NSW Government backdown over Workcover amendments
by Peter Mac The NSW Carr Government has been forced to reconsider its plans to cut employees' entitlements to common law compensation for work-related injuries. The State Industrial Relations Minister, John Della Bosca, last week introduced legislation which he claimed was aimed at reducing the $2.8 billion deficit of the Workcover operations. The move follows the introduction into the Federal Parliament of new legislation by the Howard Government, which would also have the effect of stripping Commonwealth employees of much of their right to compensation for work-related injury. The high legal costs of operating the scheme and failure of employers to take adequate occupational health and safety measures, have resulted in soaring insurance premiums for employers. The NSW Government was apparently keen to achieve swift implementation of the new legislation, as only three days were allowed between its introduction and its planned passage into law. However, the Government's move resulted in a storm of complaints from legal associations and the threat of industrial action by angry union officials. Consequently, only two days after introducing the legislation, the Minister was forced to delay its passage for an extra four and a half weeks' consideration. NSW Labour Council Secretary Michael Costa said that much of the Workcover debt resulted from the introduction of the GST (which he estimated to have cost $200 million) and from bad returns on the investments that were used to fund the scheme. Mr Della Bosca, on the other hand, attributed much of the increased cost to delays in assessing injury claims, and implied that much of the cost was the fault of workers lodging excessive claims. He commented that he aimed to achieve savings by "encouraging fewer workers to go to court". The new legislation would severely limit access to common law compensation for injured workers. Under the new law they would have only two options, i.e. to accept a statutory "no fault" scheme, or, if they believed they were more than 25 percent impaired and their employer was at fault, to seek redress by lodging a common law claim. "No fault" cases would be assessed by government commissioners on the basis of a binding report prepared by a government medical assessor, after receipt of medical reports from the injured worker's and the insurer's doctors. Only points of law would be referred to the courts in these cases, and no appeal could be made against the assessor's report. However, the scheme has been rejected, not only by employees but also by representatives of employers and legal associations. The chief executive of the organisation Employers First complained that "If you end up with the wrong people as medical assessors, you go down the drain. There's a clear role for objective medical opinion ..." The President of the NSW Law Association, Nick Meagher, said that the new legislation ranked among the most draconian anti-worker laws ever contemplated by a Labor Government. He commented: "It is quite unbelievable. Two medical reports in front of an unnamed medical assessor (who) decides the future of that person's life, with no right of appeal." Following the announcement of the delay for further consideration, Mr Costa commented: "We welcome the Minister's agreement to consultation. It is the important first step to him understanding the deficiencies in his package. But we are still concerned that the Bill is on the table and we will be raising these concerns with the Premier, the ALP Caucus and the broader community over the coming weeks."