SPEAKING ON A BILL | EMERGENCY SERVICES WORKERS PRESUMPTIVE RIGHTS LEGISLATION
Mr Melhem (Western Metropolitan): I also rise to speak on this motion. It is definitely a worthwhile motion. I want to congratulate Mr Grimley on moving the motion. Whilst the government is supportive of the motion and the intent of the motion, I just want to foreshadow that I will be moving an amendment to that motion. Perhaps if I ask the clerk to circulate the amendment now, then I will come back later to speak on that amendment; otherwise I will wait.
The ACTING PRESIDENT (Mr Bourman): Thank you, Mr Melhem. Could we get that amendment circulated.
Mr Melhem: The motion talks about addressing a very important issue, which is the stress suffered by emergency service personnel. Mental health is obviously a big issue in the workforce, whether it is volunteers or full-timers. It has been brewing for a number of years, in fact maybe decades. I think it is important that we as a society, or a government, address that. We cannot keep that issue brewing.
Before I go into a bit of history to that, if I may, I will formally move my amendment that has been circulated. I will read my amendment and then talk about it. The reason we are moving an amendment to the motion is that we think the motion was somehow a bit narrow. Our amendment will enhance the motion moved by Mr Grimley. We are not trying to destroy the motion. In fact we think the amendment will actually enhance it because we all agree on the principle of what has been moved here. I move: That all the words after ‘That in relation to’ be omitted with a view of inserting the following in their place: ‘the mental health of police and emergency service workers, this house: (1) acknowledges: (a) that the process that emergency workers have to undertake in order to claim workers compensation is often daunting, stressful and challenging, particularly if the claim is related to mental health; (b) that there are cumulative impacts of exposure to violence and conflict, which emergency workers are often subjected to; (c) that the risk of a workers compensation claim for both physical and mental injuries among emergency workers is more than three times higher than other occupations; (d) that legislating a scheme for police and emergency workers and volunteers suffering from mental injuries that enables them to access assistance upon application will reduce the stigma associated with post-traumatic stress injuries and deliver better health outcomes; (2) calls on the government to establish a provisional acceptance scheme for all emergency workers, which will enable workers to have their treatment paid for from the moment they submit a WorkCover claim for a mental injury, that will: (a) apply to Victoria Police, Ambulance Victoria, Metropolitan Fire Brigade, State Emergency Service, Country Fire Authority, ESTA, child protection employees, youth justice employees, Corrections Victoria employees, forest firefighters and public sector nurses; (b) provide support to cover all reasonable medical and like expenses while claims are being assessed; and (c) allow the process for workers compensation claims that are post-traumatic stress related to be treated like any other work-related injury.’. As I said, the reason for this amendment is to make it a bit broader and just give the full intent to what the resolution states.
In my previous job I had the opportunity to be part of a review of the workers compensation scheme, which was done by Senior Counsel Hanks, called the Hanks review. Stress claims were probably one of the biggest issues facing the workers compensation scheme. I think from memory we are talking about 2008–09, and the changes to the Workers Compensation Act 1958 took effect in 2010. The biggest issue that was raised in the white-collar environment was an issue about abuse of claims in relation to stress issues. Particularly, the view of the industry was that claimants may be attributing disciplinary action, for example, by employers trying to manage their business when managers were actually looking at taking disciplinary action against an employee in relation to their work performance, and by trying to manage work performance that led to people putting a whole host of claims in as a stress claim. As a result of that, the act was amended to be more prescriptive and describe a bit more about how a stress claim can be put in or accepted, separating that from managing performance issues. Unfortunately, maybe that change to the Workers Compensation Act might have led to what is currently being experienced by emergency services workers, both volunteers and professionals. Their stress in most cases might not be related to the relationship between themselves and their employer or superior officers but actually to the job itself. A paramedic, for example, on a daily basis will be attending to traumas. A police officer is faced with a violent situation—unfortunately this sort of incident is becoming more and more common in this day and age—or a firefighter, whether a CFA member or a career firefighter with the MFB, is attending fires. That is what I am talking about. My own experience in that review and what we are talking about here I see as two different scenarios. Perhaps the definition that was put into that part of the review back then somehow might have impacted on these personnel for the reasons I have outlined. I think it is important that we try to address that, and I think the amended resolution will address that. For example, before the claim is formally accepted, the minute that claim is lodged in relation to a post-traumatic stress claim, that claim in relation to related expenses and medical expenses is automatically paid. Then you have got a period where the claim is properly assessed and a decision is made as to whether the claim is accepted or not, but at least the individual does not have to wait 28 days and in some cases more than that to basically know whether or not he or she has got a claim, incurring a lot of time and expenses and so forth during that process. That resolution now will assume that the claim is automatically accepted unless is otherwise advised, which takes the pressure off the individual to have to go through a lot of hurdles, which I think is a very positive thing.
