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  Issue No 93 Official Organ of LaborNet 27 April 2001  




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The Workers’ Voice

Interview with Peter Lewis

When trade union stalwart Ian West took a seat in the NSW Upper House he was determined to be more than a bench-warmer. Then the Workers Comp legislation hit.


Westie: The Workers Voice

Let's start off with the Workers Comp package. What prior consultation was there with the backbench before the legislation was placed in Parliament?

First of all, through the Industrial Relations Caucus Committee, which met on the morning at 9.00, am for 45 mins. Then went to the Caucus at 11 am. Caucus discussed it for half an hour.

What degree of discussion was there on the merits of the package?

The Caucus was provided with the normal Caucus briefings that they get with all bills. The presentation was the 'Simpler, Fairer, Faster' document that was released to the media. So there was effectively the positive side of the Bill - understandably. The Minister's presenting the bill that he was proposing to put to Parliament.

Was there much discussion by the Caucus on the issue, or was it more a case of the Minister must know what he's doing?

There was discussion on whether or not is was appropriate and needed to be done in the time frame. But as for the Bill, no one had the Bill.

So would it be fair to say that the backbench had ownership of this package in any sense?

It terms of the Caucus process, the Caucus process is advising the Caucus of what the Ministry proposes to put to Parliament. So the Caucus was advised. It was aware that there was a bill ...... when the report is put to Caucus then it's taken as read, it's approved. It was voted on.

Just talking in more general terms, you've only been in this place for a short period of time. It there the degree of involvement by the backbench in decision-making that you expected?

As you say, I've only been here a number of months so it would be wrong of me to say. But I was pretty much aware that there couldn't be in depth discussion on every bill that came up but I must admit I expected more discussion on issues than what there has been.

You actually came to Parliament determined not to be a seat warmer and you tried to particularly be an advocate for trade unions down here. How hard has that been to actually stick your neck out and do that sort of thing?

As a union official I've always been a collectivist. I've always believed in abiding by Caucus decisions. But I must admit there's a need, and there probably always will be, a need for improving the process. I think continuous improvement on the involvement of all the Caucus and ensuring that any decisions that are made are informed decisions is something that needs to be worked at.

What sort of impact do you think the union campaign of asking backbench MPs to actually state their opinion on Workers Comp publicly has had on that process?

I think those things can only help in improving the process. Most Caucus members, I think all Caucus members, would be supportive of anything that ensured that decisions that were made by Caucus were informed decisions.

Let's talk about Workers Comp more generally. You've been working around the issue for quite a few years. You were a member of the Workers Comp Advisory Council when you were a union official. First question, is this the right package to fix the scheme in your view?

In my view it's not. In my view it doesn't focus on the real issues. The real issues are the front-end issues of return to work and rehabilitation. And return to work is very much hampered by the emerging labour relations and the breakdown of employer/employee relationships and the big increase in labour hire. The fact is that workplaces are harder and harder for injured workers to find, to actually go back to, to be rehabilitated in.

So, although you've got a philosophy of return to work, early return to work and rehabilitation, that philosophy is very much hindered by the fact that workers don't have a workplace to go back to in many cases. So that has to be worked out. The Labour Hire Task Force that was recently undertaken under Jennie George, that was commissioned by Della Bosca I think it was - it's vital that that particular task force, the recommendations from that task force - be looked at. I think that would do a lot more to go to the heart of the problem.

As for attacking the Independent Tribunal and attacking stakeholders or participants in the process and trying to make people in the process scapegoats and the sole responsible party for any blow-out in the so-called deficit, it is just very short-sighted and misses the point altogether.

I was always a great believer in the Advisory Council set up by the previous minister. Unfortunately the advisory council, any advisory council's not worth being there if the minister doesn't support it. It's unfortunate because the stakeholders are the ones who really have driven the change and any scheme like Workers Comp needs continual monitoring by the stakeholders. You can't just make a change and it's fixed. It's been under constant change since the first act in 1926 and the current blow-out has got to do with a whole host of things such as under-compliance, and non-payment of premiums. I think it's important that people understand the actual scheme itself is quite viable.

It seems as though that part of this package is that it's this shift from a notion of continuous improvement to a big bang reform. And that's been tried in the past obviously. Why doesn't the scheme need a big shock every now and then?

You can do it but it really doesn't solve the problem. All it does is upset everyone, create ill-will. If you work with the stakeholders and do it on a continuous monitoring method, it's much more effective.

How do you see this whole thing playing itself out?

Well, I'm hopeful that the Labor Council and the Government can work out a proposal, an agreed position, on these issues and that those major issues of ensuring that there's an independent tribunal, there's a proper medical assessment and that people are able to test the medicals in an independent tribunal. I think there needs to be an agreement between the Labor Council and the Government on the issue before it goes ahead. I hope that happens very quickly, before people get themselves into their trenches.

Finally, it took you a long time to get down here. Has this experience dented your enthusiasm for being a Member of the Government?

The Workers Compensation issue is an issue that's been dear to my heart for more than a quarter of a century and it's an issue that's a fundamental tenant of the labour movement - be it the industrial wing or the political wing. To me it's an issue that is vital for both wings of the party to agree upon, and if we can't agree upon something as fundamental as workers compensation, I have to admit it would dent my faith in the whole process.


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 93 contents

In this issue
*  Corporate: The Jobs Myth
Access Economics' Chris Richardson debunks employer claims that increased workers compensation premiums have a dramatic impact on jobs.
*  Interview: The Workers’ Voice
When trade union stalwart Ian West took a seat in the NSW Upper House he was determined to be more than a bench-warmer. Then the Workers Comp legislation hit.
*  Unions: Postcard from the Pilbara
In the face of unprecedented pressure, BHP workers in the Pilbara are standing together and refusing to sign individual cotnracts.
*  Economics: Currency Unification: Dollarize or Die?
Dick Bryan asks what happens to an economy when it gives up its domestic currency.
*  History: Instant History
In his address to the Australian Labour History Conference, the SMH's Brad Norington asks whether there is still time for history.
*  International: The End of an Era?
The post-Cold War era is over. Something different is developing to take its place. John Passant writes.
*  Media: The Battle for Aunty
The CPSU's Graeme Thompson ouitlines the campaign to save the ABC and this week's emergency share-holders' meeting.
*  Review: Share-Holder Nation
A legacy of government-backed privatisations, demutualisations and stockmarket hype over the past decade is the creation of a nation of shareholders.
*  Satire: SOS: Save the Investment Banker!
Spare a thought for those less fortunate With redundancies at investment banks around the globe looming, now is the time for us to show the world just how much we care. It's just not right.

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»  The Soapbox
»  The Locker Room
»  Labour Review
»  Tool Shed

Letters to the editor
»  Compo Shame
»  Where the Greens Stand

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