In rising to speak on the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Legislation Amendment (Exit Arrangements) Bill, I reiterate Labor’s concern that the government seems to be rushing this legislation unnecessarily. The Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act established the Comcare scheme in 1988 to provide compensation and rehabilitation to Australian government and Australian Capital Territory government employees, as well as to employees of private corporations that hold a licence under the act.
The ACT government has indicated that it wishes to leave the scheme, citing cost concerns. This bill creates a framework for financial and other arrangements for a Commonwealth authority to exit the Comcare scheme. The framework established by these amendments will enable Comcare to determine and collect ‘exit contributions’ from former Commonwealth authorities and successors of former Commonwealth authorities. This will ensure that an exiting employer does not leave the Comcare scheme without contributing an appropriate amount to cover any current or prospective liabilities that are not funded by premiums the employer has paid before exit. It will ensure that employees injured before the employer’s exit continue to be supported by an appropriate rehabilitation authority, and it will enable Comcare to determine and collect ongoing regulatory contributions from exited employers or successor bodies. The bill also amends the act to clarify that premiums for current Commonwealth authorities and entities should be calculated to ensure that current and prospective liabilities should be fully funded by Comcare-retained funds.
I mentioned at the outset that this bill is unnecessarily rushed, and I say so for two key reasons. Firstly, the government has introduced other legislation which may affect how this bill impacts on injured workers and, secondly, we have yet to see the design of the ACT government’s replacement scheme. The ACT government scheduled a six-week consultation to listen to the views of stakeholders before designing a new rehabilitation and compensation scheme. That consultation period only ended last Friday, 8 May. The design of the new scheme is going to take a significant period of time, and the ACT government has made a commitment to work with stakeholders.
Labor’s first priority is to ensure that no worker will be worse off under this bill. We must also be certain that this bill will not provide an incentive for others to leave workers worse off. This is why Labor took the responsible course of action to refer the bill to the Senate Employment and Education Committee for a thorough investigation. However, since the bill was referred to an inquiry the government introduced another bill relating to the Comcare scheme. This bill—the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (Improving the Comcare Scheme) Bill—is the third substantive bill relating to the Comcare scheme currently before the parliament. Although the committee has concluded its inquiry into the exit arrangements bill, the introduction of the other bill, the third bill, means the committee has not had a proper opportunity to investigate the relationship of this bill with other bills concerning the Comcare scheme.
I mentioned there were three substantive bills relating to the Comcare scheme. In March this year the government also introduced the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Legislation Amendment Bill. Labor strongly opposes this bill. The proposed changes in this bill will directly and indirectly risk the health and safety of Australian workers and will remove their rights to fair and reasonable cover when they suffer the misfortune of a work-related illness or injury.
The most recent bill—the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (Improving the Comcare Scheme) Bill 2015—is over 200 pages long. It is also highly disadvantageous to workers. This bill makes cuts to the lump sum compensation payable for permanent impairment for the vast majority of injured workers and removes the already modest pain and suffering payment. I have concerns that this bill will leave workers worse off, particularly in relation to how the bill widens the way in which claims can be disqualified from compensation. Changes to eligibility requirements will mean injured workers are locked out of the scheme altogether. I have some examples of how this new scheme will impact workers.
Firstly, compensation entitlements would be suspended where an injured worker is absent from Australia for more than six weeks, for example even if they had a dying relative they needed to care for overseas. Under the current scheme, while a worker needs to seek approval prior to departure, there are no cuts to entitlements if a worker travels overseas. In circumstances where a worker is totally unfit for work as a result of a compensable work-related injury, it does not matter whether the worker lives in Australia or elsewhere.
Secondly, the current exclusionary provision for injuries caused by ‘reasonable administrative action’ will be broadened by the term ‘reasonable management action’. This will exclude any physical or psychiatric injury or illness resulting from a directive of management unless an injured worker can prove unreasonableness. How would this affect an Australian Federal Police officer who is injured in the undertaking of his or her duties? For example, if an AFP officer is instructed by his supervising officer to investigate a suspected drug lab and is stabbed during that investigation, would the injured officer be excluded under the new law on the grounds that the injury was partially caused by the reasonable direction given by the superior officer to investigate?