Also, mental health has been a really big issue in our society generally, but I think it is more prevalent in the emergency services area, particularly with police and firefighters. You are trained up to be a hard person; you are trained to face hard situations day in, day out; you are trying to be tough, to stand up to things—to fight. If you are a police officer you are trained to fight criminals, to be put in difficult situations on a daily basis; and firefighters, for example, are fighting fires and are dealing with difficult situations. And this also applies in other areas. In the ambulance service you are trained to be able to deal with trauma and you are expected to absorb what you see every day—bad injuries and horrific crashes, for example. Part of the training is that you are supposed to be invincible; you are supposed to be really tough and to be able to absorb all that. But the times have changed now, and I think it is great that we are changing. We are talking about these things more often and recognising that no, you do not have to just keep that to yourself. You do not have to be as tough as what we are training you to be. You are still a human being; you have still got feelings. Therefore it is okay if you have got mental illness or mental issues or you have got stress as a result of your job. Police officers might be confronted with people pulling knives on them, pulling guns on them and having to actually pull the trigger. That is a daunting task. It might be having your car rammed. As a firefighter you go in and try to save lives, putting your life at risk to go into a house, for example, in order to be able to rescue people. It is the same thing for the paramedics. Therefore we need to say it is okay to talk about it. I want to commend the Chief Commissioner of Police for the work he has done in that space. For example, in 2015 the police commissioner announced a review into the mental health and wellbeing of Victoria Police employees. It was a huge step by the police commissioner to do that, and he himself talked about mental health.
Some 39 recommendations came out of that review, and the chief commissioner with the support of the government committed to actioning all the recommendations. Out of the 39, 35 recommendations have been acquitted already—have been implemented—including the employment of 12 new support staff in the police psychology unit and six new case managers to improve employees’ access to care and support. The remaining four relating to psychological fitness for duty and secondary employment will be acquitted by 3 June 2019. I think that is a very important thing. As I said earlier, in the past people did not talk about it. They just went to the shed, or maybe had a few drinks. But, God forbid, from time to time and in a lot of cases the unthinkable happened and people either harmed themselves or harmed other people in the process. And that is the thing; it is not just recognising that there is a problem and that it is work-related. They need to be medically treated, have all the expenses paid and maybe down the track even start to look at common-law damages if there is negligence by the employer. It is about treating the individual and saying, ‘Now we recognise the problem. You are going to get support and it’s okay to say “I’ve got a problem”’.
I have been listening to talkback radio in the last few weeks and heard people say, for example, that if you want to apply to become a police officer these days and you put on your application that at a point of time in your life you sought medical attention in relation to some stress issues or mental issues in your life—and it could be something straightforward, involving perhaps consultation with your doctor and then you were fine—that could then be a barrier for you to become a police officer. Now I think Victoria Police are looking at changing that. That should not be a barrier for you to be a member of the force. The leadership of Chief Commissioner Ashton should be commended, but this is a real issue. Therefore we need to say to people who want to be members of Victoria Police, the serving members of Victoria Police and the former members of Victoria Police that if they are suffering from mental illness and they have got some mental issues and stress issues, it is okay to actually come out and say, ‘I’ve got an issue’ and then we will provide them with the assistance that they need. Part of the assistance—I talked about some of the issues arising from the 39 recommendations—Mr Grimley has mentioned in his motion such as medical expenses, other expenses, salary and so forth is that they can be treated the same as any other WorkCover claim. I think it is important that we do that so that that assistance is available as well.
We might be able to save these individuals’ lives. It could be that in some of these cases, if the illness is left untreated, it could lead to family violence, and that is another thing as well. If our emergency services personnel are not getting the support, they are going to take out their frustration somehow. They will take it out on themselves, they will take it out on other people and in some of these cases maybe on their loved ones. So I think we will never do enough to support the very people who, when we find ourselves in trouble and in a difficult situation, come to rescue us. When our life is threatened by violence, who is going to come to our defence? The police force. If our houses are on fire or we are facing bushfires, who is going to come to our aid? Our firefighters. If we feel sick or have an accident, our ambulance paramedics are going to come to our aid. They are the people who are out there looking after us. I think it is important that in return we say, ‘We’re going to look after you, you are not alone, and that is part of what we can do to actually look after you’.
The government has, as I said, already committed to and invested in putting in place a lot of measures to assist our emergency services. There are many examples of what has been put in place, like the pilot program about to be implemented in order to better support emergency workers through the WorkCover system. The government will introduce a 12-month pilot of provisional payments for police and emergency workers and volunteers suffering from mental injuries to cover reasonable medical and like expenses. That was part of our election commitment to protect the mental health and wellbeing of police and emergency services workers and to safeguard the legal rights of injured Victorians. Through the establishment of the Emergency Workers and Volunteers Mental Health Support Fund, medical and like expenses will be paid as soon as an emergency worker lodges a workers compensation claim and while the claim is being processed, as I mentioned earlier. An extended period of up to 13 weeks will be provided to allow for cases which require further specialist diagnosis and treatment.
