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Comcare and Seacare Legislation Amendment (Pension Age and Catastrophic Injury) Bill 2017.

14 Jun 2017

I rise today to support the Comcare and Seacare Legislation Amendment (Pension Age and Catastrophic Injury) Bill 2017.

Seacare is a workers compensation scheme especially for seafarers. It is necessary because most seafarers work outside of the state they live in. The Maritime Union of Australia surveyed its members, and around 70 per cent who had filed a compensation claim lived in a different state from the one they were injured in or which they regularly worked in. That is not surprising, given the nature of the work.

Given the complex and state based nature of Australia's legal and workers compensation frameworks, this can cause significant difficulty in accessing lawyers and independent medical examiners with the appropriate accreditation and expertise. This bill amends the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and the Seafarers Act to ensure that injured employees in receipt of weekly compensation payments for incapacity can continue to receive their payments until they reach pension age as defined in the Social Security Act 1991. The qualifying age for the aged pension under the Social Security Act 1991 will begin to rise on 1 July this year. By linking compensation for incapacity with a pension age, rather than the defined age of 65, these amendments will ensure that payments continue without a gap. Without this amendment, payments or compensation could cease at age 65 and injured workers could find themselves ineligible for the pension until they reach the new age threshold, which will change year on year from now on.

This bill also amends the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and the Seafarers Act to align these acts with minimum benchmarks for catastrophic workplace injuries and the National Injury Insurance Scheme. The bill seeks to bring into line benefits for catastrophically injured workers who will require intensive care and support for the rest of their lives because of the severity of their injuries. Currently there is a cap on weekly compensation that is payable for household services and attendant care services for these catastrophically injured workers, and I am very pleased to see that this cap will be removed. An employee with a catastrophic injury will also be eligible to receive compensation for household services from the day of injury, whereas under current legislative arrangements there is inexplicably a 28-day waiting period.

While Labor will support this bill and the measures it takes to align payments to a pension age, it is worth noting that the government intends to steadily increase the age for eligibility to the age pension to 70 years of age. Labor opposes lifting age pension eligibility to 70. It may be all right for a stockbroker or a solicitor to contemplate a longer working life, but for a seafarer or a stevedore—where the work is physical and at times dangerous—there are very real health and safety implications associated with forcing people to work into their 70s.

Professor Mark Harris, executive director of the Centre for Primary Health Care and Equity of the University of New South Wales, notes:

As we get older [health] becomes more unpredictable … Increasing the pension age from 65 to 67 was pretty non-controversial. But [in] increasing it by another three years, we're starting to get into a situation where the risks are greater. So we need to be more thoughtful about that.

Professor Harris notes that people in their 70s are more prone to conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis and cognition, vision and hearing loss. That means more risk to self and potentially more risk to others.

In their 2013 book Lives in Peril: Profit Or Safety in the Global Maritime Industry?, workplace safety experts David Walters and Nick Bailey note that:

… seafaring remains a hazardous occupation. Indeed, by these measures it is clearly ranked amongst the most hazardous of occupations.

In a survey, 38 per cent of 1,594 respondents said that they had worked on a ship where there had been a serious injury or fatality to another member of the crew. Twenty-eight per cent of respondents had made a compensation claim for an injury or disease due to their own seafaring work. In 2012, it is estimated that worldwide 1,051 seafarers lost their lives at work. The year before, the number was 1,095. As far as I am aware, more current figures are not available.

I recommend the book by Walters and Bailey to members. It illustrates how seafarers are, in a world increasingly dependent on global trade, a vulnerable group of workers who operate in an industry where profit is clearly prioritised over safety and other conditions and which operates with limited regulatory oversight. Walters and Bailey note that the situation is likely to remain broadly unchanged:

… as long as global maritime governance and regulation remains in thrall to the neo-liberal economic and political arguments that drive globalisation; and fails to enforce regulatory standards more robustly.

There is a major role for government in the maintenance and enhancement of Australia's maritime trading routes both domestically and internationally. The three monkeys approach of see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil has no place in a modern democracy that purports to have some regard to the notion of fundamental human rights. Trade is vital to Australia, and we on this side understand that. As a member for a small island state that derives much of its income from the export of agricultural produce, I understand it only too well. But just because I understand the importance of trade and the importance of remaining competitive does not mean I will turn a blind eye to injustice. I will not stand idly by while shipping companies and others sack Australian workers so they can cruelly exploit men and women overseas who are desperate for any work at any cost. I will not remain silent when governments are complicit in that exploitation, whether by ignorance or design.

