Queensland workers’ compensation reforms – is the good news really that good?

Queensland’s Premier, Anna Bligh, and Attorney-General, Cameron Dick have issued a curious media statement concerning their reform of the State’s workers’ compensation system.

The reform is intended “to ensure stability and certainty into the future” and “ensure that the Queensland average premium rate, while increasing, will remain the lowest of any state or territory.”

The Premier is saying the right message but the reality may be a little different.  Anna Bligh says

“Our aim is to make sure every Queenslander returns home safely from work, each and every day. In the event of a workplace incident causing injury or death, we want to ensure there is a strong compensation scheme in place to support workers and their families.”

“This package of changes will mean that all Queenslander, employers and employees, continue to have access to one of the most stable and secure workers compensation scheme in the country.”

These are all positives, although a little clichéd yet, according to the media release, the government is restricting access for compensation through the courts in line with recommendations received on the control of costs of the scheme.

The release also quotes Premier Bligh announcing

“…that restrictions on access to common law compensation claims by injured Queensland workers will not be imposed as part of the changes.”

As a “Mexican” in the south of the country, this does not gel – common law rights preserved but not through the courts??!!

It seems that the economics of workers’ compensation is the undeniable focus of the changes as shown by terms such as “sustainable”, “secure”, “stable” and “solvent”.  (Perhaps this should be renamed the Attorney-General’s “S” plan)

The government has couched a premium increase of around 10% with the statement that Queensland businesses

“…will still be paying the lowest average premium of any state or territory in the nation.”

But is this the appropriate benchmark?  How would this compare with a benchmark such as

  • the quickest return-to-work of injured workers? or
  • the most lasting rehabilitation treatment for injured workers? or
  • the lowest rate of workplace injuries?

Tomorrow Cameron Dick,who is also the Minister for Industrial Relations, is scheduled to unveil “… a monument in honour of dead and injured workers..”.  It would be interesting to see what welcome he receives.

There are several shadows over the Queensland strategies.  One is the national review of workers’ compensation that is in its infancy but scheduled for the next couple of years.  The other is an anonymous letter that has been doing the rounds since February 2010, according to RTWMatters.  The letter which is now available on a Queensland Government website states:

“Senior Management and Government are trying to say that the current position is due to the financial crisis in Australia and globally.  This is not the whole story.  lt is correct that investment fluctuation reserves have been depleted because of the market, however the reason for needing to avail themselves of the reserves is mismanagement of the scheme.”

RTWMatters’ analysis of the letter (only available to subscribers) and other submissions made to the government on workers’ compensation reform, shows that opinion on the scheme’s operations, and the letter’s claims, are divided.  Some industry representatives, and WorkCover Queensland, consider the claims speculative.  The Queensland Resources Council, according the RTWMatters article, is curious about the lack of analysis of “internal efficiencies”.

Since the global financial crisis began, there was always the political temptation to say that this unexpected economic phenomenon had more of an impact on Australia than it really did.  There is no doubt that the global economic crisis hit workers’ compensation schemes across Australia very hard and in many circumstances the rebound has been admirable.  The impacts, however, may have masked reform and cost strategies that in other economic times would have been granted a higher priority.

Kevin Jones

Kevin is a semi-regular columnist for RTWMatters

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