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Monday, 19 March 2012
Page: 2144


Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (16:36): —by leave, I move:

That the Senate take note of the document relating to death in the workplace.

Workplace safety is an issue that unites us in this place, as it ought. With all human activity, be it a day-to-day tasks of travelling, on recreational pursuits and in our daily work, we face issues of risk and issues of safety.

One of the underpinnings of our Judeo-Christian society is the ethic and the belief that every human life is valuable and that we owe a duty of care to each other. So we have laws to help protect us from ourselves and each other. Workplace safety is built on the same ethic and principles. Employers need to be careful. Workers need to be careful. We all need to be careful to minimise harm. That is something that I am sure all of us can agree upon.

Regrettably, in recent times the issue of workplace safety has become a political football in relation to certain matters and, without reflecting on a vote of the Senate that has just occurred, the very issue of the so-called safe rates bill being referred to a Senate committee for detailed consideration and to see whether payment of higher rates might result in safer roads is not to be explored. Certain senators, especially in the Green-Labor alliance, have made up their minds that these things should be steamrolled through without proper analysis.

These days, regrettably, we are getting a number of issues dressed up as safety issues when they are in fact a demand for extra power for a trade union where it is a manipulation of the genuine community concern about workplace safety for the purposes of gaining industrial power by other people, especially trade union bosses. We will be seeing that again in relation to the textile, clothing and footwear legislation and we saw it with the harmonised occupational health and safety legislation, which saw preference given to certain courses on workplace safety on the basis that it was skewed in favour of those that actually provided the education as opposed to the outcomes. So we had courses which had been recognised by the Commonwealth Public Service and Commonwealth agencies as providing excellent outcomes being struck out and not able to continue because they did not fit a certain paradigm—a paradigm which was specifically designed and manipulated to ensure the trade union funded courses would be the favoured approach.

Regrettably, the list goes on. We have had criticism of the Australian Building and Construction Commission because it did not place enough emphasis on the issue of safety. What people forget is that at the time of introducing the Australian Building and Construction Commission we also established the Office of the Safety Commissioner, whose responsibility was the pursuit of safety in relation to building and construction sites.

What we have seen time and time again is the emotional issue of workplace safety, and of course it is an emotional issue and of course we should be doing everything to protect workers from avoidable injury and avoidable deaths. We should be do everything we can but we are now witnessing an exploitation of that genuine motivation, of that genuine concern, to try to build trade union empires for certain union bosses.

I know that in this space in the chamber my colleague Senator Cash would like to comment on the other ministerial statement. I will not delay the Senate for too long in relation to this matter other than to make the point that workplace safety is a vital issue and to acknowledge that in the past trade unions have played an important role in appropriately advocating for the safety of their members in workplaces, and a lot of legislation that is in place today is as a result of the good work of members of trade unions.

We are now starting to traverse into areas where the issue of safety is being used to leverage other industrial outcomes, and I would repeat the safe rates assertion—which is not backed up by evidence—that somehow, if you pay truck drivers more, they will all of a sudden become safer. In fact in relation to deaths on the roads with truck drivers, the situation is that overwhelmingly the majority—and I forget the exact statistic—of deaths that involve trucks are not as a result of the truck driver or the truck but of the other vehicle involved. It is good to highlight to the community the number of deaths on our roads that involve trucks—that is fair enough—but we also need to deal with the statistics in an honest and proper manner and ascertain where the fault lies. If we are concerned about the carnage on our roads involving trucks and we look at the statistics, we inform and advise ourselves that the difficulty is not so much with the truck drivers and the trucks but usually it is the other vehicle and the other driver that is in fact at fault. The coalition welcomes discussion on workplace safety. The coalition does have a very proud record in pursuing workplace safety. But we as a coalition are also cognisant of the fact that there has been some manipulation of this emotional and very serious issue for the purposes of enhancing the power of certain trade union bosses. And we as a coalition believe that we need to have a sensible balance in all these debates.