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Questions: Worker Compensation & Emergency Services Volunteers

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: Over the summer, we know that more than ever we needed our CFS and our SES volunteers to protect both people and property in this state. But also over the summer—late November/early December—a draft communiqué under the auspices of SAFECOM was circulated, entitled 'Ex gratia payments to Emergency Services Volunteers—Update'. The communiqué contained the words, in the second last paragraph:

Under the proposed process volunteers will be required to claim relevant expenses through Medicare and where applicable their private health provider as the ex gratia payment process is designed to meet any out-of-pocket expenses—i.e.: the portion of medical expenses that the volunteer would be expected to pay and which is not covered by Medicare and/or their private health provider.

This understandably caused some angst within the representatives of both the CFS and the SES volunteers, through their relative associations. I note in the newspaper the welcome news that the Treasurer ruled out that this draft communiqué would progress. He stated that the proposal would be scrapped, but he also would not say when that decision was made.

It was certainly welcomed by the volunteer associations, and I note that Sonia St Alban of the CFS Volunteers Association stated that they had been angry at the injustice and double standards and at being treated as second rate, despite their heroism during the catastrophic summer, and that the SES Volunteers' Association chairman, Warren Hicks, said that there had been widespread anger.

While that was a welcome decision, my questions to the Treasurer are: who approved the SAFECOM draft communiqué with regard to the ex gratia payments? What was the date on which the proposal was rejected and by whom was it rejected? When was the SAFECOM board advised that the proposal in the draft communiqué was no longer progressing?

The Hon. R.I. LUCAS (Treasurer) (14:41): I thank the honourable member for the question because it gives me a chance to put on the record some facts in relation to this particular scheme. On 18 June last year, well before the fire season, I wrote a letter to Sonia St Alban, who is the executive director of the Country Fire Service Volunteers Association, which said, in part, that there are some issues in relation to a particular volunteer that I made a specific decision in relation to. I don't propose to put that volunteer's personal circumstances on the public record. I suspect the honourable member may be aware of the case to which I refer. In relation to the general situation, my letter to Sonia St Alban said:

I can advise that I have approved an administrative scheme concerning CFS volunteers in relation to additional workers compensation entitlements that will be based on an ex gratia process. The scheme is not yet operational. It is envisaged that this will be a process that will be adopted by the South Australian Fire and Emergency Services Commission (SAFECOM). The details are being addressed and I will further write to you about that.

It then goes on to provide some details about the implementation. Having given that approval, and having advised the volunteers that—contrary to the former Labor government, who didn't give ex gratia compensation to heroic volunteer firefighters—the new government had changed the position and was going to implement an ex gratia scheme, I am told that, over subsequent months, SAFECOM and Treasury officers worked together on what the details of that particular scheme might be. It is a complicated arrangement because they are volunteers, whereas the entitlements that we have given to paid firefighters, because they are paid employees, are more easily implemented than the arrangement you have when you have volunteers.

The communiqué went out to consultation, so I am told, and these are details that are being worked out on an operational level. I was unaware of the extent of the details. I had given approval for the scheme, and it was for the officers to work through the scheme. I understand that a communiqué, to which the honourable member has referred, was circulated sometime in December, or it might have even been late November—I am not entirely sure.

There was strong opposition from some volunteers. I am advised that officers, certainly within Treasury, and I assume also within SAFECOM, heard the message loud and clear. The advice I have received since this issue was raised publicly was that, sometime in late December—prior to the end of the year in those last few days of December—a revised draft communiqué was circulated between my officers in Treasury and SAFECOM, saying, 'We should change the communiqué along the following lines.' The recommended change of position occurred. Having heard the feedback from volunteers and clearly being an open, consultative and listening government, once we heard the concerns, we made a judgement as to whether or not it would be agreed or not. At that stage it was still being worked through by officers with SAFECOM and with Treasury.

The answer to the final part of the honourable member's question is: I understand there has not been a board meeting of SAFECOM since the start of the year—that is my advice. I am not the minister responsible for SAFECOM. There might have been a meeting of a governance committee or something on Friday that was meant to have been conducted. As I understand the way SAFECOM operates, and I am not expert on how SAFECOM operates, there is a SAFECOM board and then there is a governance committee, or some sort of working committee, that might work to that.

I am told that the next meeting of the SAFECOM board is in the next week or two, and the revised communiqué will go to the SAFECOM board for its approval or not. When that goes to the board, it will then come to me, as the responsible minister, with, hopefully, the endorsement of the SAFECOM board. I am hopeful of this process, which started, as I said, with my approval, in June of last year in a letter from me to Sonia St Alban, and also I think at a similar time to Susan Caracoussis from the SES Volunteers Association, indicating that I had given approval.

It has taken some time for officers to work through the detail of how it might operate. The communiqué, the negative feedback in relation to that, the advice which at that stage did not go back to the volunteers because it was still being worked through between officers from SAFECOM and Treasury, is to go to the board meeting in the next few weeks in relation to that.

My current advice is that I am hopeful that, not that I have had direct contact from the volunteers other than what I have read in the media, they are appropriately, I assume, working with officers within SAFECOM and with Treasury. I am not making any criticism in relation to that; that's the appropriate consultation process that should be conducted. I am hopeful that they may well be happy with the revised communiqué when the SAFECOM board—they are represented on the SAFECOM board and will have the opportunity to express a view or otherwise before the meeting, I assume, now that they have heard my public comments in the parliament, and their representatives will have an opportunity to put a position at the SAFECOM board meeting sometime in the next couple of weeks.

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