RETURN TO WORK BILL

Tuesday 23 September, 2014

Mr TARZIA (Hartley) (17:25): I rise today to support the Return to Work Bill. I thank the member for Davenport for his extremely valuable contribution. As we have heard today, we will cooperate with the government in regard to this bill and support its passage through this place. As we have heard, there are some things that governments do well and there are other things that governments do not do well, and this is something that this government has not done particularly well whatsoever.

Mr TARZIA (Hartley) (17:25): I rise today to support the Return to Work Bill. I thank the member for Davenport for his extremely valuable contribution. As we have heard today, we will cooperate with the government in regard to this bill and support its passage through this place. As we have heard, there are some things that governments do well and there are other things that governments do not do well, and this is something that this government has not done particularly well whatsoever.

It has presided over a mismanaged system, the worst system in all of Australia. I have to express my absolute disgust at the fact that we have received amendments to this bill as recently as this week. You would think that after 12 years there would be a bit more professionalism, a bit more pride in what the government is doing in regard to this. I think that this example is a microcosm of the overall negligence that the government has displayed in this area. For amendments to be handed to us on the back of an envelope on the eve of debate is just not acceptable.

As I said, we have the worst return-to-work system in all of Australia, the worst costs and, as our leader alluded to today, if we were in government we would look at removing hurdles from companies to get off the scheme, which has been a failed scheme. I speak particularly for the many hundreds of small businesses in Hartley—over 1,000 in total—as well as the workers of Hartley. I think they would be much better off if some of them were able to have some choice in this regard.

Our leader also spoke about the Liberal reformist economies going forward across Australia, unlike this government which continues to stifle growth, hinder employment and just does not understand the basics of supply and demand and what it takes for the cost base of a company to be reduced to allow some level of confidence to improve.

The current mess in WorkCover is a result of 12 years of mismanagement under this government and, as we have heard before, there have been many reviews and reforms in regard to this. Notably, this is the third one. Three is obviously a lucky number in Hartley with Norwood taking out their third premiership at the weekend but it has not been a good number for this government.

In January 2014 the government announced their intention to reform the workers compensation scheme again with a commitment, as we have heard, to reduce average premiums to 2 per cent or less and to virtually remove all the unfunded liability. This scheme has been nothing more than a running sore for the state. It is by far and away the worst functioning scheme in Australia. What an absolute shambles it has been!

WorkCover SA has been one of our largest government owned companies. It is not a company that I would have bought shares in. It has $1.2 billion in unfunded liability, as we have heard. It has the highest costs in the nation and it is the only WorkCover scheme in the nation that is completely unfunded. I will talk a little bit more about that.

I would like firstly to draw upon some comparisons with other schemes in Australia and on a report that was released by SafeWork SA. As at 2011-12 South Australia had 727,400 employees who were covered for workers compensation. Of that total, the number of serious claims with one week or more with incapacity was 9,110. Serious claims per 1,000 employees was 12.5. The standardised average premium rate as a percentage of payroll in 2011-12 was the worst in Australia at 2.51. When you look at the standardised funding ratio percentage, it was the lowest in Australia at 60 per cent.

This government seems to want to cripple access to common law, and shame on the government for that. It has many issues and I will talk a little bit about them and what other associations have had to say about that. When you look at the scheme's funding position as at 30 June, South Australia had $2.398 million in assets. In liabilities, it had $3.764 million, with a funding ratio of $63.7 per cent, which is worse than New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, and Western Australia, from what I can see. It is a massive issue.

Industries in my electorate tell me that they are hurting. In regard to the meat-processing industry, if you look at selected industry premium rates as a percentage of payroll it is about 7.5 per cent, which is absolutely enormous. It is clear to me from talking to my constituents and businesses in Hartley that this is a massive issue this government has ignored, and it is unacceptable.

It is clear that the government has mismanaged this scheme for 12 years, and they have no-one to blame but themselves. We heard the member for Davenport in the esteemed presentation he gave; he has been around for a long time, he saw this coming, he put the government on notice that this was coming, and what have they done about it? They have ignored this massive issue that is WorkCover. Members will recall the last major reforms of WorkCover in 2008, and what do we have in this latest instalment? We have the Enfield enlightenment, and it is nice to see that all members of the government have finally worked out that there is a problem with the current WorkCover arrangements. It is good to see that they have taken this issue seriously.

I remind the Deputy Speaker of comments the Deputy Premier made to InDaily before the last election. In regard to WorkCover SA, he eloquently said the b-word that ends in 'd' (I will not repeat it) and that the scheme has been poorly administered, as the member for Chaffey also alluded to. He made comments along the lines that he would decommission the scheme and start again. He said, 'It's been amended, patched over and fiddled with for years and in the process has become so disliked, the only thing to do is to rub it out and start again.'

It is a shame that the member for Enfield in all his power did not rub it out and start again many years ago because South Australians are worse off because he has not rubbed it out and started again, workers are worse off because he has not rubbed it out and started again, and employers are worse off because he has not rubbed it out and started again. It is clear what the Deputy Premier thinks of the Weatherill and Rann governments' performance on WorkCover. He is a courageous man and, for a younger member who wants to be as idealistic as he can and think for the longer term and work with both sides to achieve a fantastic outcome for the state, it is refreshing to see some sincerity and some honesty from him on this extremely important issue.

I am sure this will no doubt be one of the lasting reforms in the 'reformation' which he causes, 'the Enfield enlightenment', and that he will be drawing on every ounce of his charisma to keep the unions at bay on this issue, to keep all the factions at bay on this issue, and I hope that he takes that charisma onto the bench when he may eventually move on to that stage in his career.

A number of concerns have been expressed by key stakeholder groups, particularly the Australian Lawyers Alliance and also the Law Society. I also have a couple of areas of concern; however, I will be supporting the bill. I take it that some of these areas of concern may be fleshed out in the other place, and I look forward to looking at that debate with keen interest, particularly in regard to compensability, medical expenses, the assessment of permanent impairment, the threshold for seriously injured workers (what that is and how that is found), the entitlement to weekly payments, lump sum and economic loss and, in particular, access to common law.

The Australian Lawyers Alliance makes some comment in their submission to the Deputy Premier in regard to this. They consider the threshold, that there should be no damages unless the whole person impairment is at least 30 per cent, and they speak about section 72. They make comment that this restriction may be such that only 1 or 2 per cent of injured workers will be eligible to claim for common law damages and, in their words they call it a 'token acknowledgement of common law rights'. It is something that perhaps might be taken up in the other place. In regard to that comment, I notice that the Law Society has also chipped in its five cents' worth in relation to the same issue. While I do understand that it represents a number of lawyers, one has to ask how there can be a meaningful entitlement to damages when the threshold is so high at common law. I think that is a sensible question, and a question that should be fleshed out in the other place.

I will be supporting this bill. As I have tried to do today, I have highlighted that the current mess in WorkCover has been nothing short of the result of 12 years of neglect and 12 years of financial mismanagement by the current Labor government, and a number of failed attempts to reform the system. I will certainly support the bill, but we will reserve our position on amendments in the other place until debate has taken place. I commend the bill to the house.