Question: South Australian Employment Tribunal


Mr GARDNER (Morialta) (15:47): My question is to the Attorney-General. What does the Attorney-General consider to be an appropriate or acceptable time frame for the Employment Tribunal to consider a matter regarding compensation for industrial hearing loss, the details of which were described by a constituent of mine in writing to the Attorney-General in September and which were first brought to the tribunal in June 2014?

The Hon. A. KOUTSANTONIS: Point of order: this is seeking an opinion.

The SPEAKER: The assumption underlying the question is that the Attorney is responsible for the timely provision of adjudications by the judicial branch. Does the Attorney wish to answer the question?

The Hon. J.R. RAU (Enfield—Deputy Premier, Attorney-General, Minister for Justice Reform, Minister for Planning, Minister for Industrial Relations, Minister for Child Protection Reform, Minister for the Public Sector, Minister for Consumer and Business Services, Minister for the City of Adelaide) (15:48): I am happy to make some general comments, although obviously I don't have the particulars and, if I did, nor would I comment on a matter before the courts. But I am happy to speak in general terms if that would assist the parliament, as I am always keen to do.

The SPEAKER: As always, yes.

The Hon. J.R. RAU: There are a couple of things that probably are relevant to be considered here. The first thing is that, as you of course would recall, in the 2014 calendar year this parliament considered very significant amendments to what was then the old workers rehabilitation and compensation act, and in the course of so doing we ultimately repealed that act and replaced it with the Return to Work Act, which became functional as of 1 July 2015.

In the course of that occurring, of course, there are some transitional arrangements relating to injuries that may have occurred either side of that transition date. They are by their very nature complicated events because we have an injury occurring in the time when one act is operational and then that injury is not totally resolved by the time the new act has come in, and of course that's inherently a complicated matter. Some matters have been caught in that transitional arrangement.

The second thing I wanted to say was that we have since that time and in the course of those changes restructured what was the old industrial court and the workers' compensation jurisdiction. We now have a new Employment Tribunal, which is, I believe, however, a court for the purposes of Chapter III of the Commonwealth Constitution and therefore exercises judicial power on behalf of the state.

That body has as its fundamental underpinning the notion of a simple, efficient, quick resolution of matters of this type. It is very important if you have people who have injuries that they are able to deal with those things, ideally without lawyers, in a non-adversarial, or at least as hospitable as possible, sort of environment. That's indeed what the Employment Tribunal seeks to achieve. The rules established by the Employment Tribunal are directed very much towards conciliation, towards getting rid of as much formality as it's possible to do consistent with exercising judicial functions and appropriate disposition of matters. Generally, the objectives are pretty clear, both from the perspective of the Employment Tribunal and from the perspective of the Return to Work Act.

In general terms, the thrust of both of those pieces of legislation, which this parliament has actually dealt with in this term of government, has been to try to expedite the hearing of matters in such a way as to minimise formality and to maximise the opportunity for people to have a speedy resolution of claims. Individual claims may or may not be more difficult to process than others for reasons quite particular to those claims.

There might be very contentious matters of medical evidence, for example, where we have contending medical opinions and it's not possible for there to be a consensus about what the medical position is. There may be other jurisdictional issues which are not amenable to easy resolution. There may be a number of reasons why things take a longer time than is desirable, but the general proposition is that they should be done as quickly and expeditiously as possible.

The SPEAKER: Has the member for Morialta taken it up with the head of the jurisdiction?

Mr GARDNER (Morialta) (15:53): Well, the supplementary question is: is the minister intending to respond to my constituent's letter of September, especially given that I wrote to the Attorney-General a week ago advising him that if he didn't I would be bringing it up in parliament this week and, in particular, as my constituent is waiting on a new set of hearing aids?

The SPEAKER: Point of order.

The Hon. J.M. RANKINE: This contravenes standing order 97.

The SPEAKER: The member for Morialta is on two warnings and, unusually, I agree with the member for Wright: that was an impromptu speech.

The Hon. J.R. RAU (Enfield—Deputy Premier, Attorney-General, Minister for Justice Reform, Minister for Planning, Minister for Industrial Relations, Minister for Child Protection Reform, Minister for the Public Sector, Minister for Consumer and Business Services, Minister for the City of Adelaide) (15:53): Mr Speaker, can I respond to that?

The SPEAKER: Well, it wasn't a question, so I don't see how you can respond to it.

The Hon. J.R. RAU: I have an opportunity, Mr Speaker, and it would be a shame to waste the opportunity. Can I say that one of the things that I have discovered, and I know some of my colleagues have discovered this over time, is that you can be sitting in your office, busily getting on with your business, and then the phone rings and somebody rushes up to you and says, 'A member of the media wants to know what you are going to do about X.' You say, 'Well, I don't know anything about X. Nobody has put that to me,' and then you look at the inquiry and you discover that Mr X has written to you about this and you haven't yet responded. At the moment, the telex machine, or whatever they call them now, in your office starts burbling, and—

Members interjecting:

The SPEAKER: Are you sure it's not the Morse code?

The Hon. J.R. RAU: The stuff is coming out of the Gestetner as you're on the phone and you realise that the question is actually being put to you nanoseconds before the request to answer it has been received. In the particular chronology you were just given, that is not the case. Apparently a letter was put in the letterbox about a week ago. I have to say—

Mr Gardner: You got a letter a month ago. I wrote to you a week ago by email; it gets to you immediately these days.

The Hon. J.R. RAU: I do receive a number of letters addressed to me. They don't all reach me within a few days. I do, however, have a standing direction to my staff to say, 'If a member of parliament writes to me in particular, I would like to receive that letter as soon as possible.' I will inquire as to when the letter from the member for Morialta was received in the office, and if it has been sitting around in someone's in-tray for a week or so, I will speak to them and say—in fact, I will tell you, Mr Speaker, what I will say to them.

I will say, 'Look, we should be more punctual with letters from members of parliament because they are important letters, and I would like to read any letter that a member of parliament sends to me so I can respond to it quickly because that's very important.' So I will make inquiries as to where that letter might have gone. But, in the general course, what happens is that every letter that comes into my office—and you would know, Mr Speaker; you occupied the same office—is dealt with by correspondence people. They seek to obtain answers to the letters as soon as possible, and then they send it to the minister.

Sometimes, there is an interval of some time—unacceptable though it is sometimes, that interval can be a long time. When it is a long time, it is very upsetting for the minister because it makes the minister look bad, but that is the way correspondence goes.

The SPEAKER: I think we have the thrust of it. The member for Schubert.