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ACTU OHS and Workers’ Compensation conference: speech at the Royal on the Park
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Senator Chris Evans
Minister for Workplace Relations
ACTU OHS and Workers’ Compensation Conference
Royal on the Park
Corner Alice and Albert Streets
9.05 am Wednesday 13 April 2011
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I pay my respects to the Jagera and Turrbal people, the
traditional owners of the land we are meeting on.
Ged Kearney—President, Australian Council of Trade Unions
Jeff Lawrence—Secretary, Australian Council of Trade Unions
Ladies and gentlemen.
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Thank you Michael for your welcome.
It’s a pleasure to be among so many people dedicated to
protecting the safety of others.
What the union OHS officer and the health and safety rep do in
the workplace is often unseen and frequently unrecognised, but
it’s always valued.
It is work highly valued by the Australian Government and we
share your passion to see major improvements to worker health
and safety, and workers’ compensation arrangements around
And those improvements can’t come too soon when we
consider the very sobering figures in relation to workplace
The stark fact is that each year more than 300 Australians are
killed at work. Many more die as a result of work related
disease and each year over 140,000 Australians are seriously
injured at work.
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The cost to our economy has been estimated at $34 billion per
year. The cost to those injured and to their families, workmates
and friends is inestimable.
I don’t need to tell you that our current health, safety and
compensation systems are in a sorry state — they are
unnecessarily complex and costly. Inconsistencies between
jurisdictions mean that some workers are at risk of poorer
safety standards than their counterparts in other states.
At the same time, these inconsistencies increase the
complexity, paperwork and costs for the 40,000 Australian
businesses that operate across state boundaries.
But as all of you would be aware, Australia is undergoing a
period of historic change in work health and safety.
The OHS laws of our nation are being harmonised—a reform
that has been some 30 years in the making.
A reform that was strongly supported by unions and business
organisations. A reform that the previous Coalition Government
failed to deliver.
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For workers—safe and healthy workplaces are a right that must
Unions have an ongoing role in making sure these rights are
protected and understood.
For business—harmonised OHS laws reduces the complexity
and red tape of nine different OHS systems. It will also result in
savings of $179 million each year.
The Gillard Government understands the importance of this
reform. We are determined to continue to invest in the
workforce, and to invest in the safety of that workforce.
In 1985, the Government established the National Occupational
Health and Safety Commission. After winning office in 2007 we
immediately set about establishing a new body—Safe Work
Australia—to continue this vital work.
Over the past 3 years the Government has worked in
partnership with the states and territories, business groups and
the ACTU to achieve a new legislative framework.
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It will replace 10 separate pieces of legislation and more than
400 OHS regulations and codes of practice currently in
operation across Australia.
Unions have long acknowledged the confusion that arises from
the variations between states and territories—both for
employers and employees.
Workers’ lives and health are at stake, and so too is the
efficiency of our economy.
This confusion has hampered both the productivity and the
safety of workers.
But not for much longer.
The Australian Government, the ACTU and other key parties
will have much to be proud of on 1 January 2012 when the
harmonised laws come into effect.
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Occupational health and safety and workers compensation
reform will increase profitability and productivity and better
protect the lives and health of Australians.
We remain firmly on track to achieve this historic outcome.
Our commitment to drive this reform through by the first of
January 2012 remains rock solid.
But you only have to look at recent media coverage to
understand that this battle is not yet won.
From Tony Abbott and Eric Abetz we have seen alarming
indications of backsliding and weakness on the part of the
Coalition when it comes to this reform.
We have all seen that Mr Abbott has failed to silence the many
senior members of his party who continue to demand a return
to the extreme policies of the WorkChoices era.
Indeed sitting inside Mr Abbott’s Shadow Cabinet are the
architects of WorkChoices - the champions who refuse to let
go of their ideological agenda and who continue the chant the
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We need the support of each and every one of you to ensure
that this historic reform is not lost.
Just as we fought together to bring an end to WorkChoices - so
the fight for your rights at work continues.
A national system that enshrines greater protection for all
workers is worth fighting for.
