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Wednesday, 25 November 2009
Page: 12825

Ms HALL (12:54 PM) —I rise to support the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill 2009. This bill provides the minister with an absolute discretion to consider requests for declaration of eligibility for a Comcare self-funded licence under the act and it makes explicit that section 100 of the act empowers, but does not oblige, the minister to determine requests for declaration of eligibility. Prior to becoming a member of parliament, I worked with people who had been injured at work and came under the Comcare legislation. When the Comcare scheme was first introduced it was without a doubt the best scheme that had operated for injured workers, but over a period of time that has changed. It is now a very different sort of scheme and it needs to be reviewed. A number of changes have been made over the time that it has been in operation, and these changes have actually impacted in a way which, instead of providing the absolute best scheme and support for injured workers, goes a long way towards making it difficult for them. I know a number of rehabilitation providers and people I have worked with in a previous life put submissions in to the review because they could see that there was a great need for change.

I will touch a little on the background to the act and where it has gone over a period of time. The act was established to regulate the scheme for compensating and rehabilitating Commonwealth workers. That is how it was in the beginning, but in 1992 the act was amended to enable privatised Commonwealth government business enterprises to remain under the scheme. The Howard government further extended the eligibility to apply to be a self-insurer under the scheme—making it possible for Optus to become eligible to apply for a self-insurance licence—and that opened the gate for a number of corporations with no historic connection to the Commonwealth to apply be granted self-insurer licences. There has been significant change to the way Comcare operates, and that is why, I believe, the minister felt quite strongly that there needed to be a review. In the 40th Australian parliament I was involved in a review of workers compensation schemes that operated throughout Australia. That report highlighted a number of deficiencies that existed. It also highlighted the fact that when a worker is injured at work that worker needs a proper program and support to get back to work.

The underlying assumption that was made prior to that inquiry was that most workers were noncompliant, that those workers applying for workers compensation were people who were trying to exploit the workers compensation system and preferred receiving compensation payments to working. I think it was proven beyond doubt that that was not where injured workers were coming from. Rather, those people who suffered an injury at work had their lives affected in practically every way. The member for Flynn, who spoke previously, stated how workers who have been injured suffer the consequences of that injury, which can impinge on their life in so many ways but also that that injury often leads to social exclusion, the loss of family, marriage break-up and many other consequences—including the loss of a job, of course, which is one of the most predominant effects of suffering a workplace injury.

When a person injures themselves at work and is forced to look for a new job or loses their job, along with that they lose their identity. One of the first things that a person is asked when they walk into a room or they meet someone for the first time is, ‘What do you do?’ When that person is forced to say, ‘Oh, well, actually I’m not working at the moment; I’ve injured myself at work,’ that person is immediately seen in two ways: they are unemployed, which in itself has a stigma attached to it; and they have injured themselves at work, and if it is a back injury or something that is not visible there is a degree of scepticism associated with the fact that a person is receiving workers compensation. Immediately, the person is judged as being something and is not looked upon as a person in their own right.

The other consequence of work related injury is an enormous financial impost on the person who is injured. They suffer a reduction in income. They are not eligible for assistance through Newstart, a disability support pension or other Commonwealth payments because of the fact that a workers compensation payment is deemed to be equivalent to a payment through our social security system. That in itself creates a number of problems for those workers who are injured at work.

So you have the impact of the injury that, in a large number of circumstances, leads to a loss of job. You have the financial impact that occurs when a person is injured at work. And then you have the psychosocial impacts that accompany that workplace injury—the pressure it places on family and the fact that so many people who have workplace injuries end up with marriage break-ups, and along with marriage break-ups go changed situations within the family. There are issues that relate to the care of children and to every other aspect of a person’s life. What you have is a totally changed circumstance. One day you had a person who was going to work, earning an income that they had planned their life and their affairs around and maybe participating in sport or some other activity, and all of a sudden that was taken from them and they are now a person who is in receipt of workers compensation payments.

