I rise today to speak in favour of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2011, but before I go into any detail about that I just want to take issue with the overblown comments that were made by the member for Farrer with regard to her concerns about the off-site recess element of this bill. She suggests that people go scuba diving at lunch and so therefore she had an objection to elements of this bill. She maintained that that element of the bill defies common sense. Her comments defy common sense. I cannot believe that she said that. It shows a complete distrust and a misunderstanding of Australian workers and of Commonwealth employees and people who would be covered under this scheme.
How many times have you been out on a lunch break, when we do get a lunch break, driving around Lake Burley Griffin and the place is—what?—bobbing with people scuba diving? Commonwealth public servants just all bobbing round—it's absolutely chockers! Winter, spring, summer, autumn, there they are, down there scuba diving! It is a completely ridiculous statement and it should be highlighted as such. It also shows a complete misunderstanding and distrust for Australian workers. So, in a way, the comments of the member for Farrer really do not surprise me, particularly with regard to Commonwealth employees. She has a complete misunderstanding and a complete distrust of them.
This bill will have a positive impact on many of my constituents here in Canberra and I would like to congratulate the Gillard government for responding to the Comcare review. The Comcare scheme has grown since its introduction to now include 200 employers and over 400,000 employees nationally. The Prime Minister, in her then capacity as minister for workplace relations, agreed to make a number of amendments to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act following the report of the Comcare review. In particular, the government made amendments to reinstate the coverage of workers injured during an off-site recess break; continue the payment of medical costs, even if the employee refuses to take part in the rehabilitation process; and introduce statutory time limits within which claims must be determined by Comcare.
Although the language and technicalities of this bill can seem dry, this bill ultimately is about the very real problems that can and do face Australian workers who are injured at work. There are few things that can be more worrying and disruptive than to be unable to work due to injury and to face the prospect of no longer being able to carry out your trade or profession. In considering this bill we should therefore bear in mind that we are addressing the realities of the workplace.
This bill will, through its amendments, redress a number of anomalies which can make the position of workers affected by injury even more difficult. To illustrate these amendments, and the need for them, just think of something we see every day. For many people today, workplaces provide a place where they can go for recess breaks but for many others taking a recess break means going to a venue off site, as the member for Deakin just pointed out. Normally, that is a pleasurable, relaxing experience but under the present act there is an inequity in coverage of workers injured during an off-site break, between those employees who have an on-site facility for recess breaks and those who are not provided with one.
It is difficult, furthermore, to determine what would and would not be considered an off-site recess break for those employees who undertake their work off site —for example, a Telstra technician. There is another real-life situation that is relevant here. Most of us will know of someone engaged in an apprenticeship, or otherwise undergoing work related study to improve themselves. This means attending a work sanctioned course of an education provider such as a CIT or TAFE. But under the present arrangements this person would not necessarily be covered while on a lunch break. For these very real and common-sense reasons, one of the amendments the government is putting forward will reinstate the coverage of workers injured during an offsite recess break.
Now turning to another reality of life, we can all agree that rehabilitation for an injured worker is important in restoring confidence and a return to the workforce. But we also know that this can be a difficult process and that not all can easily take part in what is often a demanding process. Showing the necessary commitment and discipline can take time. Under present arrangements if a worker does not, or is not ready to, take part in a rehabilitation and return-to-work plan then all benefits can be suspended. This provision has some merit in so far as it is an incentive for a worker to stick to a rehabilitation and return-to-work plan. The recommendation of the majority report of the Senate inquiry into this legislation was that the rehabilitation and return to work of the employee were a priority of the Comcare scheme. And this is a view shared I would think by most of us.
