It is with pleasure I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Workplace Injury Rehabilitation and Compensation Bill 2013. Clearly the issue of workers being able to return home safe each night is at the heart of the Labor Party and indeed the labour movement.

As we know, this is an area in which many battles have been hard fought to ensure that people are protected while at work, that they are compensated when they are injured and, most importantly, that they return home safely to their families.

Whenever such a reform bill comes before the house, particularly when it is proposed by a conservative government, members of the Labor Party and the broader labour movement carefully analyse the bill’s provisions and will stand firm when there are concerns about any provisions that may erode workers rights or erode the strong and robust system of occupational health and safety and workers compensation in this state.

At this point I pay tribute to the shadow minister for WorkCover, the member for Preston, who has worked assiduously on this task.

He has consulted broadly with people in the labour movement, in the legal profession and in industry, and he has forensically examined each and every clause of what is a substantial bill to ensure that the bill is given the appropriate scrutiny and placed under the microscope. Accordingly Labor is proposing a range of significant amendments, which we understand are the subject of discussion. If those amendments are not accepted, then Labor will be firmly opposing this legislation.

It is good to see in the gallery some people with whom I have worked over many years in this area, including representatives from the Victorian Trades Hall Council and the union movement. This is the sort of issue that arouses extreme and extraordinary passion among those who work within this area, because we have seen the damage done when proper laws are not in place.

On that subject, it is worth reflecting upon the coalition’s record in this area over a considerable period of time. We believe the Kennett government’s abolition of common-law rights for injured workers was one of the most heinous acts committed by a conservative government in recent history. It disadvantaged thousands of people who had been negligently injured at work, often in the most horrific circumstances, and denied them proper compensation for their injuries even when those injuries were caused by their employers’ negligence.

We note the current government’s recent cash grab from WorkCover funds. Over successive terms Labor governments built up Victoria’s world-class WorkCover system to ensure that it had a very strong financial underpinning so that compensation for injured workers would be paid as it should be. That system was supported by strong occupational health and safety laws.

Labor re-established common-law rights and put in place a system of preventive measures around WorkHealth and the like to see that accidents and injuries were avoided in the first place.

It is also very important — and I think Labor has demonstrated a fine record on this — to ensure that the approach to workers compensation and occupational health and safety is continually monitored and updated as new technologies and new pressures arise. For example, issues arose about stress and bullying and the like in the white-collar space, and members of Labor governments are very proud that they ensured that those issues were addressed, but of course there is more to do.

Opposition members have concerns about this bill, which is purported to have no detrimental impact upon workers. I will now touch upon some of the major concerns that have been raised.

On clause 200 there is concern that the mechanism could be used to stall the resolution of lump-sum impairment claims for injured workers and deny the capacity for seriously injured workers to initiate common-law claims. Clearly this is a major issue and would have an extraordinarily bad impact upon those who are unfortunate enough to suffer workplace injuries.

Opposition members also express deep concern about clause 313, which we believe undermines the judicial oversight of medical panels and therefore reduces the capacity of injured workers to seek such judicial review regarding these opinions. This is an area of enormous complexity and of enormous importance to those who rely upon that capacity, and any undermining of it will have a significant and real impact upon thousands of injured workers.

There is also concern about clause 269 regarding the removal of the Harman rule of evidence.

Opposition members are very concerned that evidence given by workers or witnesses in other litigated aspects of their claims can be used by the Victorian WorkCover Authority or the insurer regarding serious injury applications and/or common-law negligence actions. Those of us who have practised in this area, as I have, and who have seen the cases progress through the courts and understand the often adversarial nature of these matters know about the sophisticated manner in which evidence is taken and used and the vigour with which insurers can defend these claims. It is very important we do not erode the legal rights of workers to pursue matters to their full capacity.

Members of the opposition will stand very firm on these matters, because they go to the heart of a just and civil society. We know what has happened in the past. We only have to look back over many decades to see what happened before the fine work of the trade union movement established clear principles and standards and enforceability around workplace safety.

We know that when you erode common-law rights or workers compensation capabilities there is often a corresponding slip in the occupational health and safety standards at workplaces. Employers have a much better incentive to get their workplaces in order if they know they are going to have to face legal matters or be forced into compensating their workers or paying higher insurance premiums if they do not. The role of a robust system of workers compensation is critical in ensuring that occupational health and safety standards are maintained.

Most importantly this bill is about making sure every worker can expect to go to work and do their job in a safe environment. They know that if they are injured, they will still have the capacity to provide for themselves and their families at what is a most debilitating and distressing time. They know there will be proper rehabilitation available to them and that their future and that of their children will be assured through a proper system of compensation.

Again I commend the shadow minister on his work. I also commend the trade union movement, the labour lawyers who have contributed to the discussion on this bill and the industry players who have been consulted. We will oppose this bill should these critical amendments not be accepted by the government.

Hansard, 2013