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Thursday, 10 November 1983
Page: 2588


Mr WILLIS (Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations) —by leave -One of the most important and far reaching policy proposals to which the Labor Government is committed is our national strategy on occupational health and safety. It is an issue, however, which should transcend party politics because it is about the health and well-being of members of the community engaged in the work force, and their families. The nation as a whole is incurring enormous costs from unsafe and unhealthy working environments. Individual employees suffer the hardship of physical pain, disabilities and loss of income. Employers bear losses through reduced output and payments of higher workers compensation insurance premiums. The community as a whole faces higher prices and taxes to meet the spiralling financial costs of occupational injury and ill health.

Conservative estimates suggest that more than $6 billion per year is wasted through loss of production and other costs as a result of occupational injury and ill health, which means that more production is lost through occupational health and safety issues than through industrial disputes. Despite the significant efforts made by employers who have been prepared to accept some responsibility in these matters, about 300 people are killed each year in work related accidents and a further 150,000 persons are injured at work each year. Over the last decade, while countries such as Britain, Canada and the United States-countries with which we like to compare ourselves-have been implementing major programs in this field, Australia has failed to develop a national framework for action.

Occupational health and safety matters and their implications have been ignored in Australia for far too long. Since coming to power the Government has worked steadily towards making the implementation of its national strategy a possibility. I wish now to inform honourable members of the initiatives which the Government intends to take in these important matters.

We are now witnessing a watershed in Australia's approach to occupational health and safety-a long overdue recognition that the piecemeal adaptation of laws and attitudes based on those of nineteenth centrury Britain is totally unacceptable and inadequate for the industrial world in Australia today. It has been said on many occasions that the legislative framework in Australia for occupational health and safety is 'chaotic'; yet no effort has been made to rectify the deficiency. The Fraser Government used the excuse that constitutionally it is a matter for the States to sort out and did nothing. In fact, the previous Government in its Review of Commonwealth Functions in 1981 actually curtailed its own efforts. It reduced the resources available within the Federal bureaucracy through the abolition of the National Consultative Committee on Occupational Safety and Health and the Commonwealth Committee on Occupational Safety and Health in Australian Government Employment.

The Federal Government has demonstrated an ability to achieve uniformity of legislation in many areas-for example, implementation of a national companies code. Similarly, we can work, and will work, with State governments to develop uniform national standards for occupational health and safety. Indeed, it is encouraging that several States have already undertaken worthwhile legislative and organisational improvements in occupational health and safety. The Hawke Government is committed to rectifying the serious neglect of the past and to working in a spirit of co-operation with the States towards national co- ordination of occupational health and safety initiatives.

The National Economic Summit Conference held earlier this year expressed its belief that the nation must give occupational health and safety a greater priority and endorsed the need for concerted government, employer and union action to improve the quality of the working environment in Australia. For its part, the Federal Government intends to honour, to the fullest possible extent, its commitment to upgrading occupational health and safety by implementing a national strategy-a co-ordinated attack on the barriers to improved occupational health and safety that currently exist in Australia. This strategy also forms an integral part of the prices and incomes accord, which is central to Government policy. The Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Australian Labor Party are in agreement that a high priority must be given to improving the quality of working environments in Australia and that employers and unions should be directly involved in setting standards to guide such improvement.

The two parties are in complete agreement as to how these improvements may be achieved. The ACTU and ALP policy on occupational health and safety is predicated on the principles that the work environment needs to be adapted and designed to suit the needs of people working in it; that employers have a basic responsibility to provide a healthy, safe and stress-free work environment; that workers have a right to know what hazards they are exposed to; and that peak councils of unions and employers at a national level, and unions and workers' health and safety representatives meeting with management in health and safety committees at a local level, have the right to participate in the setting of standards for health and safety in the work place.

I am confident that these principles and objectives are supported by both sides of industry and by the community in general. In the past few months I have received many representations from a wide range of community interest groups and organisations who have indicated their complete support for initiatives planned by the Federal Government in this important area.

National Strategy

Our national plan for occupational health and safety has been based on an analysis of experience and on the direction which reform must take to modernise Australian working environments. A number of principles are fundamental to our efforts. These are: Support for participation of workers and employers in decision making at the work place and in policy formation at the State and Federal level; consistency in and co-ordination of the legislative system and framework as a whole; priority being given to prevention; and provision of adequate training, information and research facilities. Information must be made more accessible so that all parties can more effectively contribute and participate. The Government is determined to put these principles into practice.

