The Guardian April 4, 2001


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."

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