Thirdly, there are new tests for vulnerability to injury which would require consideration of whether the worker would have hypothetically suffered a similar ‘designated injury’ at the ‘same time in the worker’s life’ or at the ‘same stage’. It has been a long-standing principle of injury and compensation law that the injured victim is taken as found, including their age, vulnerabilities and susceptibilities. Since any musculoskeletal condition may be regarded as an ailment or any spinal condition as a ‘designated injury’, the effect of such a provision has the potential to strike out any such musculoskeletal injury. In a society where the working age now extends beyond 65 years and the Abbott government has declared it expects workers to work longer, our workforce is ageing and therefore becoming more susceptible to workplace injury. This provision effectively serves to discriminate against workers on the basis of their age.
These are just a few examples of how workers will not receive any compensation for work-related injuries under the so-called improving the Comcare scheme bill because of the related unfair and draconian eligibility rules. This bill also reduces incapacity payments and expands sanctions against workers including removal of medical support if a worker fails to attend a medical appointment. All of this is totally opposed by Labor. It is typical of this government when they are under pressure to attack the workplace conditions of working Australians. I know there are issues with the resourcing of the Comcare scheme and the workloads of workplace inspectors and Comcare staff, but undermining the rights of workers to fair compensation is not the answer. With these bills currently before the Senate and with the ACT government still designing their new scheme, it is unclear whether ACT employees would be better off under the Comcare scheme or its replacement scheme. This point was made by the Australian Council of Trade Unions in its submission to the inquiry. The ACTU also noted in its submission that it is unclear how the government proposes to manage the rehabilitation and compensation claims of those workers who are currently covered by the Comcare scheme or whose claims are still being processed.
Another concern raised through the inquiry by both the Victorian government and the Electrical Trades Union was that the bill may result in a reduced premium pool in state workers compensation schemes. Labor senators noted in their additional comments in the inquiry report that they were unconvinced by the Department of Employment’s submission that the reduction in the premium pool would not result from the passage of the bill.
The principle of giving workers fair compensation and the best opportunity for rehabilitation is of particular importance to me. I have spoken before in this place about the difficulties experienced by workers under the current scheme. For more than five years I have been working hard to represent a constituent who has been fighting to get decent rehabilitation services and fair compensation from an injury suffered as a Commonwealth employee 27 years ago. I know from an independent report given to Comcare that there are another 13 injured workers who have experienced expressed longstanding problems with aspects of their claims and Comcare’s services.
While it is vital that we do everything we can to avoid injuries at work, we know that unfortunately injuries will inevitably occur. When they do occur, workers need to have the assurance that they will receive not only fair compensation but the best rehabilitation support they can to restore them to their fullest possible health, both physically and psychologically. Given the difficulties that workers are experiencing with the Comcare scheme as it currently operates, it is absolutely vital that any changes to the scheme do not disadvantage workers and are carefully and thoroughly considered as a whole.
The most unfortunate thing about the government’s hasty and piecemeal approach to these legislative changes is that Labor may be able to support the exit arrangements bill—the bill we are currently debating—but we cannot under the current circumstances. There is no need to try and rush this bill through with such haste when the ACT government does not even yet have a scheme designed to replace the Comcare scheme and will not have one for some time. There is no need to rush this bill through when we have a number of other substantial changes to the Comcare scheme also before the parliament. The opposition has not received any information from the ACT government about the consequences for workers of their exit from the Comcare scheme. Labor needs to have assurances that ACT workers will not be left worse off under this bill. We need to be sure there is nothing questionable about this bill before parliament today, and the only way to do this is to take the necessary time for further consultation with all stakeholders.
It is not all right for workers to be not properly compensated if injured while working, and it is not all right to cut standards that protect workers. Labor strongly believe no worker should be worse off under this bill, and that is what we will continue to push for. Workers must be afforded fair and reasonable compensation should they suffer the misfortune of a work related injury or illness—because that is only fair.