Comcare is one of the schemes that supports workers who are injured. In fact, I believe there are 410,000 employees who are covered by the Comcare scheme; the current number of licences under the scheme has reached 29. It is really important that schemes that look after injured workers provide a variety and a number of levels of support. We need to make sure that people who are injured at work, lose their job and lose their access to leisure activities undertake programs—programs where they can develop new skills—to help them to retrain and re-enter the workforce. Quite often, workers who injure themselves at work are in jobs that are totally unsuited for them post injury and post undertaking a physical rehabilitation program to redevelop their strengths and redevelop their capacities in a number of areas. Their capacities may not match up with the capacities needed to work in the job that they had prior to their injury.

Part of a good rehabilitation program is to assess a person’s physical tolerances and work capacities and then to compare those work tolerances and capacities with those required in their previous job. You also look at the type of job that a person with those capacities and tolerances can actually be employed in. Not only do we need to look at their capacities and tolerances; we need to look at their skills and their education levels. Then a plan has to be developed that will match that person, where they are now, to a job that they will be suitable for in the future. That can be quite a difficult process, because some people require quite a bit of assistance to get to the stage where they are able to look at a new and different kind of employment or job. The reason for that is that we need to address not only the skills level but also the psychosocial problems that can result from a workplace accident.

Quite often a worker will end up with some psychological problems because they have to come to terms with the loss of their job and the loss of physical function. As I mentioned earlier, they will need to go through a physical rehabilitation program and also a psychosocial program—one that helps them deal with loss and the issues of grieving associated with loss of function and loss of job and one that helps them cope with their injury. Part of that could even be a pain management program, because along with injury comes pain. One of the most difficult things for an injured person to do is manage pain and continue to be an active member in society. When we talk about Comcare and caring for workers who have been injured, it is quite a significant issue and it takes on a number of different parameters.

The legislation that we are debating today, the bill to amend the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, is necessary because a party who has made an application and whose application has not been considered due to the moratorium that was put in place at the time of the announcement of the Comcare review has the potential to launch legal action against the Commonwealth over the validity of the moratorium. This legislation puts that to bed. It makes sure that there is no potential for that to happen. It is very important that the review is completed because it is well and truly long overdue.

I have already mentioned to the House that the Comcare scheme provides workers compensation and occupational health and safety arrangements for employees of the Australian government and of some private companies that self-insure their workers’ compensation liabilities under the scheme. I have spent considerable time talking about rehabilitation and I do so because I feel that it is of vital importance to people who are injured at work. I also believe that I need to bring to the attention of the House that the Rudd government did promise prior to the last election to impose a moratorium on companies seeking to join the Commonwealth scheme. The government announced a review to ensure that the Commonwealth Comcare scheme was a suitable OH&S and workers compensation system.

The reason that companies applied for entry is, I think, an indictment of the Howard government. Companies applied for entry to the Comcare scheme because they felt that their liability would be lower under it. The Howard government had eroded a scheme that was, in 1988, when it was first introduced, I believe, a state-of-the-art scheme. It was an absolutely fantastic scheme for injured workers trying to get back to work. But it became a scheme that employers sought to join in order to obtain a licence, because that then meant they did not have as high a level of liability for their employees.

Given the progress towards harmonisation of the national OH&S laws and the proposed transfer of OH&S coverage of Comcare self-insurers to the states and territories, the government will maintain that moratorium until 2011 when uniform OH&S laws will be implemented in all jurisdictions. It is important that we have uniform laws so that people and companies or employers cannot pick and choose which jurisdiction they will employ their workers under. It is all about ensuring that our schemes deliver to workers and provide the right sort of safety net. That is what a workers compensation scheme is about. This change will ensure that there is no dislocation in the lead-up to the legislation taking effect after the moratorium period ends. It is very important that this legislation goes through the House. It gives me great pleasure to stand here today and support legislation that will ensure that the Comcare scheme will be a good, strong, workable scheme in the long term. I commend the bill to the House. (Time expired)