National Authorities

The Government's occupational health and safety policy and the statement of accord by the ALP and the ACTU propose the establishment of four bodies. They are: Firstly, a tripartite National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, NOHSC, responsible to the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations, to set health and safety standards at the national level; secondly, a National Occupational Health and Safety Office, NOHSO, also responsible to the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations, to implement the policies of the Commission and to enforce standards and regulations within the Federal sphere; thirdly, an Environmental Contaminants Authority, ECA, responsible to the Minister for Home Affairs and Environment, to license new chemicals at the national level, according to principles and criteria to be developed by the Commission; and fourthly, a National Institute of Environmental and Occupational Health, NIEOH, responsible to the Minister for Health, to provide hazard information, commission research and train health and safety professionals.

Interim National Commission

Responsibility for occupational health and safety lies predominantly with the State governments. To date, it has generally been considered that the Commonwealth's power is limited to its own employees and within the Australian Capital Territory and external territories. Thus, in implementing our national strategy we are actively seeking to obtain the co-operation of the States and broad community acceptance of the agencies and processes through which the national strategy will operate. Members will appreciate that, given the nature of health and safety issues and in particular their jurisdictional complexity, there are many matters requiring further consultation which have yet to be resolved. For these reasons, the Government has already sought advice through a wide-ranging consultative process, involving the ACTU and the Confederation of Australian Industry, CAI, through the National Labour Consultative Council, NLCC ; State governments through the Ministers for Labour Conference and the Departments of Labour Advisory Committee, DOLAC; and the relevant Commonwealth departments. On the basis of these consultations the Government has decided to establish a tripartite Interim National Occupational Health and Safety Commission charged with advising the Government on the final structure of the agencies to be embodied in legislation.

Membership

The Interim National Commission will comprise: A Chairman; two representatives nominated by the ACTU; two representatives nominated by the CAI; two representatives nominated by State governments; one nominee from the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations; and one nominee from the Department of Health. I am pleased to inform members that Dr Richard Gun will chair the Interim National Commission. Dr Gun is a medical practitioner who is currently a Visiting Scientist with the United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. From his previous position as a Senior Medical Officer in the Occupational Health Branch of the South Australian Health Commission, Dr Gun has a long involvement with, and knowledge of, occupational health in Australia. This, together with his relevant international experience, will bring to the Interim National Commission a most valuable contribution.

I have received and accepted from the ACTU and the CAI the following nominations for the Interim National Commission:

Mr Bryan Noakes, Director General of the Confederation of Australian Industry Industrial Council; Dr John Bisby, Director, Environmental Health and Safety, and Senior Medical Officer, Shell Australia; Mr Bob Gradwell, Assistant Secretary, ACTU; and Mr Ken Stone, Vice-President, ACTU and Secretary, Victorian Trades Hall Council.

At the recent Conference of Federal and State Ministers of Labour, my State colleagues fully supported these Federal Government initiatives. All States agreed that there was a great need to work towards developing uniform standards and States agreed to participate in developing the details of the national strategy. It has been since agreed that New South Wales and Western Australia would nominate representatives to the Interim National Commission. I have received the nominations of the Hon. J. M. Riordan, Under Secretary, New South Wales Department of Industrial Relations, and Dr Judyth Watson, Ministerial Advisor on Occupational Health and Safety to the Western Australian Minister for Industrial Relations. In addition, I have nominated Dr David Charles, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations; and in recognition of the specialist occupational health expertise that will be necessary, the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) has nominated Dr David de Souza, Chief Commonwealth Medical Officer and Deputy Director-General of the Department of Health, as members of the Interim National Commission. These members not only bring an expertise in their own right, but they have demonstrated over a long period their commitment to improving Australian working environments.

Method of Operation

The Interim National Commission will be asked to consult fully with all States and Territories, unions and employers through a National Consultative Committee, with a view to recommending appropriate ways of ensuring their eventual participation in the National Commission. This National Consultative Committee, of 18 members, will have representatives from all States, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, as well as the ACTU, the CAI and the relevant Government departments. Other than the Chairman, all members of the Interim National Commission will also be on the National Consultative Committee. The States and Territories must be involved in the processes of the Commission if there is to be acceptance and implementation of the national standards thus developed, and it is the firm intention of this Government that the current level of co-operation be maintained and developed. There are also many other community interest groups which will need to be consulted during this development stage. These groups include small business associations, women's groups, workers' health centres and specialists health and safety associations and professional bodies. The Interim National Commission will ensure that an opportunity is provided to these groups to participate, probably through a public inquiry process.

