Pressure from big business may be behind the proposed gutting of Comcare

Employment Minister Eric Abetz says big business is only one group the government has discussed changes to Comcare with.


Big businesses lobbied hard for Commonwealth public servants to be stripped of some of their workers' compensation rights.

Sources close to the reform process in Canberra say the push by big corporate players to strip back the generosity of the Comcare scheme resulted in elements of the private sector's wish list making it into legislation against the wishes and advice of some stakeholders.

Employment Minister Eric Abetz introduced the reform bill into the Parliament in March, heralding a crackdown on mental injury claims, taxpayer-funded alternative therapies, public servants spending years or even decades away from their jobs and compensation paid over the "reasonable actions" of workplace bosses.

Under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill 2015, workers seeking a payout will have to prove their injury is work-related, in a change designed to prevent any repeat of the infamous "sex in a motel" legal saga that cost taxpayers $600,000.

The Canberra Times has been told that key aspects of the reform were demanded by big business who are now eligible to join the scheme under a related set of changes, but who feared its perceived generosity to workers would cost too much.

Comcare is a potentially attractive proposition for national employers who can make big savings by complying with just one national health-and-safety regime for all their sites across Australia, instead of a different authority for each state and territory.

Senator Abetz's office confirmed that talks had been held with the private sector, but no more than with other stakeholders, and declined to give details of what was said in the discussions.

However, this newspaper understands key targets for the corporates included secondary psychological injuries (in which a worker suffers mentally as a result of being physically hurt on the job), rules governing permanent impairment, and caps on medical and legal payments.

Lawyers say the changes to permanent impairment rules would lead to the payout for a worker with a 10 per cent impairment being slashed from $26,000 to less than $9000.

Nationally, 33 businesses are insured under licence from Comcare, including NAB, Commonwealth Bank, building giant John Holland and Transport outfit Linfox. But the government is keen to attract other big business customers in an effort to improve the financial viability.

The government's Commission of Audit of 2014 recommended partial privatisation of Comcare, and some Canberra insiders believe a sell-off of at least part of the insurer is a long-term goal.

Reacting to the latest proposed reforms, Australian Lawyers Alliance national president Andrew Stone said he was in no doubt the two sets of reforms were aimed at bringing more private business into the scheme at the expense of workers.

"The minister has spent more time conferring with his big-business mates than he has conferring with the injured workers whose benefits he's going to cut off," Mr Stone said.  

"Given the general tenor of this legislation is to slash people's rights, it doesn't come as a surprise who he's been listening to.

"Any employer is going to be attracted to a compensation scheme that is cheap and miserable: cheap for them, miserable for their employees."

Written by: Noel Towell
Reprinted from Brisbane Times