Resumed from 11 August.
Comments and speeches by various members
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [5.59 pm]: I rise on behalf of the Greens to indicate our support for the Workers’ Compensation and Injury Management Amendment (COVID-19 Response) Bill 2020. In doing so, I want to say a few words, recognising that we anticipate and are hopeful that broader reform around workers’ compensation legislation will occur at some point in the future. It was certainly indicated to me in the briefing that the new bill should be coming relatively soon, although I note that it was not anticipated that it would be subject to debate during the fortieth Parliament. The sooner it comes on for debate, the better. Nevertheless, we have in front of us today some provisions that I think are a step forward, although I have some reservations about the way in which some of the provisions have been constructed, which I will speak about a little further.
Some areas that have been proposed to be reformed by this bill have been a source of great contention for quite some time. I note that the decision to discontinue the common law termination day is a particularly welcome reform. This provision has, frankly, caused injustice for workers for a very long time. Workers often have needed to make a decision far too early in their recovery from whatever has caused them to go onto workers’ compensation on what is the best pathway for them to ensure that they are able to receive an appropriate resolution to their matter. I note that the second reading speech talked about the need to change the termination day ostensibly because of the difficulty that COVID-19 has presented in people being able to access specialist reports. However, to be clear, this has been a concern for a long time. Being able to access specialist reports in particular in a timely way was a problem long before COVID-19 made it even more difficult. It has been particularly difficult for workers who have quite complex matters and need to see specialists to try to get to the bottom of the extent of their injury or illness and the exact degree of their impairment. It is also an ongoing problem for workers who live in remote and regional areas, who find it particularly difficult to access specialists. I recognise that this bill has been brought forward in the context of the COVID-19 limitations that have been placed on people being able to access specialists, but I would argue that this area has needed reform for quite some time. I certainly welcome the greater level of flexibility that changing the termination day presents.
I also support the provision of periodic indexation of worker entitlements. I think the mechanism by which this will occur is more appropriate and provides more flexibility. Again, it is not something that is necessarily needed to address COVID-19, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. We will have much more to say generally about the issue of electronic service and exchange when we come to address the omnibus bill, but I note that this is the way that a lot of notifications are occurring now, so anything that will facilitate people to expedite their claims is a step in the right direction.
I want to particularly make some comments about the provision of regulations to establish a presumption of work-related injuries for prescribed diseases. I understand this has been put forward in the context of health workers particularly, who may be subjected to extreme viral loads if we end up having a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly of the proportions being experienced in the eastern states. I recognise that what is in front of us today in this bill goes far beyond simply dealing with COVID-19; it is attempting to put in place a regime that will make it easier to incorporate not only particular illnesses but also particular classes of workers.
I am a little torn about this provision and particularly the mechanism that is being proposed to enable that to occur. On the one hand, I have very clear recollections of being in this place a decade ago and trying to advocate for changes to workers’ compensation around presumptive illnesses, particularly for firefighters and a range of cancers. This issue was taken up at the time by the member for Melbourne, the now Greens federal leader Adam Bandt, who led the charge at the federal level to try to reverse the onus of proof for firefighters. We had a huge problem with firefighters in particular being exposed to a range of chemicals and hazards during the course of their duties and then going on to contract a range of cancers, and they were battling to get workers’ compensation to have that addressed. We were trying to go through the process here of having that incorporated in the legislation, and it was difficult. We were trying to make that case. I remember hundreds of firefighters standing out the front of Parliament House as they tried to get justice on this issue, because it was a legitimate concern. I remember hearing from families of firefighters who had cancer and who were battling to deal with the workers’ compensation system, and their intense frustration around this.
On the one hand, I look at the creation of the capacity to incorporate a wider range of workers and illnesses within the regulations and I welcome it. I think this is a mechanism that will ensure that we can swiftly bring in train a wider range of workers to be able to access workers’ compensation. On the other hand—this is my concern—with a regulatory regime, it is easy to include a wider range of workers and illnesses, but it is just as easy to take them out. I want to express my concern that the risk in trying to encapsulate an increased range of entitlements for workers within a regulatory regime is that they can be taken out just as simply. I want to at least put that on the record, because I do not think that is soluble, in the context of this bill, in terms of how we will address that, other than if we were to try to go back and, by amendment, specifically put in the bill COVID-19 and the classes of workers we are hoping to capture. As I understand it, we may have to reach a broader range of workers. I would certainly appreciate some feedback from the minister in her reply to the second reading debate on just how wide it is anticipated we may go, particularly in response to COVID-19, and particularly in terms of classes of workers.
I do not want to go on for too long because I am aware that we have a truncated debate on this bill, but the Greens are supportive of this legislation and will be voting for it. I want to see sooner rather than later the broader workers’ compensation legislation that needs to come to the Parliament. We know that the workers’ compensation system unfortunately fails far too many workers. Even though we have gone through decades of reform in this space, we still do not quite have the balance right. It is a difficult nut to crack. I am aware that people are still struggling as a result of the statutory system they find themselves in. Nevertheless, the bill certainly deals with some of the arbitrary provisions that currently exist within the act, such as termination days. Making it easier for people to access workers’ compensation and ensuring that entitlements can be kept up to date in a fairer way are steps in the right direction. On those few points, I, too, look forward to the discussion that will arise as a result of going into committee, but the Greens support this legislation and look forward to the broader reforms.
Comments and speeches by various members
Question put and passed. Bill read a second time.
The Deputy Chair of Committees (Hon Matthew Swinbourn) in the chair; Hon Alannah MacTiernan (Minister for Regional Development) in charge of the bill.
Comments and speeches by various members
Title put and passed.
Bill reported, with amendments, and the report adopted.
Bill read a third time, on motion by Hon Alannah MacTiernan (Minister for Regional Development), and returned to the Assembly with amendments.