Legislative Council: Wednesday, April 10, 2024



Return to Work (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) Amendment Bill

Second Reading

Adjourned debate on second reading.

(Continued from 18 October 2023.)

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:21): I rise today on behalf of the Greens to stand in firm support of this bill put forward by the Hon. Frank Pangallo. There is no denying that our first responders are often faced with difficult and potentially traumatic circumstances during their service for our community.

This bill provides for a rebuttable presumption of a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by first responders and volunteer first responders as work related for the purposes of workers compensation legislation. Reversing that onus of proof in this way is a simple step that our parliament can take to help those who help us. Claiming workers compensation can be a daunting, traumatic, challenging and stressful process in itself, particularly if the claim is related to mental health. I am sure some members will remember that this is an issue that I have raised in this place before.

Post-traumatic stress is a complex condition to diagnose, particularly where it is the result of cumulative exposure to incidents, which can be and is most likely the case for many first responders. We know as well that amending our legislation to include a presumptive clause in a material way, in which we can help those who have experienced significant harm while protecting us from harm, can be done. It is not the first time that this has been done in our state; indeed, I was proud to be part of campaigning, for many years, with others in this place, to win a similar presumptive clause for firefighters to access compensation should they develop certain cancers.

Importantly as well, I note that this bill includes transitional provisions that extend components in this bill to claims initiated before the commencement of the proposed amendment bill, unless that claim has been determined. This is an excellent step to ensure that first responders can have access to workers compensation in a manner that is less stressful for them and in a way that recognises their service and experiences.

Workers compensation laws have a very long way to go before they are fair and fit for purpose in this state, but amendments like these go a long way towards ensuring that workers can access the compensation to which they should be entitled, without undue stress and prolonged uncertainty. I commend the Hon. Frank Pangallo for bringing this bill before the council. As Greens in this place, we will be proud to support its passage.

The Hon. S.L. GAME (16:24): I rise briefly to indicate my support for this bill. This bill will help to reduce the barriers first responders face when seeking support for post-traumatic stress disorder. By easing the burden of proof, the bill aims to ensure first responders receive the necessary compensation and treatment they need without undue delays or added stress.

The primary purpose of this legislation is to make it easier for first responders diagnosed with PTSD to access workers compensation benefits. It addresses the challenges faced by first responders in proving that their PTSD arose from their work-related experiences. The bill creates a presumption that if a first responder is diagnosed with PTSD, the condition arose from their employment, unless there is evidence to the contrary. This shifts the burden of proof from the worker to the employer or insurer.

Our first responders face a challenging work environment. They experience traumatic events where they apply their training to save lives. They witness carnage and the loss of life, and are often the target of violence and abuse. If this bill can ease that burden, then I am pleased to support it.

The Hon. E.S. BOURKE (16:25): I rise briefly to speak on behalf of the government on the Return to Work (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) Amendment Bill. The government is currently going through its initial process to obtain necessary financial advice on the potential impacts of this bill across the public sector.

The need to understand the financial implications of this change is an unfortunate reality of any work injury insurance scheme, and we acknowledge that this has been a long process. We thank the unions representing South Australia's first responders for their forbearance while the government works through these issues.

While we have not yet determined a final position on this bill, given the importance to the many stakeholders present here today, the government will not oppose its passage through the Legislative Council.

I take this opportunity to sincerely thank the thousands of first responders who work throughout the public sector keeping our community safe and healthy. Their work is immensely valued, and we are committed to working with them on issues of importance. I understand some stakeholders have raised some drafting concerns about the bill in its present form. I can commit that the government will have a further discussion with these groups, and the Hon. Frank Pangallo, about the bill once we have received necessary advice.

The Hon. F. PANGALLO (16:27): I would like to thank all the members who have spoken on this very important bill: the Hon, Tammy Franks, the Hon. Sarah Game and the Hon. Emily Bourke, for expressing their support for this piece of legislation that will greatly assist and support the mental health and wellbeing of our most trusted and respected emergency frontline workers and others who, by the very nature of their job, face traumatic and confronting situations almost on a daily basis.

It will make PTSD diagnosed by a psychiatrist a presumptive condition for first responders, emergency workers, volunteers and others involved in time-critical, dangerous, life-threatening and traumatic events and situations. This covers a range of professions, including paramedics, police officers, firefighters, nurses, doctors, train drivers and correctional services officers. It reverses the onus of proof from the injured worker to the employer and streamlines the often torturous and complicated maze in making out their claims for workers compensation.

This follows similar legislation passed by the federal government last year for commonwealth workers. This legislation comes after the police commissioner, Grant Stevens, revealed recently at a parliamentary inquiry that eight police officers have taken their own lives over the past two years, including two by their own police-issued firearms.

Our frontline emergency services workers put their lives on the line every day. They go to work each and every day not knowing what awaits them. Their families expect them to arrive home safely, too, but as we know some bottle up their emotions of their experiences witnessing trauma. They deserve all the protections that we can give them.

Our communities are so reliant on the incredible and often dangerous and challenging work our first responders carry out. It is something very few of us choose to do as a profession due, in part, to the dangers involved, the situations they often find themselves in, and/or the horrific things they witness because of their jobs.

They are often unheralded heroes who go about their responsibilities with diligence and without fuss. In carrying out their jobs they can experience all types of horrific scenes and stresses. At the end of their working day they are expected to go home to their families and resume normal programming. It is difficult for any of us to expect them to totally switch off and erase those memories that can be ingrained for years.

