Workers Compensation Amendment Bill 2015

Dr HUGH McDERMOTT (Prospect) [1.11 p.m.]: I support the suggestion by the shadow Minister and member for Cessnock that we should separate the cognate bills. I support the Workers Compensation Amendment Bill 2015 but oppose the State Insurance and Care Governance Bill 2015. Australians have a proud history of being innovative and adaptive to change and we do so under the pretext of our robust Australian culture. The New South Wales Government knows this and certainly seems to believe in a fair go and equal opportunity. Indeed, the Government constantly says that but the Minister seems to have forgotten perhaps the most important part of Australian culture—that we look after one another.

Workers compensation is part of the fabric of Australian and New South Wales society. The Dust Diseases Board was established as a service in 1910 to deliver for workers installing Sydney's sewer network who were suffering from the new condition of silicosis caused by concrete-sewer cement dust. It legislated in 1930 as farmers and farmhands became aware they were suffering from a condition very similar to the concrete workers, a condition that became known as farmer's lung, which was caused by airborne dust from crops. In the 1960s the Dust Diseases Board became seriously involved in the developing condition of asbestosis. Since then the Dust Diseases Board has worked on these three main illnesses. It has been, and remains, independent of direction or control by government, be that politicians or bureaucrats.

Over 300 people in New South Wales are diagnosed with dust diseases every year, the majority being working men, and the Dust Diseases Board can process most claims within 30 days. Once diagnosed most victims live only 12 months, so quick and efficient processing is paramount. However, victims can be diagnosed up to 20 years after exposure. In addition, it has been found that the wives of these working men have contracted these lung diseases merely from doing the laundry and their children have also been affected, so dust diseases can affect entire families. The Dust Diseases Board assists victims with daily requirements such as ramps to access homes, renovating showers and bathrooms, installing oxygen generators for homes, providing oxygen tubes to allow travel, lawn mowing services or whatever the victim or the victim's family needs.

Approximately 90 per cent of the work of the Dust Diseases Board is with widows and families. In the past the board has offered assistance with financial management, amongst other things. The Dust Diseases Board comprises an independent chair, which is currently an engineer and financial analyst, three employer representatives and three employee representatives. The Dust Diseases Board has a long history of transparency efficiency and ethical delivery in its decision-making process. There has been no hint of scandal, excess or waste. As stated, this independent board currently comprises employers and workers representatives, with an independent chair. The board determines cases, management and policy issues and grants to help research into dust diseases. Giving the independent board an advisory council status, which is the aim of the legislation, will result in an industry that contributes to the scheme and is affected by dust diseases losing control of the scheme, meaning that it will simply be beholden to the decisions of a public servant or the Minister.

The board has the role of a statutory decision-making body. The board's policies that enable fast payment and access to services are open to being cut by political decree if the board is made an advisory council. It will also remove the ability of victims to appeal decisions to decline access to benefits not defined in the legislation to the District Court as there will be no jurisdiction. The statutory decision will have been made by the chief executive officer or a Minister that that type of claim will not be paid. The aim of the State Insurance and Care Governance Bill 2015 is to abolish the Safety, Return to Work and Support Board, the Dust Diseases Board, which is workers compensation, the Lifetime Care and Support Authority, which is the Motor Accidents Authority, the Sporting Injuries Compensation Authority, and the NSW Self-Insurance Corporation, which deals with the Bush Fire Fighters Compensation Fund and the Emergency and Rescue Workers Compensation Fund. Instead, control will shift to a single chief executive officer [CEO] who will be directly answerable to the Minister.

The Government's plan is to consolidate power in the Minister. Even under the crippling reforms of 2012 this Government seeks to go one step further. What is currently a robust, independent and fair board will soon become a neutered bureaucracy with a two-word vocabulary—"Yes" and "Minister" if this bill is to pass. As only three benefits are capped by legislation this creates ministerial or chief executive officer [CEO]discretion over all other compensation and activities that the board administers, including much-needed services to victims of dust diseases. All policies, processes and benefits will be open to being set by the Minister or a public servant under his or her influence. This will require no decision of Parliament or even issuance of regulation.

