An eleventh-hour amendment moved by the Greens MP, David Shoebridge, has seen firefighters and paramedics exempted from the harsh new Workcover reforms. In what the NSW Law Society says is a breach of faith by the government, the reforms include retrospective slashing of payments.
‘Workcover is more than $4 billion in debt,’ NSW premier Mr O’Farrell said on Friday. ‘Without the reforms passed by parliament today it would become financially unviable.’
Mr Shoebridge says that he $4.1 billion dollar deficit in the scheme is not a hard-and-fast figure. ‘There is not a $4 billion dollar debt owing,’ he says. ‘It is an estimate of unfunded liabilities over the next 20-odd years based on worst-case scenarios both for the scheme’s $14 billion in assets and future claims.’
Mr Shoebridge says that since the current scheme was established in 1987, there has not been a single year where the premiums recovered in a year were less than the total payments made by the scheme in that year. That is, it has been cash positive every year since established. ‘This explains the scheme’s $14 billion in investments,’ he says. ‘So the deficit, while likely real, is very unlikely to be in the order of $4.1 billion as asserted by the government when pushing for these harsh benefit cuts.’
Mr Shoebridge also said that the changes are even more fundamental when you realise that they are almost entirely retrospective, applying to all prior injuries, even where workers have long settled their cases.
The Law Society says that under the changes, an injured worker who previously was entitled to medical expenses paid for life may now have this support removed.
‘The new legislation will have a huge negative impact on people living in regional NSW,’ says president of the Law Society, Justin Dowd. ‘With the ability to assess claims based on regional considerations removed, someone injured in Burke will be assessed on the same basis as someone injured in Sydney, resulting in massive social and economic upheaval and true hardship.’
The one glimmer of light from the parliament’s savage cuts was the acceptance of the Greens’ amendments, to ensure firefighters and paramedics obtain the same protection from these changes as was being proposed for police and SES members.
The late-night amendment came after firefighters took statewide industrial action on Thursday – the first such strike in 56 years.
‘It’s a shame it required statewide industrial action to focus the attention of this state government on the dreadful impact these laws would have on the rights and entitlements of sick and injured firefighters,’ said Fire Brigade Employees’ Union secretary, Jim Casey.
‘Our members put their lives on the line every day. They run into burning buildings when everyone else is running out. We took yesterday’s action with a heavy heart and only after the NSW government refused to negotiate with us in any meaningful way.
‘While we are happy to be exempt from these laws, we will wholeheartedly back other unions and the broader labour movement in its ongoing campaign to defend sick and injured workers.’