Resumed from 27 June.
Comments and speeches from various members
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [9.07 pm]: I rise as the lead speaker on behalf of the Greens to indicate that we are also very happily supporting the Police Amendment (Medical Retirement) Bill 2019. I agree with the previous speakers who have indicated that it is not before time that we are finally looking at this amendment.
There is no doubt at all that police work is dangerous. It has its own unique risks in terms of officers’ physical health and the mental toll that far too often the work takes on officers. We know that officers are forced to deal with members of the public who are either deeply distressed or who are just straight-out violent and choose to be not particularly good people. Officers are also exposed to situations that many of us do not experience in our whole lives. It means that mentally our police officers are repeatedly exposed to very high stress and deeply traumatic situations. We are talking, of course, about the aftermath of murders; suicides; sudden deaths, including the sudden deaths of children; fatal traffic accidents; sexual assaults, including on children; and some of the worst possible things that one would ever have to bear witness to. That is in addition to facing emotional demands and ongoing physical threats.
I note that in the other place in March 2016, the Community Development and Justice Standing Committee released a report around these issues entitled “How Do They Manage? An Investigation of the Measures WA Police Has in Place to Evaluate Management of Personnel”. That report states that more police officers are medically retired from the Western Australia Police Force because of psychological illness than physical ailments or injuries. As has been talked about in this place, the most common psychological illness is post-traumatic stress disorder. Police officers are also repeatedly exposed to the risk of physical injury through being assaulted directly, having vehicles driven at them, being exposed to bodily fluids from a range of sources, and attending hazardous places such as fires and clandestine drug labs. The Western Australian Police Union’s 2017 pre-election submission set out a graph of the number of medically retired police officers between 2001 and 2015. The total figure was 317officers. On 2 August 2018, The West Australian reported that the Medically Retired Western Australian Police Officers Association stated that the total estimated number of medically retired police officers is around 500.
During debate in the other place, the Minister for Police indicated that the number of medical requirements due to work-related injury is approximately three per cent of total separations, with an average of 13 officers retiring each year between 2000 and 2014. It is important to note that those figures do not include police officers who chose to resign or retire rather than going through the current medical retirement process, which has been reported as being less than optimal. The current process is contained in section 8, as has been spoken about already, and part IIB of the Police Act 1892. A precondition to that process is that the police commissioner has lost confidence in an officer’s suitability to continue as an officer, having regard to the officer’s integrity, honesty, competence, performance or conduct. I absolutely agree that it is grossly unfair to lump police officers of integrity who have been unfortunate enough to suffer injury because of the extensive occupational hazards they face in the line of duty in with police officers who are dishonest, criminal, corrupt or incompetent. Members know that I have a pretty dim view of corrupt police officers—people who choose to use the extraordinary power that has been entrusted to them to engage in behaviours to further their own interests, deny justice to people, or subject innocent individuals to appalling conduct. I am very strongly of the view that our Corruption and Crime Commission could and should be doing more to weed out these individuals. These people should be subject to the strongest of penalties available in our laws. It is a very serious matter for them to abuse the trust that has been given to them. It is all the more appalling that good police officers—those who deserve our full credit and recognition—find themselves inadvertently lumped in with these corrupt coppers because they have done the right thing, have been brave and have risked their lives and wellbeing for the benefit of us all.
The stigma has caused medically retired police officers unnecessary extra suffering and for that I am sorry. I am glad that this bill will finally go some way to addressing that. In recognition of this, in 2018 the minister introduced a redress scheme for medically retired police officers. Applications closed in April of this year, and my understanding is that they are currently being assessed. Western Australia Police Redress is a $16 million scheme that provides for ex gratia–like payments of up to $150 000 for medically retired police officers to acknowledge the hurt and indignity caused by their removal under the section 8 process. I applaud the government for implementing that scheme. I ask the minister to provide an update on the progress of that redress process.
Given the stigma and indignity of the current process, it is understandable that police officers have advocated for a very long time for the process for retirement on medical grounds to be separated from the current process prescribed in section 8. I return to the report I mentioned before that was tabled in the other place by the Community Development and Justice Standing Committee. It stated that the Western Australian Police Union called for the removal of police officers on medical grounds to be independent of the section 8 process. The police commissioner also agreed that the section 8 process was inappropriate for sick or injured officers, given its association with removing police officers who had committed offences. Finding 30 of that report was that police officers who have been removed from duty for medical reasons often reported feeling abandoned by the police service and that the years of service they had given were not valued. Recommendation 11 was that the Western Australian Police Force should implement a formal mode of recognition for officers who had been dismissed on medical grounds and acknowledge that their illness or injury was sustained in the line of duty.