Terms of Reference

The Interim National Commission will be asked to prepare a report for the Government within six months. To ensure that proposals for the development of the bodies involved in the strategy are complementary, the Interim National Commission will be responsible for the development of the National Institute of Environmental and Occupational Health as well as for the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission and Office. The terms of reference of the Interim National Commission include advising on:

the detailed functions, structure, membership, staffing levels, methods of operation and future consultative arrangements of the Commission, Office and Institute;

appropriate legislative proposals; and

inter-agency links for the common occupational health and safety interests of the Commission, Office, Institute and Contaminants Authority.

Our national occupational health and safety strategy will be developed in the light of the following broad organisational arrangements:

the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations will have the principal role at the Federal Government level with respect to occupational health and safety, to ensure a coherent and co-ordinated approach to development;

given the need to rationalise the occupational health and safety responsibilities of the proposed bodies, administrative arrangements are to be determined to the greatest extent possible, so that responsibility for occupational health and safety policies are located together;

a single tripartite body be established to co-ordinate advice on policy, standard setting, research and enforcement; and

there be a single national focal point for occupational health and safety information, advice, inspection and implementation of standards.

Secretariat

The Interim National Commission will be supported by a secretariat drawn from the Departments of Employment and Industrial Relations, and Health, supplemented as necessary by specialist consultants. Administrative arrangements for establishing this secretariat have now been concluded and the operating headquarters for the Interim National Commission will be passed in Canberra.

Co-ordination

When the National Commission and Office are established they will bring together into one administrative and policy framework the interrelated subject areas of occupational health and occupational safety. This will be of considerable assistance to all parties seeking access to relevant information, and will be an impetus to the raising of workplace standards. It follows from this that the National Commission will be the primary umbrella body. The national office will be the operational arm of the Commission. The National Commission will be the principal adviser in recommending the priorities of the National Institute of Environmental and Occupational Health, NIEOH, and the Environmental Contaminants Authority, ECA, in relation to occupational health and safety matters. This is consistent with the strong view that has emerged from the consultations to date, and which was endorsed at the ACTU Executive meeting in May 1983, that there should not be a proliferation of bodies at the Federal level and that activities should be rationalised and co-ordinated to the greatest extent possible. As Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations, I will have the principal role at the Federal level with respect to occupational health and safety, while working with my colleagues the Minister for Health and the Minister for Home Affairs and Environment (Mr Cohen) to ensure a co- ordinated approach during this development stage.

Occupational Health and Safety in Commonwealth Employment and the Australian Capital Territory

At the Federal level, this Government recognises that it has responsibilities not only in the national interest but also as a major employer. In this regard, however, the Government is again faced with the legacy of our predecessors and their refusal to accept responsibility to initiate any framework for occupational health and safety applicable to the area of Commonwealth responsibility. The Government's policy is quite explicit in its desire to involve employees, through their representatives, in the evaluation of workplace hazards and the processes to deal with them. To date discussions have been held with representatives of the ACTU and the major Commonwealth employing authorities with a view to re-establishing necessary consultative machinery. The Government's policy includes the setting up of joint union-management health and safety committees in places of Commonwealth employment. In recognition of its responsibilities for improved occupational health and safety in the Australian Capital Territory, the Government has decided that the Minister for Territories and Local Government (Mr Uren) will appoint an Australian Capital Territory tripartite committee to report to the Interim National Commission. This committee will comprise representatives of the Trades and Labour Council in the Australian Capital Territory, employers, the House of Assembly, the Departments of Territories and Local Government, and Health, and the Capital Territory Health Commission.

Conclusion

In conclusion, our intention is to establish a comprehensive approach to occupational health and safety problems, not a series of short term expedients. It is clear that the breadth and complexity of the problems facing us are such that governments and their agencies cannot solve them in isolation. Experience has shown that government machinery has its limitations and weaknesses and that, by itself, it cannot create conditions essential to a major improvement in working environments.

Each of the agencies proposed in our national strategy is an integral part of our comprehensive approach to occupational health and safety. We will foster and rely on the active participation of all parties-unions, employers, State governments, specialist groups and the community in general. I am convinced that we can maintain the momentum that has been developed, and as a government, provide the opportunities and support needed to reform our occupational health and safety systems.


Mr Hicks —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. Is there any provision in the Standing Orders under which I can draw the attention of the House to the presence in the gallery of members of the Tibooburra School, which is the most isolated school in New South Wales?


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Les Johnson) —Order! There is no such provision. It is inappropriate for the honourable member to raise the matter in the form in which he has. Nevertheless, the House is always pleased to welcome people from remote parts of Australia.