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Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 2868

Ms KATE ELLIS (Minister for Employment Participation and Childcare and Minister for the Status of Women) (9:44 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 introducing certain other associated amendments.

The Comcare scheme provides workers compensation and occupational health and safety arrangements for employees of the Australian government and for some private sector corporations that self-insure their workers compensation liabilities under the scheme.

In late 2007, federal Labor 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.

On 25 September 2009, the then Minister for Workplace Relations, Minister Gillard, announced a number of improvements to the Comcare scheme arising out of the review. On 26 November 2009, the Occupational Health and Safety and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2009 was introduced into parliament to implement these improvements; however, the bill lapsed when the parliament was prorogued.

The bill that I am introducing today will implement the improvements arising from the review of the Comcare scheme through amendments to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (the SRC Act).

The bill also makes amendments to respond to policy issues unrelated to the review to address Comcare’s access to the consolidated revenue fund and also workers compensation coverage for employees working in high risk environments overseas.

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

The bill also reinstates 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.

This amendment will cost Comcare $1.7 million in 2010-11, indexed for the out years. However since these injuries are currently only claimable through Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, reinstating coverage will result in a net saving to the PBS of $136,000 in 2010-11, also indexed for the out years.

Furthermore, 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 rehabilitation and return to work programs. However, suspending medical and related payments can be counterproductive to early rehabilitation and return to work.

This reform will have a negligible financial impact on Comcare’s premiums pool of around $24,000 per annum in 2010-11, indexed for the out years.

Also as part of the response to the review, in early 2010, the then Minister for Workplace Relations directed Comcare to strengthen its OHS prevention and enforcement approach, including through more proactive interventions and improving the expertise of its investigators.

The minister also requested Comcare to develop guidance material for employers to improve consultation with all workers on occupational health and safety matters. This was intended to ensure that consultation arrangements reflect the modern workplace, and extend beyond the traditional employee/employer relationship.

Separately, under federal Labor the lump sum and weekly death benefits for the Comcare scheme were increased substantially from May 2008 to align them more closely with death benefits payable under the majority of state and territory workers compensation schemes.

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.

The bill also seeks to make a number of additional reforms to address issues that have arisen separately to the Comcare review.

In particular, the bill amends the SRC Act to provide workers’ compensation coverage for injuries sustained while an employee is working in a ‘declared place’ outside Australia, or where the person is a member of a ‘declared category’ of employees whose work requires deployment to places outside Australia.

It does this by enabling the minister to declare certain high risk places, for example, Afghanistan or Iraq, to be places where the SRC Act will be deemed to provide continuous coverage for all Commonwealth employees.

The bill will also allow the minister to declare certain classes of employees to be covered while outside Australia. The need for this flexibility arises specifically in relation to the establishment of the Australian Civilian Corps, who will assist in disaster relief, stabilisation and post-conflict resolution in developing countries and failed states.

The effect of these changes will be to provide 24/7 coverage under the SRC Act for employees exposed to unusually high risk while working outside Australia. The fiscal impact of these amendments will be in the order of $2 million per annum.

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 injury claims, such as those related to asbestos exposure.

Comcare’s access to the consolidated revenue fund was closed off as an indirect result of a Federal Court decision in 2006.

However, the intention of the SRC Act has been—and still is—that the consolidated revenue fund should fund these claims because they relate to employment-related injuries not covered by Comcare’s premium system.

This bill also contains technical amendments to the SRC 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 Andrews) adjourned.