This bill will deliver the long-awaited change to the current section 8 process. It will create instead a standalone process via insertion into the act of a proposed part IIC, which is for medical retirement of police officers. I note that it will also cover recruits, auxiliary officers, cadets and Aboriginal police liaison officers. In all other respects, the new process is similar to the existing process. There is a similar requirement for the police commissioner to give written notice that medical retirement is being considered and there is a similar right for the police officer to respond and have the police commissioner take into account that response before a decision is made. I note that the bill provides for one extra week for the officer to respond, increasing the time from 21 days to 28 days. That is an improvement. There is a similar right to a maintenance payment, the right to resign instead of being medically retired, and the right of appeal to the Western Australian Industrial Relations Commission. Transitional provisions will provide that after the commencement date, removal proceedings that are on foot but on which the police commissioner has not made a decision about whether to take removal action are to be continued and completed pursuant to the new process in this bill, rather than the current section 8. The commencement of the substantive part of the bill will be upon proclamation. This is to allow time for preparation of forms to support the new process and for the drafting of regulations on the service of notice. I understand this is expected to take about two months. I want to confirm whether that is, indeed, the expected time frame.
Unsurprisingly, the bill has very strong support from both the police union and the Medically Retired Western Australian Police Officers Association. I note that the police union is also advocating for the next step after this bill to be a police-specific compensation scheme for police officers who can no longer work on the front line. It has been advocating on this matter for a very long time. I remember first meeting with the police union in 2009 when it was talking about wanting changes to this, so it has been around for a very long time. Members will know that police are not currently eligible for workers’ compensation in Western Australia because they are not technically employees. However, loss of a police officer’s income because of medical retirement is a huge financial burden for the officer and any children or family members who had been supported by the income. It is a problematic situation that needs to be corrected. Again, to correct it would be consistent with that March 2016 report from the other place, because finding 31 states —
Forms of compensation currently available to medically retired officers are inadequate and unfairly bestowed.
That has certainly been my observation as well. I have also been very concerned that the large ex gratia payouts that tend to be given to police officers when they suffer particularly catastrophic injuries can often depend on how much media they managed to drum up rather than on the merits being looked at dispassionately. If they happen to not be successful in that, they may not get fair compensation. Recommendation 12 states —
That the Minister for Police works with the Police Commissioner, in concert with the WA Police Union, to institute a compensation scheme for medically retired officers and so bring Western Australia in line with the other States.
I note that the minister has committed to workers’ compensation for police as the next step after this bill, as well as the redress scheme. I have seen the proposal put forward by the WA Police Union for compensation. It is proposing quite a detailed model. I understand that the government is considering that model, amongst others, and that it will consult with the police union with the aim of having an agreed workers’ compensation scheme in place no later than the end of this term of government. I would like to confirm with the minister for the record that this is actually the case.
I also understand—and I suppose I again ask that the minister please confirm—that the police commissioner is proactively working hard on changing police culture so that officers’ mental health needs are better recognised and addressed at work. I understand that this includes training, awareness programs, peer support and extra resources. I would appreciate getting extra advice to this place on the record about what that entails, and not before time. We know that all our emergency services operators have quite appalling rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, and a devastating number of people have gone on to take their own lives. It is a very, very serious matter that has needed attention for a very long time. It has been a culture of people wanting to struggle on and not express any form of distress because they erroneously think that it is a sign of weakness; it is not. If a person is experiencing mental distress and they reach out and say that they need some help, as far as I am concerned, they have the greatest courage of all and that is amazing, but we need to change the culture. These are people who are used to being the ones that other people rely on and are not used to crying out for help. We need to make sure that we are doing that; it is important. If we ensure that we provide as much support as we can for people to cope with incredibly stressful jobs, it also means that when they have got to the point at which they are not able to continue on the job anymore because of it, we will be able to ensure that people can retire with dignity, respect and appropriate compensation. This bill goes part of the way towards helping to facilitate that.
With those words I want to again indicate my strong support for this long overdue reform. It is a simple one. I would have thought it would have been done a long time ago, but I am just glad it is here now, and I look forward to hearing more about the next tranche of reform.
Comments and speeches from various members
Question put and passed.
Bill read a second time.