Lack of unanimity in Senate report highlights Comcare’s faults
19th Jun 2015
Injured Australian workers could see their rights and workplace safety severely cut under government plans to slash the federal workers compensation scheme, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said today.
This week a Senate Committee by majority recommended that amendments to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (Improving the Comcare Scheme) Bill 2015 be passed by the Senate. However the recommendation was split along party lines, with Labor and Greens committee members recommending that the Senate reject the Bill.
ALA National President Andrew Stone said the split within the Senate Committee reflected the controversial and disingenuous nature of the proposed cuts to Comcare, which would cast a shadow over the long-term futures of injured workers and their families, as well as the budget bottom line.
“The Comcare scheme has widely-acknowledged problems, but the government’s Bill simply is not the solution,” Mr Stone said.
“The changes proposed by the government will make a bad, poorly-functioning scheme even worse for everyone, but particularly for injured Australian workers.”
“The Australian Lawyers Alliance is urging Senators to stand up and do the right thing to block the passage of this legislation,” Mr Stone said.
Mr Stone agreed with Labor and Greens’ members of the Senate Committee, who described the Bill as a significant attack on worker’s rights and entitlements, and the most fundamental change to the SRC Act since its introduction.
The majority report provides no answer to Comcare’s safety vacuum. “Comcare has a deplorable record of workplace health and safety education and enforcement,” Mr Stone said. “State and Territory schemes are far better equipped to monitor, educate and enforce safety. Any expansion of Comcare will mean more deaths at work. Senator Abetz appears willing to sacrifice safety in pursuit of the expansion of this scheme.”
“While the Senate Committee rightly acknowledges that there must be increased assistance for injured workers to return to work, this legislation would throw more people onto social security,” Mr Stone said.
Mr Stone highlighted mental stress claims as an example.
“Over four years, there has been a 61 per cent increase in mental stress claims for workers covered by Comcare, which are more costly than other claims,” Mr Stone said. “In these types of claims, it is also harder for the worker to return to work, given that literally, going to work is making them sick.”
“Cutting benefits for injured workers is not the solution. The bigger picture is that there is a need for a conversation about mental stress, workplace bullying and psychological health in the public service, and the responsibility of employers to provide a safe workplace. It seems that Senator Abetz isn’t up for that conversation”
“The legislation proposes to chop away people’s rights rather than dealing with the core issues at the scheme,” Mr Stone said.
“These proposed changes should be of concern to every Australian. If the federal government thinks that this is level of protection is good enough for their employees, in a trickle-down effect, state workers’ compensation schemes could follow suit, incorporating a lowest common denominator approach to rights.”
“The effects upon the budget bottom line also seem to have been lost on the majority of the Senate committee, and the Minister,” Mr Stone said. “Minimalist workers compensations schemes invariably drive increased numbers onto Centrelink and Medicare, increasing the burden upon taxpayers. Given the stated concerns about budget blowouts, the government ought to be worried about the wisdom of Senator Abetz’s punitive model.”
“It’s time to fix the problems in the scheme, not simply exacerbate them. The punitive approach in this Bill is reflective of a broader approach to fairness from this Minister,” Mr Stone said.
“There is simply no justification for expanding self-insurance under Comcare, and no evidence of widespread misconduct or abuse of the system that would justify the changes outlined in this bill,” Mr Stone said.
“Despite the few examples of outlying compensation claims quoted by the government, yesterday’s Senate report does not demonstrate a compromise of the scheme. Labor Senators are correct in arguing the evidence contained in the Report only demonstrates the weight of opposition to the amendments proposed by the Bill,” Mr Stone said.
Mr Stone said that the government’s position displayed a complete lack of empathy for injured workers and showed it was only concerned with stripping Comcare costs to the bone.
“Given the complete lack of empathy by the government for injured workers and his seeming determination to gut their benefits, the Australian Lawyers Alliance prides itself on sticking up for those whom the Minster doesn’t seem to care about,” Mr Stone said.
“By all means tidy up the system, but don’t disguise a major attack on the benefits of the seriously injured and an attack on State and Territory schemes under the guise of one or two extreme examples.
“The ALA remains strongly opposed to these proposed changes. There is a better way forward, and we are happy to consult with the Minister about this, but we will never accept changes that put the considerations of big business ahead of the rights and safety of injured workers,” Mr Stone said.