This week in Senate estimates, Senator Doug Cameron quizzed the Fair Work Commission on allegations that foreign seafarers working on flag-of-convenience ships operating in Australian waters are being paid $1.25 an hour. 'Yes, those allegations are being investigated,' came the reply. When Senator Cameron asked if it was time the Fair Work Commission or other authorities started conducting random checks on flags-of-convenience vessels to ensure compliance with the requirement to meet Australian standards, the response was, 'No.' The Fair Work Commission will consider investigating when a complaint is made, but it is not interested in finding out for itself whether there is a systemic abuse of Australian law.

So let us be clear about what we talking about here: a flag-of-convenience vessel is a vessel registered in a country that pays no heed to international standards of vessel safely. These are the rust buckets of the sea, kept afloat by owners desperate to squeeze every last dollar of profit out of them. And if on a journey they should split in two in heavy seas, casting their crew into the deep, or spill oil or diesel onto a reef, they shrug their shoulders and say that is just a cost of doing business. My strong personal view is that flag of convenience vessels should have no place in Australian waters. They should be kept out. The mere fact that an owner has decided to register a vessel like this, rather than register in a nation that requires compliance with international standards, should be all the warning we need that we are dealing with a vessel and an owner who pay more regard to profit than safety.

The issue of safety for seafarers is important to this bill. Because conditions in the industry are poor, we are likely to see more cases for compensation. A well-regulated Australian based maritime industry is better for everyone, not least the workers inside the industry. That is something that the residents of King Island, part of my colleague the member for Braddon's electorate, are learning to their sorrow. Due to the inept oversight of the Hodgman state liberal government, and particularly the state transport and infrastructure minister, Rene Hidding, this important island is facing a shipping service crisis. The new ferry service started just three months ago, but it has proved to be entirely inadequate in getting passengers and freight on and off the island in a timely manner. The Liberals appear to be all at sea and at a complete loss when it comes to a solution.

Unfortunately the federal government still wants to open up and further deregulate Australian ports, leading to more uncertainty and risk to Australian seafarers. Its plan to create Workchoices on water was sunk in the Senate in the 44th parliament, but it is not giving up and is now instead seeking to amend existing legislation. The Coastal Trading (Revitalising Australian Shipping) Act 2012 was introduced under Labor and granted preference to Australian vessels between Australian ports. There was provision in the act for temporary licences to permit flag of convenience vessels. This government, rather than issuing them in exceptional circumstances, is dishing those licences out like lollies at a birthday party. This is yet another example where Labor has sought to play a straight bat and provide provisions for exceptional circumstances, only to see the Liberals misuse those provisions to further their ideological obsessions. The result of this ideologically driven agenda is Australian shipping routes that are less safe and an industry that is more dangerous for those who work in it, leading to more claims for compensation and death.

It is not often that you will find me looking to America for inspiration, but we really could learn something from the Americans' high regard for their own domestic maritime and seafaring industry. The US Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly referred to as the Jones act, requires that all goods transported by water between US ports be carried on US-flagged ships crewed by a minimum three quarters US citizens or permanent residents. Furthermore, the US-flagged ships plying those routes must be built in the US, and in the event they are repaired while overseas, the steel of foreign repair work is limited to 10 per cent by weight.

The Jones act sends the neoliberals wild, but it ensures that the US has a strong maritime and shipbuilding industry. This is important not only for jobs, but for national security. Compare that to Australia, an island nation that has run down its shipbuilding and maritime crew capabilities. For jobs, for national security and for fuel security we must do more to rebuild our capabilities as a maritime nation. I am hopeful that the government will abandon its more ideological tendencies and see the practical sense of this. There are positive signs. This government did have to be dragged kicking and screaming to invest in domestic shipbuilding rather than sending the work to the cheapest bidders overseas, but it has at last bitten the bullet, however reluctantly. Now that the government has finally committed to a local defence build, the member for Sturt is almost hopping with joy, with much of the work ending up in his home state. It is a complete coincidence, I am sure, that he happens to be the commissioning minister.

I am certainly proud of the continuing shipbuilding capabilities in my home state, which was unfortunately ignored by the $30 billion defence investment. Incat is a significant international player and deserves a closer look. Indeed, I would urge the maritime industry more generally to take a closer look at what we are doing in Tasmania with the Australian Maritime College in Launceston and the Tasmanian Maritime Network based in and around Hobart's northern suburbs and Prince of Wales Bay. This group of businesses, including Incat, can provide a one-stop shop for shipbuilders who want access to the latest technology and quality products and services, including training a construction workforce or fitting out a finished ship. Members of the network, most of whom grew as suppliers to Incat, are significant exporters in their own right.

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