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Thursday, 16 May 1985
Page: 2053

Senator WATSON(12.11) —I must warn the Senate about something I perceived in the approach of my colleague from the Government benches. I believe that Senator McKiernan indicated some desire to use an isolated bad practice in Western Australia by a small operator to support his argument for the implementation of national standards across Australia. If this is the way in which the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission Bill 1985 is going to be used, I believe it will not assist basically the cause of industry in Australia. However, I must admit that for some time now I have been in two minds about the Bill. On the one hand I have considerable sympathy for its aims and objectives. However, on the other hand, I have grave fears that we will be establishing yet another government authority. I think we are all in agreement about the short term benefit of this legislation, given the industrial problems that the industry is facing at the present time. But I question some of the long term implications and the socialist approach that has been adopted in recommending the Bill to the Senate. I believe that those social implications will have a long term detrimental effect on industry.

Having been a manager of a major textile manufacturing company I, of course, am very conscious of the need to safeguard the health and welfare of employees without whom business could not operate. I must deplore some of the remarks that have been made from the Government benches. Some Government senators seem to imply that top management is not all that interested in health and safety issues. They seem to believe that one of the purposes of this Bill will be to make employers very much more conscious of such issues. Nothing could be further from the truth. Managers are very concerned about the health and welfare of their employees. However, I think we have to look at the enormous cost to industry, individuals and families of work related illnesses and injury. We also have to consider workers compensation premiums alone which are now actually crippling many small businesses. The on-cost component of labour is such that it is becoming a major disincentive to increase employment at the very time when we should be enacting provisions to encourage more people to join the work force and to make employment more attractive. At this time we should be considering wiping out such things as payroll tax and other costs which are prejudicial to employment.

I support wholeheartedly the move to develop a greater community awareness of issues relevant to occupational health and safety matters and to provide forums for public debate and discussion on such issues. I go even further and support the Interim National Occupational Health and Safety Commission's desire to see the development of what I term consultative machinery at a Federal level and the need for further examination of Federal and State responsibilities and mechanisms for co-ordinating and seeing that occupational health and safety legislative requirements are implemented.

It has been recognised for some time that there is a need for some form of nationally co-ordinated approach to the problems of occupational health and safety. But I do not believe the correct approach is to set up such a commission, with all its co-called draconian provisions; and they must be seen to be draconian provisions, if we have regard to the sentiments expressed by Senator McKiernan and Senator Cook. As a nation, naturally we must take measures to ensure that there is enough incentive within an organisation or industry to improve both health and safety conditions. It is the taxpayers who must ultimately pick up the cost relating to occupational injury, illness and death. The health costs alone-medical, hospital and pharmaceutical costs-have stretched to the limit the community's capacity to pay. If we add to those costs the costs of sick pay, workers compensation, lost production, damage to machinery and, in many cases, lifetime care for permanently disabled workers, the cost to the community is six times the amount that the Labor Government suggests it will save by way of its Budget cuts. It is quite a significant figure.

Having discussed with industry leaders the aims and objectives of this Bill, I have been persuaded that this Bill, while it has what could be referred to as considerable theoretical merit, will lack a practical approach with regard to implementation. I think we must recognise that some State governments, industry leaders and unions have agreed to the objectives of the proposal. But it must be pointed out that they are not agreeing to the proposal for the same reasons. I think this is the danger in implications of the Bill. There are those who wish to continue to be the pacesetters-the union movement and socialist governments-who wish to see this proposal used, as Government speakers have said, as a vehicle for social reform.

I will use the analogy of the airline industry. If the Department of Aviation disagrees with any suggested improvement in, say, ground facilities, it immediately uses the safety issue and says: 'We cannot do anything that would impair the safety of the aircraft'. The proposal might relate to the gardens, the service facilities on the ground or some other matter. But as soon as one starts talking about airlines, people come to their defence by using the word 'safety'. The danger is that this Commission may be misused, under the guise of creating safety provisions, in order to implement a wide range of new conditions which will affect industry across the board.

At the moment States have departments of labour and industry which specify the terms and conditions of employment and safety issues. But this Bill proposes to set up a commission which will introduce a new twentieth century Labor Party or socialist approach as to what are to be the ideal conditions within industry. Therefore, there are those who are supporting this legislation on the very premise that they will use this measure as a vehicle to implement-not radically, not necessarily overnight, but over time-a range of new industrial conditions. They use the word 'safety' as an excuse to implement such conditions. On the other hand, there are industry leaders and some State leaders who are concerned about some States which are becoming the pacesetters. Some States are legislating for unrealistic conditions for industry and workers compensation.

