ACC tinkering leaves culture of nastiness

It's time we went back to first principles on ACC. Because there's been so much politicking over it, the corporation's original intent tends to be lost in the increasingly acrimonious mists of spin and misinformation.

While politicians and bureaucrats are entitled to argue the toss over costs and efficiencies, it should be recalled that in 1974 the citizens of this country were bound by legislation into a universal scheme whereby they would be unable to sue for personal injuries that were the fault of someone else - or for accidental damage in the workplace.

In return, the ACC would see them right. So that, while the victim of a vehicle accident in the United States who loses a leg might take legal action against the driver of the other car for compensation in the millions of dollars, in New Zealand that legal remedy would be replaced by ongoing support and care by the corporation. Similarly with workplace accidents.

This scheme was to be, and is, funded by levies on employers and employees. For earners, the levy in the 2012-13 tax year, deducted along with PAYE, is 1.7% up to a maximum salary of $113,768. That is down from 2.04% in 2011-12.

At present, the scheme has accumulated invested funds of $19.5 billion and $4.5 billion net liabilities, leaving it $15 billion to the good. This may come to a surprise to some people, given the Government's noisy insistence, when it came into office in 2008, that the corporation was broke.

Partly it was able to make that argument because, in 1998, the then National government turned the scheme from a "pay-as-you-go" system into a "fully-funded" insurance scheme, whereby levies were set for each year to cover the whole future cost of accidents which occurred in that year.

The scheme was never broke or even near broke, but to reach a target of making it fully-funded by 2019, the Government was able to make a case for cutting claimants' benefits and raising levies - by comparison, in the 2007-08 year, the earners' levy was just 1.3%.

This is, in part, the broad-brush background to the latest revelations over the toxic culture which has blighted parts of the corporation in recent years. In particular, and in addition to high-profile privacy issues, there has been this business of bonuses for employees and case officers who have "managed" long-term claimants off the corporation's liabilities list - up to 3500 since 2009.

Rehabilitation is a proper and worthy aim of the scheme, and I'm sure we have all come across the odd individual who has taken advantage of it, but bribing case managers to get people off the books, by hook or by crook, is a disgrace - especially if, as has been suggested, many of those claimants end up on sickness benefits, or with no support at all.

It lays a ground-breaking, much admired and highly successful organisation - and all the hard-working, sincere employees who work in it - open to charges of arbitrary and selective bullying tactics.

Whether some people remain as claimants and others don't may in the end simply come down to the sheer nastiness or venality of a particular case officer, rather than a rational, balanced appraisal system.

And that stinks.

On that malodorous note, I sign off my final column for the Otago Daily Times. As some of you may have noted, the sign-off at the bottom of this article describes me as a Wellington writer. Strictly speaking, that should read a writer who now lives in Wellington.

In a wired, or indeed wire-less, world, geography need not be such a tyrant, but moving city - and the associated changes entailed - does bring with it costs, and opportunities. Apart from the distance from close friends, and from the physical beauty of Otago and the fine spirit of its people, one cost has been the ending of my professional association with this newspaper. It is a paper with fine traditions of independence, good journalistic values, wonderful staff and, most importantly, a loyal and engaged readership.

I have now inveigled my way into your morning smokos for just under five years - getting on for 250 columns, 250 laboured and late Monday nights as I struggled to make sense of current issues and put together a few coherent thoughts on them - in all, enough words to fill a couple of door-stopping novels.

A newspaper has an important role to play in holding up the matters of the day for examination and debate, and, within this, a current affairs columnist occupies a position of some responsibility. It is one I have attempted to discharge sincerely, if from an unapologetically liberal perspective.

It has been a privilege, and I thank you, the readers, for your indulgence.

- Simon Cunliffe is a Wellington writer.


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