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Seafarers Rehabilitation and Compensation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2015

I am pleased to continue the conversation about my electorate of Durack. I too rise to support Amendments to the Seafarers Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Bill 2015. The electorate of Durack hosts some of the busiest ports in Australia, including Port Hedland, Dampier, Karratha and Geraldton, and all seafaring matters are of paramount importance to my constituents, as they are to me.

The bill relates to workers compensation claims made under the seafarers act dating back to 1993. The amendments will ensure confidence in these past claims; the technical amendments to the bill will provide certainty that these past workers compensation claims are not disturbed. The amendments that we are debating will serve to rectify and clarify. The legislation will ensure that the seafarers act and the relevant OH&S act actually align with the historical understanding of aspects of the act.

By way of background, this legislation arises from a Federal Court decision in the Samson Maritime Pty Ltd v Aucote which resulted in a substantial shift in workers compensation and work health and safety arrangements in the Australian maritime industry. This bill will ensure the continued viability of the Seacare scheme by reinstating the coverage of the scheme to what it has been commonly understood to be since its commencement in 1993. Importantly, this bill seeks to ensure that all previous claims lodged under the scheme, between 1993 to now, continue to be valid. In addition, the bill seeks to restore the distinction between Commonwealth and state coverage of workers compensation and work health and safety for seafarers that has existed since 1911.

It is worth underlining the point that this bill does not seek to change pre-existing workers compensation entitlements and the work health and safety protections of seafarers. This bill addresses the impact on employers by returning their legislative obligations to what they had been understood to be. Additionally, this bill addresses the potential liability of employers for penalties for not maintaining the correct insurance policy under the scheme and for not providing returns to the Seacare Authority for the purpose of paying the fund levy.

There is an urgent need for this bill to be passed by the parliament, to provide clarity and certainty. Without this legislation there will continue to be uncertainty about the coverage of work health and safety laws, and it will mean that there is no safety regulator in the industry equipped to deal with the size and scale of this very large and important sector.

Workers compensation schemes across Australia vary substantially making it difficult to assess whether one particular scheme is better, or more generous, than another. In some circumstances, the Seacare scheme does provide more generous benefits to injured workers in comparison to other Australian workers compensation schemes. The Administrative Appeals Tribunal held the view that work which was preparatory or incidental to interstate or international trade or commerce was considered to be covered by the Seacare scheme. The Federal Court has subsequently upheld this view and declared that:

1. The Seacare scheme applies to all seafarers employed by a trading, financial or foreign corporation on a prescribed ship and;

2. To operators of prescribed ships that are a trading, financial or foreign corporation.

The majority of employers and operators within the maritime industry are either trading or foreign corporations. As such, the practical consequences of this broad interpretation are that the Seacare scheme extends to the majority of the Australian maritime industry, including ships and units which primarily operate within a single state. This decision is at odds with the convention that state workers compensation and work health and safety laws cover ships operating within a single state.

Employers of seafarers on intrastate voyages would have been acting in good faith on the basis that they were covered by state workers compensation laws and fulfilling obligations under those laws. As a consequence, they would have been—and most likely still are—maintaining insurance policies under state schemes. Importantly, this bill only seeks to ensure that the scheme operates as it was intended with retrospective effect. The government is seeking to define the coverage to what it has been in practice under successive governments starting with the Keating government through to the second Rudd government. It is disappointing that Labor is opposing this legislation.

It was worth noting that the honourable Senator Eric Abetz, the Minister for Employment, has announced that the government will shortly be bringing forward a bill to make further reforms to the Seacare scheme arising from the Stewart-Crompton review. The government is giving urgent but careful consideration to the recommendations of that review of the Seacare scheme, including those to clarify the coverage of the scheme. Decisions on future reforms to the Seacare scheme will be considered in due course. Significantly, the government will consult with all industry participants on the nature of the reforms.

When participating in debates, I like to reflect on my electorate of Durack. It has the busiest ports in Australia, with mountains of grain, tonnes of iron ore, gas and raw materials hammering through those ports. The Mission to Seafarers has provided an invaluable and historical service in the Durack ports of Port Hedland, Dampier, Port Walcott and Geraldton.

The Mission to Seafarers is a worldwide agency of the Anglican Church which cares for seafarers of all nationalities and creeds. As a Christian ministry, the mission is actively involved in service within the seafaring community and operates in some 300 ports around the world and 23 in Australia with a network of chaplains, lay staff and volunteers who offer seafarers a warm welcome, friendship, and practical and spiritual help. Their symbolic 'flying angel' flag is well recognised and is a very welcoming sight to visiting seafarers.

The current seafaring centres of Durack—in Hedland, Dampier and Geraldton—provide an atmosphere of family and a sense of service and solidarity .Over the years, the mission has sought to help seafarers in all kinds of practical ways. Remember: seafarers are far away from their families for long periods and may face loneliness, ill health or injury. The welcome from the Seafarers' chaplains and volunteers may be the only onshore hospitality they receive.

This week, on Sunday, 29 March, the Mission to Seafarers Geraldton will be opening their doors for a community event. The mission is housed in beautiful heritage premises—one of three of the oldest standing buildings in the seaside city of Geraldton, dating from the earliest days of the Champion Bay settlement, having been built as a school. It served as a church, police lock-up, loco shed and hayshed before it became home to the Mission to Seamen—now Seafarers—in 1938 when the mission first commenced in Geraldton. A priest was sent from England to be both rector of the new Bluff Point Parish and chaplain in the port. The Geraldton mission has been staffed continuously since March 1938.

Around 500 ships call into Geraldton port each year, which sees 6,000 seafarers visit the Geraldton centre each year, where they are welcomed by Reverend Bill Ross, the chaplain, and his wife Jocelyn. Seafarers Geraldton is a favourite sea haven with testimonials from ships' captains of appreciation of service and value to seafarers wanting to contact family, purchase personal items, and spend time on terra firma or those seeking social and spiritual counsel. Reverend Ross has been honorary chaplain at Geraldton Seafarers since 2010, having spent close to 40 years in the missions in the Durack centres of Dampier, Port Walcott, Wickham, Port Hedland and now Geraldton.

Debate on the seafarers bill—I am very pleased to say—has given me the opportunity to acknowledge the tireless work of Reverend Bill Ross, his wife Jocelyn and the irreplaceable service of the Seafarers Mission in Geraldton and throughout Durack.

In conclusion, this bill restores the coverage of the Seacare scheme to how it has been understood to be, prior to the Aucote decision: employees on intrastate voyages will remain covered by state workers compensation and work health and safety laws.

The bill ensures that no seafarer will lose any workers compensation payments they have received or face a reduction in workers compensation payments they are receiving. I state again: this bill does not seek to change pre-existing entitlements and protections of seafarers; it is about providing certainty and ensuring seafarers have proper protections without transferring responsibilities from the states to the Commonwealth and threatening the financial viability of the existing compensation scheme.

I support the urgent passage of this legislation through the parliament to ensure that the safety of the workers in the sector is not compromised. I commend the bill to the House.

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