Hansard - Dust Disease Board

I speak in debate on the Workers Compensation Amendment Bill 2015 and its cognate bill, the State Insurance and Care Governance Bill 2015 and commence by discussing the Workers Compensation Amendment Bill. It is refreshing to see that the Government is willing to admit its mistakes and try to make amends. While many people have suffered under the Government's 2012 changes to workers compensation it is indeed good to see the Government owning up to the misery it has caused and that it is looking to right some of those wrongs.

Over 5,000 workers have lost their workers compensation benefits since the Government's 2012 overhaul of the scheme. At the time of the changes hundreds of workers who lost compensation had been unemployed since their injuries. However, the Government has been willing to tear up their compensation entitlements. The Government saw no issue with 20,000 workers with long-term injuries losing access to medical benefits. But thankfully the Government has admitted its mistake. Admittedly it may have seen there were issues when the Minister for Finance had to backflip and guarantee hearing aids and prostheses to workers injured before the 2012 changes to legislation.

We are talking about hearing aids and prostheses for injured workers. We are not talking about luxuries or unreasonable entitlements; just the basic services needed for injured workers to get by. This is a Government that would see a $1 billion surplus in the WorkCover account as a reward for its mean-spirited changes. What I see are thousands of workers left to fend for themselves after workplace injuries. Even after achieving a $1 billion surplus did the Government think, "Maybe we can give some of this surplus back to injured workers and make life just a little easier?" No. Instead the Government chose to shift the burden of care for injured workers back onto the family and individual. Despite claiming the scheme would go broke a few years ago the Government has since reduced workers compensation premiums for businesses by 17 per cent.

While this bill does not reverse all the Government's 2012 ill-conceived changes to workers compensation it does go some way towards improving the lives of injured workers. For that reason I support the changes. Unfortunately the Government has chosen to tie this somewhat adequate Workers Conversation Amendment Bill to the State Insurance and Care Governance Bill. I say: Untie the legislation and let us debate each on its merits, of which there are few.

Insurance and Care is the latest Orwellian name for this Government's plan to reduce services and reduce support to the victims of dust diseases in this State. I was contacted this week by a constituent named Norman Hopkins. Mr Hopkins was a boilermaker at the State dockyards in Newcastle. It was there that he was exposed to asbestos where this asbestos entered his lungs and where his quality of life began to fade. Mr Hopkins started coughing blood 10 years ago. I have heard similar stories from a number of residents of Charlestown and from across the Hunter. Their stories tell of the trust they once had in employers and in suppliers—a trust that they would not be put in harm's way while doing their job. I have heard of the heartbreak to families as health begins to decline and the golden years of someone's life, meant to be a time of spoiling grandchildren, instead being spent in hospitals, surgeries and doctors waiting rooms.

Does anyone trust the Minister that no worker will be worse off under these reforms? Not one person I have spoken to in the Hunter has any faith in this restructuring—not one. Government reassurances do little for the people of the Hunter who do not trust this Government to live up to its promises. From speaking to locals who have been affected by dust diseases, whether on a worksite or in their homes, it is clear that they do not want the services provided by the Dust Diseases Board to be changed in any way. In particular I have heard of a large number of people supporting the annual mobile clinic that comes to Newcastle and of their fears that this clinic will no longer operate and that they will have to travel to Sydney for health support.

The changes in this bill, particularly removal of the autonomy of the Dust Diseases Board, gives affected people in the Hunter deep cause for concern. Under this change any Minister, current or future, looking to cut costs can remove the services these people need at the stroke of a pen. What this bill represents is complete reordering of the Dust Diseases Board, removing its autonomy and instead making it simply an advisory body to a Liberal finance Minister. The Government has failed to recognise that the success of the body comes in part from its independence, giving the experts who make up this board the capacity to implement the appropriate policies that have only the wellbeing of patients in mind. Perhaps the Government does recognise that, in which case the decision to erode the independence of the board is deeply disturbing.

The Dust Diseases Board is currently a statutory decision-making body, independent from government. The Government's plan to downgrade this body to an advisory council is an insult to many hundreds of workers who rely on the services it offers. Under this change any policy or program offered by the Dust Diseases Board can be removed at the Minister's discretion. Who would trust this Government with that much power? The Government has cut $1.7 billion from the education system and sacked over 2,000 teachers. Does this sound like a Government that has the interest of working people at heart?

 

As a further removal of independence, decisions will no longer be able to be appealed. The District Court's jurisdiction for resolving matters regarding benefits not described in the legislation has been removed. Decisions made by the chief executive officer or a Minister will be final. The structure of the Dust Diseases Board is a model of co-operative decision-making that ensures all sides can have faith in the outcomes of the process. With a board made up of three employers, and three workers' representatives, overseen by an independent Chair from WorkCover, all sides can have faith that their views will be put to the board and given due consideration. It is concerning to see that the Government proposes to upset this balance, although the fact that this body will now be powerless obviously removes any need for balance.

The move by this Government to give victims' groups a seat at the table is no doubt well intentioned, but not well considered. In the rush to push this legislation through, the Government has not considered that if victims' groups are brought onto the Advisory Council, the Advisory Council will not be able to fund programs run by groups that also have members of the victims groups on the board, due to public sector code of conduct rules. In essence, the Government's claim that this change has anything to do with speeding up claims is nonsense. The board considers claims on a monthly basis and provisions exist for decisions to be made via email if there is a need for urgent action. It is my understanding that this can occur within as short a period as 48 hours.

How does adding a layer of bureaucracy, and having matters signed off by a new public servant position, increase the speed of decision-makers? How will the State Insurance and Care Governance Bill 2015, which erodes the authority of the well-respected board of the Workers Compensation Dust Diseases Board, improve the lives of dust diseases sufferers and their families? I am yet to see, and so are many from my electorate. I will join with my colleagues and oppose this legislation.