The pilot was actually developed in close consultation with emergency services agencies as well as employee and volunteer unions and representatives. Hopefully the program will be up and running in the next few months. Out of that we might turn it into a permanent program so that mental health and worker-related stress can be treated like any other illness or injury which a person may contract or suffer. Any worker who is injured at work today is meant to be covered by workers compensation. To go back to what I talked about earlier, currently there is a clear distinction between this sort of claim and someone putting in a stress claim because of work performance et cetera. At least we will be able to fence that off in relation to emergency services workers. We have got a whole list. As I said, I want to make a distinction. Here we are not talking about a work performance or a dispute and putting in a stress claim because of a person’s relationship with their superiors, although it could be. That is not to say that we are going to exclude that. In an emergency environment people can be under extreme stress as well. It is not just a police officer facing a bunch of criminals, a firefighter in a fire situation or a paramedic seeing all those traumas every day. There could be some direct pressure between the individual emergency services worker, to use that term, and their superior as well. There could be a lot of pressure, and the relationship might break down as a result of that. We are not necessarily saying that we should exclude that. It should be part of it because it is part of it. Emergency services personnel, if they are suffering from a mental illness or any stress situation, need to report it and management of these agencies need to deal with it in a fair and proper manner and provide all the necessary support our emergency services personnel deserve. They do not deserve second-rate treatment; they deserve first-rate treatment. Some people will say, ‘Should we treat them better or more than anyone else?’. Personally I do not see why not, because as I said earlier, they are the people we depend on when we need them, when we need help. I have given a few examples of when you find yourself in a situation when you need help. They are the people who come to our rescue in whatever difficult situation we find ourselves in. So the least we can do is try to provide that assistance and give them that special treatment.
Part of the work the Victorian government is doing with measures to support the mental health of emergency workers includes a major investment to create a specialist network of clinicians to triage and refer emergency workers to expert health professionals sooner. I think it is very important to get the right treatment at the right time and have the resources put in place to make sure people know who to call and what services can be accessed. Accessing the right specialist care is critical for emergency services workers, whose mental health conditions are often the result of unique occupational trauma events. Currently there is a lack of specialist care available—and that is another problem I think we need to address—particularly in regional and remote locations. There is also no easy way of finding the right specialists with expertise in this kind of mental injury. The independent specialist network of clinicians will provide a trusted and responsive service that encourages early help-seeking behaviour. It will be independent of emergency service employers and will provide emergency workers with a searchable database of expert clinicians accessible via website and phone.
The use of the network will be voluntary and not a formal referral service. I think that is important in that whilst a lot of the injuries or illnesses resulting directly from doing the job are not necessarily about the relationship between an employer and an employee it is still important that we give the comfort for these employees, these emergency services workers, to be able to seek confidential counselling and assistance. Their bosses do not necessarily need to know about it. We need to make sure that their privacy is protected. The specialist network will also enable treating clinicians to access expertise through secondary consultations, facilitated through the centre of excellence, ensuring that the very best expertise in Victoria can be made available to emergency workers. Also there will be additional funding provided for emergency workers to access specialist services, to ensure that these services can be provided without any delay.
Additional support will also go towards an early intervention and prevention fund to help Victoria Police create and expand on-the-ground mental health support to all staff. As members know, we have instituted a royal commission into mental health. Hopefully that will shift the whole debate about mental health and people will start accepting that it is okay. Mental health is part of everyday life. A lot of our population have suffered a mental health issue at some point in their life. I think most people have. Some people say, ‘I have never suffered in my life. I have had no mental or stress issues in my life’. If you do, I do not think you are being truthful to yourself. I think we all have. It is important that now we sort of normalise that and we say, ‘It’s okay; it’s quite normal. It’s part of human life’. Especially when we are talking about this day and age in the 21st century, it is part of modern life. It has become more and more prevalent. People will suffer some mental health issues, and it is not a stigma, it is not a bad thing, where they become an outcast. It is no longer the case. I am glad that the community attitude has changed and now we can talk about that more and more. I will finish off by referring to the support this is getting. I will just quote Police Association Victoria secretary Wayne Gatt. An article in the Bendigo Advertiser of 9 October 2017 states: Association secretary Wayne Gatt said it was important members got help the second they put their hands up and said it was needed. ‘What we’re hoping to achieve is a system of provisional approval’, he said. The proposal would see members provided with support and treatment for a limited period of time before being called on to establish whether or not the injury was related to policing. Under the existing system, members are required to prove their injury is work-related during the initial stages of the process. The article finishes: ‘It doesn’t encourage help-seeking behaviour,’ Mr Gatt said. I agree with him. I think it is important that we take away that pressure and that when you put in a claim your claim is by default accepted and your medical expenses and other expenses are paid while the claim is being processed. We then look at the definition of the ongoing claim, whether it is for wages under common law et cetera or whether it is being dealt with under the workers compensation system. We will take that pressure off emergency services workers because I think we need to look after them. With those comments I endorse my amendment and I commend the amended motion to the house.