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Tuesday, 27 March 2007
Page: 20


Senator MARK BISHOP (1:54 PM) —The Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2006 seeks to make a range of amendments to the principal act. It amends the definition of ‘injury’, linking that to workplace causation; excludes injuries arising from reasonable administrative action; removes claims for non-work related journeys and other workplace absences; amends the calculation of retirees’ incapacity pay; updates measures for calculating benefits for employees; ensures that potential earnings are not taken into account in calculating incapacity pay for ex-Commonwealth employees; enables Comcare to directly reimburse health providers; and increases funeral benefits to $9,000. Put simply, it is a quick-fix bill to some longstanding problems. But it does not take us to underlying policy issues. When this legislation first became law in 1986, it was then a new benchmark in workers compensation. It followed consideration of a single workers compensation scheme, but this is still a dream. This bill does not address any such vision. It is typical of the short-term thinking plaguing the policy minds in a range of areas of members of this government.

There are a number of features of policy in the act which this bill amends. First, the public employer must be insured with Comcare and pay a premium based on the claims experience of that employer. Second, the emphasis is also on rehabilitation before permanent disability is assessed. Third, medical costs must be paid. Fourth, compensation must be fair. Incapacity payments must also accurately reflect other residual income-earning capacity. Sadly, many of these principles are not well understood and may be unfair in practice. That is because disability compensation, by definition, is a complex matter.

To begin with, medical science is far from perfect. It is almost impossible in any regulatory regime to predict future events and developments with substantial discretion being the rule of thumb. Every claimant’s circumstances are different and, as with all no-fault schemes, one size has to fit many. The successful rehabilitation of the injured can vary and future income-earning capacity is not counted. The only way to achieve satisfaction for that, though, is through common-law action for damages. As we know, this can take many years at a huge cost. The current scheme is the best we have devised to date, but it does need regular finetuning.

There are a number of themes in the framework that can be seen in this amending bill. They come into play when there is any finetuning, as with this bill. The most obvious with the bill is industrial relations—that is, entitlements of employees to protection from injury and for health care and compensation when that protection fails. That is generally considered to be the basis of no fault, and that is why legislation such as this is considered by many to be a threat to working conditions.

Next, there are the economic arguments, and we should be looking carefully at all costs of production to maintain Australia in a competitive position. Good employers, reasonable employers, rational employers know that reasonable occupational health and safety saves money. They freely accept their social and industrial responsibility. But we know these practices and ideals are often not honoured. There are plenty of employers around who are only too willing to have their costs covered by others. It happens within organisations as well—for example, wastage through medical discharge in Australia’s armed forces in recent years. We know that this practice was rampant. In short, the attitude to workplace injury was to go for medical discharge of the injured person and then find a quick replacement. That avoided the trouble of supervising rehabilitation and the necessary and consequential return to work. It was also a device to get rid of perceived troublemakers. The cost of this waste was, of course, borne by the ADF and by the taxpayer in due course. There was not any unit accountability, so the problem was endemic, sustained and consistent and remained untreated. Something needed to be done. Fortunately, it is fair to say that there seems to have been some improvement within Defence on this angle in recent times. That is apparent as the new OH&S regime becomes operational.

Debate interrupted.