I am pleased to rise this afternoon to speak on the Transport Accident Amendment Bill 2015. As a government we are totally committed to promoting road safety and we applaud the work of the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) and the work it does in seeking to educate drivers and to promote shifts in driver behaviour, with a view to reducing and eventually eliminating the road toll. It is and has been for decades a world leader, with its often emotive advertising campaigns.
Since these campaigns began, combined with other road safety initiatives, we have seen the state’s road toll decrease by more than half. This government has demonstrated its commitment to promoting road safety in a number of ways, and I mentioned several of them in the last sitting week. In metropolitan areas our commitment to remove 50 level crossings will both improve safety and reduce congestion. We have cracked down on dangerous driving, such as crossing railway tracks when signals are operating, by substantially increasing penalties, and we have encouraged P-platers to drive safely with the incentive of a free full licence for those completing their four-year probationary period with a clean driving record. We have also invested substantially in improving roads in both metropolitan and rural and regional areas, with a view to promoting safety.
We also know that the previous government introduced a number of changes that were profoundly unfair to accident victims seeking compensation from the TAC. This needs to be rectified, and that is what we are about to do this afternoon. This bill reflects the fulfilment of our election promise, which was to wind back the regressive changes introduced by the previous government. The TAC should not be running like a business to prop up the state coffers; that approach was adopted by the previous government. The TAC should always be a body whose primary duty is to accident victims, not the bottom line, especially as it is funded primarily by the TAC charge we pay on our vehicle registrations.
The changes brought about by the previous government were roundly condemned by compensation lawyers, the Law Institute of Victoria, road trauma experts, emergency services representatives and of course families of road trauma victims. Specifically today, this bill is about restoring the ability of those who suffer mental injury and/or nervous shock stemming from the involvement of them or a loved one in a transport accident to claim compensation. Under the previous government’s changes those affected had to prove that they had been left unable to work for a period of three years to claim compensation. As one mother who lost her 12-year-old daughter in an accident put it:
The TAC is saying I must have recovered from my daughter’s death and can cope with life because I’m back at work. What a joke.
That was reported in the Herald Sun of 30 October 2013. I must say that this is just a shameful way that certain citizens in this state have been treated under the current provisions, and what a shameful way of treating a grieving parent.
The president of Road Trauma Families Victoria, Margaret Markovic, said of the changes, and I quote:
Victims will be revictimised by a body who claims to be ‘committed to delivering benefits to injured people in a caring and efficient way’.
They were solely a reflection of the financial aspirations of the previous government for the TAC and represented a shameful abrogation of its primary obligation to meet the needs of accident victims. At the same time we saw the TAC making profits of nearly $1 billion, with the dividends all going to its sole owner, the state government. Despite the hard work that has been done to reduce the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness, the previous government’s bill abolished the right of family members to make a claim if a relative’s death — —
Mr Ramsay — Can you say anything nice about our government?
Ms TIERNEY — No, I cannot say anything nice about what you did in relation to this bill, and I never will. It was absolutely disgraceful what you did to the victims and their families.
Despite the hard work that has been done to reduce the stigma and discrimination around mental illness, the previous government’s bill abolished the right of family members to make a claim if a relative’s death or injury in a road accident stemmed from an attempt to take their own life. As lawyer Craig Lynch in the Bendigo Weekly of 8 November 2013 put it:
The changes to ‘psychiatric injury’ shows the advances that the community has made in understanding and responding to mental health issues have been lost on the government and the TAC.
Furthermore, the previous government shamefully tore away the rights of emergency service workers traumatised by attending the scenes of often horrific car accidents to claim compensation for mental injury or nervous damage caused. This was an affront to these hardworking and dedicated professionals, to our ambulance paramedics, to our police officers, to our firefighters and to our State Emergency Service personnel. We know that between 2008 and 2014, sadly, eight Victorian paramedics took their own lives and paramedics have a suicide rate four times the average for the average person in our community. They do work which many of us simply would not be able to stomach. To suggest that they should not have access to compensation from the TAC if they suffer post-traumatic stress disorder or other conditions stemming from attendance at a road accident is simply unacceptable.
The previous government also gave the TAC the right to change how doctors assessed a person’s physical and psychological injury, undermining the absolute integrity of the medical profession. This effectively wiped out the rights previously afforded to families under common law. Even worse, these changes had effect retrospectively, victimising individuals who had suffered road accident-related trauma many years in the past. The changes made by the previous government served only to further victimise Victorians already dealing with immense trauma and personal loss, and we are proud to fulfil our election commitment to do away with them.
I will now go to the actual aspects of the bill. The bill repeals sections 93(17A) and 93(2A) of the Transport Accident Act 1986, which limit the rights of families of individuals hurt or killed in transport accidents to seek compensation for mental injury or nervous shock. In deleting subsection 17A the provision for the differential and unfair treatment of those suffering psychological harm from a transport accident is removed.
The bill also repeals the power provided to the TAC under section 46A(2C) to modify the guides used to assess permanent impairment for compensation under the TAC scheme. This means that the commission will once again be obliged to follow the independent guidelines as set out by the Australian Medical Association (AMA). In addition, it corrects an omission in the act so that the consumer price index indexation rather than average weekly earnings indexation is applied to a claimant’s contribution towards daily living expenses, as was the original intention of the act. Fundamentally, this restores fairness and equity to the Transport Accident Act, and it is done with the recognition that the psychological harm from road accidents can be as debilitating and long lasting, if not more so, than physical harm in some instances.
A fundamental and overriding motivation for all of us on this side of the house is fairness — ensuring that everyone has equity of opportunity and equal protection under the law no matter who they are or where they come from. How we believe the state should treat transport accident victims is no exception. Those who suffer psychological trauma as a result of road accidents should be afforded the same protection and right to compensation as anybody else. The ability to determine guidelines around eligibility for compensation should never have been placed in the hands of the minister or the TAC, and returning to using definitions provided by the AMA is a much, much fairer system. Paramedics traumatised in the line of duty attending vehicular accidents should be entitled to support. Parents who have lost children should not be told that their scars have healed just because they can make it back to work. Legislation should not be passed which retrospectively strips away entitlements given to crash victims.
The TAC’s role should be first and foremost to be there for Victorians who need it. Anybody who pays motor vehicle registration funds the TAC, and it is perfectly reasonable that they expect it in return to look after them should they be harmed on the roads. The TAC should be a servant of the people of Victoria, not a cash cow for government. This bill restores equity and fairness to the Transport Accident Act and ensures that all Victorians who are victims of road accidents, especially those suffering psychological harm stemming from road accidents, have access to compensation. I am absolutely delighted to speak on this bill and I am absolutely delighted that we will see a pathway to fairness and equity in this very, very important area. I commend the bill to the house.