But, while the suspension of benefits can be a useful mechanism to compel employees to comply with their rehabilitation and return-to-work plan, we should analyse more carefully the way in which this is done. In particular, the suspension of medical benefits appears to me to be a bit ill-judged. If the worker is unable to continue to receive treatment it makes it highly unlikely that the medical condition will improve sufficiently to make a return to work possible. For this reason the bill proposes an amendment under which the payment of medical costs can be continued even if the employee refuses to take part in the rehabilitation process. The effect of this amendment then is that only weekly compensation benefits would be affected in the case of a worker not engaging in rehabilitation; the payment of medical benefits would not be affected.
We all know how dispiriting and annoying it can be to face what seem to be unnecessarily long delays in the settlement of a claim we have made. Imagine, then, the effect on injured workers of waiting for a decision on which, it is not too much to say, their futures and their families' futures depend. The Comcare review noted that if claims are determined quickly then claimants can gain access to rehabilitation and medical treatment sooner.
Claims that are determined quickly also tend to be of a shorter duration and less costly. As it currently stands, there is no requirement under the act for decision-makers to act within a certain period. This is contrasted by those schemes operated by the states, which do apply statutory limits. The government is therefore proposing an amendment to introduce statutory time limits within which claims must be determined by Comcare.
Currently, the average time taken by Comcare is in excess of the time taken by these schemes, and therefore these amendments will provide a clear standard to determine claims quickly. As to the introduction of time limits, it was noted by the Comcare review that Comcare does not have a particularly good record of accomplishment in resolution of claims. In their submission to the review, Maurice Blackburn Lawyers noted:
... in 2004/2005 every state system had resolved more than 80% of claims within nine months while Comcare lagged behind with just 45% of claims resolved. These are the figures in a year where Comcare handled just 2660 total claims (disputed and undisputed) - Victoria and Queensland managed 27,000 each and NSW 52,000.
The AWU noted similar issues, saying: The scenarios allowed under Comcare can result in extended periods before an injured worker may receive treatment and rehabilitation, reducing the potential for a sustainable return to work.
There is a definite link between the time it takes to resolve a claim and the positive outcome and return to work of an employee. Those claims that are determined quickly tend to be of a shorter duration and less costly. It also means claimants can gain access to rehabilitation and medical treatment sooner. As it stands, there is no requirement under the act for decision makers to act within a certain period. This is contrasted by those schemes operated by the states, and this bill addresses those issues. This bill will also give Comcare access to the Consolidated Revenue Fund, which was closed off as an indirect result of a Federal Court decision. These moneys have been used to pay for liabilities accrued prior to the premium system being introduced in 1989. As a result of the Federal Court decision, premium moneys are being used to pay for liabilities they were not intended for, thus compromising the system. This amendment will fix this and ensure the government has made contingencies for the provision of long-latency illnesses, such as asbestosis.
This legislation will also allow for the continuous coverage of employees who have been deployed overseas or are members of a declared class of employee, such as those deployed as part of the Australian Civilian Corps. This is particularly welcome news to me because I know many people in my electorate who have been deployed overseas, often to dangerous and unstable positions and locations. They are often called upon at a moment's notice to serve their government and country and they do so willingly and proudly. It is good to know that while they are away the government has them covered, should they be injured.
I also note with pride the specific mention of the Australian Civilian Corps as a declared category of employee. I am a proud supporter of the corps and am pleased to see its inclusion. For those unaware, the Australian Civilian Corps is a select group of civilian specialists who deploy to countries experiencing or emerging from natural disaster or conflict. Members of the corps are drawn from a register of screened and trained civilian specialists. They are selected for their technical skills and ability to work in some challenging environments overseas.
Members of this corps come from all levels of government and the broader community to provide advice, assistance and capability building in public administration, finance, law and justice, agriculture, engineering and health administration, and many of them are from Canberra. The Australian Civilian Corps is not part of the emergency relief effort but is designed to support stabilisation, recovery and development planning with a view towards the longterm viability of countries in need. It builds on the initial humanitarian efforts to set the foundation for sustainable development and self-reliance. For a range of reasons, this is a welcome bill and I commend it to the House.