Return To Work Corporation Of South Australia (Crown Claims Management) Amendment Bill

Ms CHAPMAN ( BraggDeputy Leader of the Opposition) (16:31): I rise to speak on the Return to Work Corporation of South Australia (Crown Claims Management) Amendment Bill 2017. I am sure the Attorney will be pleased to know that I wish to make a contribution on this matter. 

In the time that we have both been in the parliament, there has been major reform in respect of what we knew as the WorkCover Corporation because of its dire circumstances under the mismanagement of the government. The reforms that were undertaken in 2013, which were ultimately supported by the opposition, have enabled the government (I think under the good stewardship of Mr McCarthy) to bring the organisation into some form of management, which has seen a significant reduction in the unfunded liability.

I think there has been a general acceptance in the business community that it is an organisation now free of seriously injured personnel and that is now functioning quite well. During estimates last year, we raised some questions about the future of the Return To Work Corporation and how it might now operate, including whether it was going to assume responsibility for any government work.

There are two deficiencies, in my view, in respect of this bill that need to be identified; one is that the government is progressing this bill without release of the Bentley-Latham report (as if I could forget Latham; that is a good Labor name) that had been commissioned. It is a report which has cost us, as taxpayers, over $100,000 and which the Attorney-General's office commissioned at the request of the Attorney, being a review of the management of work injuries within the South Australian government.

I find it astonishing that the government would commission this report, make us pay for it, then not tell us what is in it, and then suggest to us that we are not allowed look at it, as some kind of basis upon which we would support such an initiative as is in this bill. I find it astounding. Nevertheless, the government has the opportunity to show us this report, not keep it secret, and presumably present us a case by which it justifies this move.

As has been clearly outlined by our principal speaker on this bill, on all accounts the operation of the departments in managing their workers compensation claims has been very competitive and effective. A few years ago when there was a proposal to perhaps make it more difficult for people to stay out of the scheme (it was seen by some as an attempt to bring them in to prop up the scheme), the self-insured industry made it very clear that they did not want to come into the scheme, that they were very happy to remain self-insured and that there were significant benefits in their being able to operate their workers compensation.

One of the most significant benefits that has been seen and demonstrated repeatedly is that, because these organisations that are self-insured, like our government departments, have a large workforce and a number of personnel who are specifically given the responsibility to deal with workers compensation, they are able to accommodate the early return—especially the prompt attention to treatment and obviously assessment—and then the quick turnaround of their claims and the return to work in a workforce of which they are commensurate and familiar so that they can bring these people back in. They understand the value of work, they understand the value of prompt return to the workforce and they are able to action it.

Unsurprisingly, the self-insured said, 'Don't put us back into that system in the WorkCover Corporation. We want to stay independent of them and we want to be able to continue operating as we are.' It seems on the face of it that the government departments the government now wants to move into the Return to Work Corporation are also exactly in that position. They have operated quite efficiently and, from the material leaked from this report done by the government, they too have given some credit to their operations.

The second reason, and this is very important, is that it is quite clear on the briefings we have had to date, including from the CEO of WorkCover, that they are only being asked to undertake the workers compensation aspects of the public servants. So, of the 105,000 public servants who are proposed to be transferred, they will only be dealing with the workers compensation claims. Herein lies the difficulty. If a police officer is injured in the course of their duties—say trying to apprehend a criminal—unable to return to work and there is a workers compensation process they need to go through, under the new scheme it appears that that aspect of workers compensation would be under the charge of ReturnToWorkSA and that they would make the appointments for rehabilitation treatment, that they would do the assessments and get the medical reports, etc. They would do all that. 

Back in the department, back in SAPOL (or in the Treasury office or somewhere separate to ReturnToWorkSA) they would still need to have a contingent of people to deal with the other benefits and entitlements a police officer is entitled to receive in the event that they are injured. Those benefits and entitlements are under enterprise bargaining agreements and regulations. I am not quite sure what they are in at the moment but they are in other entitlements. For example, you might recall that when SAPOL was striking, holding public rallies outside Parliament House saying, 'Look, unlike most work, we are actually at risk of being shot, injured or severely injured,' a number of those brave police officers came along to those rallies to say, 'It is not fair that we should be restricted to the same rules and restrictions and cut-off times as apply to the average employee. We are like people who are in the Army or the Air Force: we have to go out there and put our lives on the line and we need to have some extra protection.' 

The government eventually did make provision for this and, when there were changes to the act, they insisted that they be fixed—and they were. However, that area of provision of compensation, over and above their workers compensation entitlement in the transfer of this new model, would have to still be dealt with back in government. Here is the police officer who has been shot in the neck. He has to go off to ReturnToWorkSA to get treatment in respect of that, with the assessments and the like. 

They also have to go off and have meetings with the person back in SAPOL who is going to attend to the entitlements they might have in respect of the regulations. What a mess. How unacceptable is that? So for these reasons—no just cause shown, an opportunity to give us the evidence to support it refused and the splitting of the attention to the injured employee—there are fundamental flaws in us progressing this bill and supporting the government at this time. 

