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Tuesday, 27 March 2007
Page: 66

Senator LUNDY (4:58 PM) —Along with my colleagues who have done so, I rise to oppose the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2006. As my colleagues have already told the Senate, Labor is opposing this legislation because, like all other government legislation relating to industrial relations, this amendment is not in the interests of working Australians. It is somewhat fitting that, on the first anniversary of the government’s extreme Work Choices legislation, the government is again seeking to use its majority in the Senate to push through legislation that will strip Australian workers of their rights. This time, it is workers compensation entitlements that are under attack.

The principal aim of this legislation is to minimise the cost of work related injury and disease for Comcare. It is a cost-cutting exercise. There is no rational explanation for introducing amendments that will further limit workers compensation entitlements. It represents a blatant cost-shifting exercise that shifts costs from Comcare to private insurance and healthcare companies. I have to say, it will also result in a direct cost to workers themselves. It is unfair and unnecessary.

I am particularly concerned about the effect this legislation has on my constituents in the ACT, a large percentage of whom are Commonwealth employees and, indeed, ACT Public Service employees—thus, they will be affected directly by these amendments. I have already received a number of specific complaints from members of the ACT community about how this bill will affect their daily lives, not just today as they listened to this debate but, indeed, previously as they were alerted to the implications of this appalling piece of legislation. A constituent wrote to me regarding this matter, and I would like to read their concern to outline the sorts of issues that have been raised. I will not mention the workplace that this particular constituent mentioned. The letter reads:

I live in suburban Campbell ACT and cycle to civic each day to work. I enjoy my morning ride as it doesn’t take that long and is frankly easier than driving, dealing with the traffic and paying for parking. I’m also contributing towards my own healthy living with this extra exercise and not creating ... greenhouse burden.

When I started my job—

at a Commonwealth agency—

14 months ago I felt safe in cycling to work in the knowledge that I would have cover if I was involved in an accident. Indeed despite being a very aware and defensive cyclist, in that time I’ve had two near misses.

I think that little story demonstrates a couple of things. First of all, I think everyone would agree that it is terrific to encourage people to cycle to work, but I also think we would all acknowledge that it does come with risks. What we are dealing with today is a piece of legislation that would make the risk to the health of people like this—who are trying to do the right thing by looking after their health and getting to work without burning up more petrol—probably unacceptable or it would force them to take out additional private insurance. This bill will act as a disincentive to many public sector employees to continue to cycle to and from work every day, despite other policy areas at state, territory and federal government level encouraging such practice. We all think that this is a good idea.

Pedal Power, a local cycling group, raised some significant concerns about this legislation in its submission to the Senate inquiry into the bill, and I would like to go through some of that. Over the past six years, Pedal Power has run a Ride to Work program to encourage more Canberrans to ride to work more often. As Pedal Power pointed out in their submission, encouraging people to increase their fitness by cycling to work has many tangible benefits to the government in the form of reduced expenditure on hospitals, doctors and medicines. Just to follow through with this point, it is counterintuitive to put in place legislation that acts as an incredibly powerful disincentive to these people to take this particular way to get to work, not least because risk is involved.

That is just one perspective. Of course, the vast majority of people in Canberra still drive and a certain percentage use the public transport system. They will all be affected by this legislation. What we know about this legislation is that, for anyone who is injured on their way to work, despite traditionally always having cover through their workplace, that cover will no longer be there. The vulnerability it creates for many workers is simply unacceptable.

My Senate colleague in the Liberal Party and also from the ACT, Senator Humphries, has met with constituents about this bill. Those constituents have had the opportunity to raise with him some of the issues that I have raised today, so I am pretty keen to see what Senator Humphries’ position is on this, given the disproportionate impact the legislation will have on the residents of Canberra, a high proportion of whom work for the Commonwealth or the ACT Public Service. I will be very interested to see how seriously he takes these concerns and whether he has anything to say on this bill.

Unlike the Howard government, a Labor government will make genuine improvements in the area of occupational health and safety across Australian workplaces, and appropriate compensation is an essential part of that. I would like to add that it will not just affect public servants. I have certainly heard of a couple of building and construction companies who are going to take advantage of the opportunity to opt in to Comcare as their insurer when working on Commonwealth projects. That represents such a diminution of the cover for building and construction workers, who already have a highly risky workplace because of the nature of the hazards across the physical grades. They too will now be, I guess, roped in under this legislation. I know that building and construction workers who work in the private sector are gravely fearful about the negative impact that this will have on them.

What remains to be seen is the Howard government’s real motivation behind this bill. It has historically been the case that we have seen, through the evolution of occupational health and safety policy in this country, the overriding objective being the prevention of workplace injury and illness. This has been a principle that has historically underpinned state and federal legislation in this area. However, we are of the view that the government’s objective with this bill departs from that longstanding approach. Instead, its principal objective is the reduction of cost of the Comcare scheme by narrowing the eligibility criteria for compensation under the scheme. At a philosophical level, I think that is just disgusting. Occupational health and safety has fared poorly under the Howard government and this is a firm example of the lengths that this government is going to to undermine the principles of providing a safe and healthy place to work.

It was always going to be the case, as they bashed up unions and removed unions from workplaces, that occupational health and safety would suffer. My personal experience is that without a strong union in the workplace it is very difficult to maintain reasonable standards for occupational health and safety. This is particularly so for industries like building and construction—where I have worked as an asbestos removalist—and it is even certainly true for the white-collar workplaces that you would expect to find in the Commonwealth Public Service.

Because I have had that experience and worked in occupational health and safety, I think it is quite reasonable to make the observation that, over the last 11 years, this government has systematically wound back all the principles that underpin the quite reasonable and common-sense notion that employers have a duty of care to provide a safe and healthy workplace. Indeed, I believe that is a human right. I do not accept for a minute that journey claims, and the issue of travelling to and from work, should be exempt from that. Employees are required to attend at work and they need cover from the time they leave their home.

With respect to occupational health and safety generally, I have seen first hand, here in the ACT, what happens when pressure is put on to remove unions from the workplace. I have seen what happens when union delegates are intimidated by their employers into not making complaints about health and safety. I will have some more to say about that later in the week. But today I want to focus on the fact that this is another substantive ripping away of the rights of working people in relation to their ability to claim compensation for injuries sustained on their way to and from work—and during lunchbreaks, if they are off the premises.

This dry, cost-cutting approach, this abandoning of the principle of people’s right to be able to get to and from work in one piece and have some cover, stands as all the evidence we need that the Howard government will never be the friend of the working person in this country and certainly never the friend of Commonwealth and ACT public servants.