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COMMONWEALTH VOLUNTEERS PROTECTION BILL 2002: Second Reading

Mr CADMAN (Mitchell) (10.42 a.m.) —The speech we have just heard from the member for Oxley has given me a great idea, Mr Deputy Speaker: to read a list of the organisations in my electorate if I have not got a speech to make. I rise to speak on the Commonwealth Volunteers Protection Bill 2002.

This is interesting legislation, because it in fact covers the volunteers working for Commonwealth instrumentalities, and there is a large number of them. The obvious ones are the Australian War Memorial and the Australian Taxation Office's Tax Help, where many of us are involved in receiving free advice from volunteers to help people who have very simple tax returns. There have not been many claims made against all those volunteers. As far as we can ascertain from the Solicitor-General, there have been very few claims made by a member of the public for damages caused by a volunteer. Whilst there are not many claims, the purpose of this legislation really is to reassure volunteers that they are covered and protected so that should anything happen in the workplace they are not going to be liable.

This is complementary legislation. There is similar legislation being entered into by the states of Australia to cover organisations of a community type. This legislation only deals with volunteers working for Commonwealth agencies. In passing, I would just raise the following question: I wonder how the volunteers working in members' offices are covered? I do not think they are covered by this legislation and I would like to have some advice about the volunteers that we have, because they do work in a Commonwealth environment. They work under the direction of members or senators and their staff. There is equipment, there are lifting duties and other things. Also, members of the public are frequently contacted by volunteers, so I believe that is something where clarification is needed.

Ms Hoare —What about polling booth volunteers?

Mr CADMAN —I think they would be covered by our party organisations, which would be covered by state legislation, as I understand it. But being from the Commonwealth, I do not know where we stand and I would like to know. We will get some advice from the minister or the parliamentary secretary before we finish the legislation. This does not cover the work being done by agencies that are not Commonwealth agencies but are subject to Commonwealth activities, such as the Work for the Dole schemes. In relation to a sponsor supervising Work for the Dole schemes, those projects are not Commonwealth projects and so the volunteers within an organisation sponsoring Work for the Dole schemes are covered by separate legislation. That protection will be in legislation passed by state governments. There is also the instance where a volunteer organisation, such as St John's Ambulance, may be covering a Commonwealth function—that is, a group of volunteers supplying a service at a Commonwealth activity. They are not protected by this legislation but are in fact protected by state legislation.

In reading through the bill, I see that there is one factor that raises concern. I will approach it in an orderly fashion. The people working for the Commonwealth in these circumstances are providing work on a voluntary basis. The voluntary basis aspect of the bill is pretty interesting because it goes to the concept of what is a volunteer, how they are defined and what our expectations of them are in the community. First of all, they receive no remuneration for doing the work other than the reimbursements for reasonable out-of-pocket expenses—and I think that is good—or they receive remuneration which is less than the amount prescribed or determined in accordance with the regulations. They are not getting full pay; they are getting part pay and are regarded as volunteers. They are not doing community work by court order. Individuals also do work on a voluntary basis for the Commonwealth or an authority if they continue to receive remuneration from their employer. This might be where an employer says, `I'd like you to go and do some voluntary work,' or a person says, `It's time I went down the street, took a couple of hours over my lunchtime and helped the Red Cross stall.' That is not a Commonwealth agency, but they could go and do a couple of hours' work for the tax office. So that person doing some voluntary work, even though they are being paid by an employer, is covered by this legislation. [start page 9547]

The final area is that the work is of a kind that is usually done by the Commonwealth, or a Commonwealth authority, by persons who either receive no remuneration or receive remuneration less than what would normally apply. That is the definition of a person working on a voluntary basis, but there are some exceptions where their actions are not covered—and those exceptions are generally appropriate. A person performing voluntary work is not covered when they are subject to a court order, when the liability falls within a compulsory third-party motor vehicle insurance scheme or within a defamation action, or when their ability to perform the work is significantly impaired by recreational drugs.

I would have to confess that this is the first time I have seen the term `recreational drugs' in Commonwealth legislation, and I do not like it. A person is either taking medication which is prescribed or taking drugs which are not prescribed. To refer to any drugs that are not prescribed as `recreational' drugs, to take into that scope, in such a broad and sweeping nebulous definition, crack or heroin or any of those highly addictive substances and to call them recreational drugs is a misleading and grossly improper description of addictive substances that I know members of this House would be absolutely opposed to. I intend to pursue strongly with the minister and with the drafters the issue that this term not be used in our legislation. A drug is either prescribed or not prescribed. To call substances such as heroin `recreational' I think gives the wrong impression. It is the wrong description; it is inaccurate to begin with. I have been part of the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the examination of the abuse of drugs in Australia and I have seen some of the horrible messes that people have been able to get into because, for whatever reason, they have started taking addictive drugs. For us to refer in this legislation to that range of non-prescription drugs as `recreational' drugs is, to my mind, an acceptance that the taking of illegal substances is acceptable to the Commonwealth and that we can brand them as `recreational'. Unless we can come forward with a better definition, unless there is a proper medical term, I would like to see this definition changed.

I regret that I had not detected this weakness until now. I regret that I have not been able to raise it with the minister or with the minister's staff until now. I have no recourse but to draw attention to it in the strongest way that I can draw attention to it and ask for the definition of `recreational drugs' to be re-examined. Is smoking pot recreational? We are getting so much evidence that it is a mind-changing, dangerous substance and that it should not be—

Mr Danby —Speak to the Prime Minister about it.

Mr CADMAN —I will take it up with the appropriate minister. We are getting evidence from researchers in Victoria that just one cigarette of the substance can grossly change people's performance on the roads and that it may in fact be significantly more dangerous for road users than alcohol. Given that that evidence is now coming forward, I suggest that the part of this legislation which refers to volunteers of the Commonwealth who may be under the influence of what are called recreational drugs, and who are debarred from the liability factors of this bill, is so loose and so capable of any interpretation that it ought to be pulled out, looked at and seriously worked on. I know there have been no claims. I guess I disagree with the way in which this principle is being entered into without proper thought. The fourth area where the protection does not apply is where the volunteer acts outside the scope of the authorised activities or where the volunteer acts contrary to instructions—for instance, engaging in criminal conduct or whatever.

So that is the scope of this legislation. I think it is thoughtful legislation. I think it is a valuable guide for us to examine and to assess the effectiveness of the coverage of volunteers in all circumstances. The last thing that we would want is to discourage volunteers from undertaking work. The final report of the review of the law of negligence chaired by Mr Justice David Ipp suggested that there is not a significant volume of negligence claims against volunteers and that people did not appear to be discouraged from undertaking voluntary work. That is fine, and we do not want them to be discouraged. We do not want, in this day and age where everybody is so litigious and wanting to get their pound of flesh, whether it seems sensible or not, people being discouraged from volunteering. Volunteers give 700 million hours of time each year in Australia, and Australia thrives and survives on those volunteer attitudes. We have had the International Year of the Volunteer, which was highly successful. This legislation is warranted; it is a guide that we can use to judge other legislation produced in other areas, particularly by state governments. I commend it to the House, with the exception of the definition of `recreational drugs'.

Author: Alan Cadman MP
Source: House Hansard - 4th December 2002
Release Date: 9 Dec 2002

 
 




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