Workers Compensation Amendment Bill 2015 / State Insurance and Care Governance Bill 2015
My speech in which I say that although Labor can support a restructure of WorkCover, to take a number of independent bodies and remove their autonomy is going a step too far. We cannot stand for that. For example, we are completely opposed to the Dust Diseases Board being stripped of its independence and turned into a political wing of the Government
I speak in debate on the Workers Compensation Amendment Bill 2015 and the cognate State Insurance and Care Governance Bill 2015. Everyone has the right to go to work, earn a living and not lose their health or their life. This was a fundamental premise of our workers compensation system until 2012, when the O'Farrell Government changed the rules. Labor knew, the unions knew and the community knew what the impact of these changes would be. We saw one of the most significant campaigns against a single piece of legislation back in 2012, but throughout it all, as is its way, the Government ignored the advice of those who knew the impact of its cuts and pressed on with its ideological agenda. The Government cut away at workers compensation like it was a line item in a budget, and in so doing fundamentally failed our community. They just did not think about the human cost of their massive cost shift. While workers were forced to rely on Centrelink, Medicare and third-party motor vehicle insurance claims to try to address injuries they had sustained at work, their suffering was nothing to the Government. Some were left with no options. The Government stripped away the protections of journey claims so that workers injured on their way to and from work were not covered. People in my electorate work long shifts, and fatigue is often a factor. Sometimes they work two or three hours away from home and commuting times have a serious impact on their getting home safely. For example, Andrew in my electorate injured his shoulder while driving home from work one day and was unable to continue in his career. The Government cut the ongoing benefits of women like Cheryl, a hardworking nurse who came into my electorate office this month. She is to be fitted with a medical device, the cost of which she will be solely responsible for by 2018. This will cost her in excess of $28,000 every eight to 10 years, as well as the cost of the initial procedure. It is an absolute disgrace. The Government stood by while Katie, a 15-year-old girl from my electorate who fell more than three metres from a fuel tanker, battled insurance companies to seek payment for expenses incurred when she had to obtain medical treatment in Sydney. This young girl continues to suffer from the damage caused to the nerve endings in her neck. She also sustained a head injury and has dehydrated vertebrae. She suffers from headaches. She lost the use of her right hand, damaged her reproductive system and injured her back. She has decreased function in her bladder and has bowel failure. She now has a pacemaker in her bladder and experiences complications from anaemia induced by a slow bleed. Katie has spent a long time waiting for the Government to recognise her needs. Her condition is declining. The changes to the legislation have left her high and dry, with no assistance provided for the services, equipment or medication that she requires on a daily basis. Her doctors have told her that while she may one day technically be able to have a baby, the state of her body means that she will not be able to sustain the impacts of pregnancy on her body. The psychological impacts have also affected Katie. Nightmares, terror of heights and stairs, and the loss of her future dreams of having a family add to the physical toll. Even though both sides agree that WorkCover needs to be restructured, this Government is still playing games; it is still playing with people's lives and futures, blackmailing us by refusing to split these cognate bills and is not committed to helping people at work. It is trying to make us complicit in its attacks on workers, but it will not be successful. Labor can support some of the changes this bill makes but we will not agree to injured workers being worse off than they were before 2012. We do not disagree with a restructure of WorkCover, but to take a number of independent bodies and remove their autonomy is going a step too far. We cannot stand for that. For example, we are completely opposed to the Dust Diseases Board being stripped of its independence and turned into a political wing of the Government. It is absurd and dangerous. The Dust Diseases Board was established as a service in 1910 for workers installing Sydney's sewer network who were suffering from what was a new condition in those days caused by concrete and cement dust—silicosis. The board was legislated in 1930 as farmers and farmhands became aware that they were suffering from a condition very similar to the concrete workers. It became known as "farmer's lung" and was caused by the airborne dust from crops. It is astounding to me that our colleagues from The Nationals are supporting this legislation. In the 1960s the board became seriously involved in the developing condition of asbestosis. There are substantial benefits in having an independent board to oversee dust diseases. Nationally more than 600 people are diagnosed every year with dust diseases. Most of them are men, and victims can be diagnosed up to 20 years after exposure. The Dust Diseases Board can process most claims within 30 days. Once diagnosed, most victims live only 12 months—therefore, quick and efficient processing is paramount. The Dust Diseases Board assists 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, et cetera. Just last week asbestos disease victims groups, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the Australian Labor Party branded the move to abolish the board as heartless, and rightly so. Even though the Government says changes to the workers compensation scheme will not reduce compensation payments for dust disease victims, it is feared that valued social services that go along with these payments will be lost. I am very concerned to hear that Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia President Barry Robson was not consulted about the changes. What a disgrace to leave out of this debate such an important stakeholder. I support the Opposition spokesman for Finance, Services and Property when he says the Government has guaranteed only that the role of the Dust Diseases Board in managing compensation would be unaffected. Important ancillary social services provided by the Dust Diseases Board will not be protected. Although we agree that there is a dire need to overhaul workers compensation and to return some of these rights to our workers, we cannot ignore bills that put people in a worse position. As the member for Cessnock said, "You cannot repair and heal on one end while you knife and wound on the other."
Regardless which side of the aisle someone occupies, it is hard to disagree with Australian Manufacturing Workers Union New South Wales Secretary, Tim Ayres, when he says that the Dust Diseases Board has been the moral responsibility of every New South Wales government and Premier for more than 85 years and that the board ensures that the many victims of one of Australia's worst industrial killers are compensated and cared for.
As someone who has worked with older people for the past 17 years, I have known a number of men who were diagnosed with mesothelioma and ultimately died—men who were vital and living, still taking holidays with their wonderful wives, who ended up dying too soon due to this terrible disease. In my electorate, Metford resident Rhonda Pilgrim began her relationship with the board in April 2014 when her husband, Ian, was diagnosed with mesothelioma. She says the service was invaluable and made Ian's terminal condition more bearable. From paying for general upkeep of the family home to Ian's funeral when he died in February this year, Rhonda says the Dust Diseases Board helped her and Ian out however it could, including paying travel expenses for Ian's treatment and all his medication costs. Rhonda worries that the Government's decision could spell further heartache for asbestos victims and their families, particularly when, just this year, on a whim, the Government reduced licensing requirements for painters and other tradespeople, which will heighten the risk for workers and families who live in some of the oldest homes in our State which are full of asbestos. Who will be around to advocate for those workers and their families? Labor will support the Workers Compensation Amendment Bill 2015 but it opposes the State Insurance and Care Governance Bill 2015 and will seek to have the cognate bills separated to ensure that the Government's intentions are made clear. We are sick of unintended consequences from a Government that has no heart and no concern for the people of New South Wales.