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Dr Pita Sharples, Co-leader of the Maori Party

Injury Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Compensation Amendment Bill (No 2)

Dr Pita Sharples, Co-leader of the Maori Party

Thursday 26 June 2008; 5.20pm

As the debate on this Bill raged on last night, I found myself thinking about a time when I was Chief Executive of the Race Relations Office.  Our offices were close to a space where the local winos would gather – and we would frequently happen upon each other. 

One of these individuals collapsed and died right in front of us, and we immediately rushed in, applied mouth to mouth, desperately trying to resuscitate him, all to no avail.  All this green stuff came out his mouth, and it was a bit yucky, and we applied CPR. 

I remember another time when a young man’s face was half shot off in front of us.

Almost thirty years on, I can still remember those incidents vividly.

It gives me a very real understanding of some of the issues that this Bill is attempting to address.

The mental injury arising from a sudden traumatic event such as a death in the work-place, is not just something that you can address as yet another agenda item on the weekly staff meeting and hope that’s the end of the matter.

Mental injuries aren’t that easy.

Fortunately, the level of awareness around mental health issues has advanced dramatically over the recent years.

In fact in a recent infamous poll, veteran rugby hero, John Kirwan, was ranked at the top end of the list in place 6; for being open and honest about mental health issues.

That in the poll in which politicians were ranked at an all time low; stuck between slots 66 and 82 in a poll out of 85 – that’s for the dozen of us who even made the grade.

Whilst the poll didn’t do much for our collective mental health, I did think it was interesting that the public mood was so positive about the way in which Mr Kirwan has brought a taboo subject out into the light.

And so it is pleasing that today we have legislation in place to ensure there will be cover for theappropriate treatment to facilitate rehabilitation for mental injury from such traumatic events.

ACC currently compensates for mental trauma for victims of sexual abuse and physical injury, and we are glad to support the extension to cover mental trauma resulting from workplace incidents.

It is indeed progress, as the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers found, that we have legislation which appears to reflect an improved understanding of mental injury.

And of course there is probably no more stark example of the need for an appropriate response to workplace trauma than the tragedy that occurred in my own electorate, Tamaki Makaurau, in 2001.

The horrible triple murders at the Panmure-Mt Wellington RSA were experienced by a survivor who has suffered years of serious injury and rehabilitation.

And I want to just place on record here, my acknowledgment of the significance of the recent decision by the Supreme Court which has upheld the appeal for the right to sue the Department of Corrections, which manages Parole Board orders.

But for the purposes of this Bill today, I simply say, that when we consider the type of workplace incidents in which trauma may be experienced, there is no more powerful justification for the need of such support, than when one considers the horrific violence witnessed in the RSA murders.

There was, however, a very good point made in the course of this Bill, by the Victim Support and the Employers and Manufacturers Association (Northern).  That has been alluded to, today.

Both of these groups highlighted that treatment for mental injury from witnessing a trauma should be available to all people, not just employees.

The Employers and Manufacturers Association gave the recent example of the horrific effects that would play out for years to come, when that eight year old boy witnessed, again in my electorate, his mother being attacked in the Manukau City Shopping Centre carpark.

The Association submitted that it was blatantly unjust that while the young boy would not be eligible under this scheme because he is not a worker, an employee of the supermarket who witnessed the event would be covered.

The distinction between compensation for whether mental harm occurs in the workplace or elsewhere is an arbitrary one, and we sincerely hope that the Minister is able to give priority to ensuring that there is appropriate cover in place to support all persons.

The recent case before the Human Rights Review Tribunal gives us considerable confidence that this is a Minister who is prepared to respond quickly.

My colleague, Tariana Turia, is responsible for having brought to this House the ruling from the Human Rights Commission of 19 May 2008, which was described as a “landmark in human rights law in that it shows how any New Zealander can challenge legislation they believe to be discriminatory and impacts upon them adversely”.

The decision made on that day concluded that provisions in the Accident Compensation law are inconsistent with the right to freedom from discrimination, specifically on the grounds of age.

And here we are, just a month later, with amendments which stipulate that age limits for weekly compensation can not be used as a factor in deciding whether vocational rehabilitation would be cost-effective.

So I congratulate Minister Street, Tariana Turia – and of course the plaintiff, John Howard, for successful action across all fronts.

I can only hope that it paves the way for another ground-breaking ruling to be made on another case before the Human Rights Review Tribunal right now. 

And I refer to the case taken by the Child Poverty Action Group in which it alleges the Inwork Tax Credit discriminates against 220,000 children on the basis of work status.  This is an act of discrimination which leaves around 150,000 children in severe or significant hardship because their families are denied at least sixty dollars a week in family support.

We support the changes to provisions for vocational rehabilitation and independence.

The Bill gives ACC the discretion to extend the three year limit on vocational rehabilitation, recognising that for some claimants, rehabilitation can not be easily wrapped up within the defined timeframe. 

And we are pleased also to support the repeal of section 119 so that ACC can provide entitlements to claimants suffering wilfully self-inflicted injury.

There is still much to do to address the gaps in the protection for young and older workers, for the disabled, for those who have been affected by asbestos or chemical solvent exposure.

But this Bill makes significant steps - improving access to compensation for previously disenfranchised groups, particularly those in non-standard work, those mentally injured by trauma, those between work, and seasonal and casual workers.

As a party who has always taken an active interest in both workers rights, and the right to work, we in the Maori Party are happy to support this Bill at its third reading.

Ends

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