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Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Page: 185

Mr ANDREWS (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (11:44 AM) —in reply—I thank members for their contributions to this debate. The OHS and SRC Legislation Amendment Bill 2005, to recap, will ensure that all licensees under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act—that is, Commonwealth authorities and eligible corporations—will have the benefits of operating under one occupational health and safety scheme, together with integrated prevention, compensation and rehabilitation arrangements. Integration of workers compensation and occupational health and safety schemes will promote greater coordination and feedback between schemes and will produce better health and safety outcomes all round. In addition, the proposed amendment to section 4 will clarify the legislative requirements for employers and employees covered by the Commonwealth act. Without this amendment, those employers and employees can be subject to both Commonwealth and state and territory laws on the very same subject matter.

These amendments are supported by licensees as they will remove a significant impediment to business profitability and efficiency—namely, the costs of administering and complying with as many as eight separate and different state and territory occupational health and safety requirements. As a result of these amendments employees will no longer be treated differently and discriminated against merely on the basis of their geographical location. Employees will have the opportunity to acquire a better understanding of their occupational health and safety rights and obligations because these will remain the same regardless of where they work. The government considers that until the states can achieve national consistency in occupational health and safety regulation, SRC Act licensees operating in more than one jurisdiction should not be subject to the complexities and costs involved in complying with a myriad of different requirements.

The amendments will not diminish occupational health and safety protection for employees covered by the Commonwealth act. The government has a proud record on its commitment to improving occupational health and safety in every Australian workplace. The government further demonstrated its commitment to occupational health and safety by initiating the development of the National Occupational Health and Safety Strategy in 2002. Under the Commonwealth act, all occupational health and safety incidents can be enforced by Comcare through the general duties of care in the act. These are supported by the existing regulations, codes of practice and guidance material to assist employers to discharge their duty of care. The Australian government believes that the bill will lead to improved workers compensation and occupational health and safety outcomes for employers and employees.

I note the comments from the member for Rankin, who is simply doing the bidding of state Labor governments in running their misleading lines. The argument that state workers compensation premium pools would be adversely affected because employers seek to enter the Commonwealth scheme is spurious. In the case of Optus, which currently self-insures under the Comcare scheme, its premiums make up only one-10th of one per cent of the Victorian WorkCover premium pool. The federal government does not need to provide any encouragement for businesses to seek entry into the Comcare scheme. The advantages of the Comcare scheme are obvious—namely, it provides one set of consistent, uniform regulations and benefits for both employers and employees. Private sector employers who operate across a number of different states and territories do not want the regulatory burden and inefficiencies that accompany having to deal with up to eight different workers compensation and occupational health and safety jurisdictions. Indeed, if anybody talks to business owners and operators in any part of this country who operate across state boundaries you will find that this is a concern which they raise over and over again.

Victoria and its state and territory counterparts could fix this problem quite easily by working with the federal government to introduce greater uniformity and consistency across all jurisdictions. I say to the states and territories, through this debate, that rather than complain about the Commonwealth trying to achieve some degree of consistency in what we are doing, they should see that the ball is essentially in their court. If they want to retain their schemes and the coverage under those schemes then they ought to look at issues like reciprocity, uniformity and consistency across the nation. The real motivation behind the actions of the states is that they make a profit out of running workers compensation schemes. In the case of the Victorian Labor government, the Victorian WorkCover Authority recently announced a profit of $669 million. This demonstrates that the Victorian government is more interested in how much money it can make from workers compensation rather than in giving employers and employees the access that they deserve to the best possible scheme.

In conclusion, the emphasis of the Commonwealth scheme is on prevention of workplace injury rather than on punishment after the event. However, where sanctions are necessary, the Commonwealth scheme includes a strong, comprehensive and effective enforcement regime based on a wide range of civil and criminal sanctions, including tough penalties for breaches of the act. I commend the bill to the committee.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.