Finally, in respect of the reasons not to do this in a hurry, on the information we have been given, the ReturnToWorkSA CEO says, 'If the government say 1 July we have to start then that is what we will have to do, but we have not yet sorted out a premium for what the department is going to do.' Apparently, by the end of this month, in May, they will be able to do that and then there will be some negotiation presumably. Come 1 July, when there is a transfer of management, all will be happy and sweet in paradise and all the public servants who are going to be dealt with will be transferred over and everything is going to be fine. 

I have never seen a government department act in such haste ever and I would be surprised if that could be achieved. They are asking us to blindly accept the transfer of this responsibility without just cause when they have not even sorted out the premiums that are going to be paid. There has been no provision, other than an assurance apparently that this is going to be cheaper or better than the current cost to the departments. 

The departments that I look after for and on behalf of the opposition include the Attorney-General's Department and the Courts Administration Authority. We are already being told that the Chief Justice, who is the head of the Courts Administration Authority, is not too keen to transfer his employees over to this scheme and they may be granted an exemption. SA Water, which is a statutory corporation of the government that is responsible to the parliament, is also showing some resistance of transfer and the government may well grant them an exemption. If the Crown instrumentalities that are not keen to join up are as big as the Courts Administration Authority and SA Water, and they are already bucking the proposal, then we need to have some clear advice from the others as to whether there is going to be any other benefit.

I will highlight one other feature. I am told there will still be power for the Attorney to grant exemptions. At present, the claims management services for agencies already under the government's watch include the Legal Services Commission, the Lotteries Commission, ReturnToWorkSA itself, the Royal Zoological Society and a few others. I do not need to go through all of them, but I make the point that there are a number of government agencies that are already paying a premium from their annual budgets to ReturnToWorkSA for ReturnToWorkSA to do the service.

 

One of the things I think that it is important for us to look at is to see how effective that job is being done for those agencies. I think it is fair to say that most of them are relatively small agencies, relative to the big government departments and statutory corporations. I will tell you what really concerns me, and it relates to what is going to happen with the premium that is to be paid, which will ultimately be settled upon in this negotiated arrangement between Treasury and WorkCover.

At present, the remuneration paid by the Legal Services Commission to its staff in the 2015 16 year was $16,419,261. The premium that they pay to ReturnToWorkSA is $135,030.65 and their agent is EML. There is no reason to suggest that they are not provided with quite a good service. As you can imagine, most of the people employed by the Legal Services Commission are there to provide services of a legal nature in advice or court representation in areas under federal and state jurisdictions. They get funding from the federal and state governments.

I think it is fair to say that, perhaps apart from being assaulted by an unhappy client down at the Adelaide Gaol, theirs is mostly not a dangerous occupation. They might break a fingernail, they might slip up when walking to their office or taking an interview, but they are largely employed in circumstances where they are not exposed to the risk of machinery and so on.

If I look at ReturnToWorkSA as an agency, they have a remuneration package of $30,525,166 for the 2015-16 year, and their premium for the same year was $114,390.90. It is the same agent, too, EML. I do not understand why, in a remuneration package which is nearly double that of the Legal Services Commission, the Legal Services Commission is paying an annual premium of $20,000 a year more. I do not understand that. It does not make sense to me. It would make sense if the Legal Service Commission employees were doing some dangerous activity and they needed to have extra cover because of the nature of their employment, such as if they were driving tractors, working machinery or operating fishing boats—anything that is a more dangerous activity than doing a desk job.

There are a lot of questions that we on this side of the house would have just looking at the disparate premium arrangements of those government agencies that are already under the scheme. Of course, using those two as an example, it could be that ReturnToWorkSA wants to keep its premium low, so it has negotiated a good deal for itself, but every other poor bunny that is in the system has to carry the excess. I do not know the answer to that, but I certainly want some answers before we consider this bill being approved by the parliament.

I suggest that the worst interpretation of what the government is doing with this proposal is that it is fattening the pig for market day, and I am not the first to make this observation. The government has consistently said to us in the last 15 years, 'No, we are not going to do this,' then we find a couple of budgets down the track that they run out of money and they do exactly that.

With the Motor Accident Commission, the government said, 'We need to strip down the entitlements of people who have injuries arising out of motor vehicle accidents.' Why? Mr Snelling, the then minister of the day, said, 'Because we want to reduce your premiums.' We received a reduction of premiums for one year and then, of course, they went skyrocketing the following year. What did they do in the meantime? They packaged up the Motor Accident Commission for sale. They stripped it of a number of its assets and then they flogged it off.

We are alert to the government's promises, which evaporate when it wants to change its mind. It would be logical, if the government did want to sell the WorkCover Corporation, that it would do just that: transfer as much as they could to make it a more attractive package for anyone who wanted to acquire it. Again, we have assurances from the government that that is simply not the case and that they have no intention of doing that. We have heard all of that before, so we are not satisfied that there is any justification for doing this, other than if the government wanted to say to a prospective purchaser, 'Here are 105,000 extra customers with potential claimants who would be securely under your control,' which would make this a more healthy asset to purchase.

With that, I look forward to listening to the intensive questioning that will be done by our lead speaker and getting some very clear answers. Frankly, I would also like to see the disclosure of the reports that the government has relied on before it asks us to proceed with this proposal, to its folly.