Act.

When the government first announced the moratorium on new companies joining the scheme, it was in the context of the establishment of the Comcare review. Now that the moratorium is to continue for a further period, the government considers that it is appropriate to formalise the arrangements for the moratorium through legislation.

The proposed amendment provides that the minister is not compelled to consider a request for a declaration of eligibility under section 100 by corporations seeking to join the Comcare scheme as self-insurers. This would apply to new requests or applications, and any existing applications that have been made but not determined.

The bill will provide the minister with a clear discretion on whether or not to consider a request for a declaration. It makes it explicit that section 100 of the SRC Act empowers, but does not oblige, the minister to consider requests for declarations of eligibility.

The proposed amendment to section 100 contained in this bill will enable the minister to consider important developments, such as progress with OHS harmonisation, in deciding whether to consider any applications to join the Comcare scheme. Importantly, under the proposed amendment the minister will retain the flexibility to consider applications to join the scheme.

I take this opportunity to also advise the House of other improvements to the Comcare scheme arising from the Comcare review. These include introduction of a statutory time limit for the consideration of workers’ compensation claims; reinstatement of workers compensation coverage for off-site recess breaks; and continuation of payment of medical and related costs where a worker’s weekly compensation benefits are suspended for refusing to participate in the rehabilitation process.

The government also recently increased substantially the lump sum and weekly death benefits under the Comcare scheme to align them more closely with death benefits payable under state workers compensation schemes.

Furthermore, Comcare is undertaking a review of the permanent impairment arrangements in the scheme, in particular the current Permanent Impairment guide. The purpose of this review is to determine whether the scheme provides reasonable access to, and reasonable levels of, compensation in the case of workplace injuries which result in permanent impairment.

I have also directed Comcare to strengthen its OHS enforcement approach. This is to include development of guidance material which reflects a proactive enforcement policy, and to increase the expertise of its investigators. Finally, I will be writing to Comcare regarding the issuing of guidance material which encourages employers, as part of their health and safety management arrangements, to consult with all workers at or near the workplace, not just their direct employees. The guidance material will emphasise that consultation should be an ongoing process.

The government’s efforts to achieve harmonised national OHS laws and the strengthening of the Comcare scheme and its operations is another example of the Rudd government’s broader commitment to building a modern Australia. Australia’s long-term prosperity depends on this government delivering on our reforms that reduce the regulatory burden on business and deliver significant improvement in Australia’s competition, productivity and international competitiveness. With these objectives in mind, I commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Dr Southcott) adjourned.