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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8034

Dr SOUTHCOTT (12:08 PM) —The Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 is to set up a new statutory authority with the aim of improving occupational health and safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements in Australia. The area of occupational health and safety is not the subject of partisan debate. I believe all members of this House—all sides of politics—have a commitment to improving occupational health and safety. Having said that, there are three problems with this legislation, and the opposition urges the government to address these. These are not areas that should be difficult to fix. The first problem is that establishing a ‘tripartite’ body to look at the area of occupational health and safety really implies that you have three equal parties who all have a stake in and a commitment to improving occupational health and safety. They are government, employers and the unions. One of the problems with Safe Work Australia as it is conceived is that nine of the 15 members on the board will be representing government, two will be representing the unions and two will be representing employers. We say that it is an imbalance to have such heavy representation from government when it is actually the employers and the unions who will effect improvements in occupational health and safety.

The second problem with this legislation is that Safe Work Australia will report back to this House only every six years. The Olympics will come round more often than the report from Safe Work Australia will be seen in this House. We will go through two electoral cycles between reports. It defies belief why you would set up a governance arrangement like this. Why not have an annual report, as most statutory bodies do? The third problem with this is that the work of Safe Work Australia relies on reports to the Workplace Relations Ministers Council. What we have seen in the past is that, if there is not the will at the ministerial council to make this work, in effect Safe Work Australia will be sending their good work to a postbox. We have seen that the ministerial council in this area has been dysfunctional; it has sometimes failed to meet, and members of the ministerial council have failed to attend or to cooperate with the Commonwealth. If the ministerial council does not work, Safe Work Australia will not either. Those are the three problems with Safe Work Australia as it is conceived in this legislation. We urge the government to take up these suggestions in the spirit of constructive criticism in which they are raised.

The new body, which is one of many new bodies which have been created under Labor, will replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, which was established by the coalition when in government as an advisory body to occupational health and safety policies. Unlike the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, which was set up administratively under the framework of the Australian Workplace Safety Standards Act 2005, Safe Work Australia will be set up as a statutory authority with the power to make decisions in relation to national standards and codes of practice. This body will also have the power to develop national policy relating to OH&S and workers compensation. We are also told it will prepare and monitor implementation of OH&S legislation and advise the ministerial council on matters relating to OH&S and workers compensation.

While on the face of it all of those seem good—improving occupational health and safety regulations benefits everyone from workers and their families to business—there are these problems, as I have said, with the governance arrangements for this body in the legislation. The body will be dominated by state and territory representatives, the same people who have already failed in many cases to develop workable occupational health and safety systems in their own states. Many of them have major problems with their own workers compensation schemes. Out of the 15 nominated representatives who will form this body, there will be eight state and territory representatives, one representing the Commonwealth, two from industry, two from the unions and there will be a chair and a CEO to make up the 15. So there will be only two members on this body who will specifically represent the interests of workers and there will be only two members who will represent the interests of employers. That is already a reduction from three from both sectors, as was the case under the Australian Safety and Compensation Council.

Both union and industry representatives are rightly concerned about the reduction of social partner representatives from three to two. It will create a situation where government representatives will be able to override concerns raised by employers and unions, including concerns related to increased costs or impractical safety proposals. This is an example of reducing industry and union representatives in favour of a ‘government knows best’ view. It is an unjustifiable balance. As I said, with a tripartite body there is an assumption and an implication that there are three equal partners and that it is not dominated by the government—the partner most removed from the workplace, where the practical improvements in occupational health and safety will occur. A process that does not seek to engage employers and employees in any meaningful way will struggle to improve safety standards; in fact, it may undermine them. With this limited capacity for employer and employee representatives to raise concerns, Safe Work Australia could also be used by the government to develop other codes and policies under the guise of safety.

There is a fundamental flaw in the foundations upon which this body has been established. The success of Safe Work Australia is contingent upon cooperation and participation of the ministerial council. If the ministerial council does not work, Safe Work Australia will not work either. Safe Work Australia is required to report directly to the ministerial council. Unfortunately, members of the ministerial council have notoriously failed to attend and/or cooperate with the Commonwealth on these issues. If the ministerial council fails to meet or refuses to cooperate and consider Safe Work Australia issues, the work of the body will come to a halt. There is inadequate employer and employee input; any work done by Safe Work Australia is contingent on cooperation from the ministerial council.

But there is a third problem—the failure to report back to parliament on the progress of Safe Work Australia. Under the current proposal, Safe Work Australia will only report back to parliament every six years. Last year there was a lot of talk about more open government. It has not been explained how reporting back every six years fits in with this framework. To introduce a state dominated independent statutory authority that only needs to report back to parliament every six years is incomprehensible and grossly inadequate. What is the problem with requiring this body to report to parliament annually? This new body is shaping up as just another botched policy from the government, like Fuelwatch and GroceryWatch. While Australians are fed up with these botched policies, we see jobs disappearing. Over the nine months until June next year, employment growth is expected to be one-third of what it was last year. The budget’s own predictions state that there will be 134,000 fewer jobs by June next year. Since this government came to office, over 15½ thousand workers have been made redundant. The new government is proposing to spend less on employment services and less on helping people back into work. They have wound back mutual obligation and Work for the Dole.

Despite this, we do not hear any talk of jobs from the government when, following on from the strongest labour market in a generation, we now have massive job insecurity. We never hear any member of the government talk about jobs. They will not mention jobs. Jobs are the great unmentionable in the corner. Instead, they are focused on watching fuel prices and grocery prices, to the benefit of no-one, and now we are considering a state dominated body to improve occupational health and safety regulations with less employer and employee involvement. It will not have to report back to parliament until 2014 and then it will report again in 2020. Good occupational health and safety standards require a safe working environment and they improve worker morale and productivity. It is important that we all work together to reduce workplace injuries, but I fear that this is just another Labor body that will do nothing of the sort.