I welcome the introduction of the bill to the house. I also welcome the government's change of heart in accepting the amendments to the bill that were put forward by my colleague in the other place, Robin Scott, the member for Preston. In its original form the bill would have taken away some rights enjoyed by injured workers under the current legislation. However, this bill does a lot of good things, and that is why the Labor Party is supporting it in its current form.
I want to make some comments about workers compensation and the bill. In my previous job I was involved in representing injured workers for over 23 years. I know what it is like for injured workers and their families. The injury does not just have an impact on the injured worker; it has an impact on the whole family. I was fortunate to be involved in the last review of the workers compensation legislation undertaken by Mr Hanks. It was one of the major reviews undertaken during the Bracks and Brumby governments, subsequent to the initial review that Labor conducted in order to bring some justice and fairness back to workers compensation legislation after it was ripped apart by the Kennett government.
The initial review delivered two things that we are still enjoying today. The first thing it did was put fairness back into the system. Injured workers in Victoria are able to enjoy some of the best benefits in the country. Secondly, as a result of changes put in place by the Labor Party employers enjoy the lowest premiums in the country.
That is a credit to the former Labor government and to this government, which continued with Labor's approach. When I first heard that the government was looking to review the accident compensation acts I said to myself, 'Here we go again'. However, I congratulate the minister because the benefits for injured workers have been maintained.
Let us talk about the reason why we have workers compensation and safety regulation in this state. Who are the real stakeholders? There are two: workers and employers. Government is a stakeholder because it manages the scheme, but at the end of the day workers and employers are the main customers, if you like. For workers it is about making sure they go home safe. We need to make sure we have the right safety regulations in place and that we have the funding and resources necessary to enforce those regulations. The money collected from premiums goes a long way towards making sure that we can enforce whatever regulations we have put in place.
In the event of an injury - and unfortunately thousands of Victorian workers get injured every year, and some of them even lose their life as a result of workplace accidents - we need to make sure there is adequate compensation. The last thing an injured worker wants to worry about is whether they will get paid this week or whether they will get paid the same amount they were receiving before they were injured. We need to make sure that workers do not have to worry about those things and can instead concentrate on getting better.
I have seen far too many workers lose everything after an injury. An injury can have a strong psychological effect. They worry about whether the employer will get them back to work. That is why rehabilitation has to include a return-to-work program, and that needs to be enforced. All sorts of things have to be put together.
It is very important that when an injury occurs workers do not have to worry about the financial burden; they need to be assured that their employer is obliged to provide them with a return-to-work program and bring them back into the workforce.
The second point is that in order for employers to continue to operate and invest in this state we need to ensure they do not pay high premiums. I may stand corrected, but I think Victoria's premiums stand at
around 1.38 per cent, which are the lowest in the country. That is something we need to maintain. Unfortunately the state government recently decided to put its hands in the till and take about half a billion dollars out of the WorkSafe Victoria fund over three years and move it into general revenue. I believe that in the first two years of doing this the state government has taken out nearly $400 million, and it will probably take another $100 million or $200 million this financial year. That is wrong. The money should be kept in the system.
The former government could have done something similar, but it did not. Instead it took $250 million out of the system to introduce WorkHealth, which helped over 700 000 workers have a health check in their workplace. Thousands of lives were saved because of that initiative. It was a great scheme, but unfortunately it has come to an end. That money is now going to go into general revenue.
I support the bill, and I hope the next time that we are talking about accident compensation or WorkCover legislation it is in relation to how we can continue to improve workers' benefits and enhance the enforcement of health and safety regulation in this state. I hope we will not be coming back to this place under any government to look at cutting workers' conditions or benefits. With those comments, I commend the bill to the house, and I hope members will support it.
WORKPLACE INJURY REHABILITATION AND COMPENSATION BILL 2013
31 October 2013