The debate today has indicated that workers compensation obligations begin within the framework of the boundaries of the industry concerned. They extend far wider than that. We all know that if a worker, in travelling to and from work, catches his heel on his front gate, for instance, the injury could be the subject of a workers compensation claim. It is those sorts of added costs that are being passed on to the employer that are becoming unacceptable. Some State governments believe that this national vehicle may slow down the rate of growth of some of the unreasonable measures contained in workers compensation legislation that is coming forward in some States. As I said, the cost to industry is horrific. Industry is concerned that some States are becoming pacesetters, and that the legislation that they introduce will be used as a precedent. It believes that the Commission could be used as a vehicle to slow down such moves. I believe that those who take such an approach will find that this legislation will be used as a vehicle for complete social reform. While I have mentioned a range of people who have supported the Bill, I note that it has not received the same enthusiastic support from the National Safety Council. I suggest that people should consult that body a little more widely.

I think we must accept the need for some degree of uniformity. but we cannot always have uniformity in all areas across a broad spectrum of industries and across the range of geographic conditions that we have in Australia. That is, after all, why we have States. While there might be a need for a forum for discussion in which ideas can be shared, I am very much against using a commission in this capacity. There is a need, therefore, for discussion, co-ordination, education and research; I think we all agree on that. The Interim National Occupational Health and Safety Commission made it quite clear that many of the functions to be carried out by the Commission are presently carried out by a host of Federal and State government departments. This means that there will be an overlap and duplication. We are establishing yet another body on top of those that are already in place at present. I therefore think that this proposal is unnecessary.

It has been suggested that the Commission would be merely an advisory body. If it is to be an advisory body, there would be no compulsion and no requirement for the so-called avant-garde States engaging in new legislative pursuits to follow the directions of the body. Therefore, the Government, is setting up a very costly bureaucracy to do something which, after all, it has admitted is advisory. I doubt whether the long term future of this body will really be that of an advisory body. However, in spite of my support for the aims and objectives of this Bill, as I said in my opening remarks, I have fears about the establishment of yet another statutory authority. This Government, in the first nine months of its term of office, has created 25 new qangos. That is a significant number. I believe that this qango will be used by unionists and socialists to improve conditions unrealistically under the guise of health and safety. But this Bill not only seeks to establish yet another commission-in fact a 17-member commission, with a projected staff of about 140 people-but proposes to organise this Commission into two bodies. I refer to the National Occupational Health and Safety Office and the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety. The report of the Interim National Health and Safety Commission, which recommended the Bill as it stands, projected that the Commission's staff level would more than double by the end of the second year to around 350 people and that the anticipated budget in that year would amount to $42.1m. It does not go on to say what its further rate of growth will be, and one shudders at the thought of where it may finish up. It could be used as a vehicle to control and manipulate industry.

Surely this country can do without this sort of commission. I agree with the need for some sort of consultative, loose mechanism whereby people could get together to discuss these problems, but this legislation seems to be imposing a bureaucratic monster. It seems ironic that the anticipated $40.3m supposedly saved by increasing the prescription charge to $5 in the latest mini-Budget will be less than that required to manage the Occupational Health and Safety Commission. In other words, the sick and injured will be forced to pay for an organisation seeking to save on sickness and injury. The costs anticipated are absolutely unnecessary. Of equal importance in the national occupational health and safety question is workers compensation.

In my earlier remarks I mentioned that the cost of workers compensation premiums is crippling many small businesses and substantially increasing the on-costs of all industries. These costs, which have to be built into the price of goods, are forcing our industries into a less competitive position in the market place. Not only are the number of compensation claims increasing, but also the value of individual claims is going through the roof. If one makes the provisions easier to enable somebody to make a claim, unfortunately there will always be a minority who seek to manufacture claims. It is evident to every business leader that workers compensation claims often arise in the early hours of a Monday morning. This is only in a minority of cases, but it is a matter of which people should be aware.

How can industry keep paying for such demands and for increasing the scope of on-cost services to industry? Why should such huge amounts of money be awarded for what in some cases appear to be minor injuries? Workers compensation has got right out of hand. It has extended well beyond the work place and, if it is allowed to continue with its spiralling costs, it will be a major cause of this country's further decline in world markets, and a major impediment particularly to our manufacturing industries. I believe there is now a case, in view of the fact that these workers compensation and other on-costs have become so unreal, for the social security system to pick up these costs. Why should just the employers have to pay unreal costs? These are becoming a social cost to the nation and should not necessarily be just a cost to the employer. Because of extension of the benefits, which have become so unreal and costly, the Government should now consider costs of this sort, such as workers compensation, as of a social security nature.

If this Commission is to have no teeth, it is far too costly a dinosaur to take the purported steps needed to achieve uniformity. If on the other hand it is to have teeth, we have been deceived because its bite will have severe repercussions on the future of manufacturing industry. I congratulate those organisations which have been pace setters in trying to improve health and safety issues. I refer to those companies which have become leaders in trying to overcome the problems of repetition strain injury. I acknowledge the lead taken in this area by a company in my State, the Repco organisation.