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Industry dept veteran takes the reins at Comcare

Career public servant Sue Weston has been appointed chief executive of Comcare, just as an interesting case highlights the divergence between the major parties on workers’ compensation in the public sector. 

Weston takes the five-year term after a very long run at the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science and its predecessors, including the past 10 years as a deputy secretary.

Sue Weston

Her “impressive record of public sector experience and strong leadership” had put her in front of other candidates, according to Minister for Jobs and Industrial Relations Kelly O’Dwyer.

“I congratulate Ms Weston on her appointment and I look forward to her continuing the important work of Comcare in improving work health and safety and the delivery of rehabilitation and compensation,” O’Dwyer said in a statement. “I also thank former CEO, Ms Jennifer Taylor, who performed the role admirably from 2014 until her departure earlier this year.”

Weston is a Chartered Accountant and a Fellow of CPA Australia as well as an ex-officio member of several government boards and committees.

Comcare is the regulator responsible for compliance with the federal Work Health and Safety Act, and runs the workers’ compensation insurance scheme for employees of the Commonwealth and a list of licensed self-insurers.

Licensees are mostly large private-sector employers but also include the ACT government, the Australian National University and Australia Post, which now faces extra oversight after breaching its license conditions.

O’Dywer used the appointment as an opportunity to attack the opposition, blaming it for a past blow-out in the premiums paid to Comcare by Australian Public Service agencies (which caused high costs for bodies that self-insured under the scheme as well), shortly after Labor used the Australia Post case to attack the government.

“Thanks to the Coalition’s prudent economic management, Comcare’s financial position has improved dramatically, with the scheme becoming fully funded for the first time in seven years and premiums paid by agencies substantially reduced,” O’Dwyer said, adding that APS agencies had saved $200 million in the last five years.

The Coalition’s method of lowering costs has also been criticised for its impact on individual workers, however, and the opposition sees its efforts to use contestability via private sector competition to drive down Comcare’s costs as undermining the conditions enjoyed by public sector workers instead of trying to raise those in the private sector.

Shadow ministers Michelle Rowland and Brendan O’Connor seized on the recent ruling by the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission that Australia Post employees had deliberately delayed claim processing to meet internal performance targets, which had financial incentives attached according to the complainant.

“This Government has a track record of attempting to undermine the Comcare scheme, and in fact wanted to expand the number of companies who could choose to self-insure in the last Parliament with the broader intention of undermining state workcover schemes,” they argued.

“It was Labor that put a stop to this Government’s attempts to undermine workers’ compensation schemes in 2014, because we were already fully aware of the light touch approach self-insurance licensees have been allowed to get away with.

“This latest admission by Australia Post further confirms that we had every right to be concerned, and continue to be concerned that expanding the Comcare scheme to cover more self-insurance licensees will result in stronger bottom lines for business at the expense of workers.”

Whatever you think about how the reduction in Comcare premiums was achieved, there is little doubt they were getting out of hand. The ACT government even announced it would pull out and establish its own scheme in 2015 mainly to save money, but stuck with Comcare a little longer and eventually reversed the decision two years later after a series of legislative reforms that have brought the costs down.

Comcare is also involved in asbestos-related claims, the Parliamentary Injury Compensation Scheme and the Seacare scheme.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.