The legislation must not be slowed or hampered by the
And we need your support to ensure this happens.
The fight must be won for the future of all Australian workers.
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Road to reform
The road to OHS harmonisation has been a long one. I want to
take the opportunity today to thank the union movement for the
hard work it has done to get us to this stage.
I know that during the process the union movement has voiced
its opposition to some of the proposed changes in the model
The Australian Government listens to the union movement’s
informed voice when it comes to work health and safety.
I know two particular areas concern you.
The union right to prosecute for breaches of health and safety
duties; and, the reverse onus of proof.
The Government set up a transparent process to extensively
consider these, and a host of other issues. In particular, we
established an independent group to conduct the National
Review into Model Occupational Health and Safety Laws.
The review found there was no overall benefit to retaining either
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On the union right to prosecute, the National Review
considered that this right should be limited to the regulator so
that the conduct of the prosecution is transparent and in line
with clear, publicly available prosecution guidelines.
As a safeguard against regulator mistake or inactivity, the
National Review also recommended that persons could ask a
regulator to bring a prosecution and, if no prosecution is
brought, have the regulator’s decision reviewed by the Director
of Public Prosecutions. This is reflected in the model Act as
agreed by Workplace Relations Ministerial Council.
With respect to the reverse onus of proof, the Review
concluded that, consistent with criminal law principles, the
prosecution should bear the onus of proof. It is also consistent
with the approach taken under a range of other legislative
frameworks which do not apply a reverse onus of proof where
heavy penalties are available.
I know some of you are unhappy with this decision. But I can
assure you there are safeguards against regulator inactivity.
There is a right to review a decision by the regulator not to
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Serious OHS infringements are criminal matters and that is how
they will be conducted - with the proper scrutiny required of a
And I genuinely believe that the new and improved work safety
arrangements will result in safer workplaces, more efficient
businesses, and improved productivity.
There can be no doubt that the harmonised laws are a
significant improvement on existing OHS laws.
For example, the primary duty of care now extends to persons
conducting a business or undertaking. This duty is owed to
‘workers’. This is a broader group of people than ‘employees’.
The harmonised laws also recognise that no worker should
miss out on the protection that these laws bring.
Businesses will no longer be able to escape the safety duties
owed to their workers.
Labour hire and casual workers will benefit from improved OHS
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The new national OHS framework will be supported by a new
compliance and enforcement policy.
All governments will adopt this policy. This nationally
consistent approach to applying the new laws will greatly assist
The range of enforcement mechanisms will also be wider under
the new laws.
New options include enforceable undertakings, remedial
orders, adverse publicity orders, training orders, injunctions,
compensation orders, and community service orders.
This means that a corporation may have to comply with an
adverse publicity order by paying for a newspaper
advertisement stating the nature of their breach of a health and
There are significantly higher penalties for breaching the duty of
care provisions in all jurisdictions. This means that in
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Tasmania, for example, the highest penalty for a corporation
rises from $150, 000 dollars to a new maximum of $3 million
The changes give rights to workers in some jurisdictions where
these rights have never previously existed.
All workers will now have a statutory right to cease unsafe
In New South Wales, health and safety representatives will now
be able to issue provisional improvement notices. This gives
them another tool to improve safety matters in the workplace.
And to simplify arrangements in bigger organisations, the
model laws allow for multiple health and safety representatives
for a work group.
In the Commonwealth jurisdiction, for the first time there will be
union right of entry for health and safety purposes.
This means that authorised Community and Public Sector
Union officials will be able to enter workplaces to inquire into
suspected work health and safety contraventions and consult
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with their members—a statutory right they previously didn’t
All of these are changes for the better which will deliver safer
workplaces for Australians everywhere.
Regulations and Codes of Practice
When the harmonised OHS laws begin on 1 January 2012, we
would like them to be part of a package of legislation.
Work is underway to ensure the model regulations and codes
of practice are ready by then.
The period for public comment closed last week and Safe Work
Australia received 1298 submissions.
Thank you to those of you who made submissions.
The next step in the process will see the regulations and codes
revised in light of those submissions.