The Minister says he is happy for victim support groups to have a greater say so long as their input is under his power as Minister. There will be no independence under the bureaucracy that this Minister leads, nor will there be any benefit for victims suffering the harsh effects of mesothelioma or other dust diseases. The Minister has stated that victims' groups could now have a seat at the table. Although it is admirable this approach has an unintended consequence. If victims groups are brought onto the advisory council, the advisory council will be prohibited from funding activities of the victims' group on the board because of the public service code of conduct rules. This is a cunning approach from the Government. First, the Government has silenced its critics and then it destroys the board. The people of New South Wales do not deserve a government that imposes a multifaceted attack on the victims of dust diseases. Attacking victims should not be the purpose of a State government and the Minister knows that. If Government members stand by the Minister's proposal, they will fail the people of New South Wales and destroy the values of New South Wales society.

The people of New South Wales are not as impressionable as the Minister would like to believe. Those unfortunate souls have to contend with their lungs hardening as the disease from the dust they have inhaled turns into a concrete-like substance. They were told by surgeon after surgeon that there is no hope. They went to work for years hoping they would be able to see their children and grandchildren grow up; they look at their tank of oxygen every day and regret being in the wrong place at the wrong time. These people are not foolish enough to believe that their claims will be processed any faster under the proposals being put before this Chamber. The Minister has stated that the instigation of a bureaucrat as the decision-maker will speed up decisions. However, when meeting with victims' groups the Minister has said that an advisory council would approve the decision for the new public servant decision-maker.

In effect, the Minister is adding another level of decision-making from parties with no industrial, medical or subject area knowledge or experience for where the exposure is alleged to have occurred and with no independence. The Dust Diseases Board already had the ability to speed up decisions through the meeting of the board in between formal meetings via circular email motion, which can occur in under 48 hours. The Dust Diseases Board is the fastest whole claim dust diseases process of any jurisdiction in the country. The Opposition and unions support making claims processes faster. However, it is unclear how this will occur, as the proposed process appears to be adding an extra step for the sign off of a victim's claim. Why does the Minister want this power so badly? Improving the pathways to compensation could be done in a far superior way. The role of the Dust Diseases Board and other similar boards and tribunals could be strengthened and the care that victims of dust diseases so desperately need and deserve should be delivered.

The new State Insurance and Care Governance Bill provides for the public servant who administers the Dust Diseases Authority with no job security. This makes it unlikely that they will challenge the government of the day if it requires finances from elsewhere or wishes for any benefits to be cut. Currently, the Dust Diseases Board has a quasi-tribunal status that can be appealed to the District Court, if workers are dissatisfied with the decision. With the replacement of the board with a public servant, it is unclear what dispute processes are available to workers. The status of the new advisory council's decisions will be valueless until they have been signed off by the chief executive, who may take some time to get around to it. [Extension of time agreed to.]

Under the Government's proposal, the Minister's power is absolute. Without any judicial oversight or analysis, the Minister would have the power to say no. What is the Minister hoping to achieve? Even during the lowest period of the global financial crisis, the Dust Diseases Board scheme did not go below an 89 per cent funding ratio. This enabled the Dust Diseases Board to weather the downturn without reducing benefits or increasing premiums. An independent board will ensure the current $200 million in surplus—an estimated 123 per cent of the funding ratio—that enables certainty for victims will not be ripped from the scheme to pay for other governmental shortfalls. The Minister can take this money for victims whenever the Government wants. The people of New South Wales deserve better than this. Our State does not need endless restructuring of bureaucracies and the creation of powerless advisory committees; it needs robust workers compensation measures that enforce safety to prevent tragedy and a fair and effective compensation system to look after those who are less fortunate.

The New South Wales Parliament Law and Justice Committee inquiry into the exercise of the functions of the Workers Compensation Dust Diseases Board, chaired by David Clarke, issued a bipartisan report in September last year. The report gave a glowing review of the board's operations, with no indication of the changes proposed in the bill. This Chamber has a clear and far superior alternative. The people of New South Wales deserve better, and they can have better, if the Government were to call off its heartless attack on the victims of dust diseases. I strongly urge all members of this House to support the separation of the cognate bills and oppose the State Insurance and Care Governance Bill. If members do not separate the bills I will have no choice other than to oppose and vote against the bills in their present form.

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