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Thursday, 26 November 2009
Page: 12963

Mr CLARE (Parliamentary Secretary for Employment) (9:01 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill implements the government’s response to the review of the Comcare scheme, as well as some other associated amendments.

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.

As one of its election commitments, the government undertook to review the Comcare scheme, in particular its self-insurance arrangements which provide for the entry of private sector corporations into the scheme. The review was to ensure that the Comcare scheme has suitable occupational health and safety and workers compensation arrangements for self-insurers and their employees.

The Rudd government placed a moratorium on companies seeking to join the Comcare scheme while this review was conducted.

On 25 September 2009, the Deputy Prime Minister announced a number of improvements to the Comcare scheme arising out of the review.

This bill will implement these improvements through amendments to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (SRC Act).

To encourage timely determination of workers compensation claims, the bill amends the SRC Act to set statutory time limits within which claims must be determined. Claims determined quickly tend to be less costly.

The bill amends the SRC Act to reinstate workers compensation coverage for off-site recess breaks. This will realign the Comcare scheme with most jurisdictions and remove the inequity in coverage for employees whose employers do not provide on-site facilities for meal breaks.

The bill amends the SRC Act so that medical and related costs will continue to be paid where a worker’s weekly compensation benefits are suspended for refusing to participate in the rehabilitation process. Suspending weekly compensation benefits can be a useful incentive to encourage claimants to comply with the requirement to undergo appropriate medical treatment. However, suspending medical and related payments could be counterproductive to early rehabilitation and return to work.

As the House would be aware, the lump sum and weekly death benefits under the Comcare scheme were recently increased substantially to align them more closely with death benefits payable under state and territory workers compensation schemes.

Furthermore, Comcare is undertaking a review of the permanent impairment arrangements under the scheme, including whether they provide reasonable access to, and reasonable levels of, compensation in the case of workplace injuries which result in permanent impairment.

The Deputy Prime Minister has also directed Comcare to strengthen its OHS prevention and enforcement approach, including through more proactive interventions and improving the expertise of its investigators. Comcare has also been asked to develop guidance material for employers to improve consultation with all workers on occupational health and safety matters. This is intended to ensure that consultation arrangements reflect the modern workplace, and extend beyond the traditional employer/employee relationship.

These measures, as well as the measures proposed in the bill, are designed to improve the Comcare scheme by reducing injuries; strengthening the focus on rehabilitation and return to work; and increasing benefits for injured workers.

In announcing improvements to the Comcare scheme arising from the review, the Deputy Prime Minister also announced that the government would maintain the moratorium on new entrants to the scheme until 2011, when uniform occupational health and safety laws have been implemented in all jurisdictions.

As the House is aware, the Commonwealth, states and territories have been working cooperatively towards the national harmonisation of occupational health and safety legislation. This is progressing well.

Workplace relations ministers from all jurisdictions have agreed to consider occupational health and safety coverage of Comcare self-insurers as part of the harmonisation of occupational health and safety. Following the implementation of uniform occupational health and safety laws, the government intends to transfer occupational health and safety coverage of Comcare self-insured licensees to state and territory jurisdictions.

The adoption of uniform occupational health and safety laws and nationally consistent approaches to compliance and enforcement will remove the need for Comcare’s occupational health and safety coverage of licensees. The transfer of occupational health and safety coverage would also reduce the number of dual jurisdiction worksites.

The government has decided to maintain the moratorium on new entrants to the Comcare scheme until uniform occupational health and safety laws have been implemented in all jurisdictions. To do otherwise would cause unnecessary complexities and duplication for all new self insurance entrants to Comcare which would have to adapt to Comcare’s laws and then change again to comply with the new model laws.

Other amendments to the SRC Act contained in the bill will restore Comcare’s access to the consolidated revenue fund to pay for its workers compensation liabilities and associated expenses arising from long latency injuries claims. Comcare’s access to the consolidated revenue fund was closed off as an indirect result of a Federal Court decision in 2006.

The long latency injuries claims are those attributable to employment before 1 December 1988 but manifesting themselves after this date. These would include, but are not limited to, asbestos related diseases claims. The intention of the act had been—and still is—that the Consolidated Revenue Fund should fund these claims because they relate to employment not covered by Comcare’s premium system.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act 1991 (OH&S Act) promotes the health and safety at work of persons employed by the Commonwealth, Commonwealth authorities and certain private sector corporations. An important part of this act, and the Occupational Health and Safety (Safety Standards) Regulations 1994, are the provisions relating to the manufacture, supply, installation, design and safe use of plant.

Advice from the Australian Government Solicitor has indicated that the current definition of plant may not encompass lifts. Comcare has continued to work collaboratively with employers in its jurisdiction to ensure that lifts are subject to the same high safety standards as other items of plant. The recognition of lifts as plant within the meaning of the OH&S Act would bring lifts within the plant risk management framework, and would apply all the duties contained in the plant regulations to lifts.

This amendment will align the OH&S Act with all other Australian jurisdictions, as well as the National Standard for Plant.

The bill also contains technical amendments to the SRC Act, the OH&S Act, the Occupational Health and Safety (Maritime Industry) Act 1993 and the Seafarers Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1992 to cater for new arrangements and terminology introduced by the Legislative Instruments Act 2003.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Lindsay) adjourned.