These nightmares may not even manifest for years or until they are triggered by some facet or incident in their lives. When they do appear, affected workers may suffer those feelings in silence until it becomes too much to bear and too late for anyone to help. As legislators we must do everything in our powers to give these courageous professionals all the support they need.

Following the support of this legislation today in the Legislative Council it is likely to now go to the House of Assembly and, as indicated by the Hon. Emily Bourke, there will be some refinements and other areas that they will look at, and I quite welcome that and look forward to the House of Assembly passing their version and it then coming here again.

This legislation today could not be a more timely reminder, as it comes days after the tragic suicide of highly regarded paramedic Stuart Brand on Monday. The new laws, as I said, mirror similar legislation passed in the federal parliament last year. These recent tragic deaths are utterly devastating and a stark indication of the impacts their workplaces have on the mental health of these dedicated, courageous, hardworking frontline service personnel. I am sure I speak on behalf of every member in this place in passing on our sincerest condolences to Mr Brand's family. It follows the heartbreaking incident inside the Port Adelaide Police Station earlier this year where a female police officer took her own life.

I would like to urge members in this place to read a very well written yet still harrowing story in the autumn edition of the Police Journal that deals with the murders of Chelsea Ireland and her boyfriend, Lukasz Klosowski, by Lukasz's father, Pawel, and the brave actions of three police officers who went to the crime scene still unsure whether an armed offender was still there—and he was.

I will name those police officers for their brave actions: Sergeant Matt Hirlam, Senior Sergeant First Class Nick Patterson and Senior Constable Kim Wilson from the South-East. I will just read a short piece from that article that gives you an indication of just what these police officers had to encounter and, of course, the aftermath. One of those police officers had the horrendous job of lifting the lifeless body of young Chelsea out of the bathroom after she had been shot by Mr Klosowski. I will read three paragraphs:

But operating as they did—on the scene of a double murder with the armed killer and his victims present—was bound to come with an impact.

From the adrenaline charge, the tension and high alertness, some took hours to 'come down'. Hirlam pushed on at work until 1pm, and not until Sergeant Jade Hill then drove him home did his body even begin to relax.

At home, he spoke briefly with his wife 'and then just collapsed from the mental overstimulation of the whole incident'.

Responding to the murder scene was a first for Hirlam. Although it has, 'without a doubt', stayed with him it does not haunt him.

Regardless of a statement like that, quite clearly it did affect those police officers. It gives you an indication that these frontline emergency workers, particularly police officers, must encounter horrific scenes like that—it will certainly return somewhere down the track. It is an indication of the trauma that first responders must come across on a regular basis.

I consulted widely during the development of the bill, and I would like to thank the many contributors. They include Professor Alexander (Sandy) McFarlane AO of the Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies at the University of Adelaide; the Police Association of South Australia and its president, Mark Carroll, for his encouragement and strong support; the Ambulance Employees Association and its secretary, Leah Watkins; the South Australian branch of the Nursing and Midwifery Federation; the CFS Volunteers Association; the SA SES Volunteers' Association; the United Fire Fighters Union of South Australia and Max Adlam; and Anastasia Bougesis from Disaster Relief Australia.

I also give thanks to one of our Presidents and now Senate Deputy President, Senator Andrew McLachlan, a longtime advocate for ambulance workers, for his encouragement, lobbying and his ongoing advocacy for this at a federal level. I also thank all the emergency service workers suffering PTSD and their families who went through the pain of reliving their experiences with me in order to get this legislated support.

I also want to thank my staff member, Adrienne Gillam, who worked tirelessly on developing this draft—it goes back to 2018—and my Chief of Staff, Sean Whittington, who facilitated meetings and followed up with all those I have acknowledged today.

Thank you to all the workers who make important sacrifices for us on a daily basis. Be assured your efforts are recognised in this place and will be in legislation. I would like to acknowledge the presence in our gallery today of so many representing those organisations.

Many suffer in silence until it is too late. Others are pushed to the edge due to the strain they feel of admitting to PTSD and/or the torturous path they once needed to travel to prove their condition. Hopefully, that ends today, and I have no doubt today's passing of this important legislation will go a long way in saving lives, marriages and families. As I indicated, I realise there may be amendments in the other place, but I welcome the support that is being indicated from the government.

Bill read a second time.

Committee Stage

In committee.

Clause 1.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: I do have a question, but the government can take it on notice because I understand the assistant minister is not necessarily the appropriate minister. With the actuarial advice that they are seeking, will it ensure that it looks at the current impact on the current scheme not accepting these claims with a presumptive onus of proof, because that also has quite an impact not only on their lives but also on various legal and other costs?

The Hon. E.S. BOURKE: As the member has highlighted correctly, I am not the lead minister taking responsibility for this. I am happy for the minister to take that into consideration.

Clause passed.

Clause 2 passed.

Clause 3.

The Hon. F. PANGALLO: I move:

Amendment No 1 [Pangallo–1]—

Page 2, line 19 [clause 3(2), definition of first responder, (a)]—Delete paragraph (a) and substitute:

an operational ambulance worker; or

This amends the definition of first responder to substitute that it will be an operational ambulance worker.

The CHAIR: Are there any contributions or indications of support?

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: The Greens support the amendment.

The Hon. N.J. CENTOFANTI: We support the amendment.

Amendment carried; clause as amended passed.

Remaining clause (4), schedule and title passed.

Bill reported with amendment.

Third Reading

The Hon. F. PANGALLO (16:42): I move:

That this bill be now read a third time.

Bill read a third time and passed.