The ACTU has requested further consultation on the
regulations and codes. I am keen for that to occur and will
work with them to establish a process to satisfy union concerns.
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As you know, OHS laws don’t sit in isolation. They are part of a
complex framework of laws governing our country.
I am aware the ACTU is concerned about the starting point for
discussions on the possible harmonisation of workers’
I know you don’t want any proposals that result in inequities
While I acknowledge the ACTU’s concerns, I believe the
measures agreed to in the Safe Work Australia Action Plan
2010-2013 provide appropriate safeguards.
These measures will be tested against criteria to ensure they
will actually improve outcomes for workers and employers.
The criteria are:
Î¾ equity for employees or employers
Î¾ certainty in the application of the legislation
Î¾ clarity and consistency of process
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Î¾ clarity of information for workers and employers and
Î¾ improved relationships between workers, employers and
Safe Work Australia has established temporary advisory groups
to start the process towards harmonisation of workers’
I strongly encourage the ACTU to actively participate in these
In closing I want to make some more general remarks about
the current workplace relations system.
Since coming into office Labor has worked with determination
to reshape the industrial relations landscape in this country.
We have abolished Howard’s WorkChoices laws which stripped
away basic worker entitlements.
We have introduced the Fair Work Act - the most significant
reform of workplace laws in this country in more than 100
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Where the Coalition failed, Labor has delivered a single,
national system for around 96 per cent of the private sector.
Almost 4,000 complex, outdated awards have been
consolidated into 122 modern instruments. This is a 97 per cent
cut in the number of pages of award regulation.
As a result of our changes it is estimated there will be a net
benefit to Australian business of around $4.83 billion over the
next 10 years.
And I want to make it very clear to you today that the new
system is working.
We now have a record number of enterprise agreements
covering more than 2.3 million Australia employees and the
number of days lost due to industrial disputes is on the decline.
Despite these tangible results, on an almost daily basis I am
confronted by media reports which typically feature a business
organisation, an employer or a union blaming the Fair Work Act
for their failure to achieve a desired outcome.
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These constant calls assume that there is a legislative quick fix
for every problem encountered. But every time there is a call for
change it is greeted by an equally strong opposing view.
At the heart the system is an enterprise bargaining framework
designed to meet the unique needs of individual workplaces
This system requires the parties to act maturely, constructively
The constant preoccupation with legislative quick fixes distracts
from the real opportunities provided under the Fair Work
The Government has no intention of making major changes to
this legislation. The Act has only been in operation since July
2009 and many of the provisions have not been utilised or fully
This new system provides real opportunities for all parties to
engage and improve productivity outcomes.
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We believe that genuine productivity gains can be made when
employees and employers work together to create more flexible
and innovative ways of working together.
That is why collective bargaining based on the principle of good
faith negotiation is at the heart of the new system.
I am always bemused when parties negotiate and settle
agreements only to then complain to me about the outcomes of
Employers must take advantage of the opportunities to drive
productivity gains through their enterprise agreements.
Unions must recognise the opportunities to maximise outcomes
for their members through bargains that increase the
productivity of the enterprise.
Failure to achieve these outcomes is less a reflection on the
provisions of the Act and more an indication that the parties are
yet to have fully explored the mechanisms and opportunities
available to them.
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The Government wants to foster a mature and rational debate
about the real challenges of productivity growth and our
We want to work with unions and industry to drive further
In our growing economy this is the best way to contain
inflationary pressures, maintain fair wages growth and
employment opportunities for local workers.
In closing I want to thank the ACTU members for your
contribution to reforming the national OHS system. I personally
value you and your work in improving both OHS and workers’
compensation arrangements in Australia.
Labor shares your passion to protect workers and to ensure
safe and healthy workplaces.
Our priority is the safety that Australian workers deserve.
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Our joint challenge is to promote safe workplace cultures.
Workplaces in which workers understand both their rights and
obligations in creating safe working environments.
We look forward to your continued support as we look to finally
achieve national harmonised occupational health and safety
Laws that will enshrine ...
Thank you. [Ends]