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Monday, 29 March 2004
Page: 27473


Ms HALL (6:43 PM) —After listening to the previous speaker in this debate on the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002, one could be forgiven for thinking that the current occupational health and safety system that operates within the Australian Public Service is not working. I strongly believe that the occupational health and safety system that is currently employed within the Australian Public Service is one of the best systems that operates anywhere. I am very familiar with the way this system was introduced in Australia and I think Australian public servants have benefited enormously from the system that operates now. It is a system that works well and it has actually improved occupational health and safety practices within the Australian Public Service.

This legislation seeks to change a system that is working—a system that has improved the occupational health and safety outcomes in the Australian Public Service, a system that has delivered what it was supposed to deliver. We have constantly seen innovative processes being adopted that will improve workplace safety, because occupational health and safety is about workplace safety; it is about ensuring the safety of workers in the workplace and ensuring that a minimum number of workplace injuries occur and that there are hopefully no workplace deaths.

Occupational health and safety is of vital importance within the Public Service. It is an issue that needs to be dealt with from the perspective of creating a safe workplace and putting in place the right and proper structures and legislation to ensure that is exactly what happens—that we have a safe workplace for all public servants. As I have already pointed out, the current system is doing that pretty well. Unfortunately for Australian public servants, many of the changes outlined in this legislation are not driven by the desire to improve the workplace by improving occupational health and safety within the Australian Public Service; rather, they are driven by ideology—and ideology is not going to create a safer workplace.

Nothing makes me sadder than hearing Australian workers constantly denigrated in this place because they are members of a union. This government tries to make it sound like unions, unionism, workers involved in unions and family members involved in unions are some sort of a disease. To be quite honest, unions have played a very vital role in workplace occupational health and safety in Australia and, I emphasise very strongly, within the Public Service.

As a person who spent many years working with injured workers, I know just how important it is to have in place the right structures to ensure workplace safety. I truly believe that the measures outlined in this legislation will not deliver that improved workplace safety. I think any changes that are made to any legislation should be an improvement and not a step backwards, and they should not be driven purely by ideology. They should be driven by a concern to have a safe workplace for the men and women working there. The government should take into account the effect a workplace injury caused by an unsafe workplace will have on the lives of workers who are injured, on our community and, in this case because we are talking about the Australian Public Service, on the government.

When the then Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service, Mr Abbott, outlined the rationale for the legislation in his second reading speech, I was very pleased to hear that one of his first comments was that this legislation would create `workplaces free from work related death, injury and disease'. That comment came with good sentiments, but unfortunately I do not believe that the overall impetus of this legislation will take us in that direction.

There are some provisions within the bill that I think are very good and that I support. Obviously, the improved compliance regime is welcome, as is the dual civil and criminal penalty system that will come in with the compliance and the enforcements. That is a very positive aspect of the legislation, but I truly do not believe that the other changes within this legislation will deliver what is outlined in the purpose of the bill. I read that the purpose of the bill is to change the roles. The purpose of any legislation that deals with occupational health and safety has got to be about creating a safe workplace, but I believe that the purpose of this legislation is about changing the role of the unions in the workplace in relation to occupational health and safety. That will not deliver a safer workplace. Rather, it is catering to the government's preoccupation with and hatred of unions.

In his second reading speech, the minister also said that the bill will shift the focus of occupational health and safety regulation away from imposing solutions and towards enabling those in the workplace to work together. I have got news for the minister: workplaces do not operate the way he believes they do in his fictional world. Workers do not always make the right choice for themselves. If workers are under pressure to deliver a certain outcome for their employer, be it in the Public Service or in the private sector, they often push aside their own occupational health and safety needs to deliver what they are asked to deliver. There are many reasons for this.

There are public servants in this House tonight, and I am sure if each and every one of them looked at their own work environment and the pressures that they have been placed under in different ways—and some of them are very subtle—they would realise that they have compromised their own health and safety needs on many occasions. That is quite common and to some degree it is a measure of the fact that these employees wish to please, that they enjoy their work and that they want to deliver the outcomes their employers would like. But it also really reflects the fact that quite often workers are worried about retaliation, about the consequences of maybe getting up and walking away from their computer, taking the break that they should be taking and not having their brief or their paper delivered on time. These are the subtleties that exist within the workplace and within the Public Service.

I believe we have outstanding public servants in the Australian Public Service; I also believe we have just about got it right with our occupational health and safety arrangements at the moment with workplace committees and involving the unions in that process. It is important to note that, whilst we talk about unions as if they were totally removed from the process, the majority of public servants are members of those unions. The people on those occupational health and safety committees are the workers who are working within those workplaces.

I think it creates quite a false picture if you try to separate those people in a union who are workers in the Public Service and make them sound as if they are totally removed from the process, because they are not. The unionists that are involved in occupational health and safety in the Public Service workplace have received special training in occupational health and safety. They have special knowledge. As such, I believe they are in a very special position when it comes to negotiating safe workplaces for workers. I think it is very important to keep that in mind when we are talking about this legislation.

The previous speaker mentioned New South Wales. I would like to quickly turn to an example of a workplace that operated in New South Wales. It was a non-union workplace. Unions were not allowed. If you were a unionist, you were not employed in this place. I would have to say they had the most appalling occupational health and safety record of any organisation I have come across. The example I would like to share with the House concerns a worker from that organisation. The worker was on a semi-construction site and he got a steel rod through his leg. Because there had already been so many accidents that particular week, if an ambulance had been called and that worker had been taken to hospital in the ambulance, it would have immediately ensured that the WorkCover authority would have visited that place. So the other workers had to somehow get this man with a steel rod through his leg into a car and take him to the hospital. The hospital was absolutely appalled that they had moved this worker and taken him to the hospital. These are the kinds of things that happen in workplaces where you do not have proper occupational health and safety. This same workplace had people welding in the rain. Anybody who knows anything about safety knows that that is something that you do not do.

To get back to the legislation that is before us and to relate it to the example I just presented to the House, unions play a vital role in ensuring that there is a safe workplace. We should not allow our philosophy, our ideology—our own personal preferences—about unions to drive what is thought best for the workers in an industry. What is best for the workers in the Public Service is to have their union in there, arguing on their behalf on occupational health and safety matters.

I noted that the minister in his contribution to this House referred to creating a more flexible workplace. Flexibility is fine if it is true flexibility. Going back to what I was saying a little earlier about workers and their involvement within the workplace, I would argue very strongly that it does not create flexibility. Rather, it skews the relationship that those workers have with their employer and places greater pressure on them to perform in unsafe circumstances. Briefly, the primary role of this legislation is the elimination of the role of unions in representing employees in a safety matter. I think I have dealt with that pretty fully today. It is a change in the management of occupational health and safety away from joint policies towards the development of a safety management arrangement. As I said, I can see that a more flexible compliance regime, as opposed to other kinds of flexibility, has got some benefits with the expanding of the scope and the levels of penalties.

I think there are some concerns about the vagaries of safety management arrangements that are referred to here. I also have some concerns about self-regulation. I always have great concerns about any form of self-regulation, because every time I look at it and examine where it is operating there are usually some flaws in the process. As such, I feel that that does create some concerns, particularly with an issue as important as occupational health and safety.

It has been noted by previous speakers that the Senate committee looked at the 2002 bill and expressed serious concerns. There was a rejection of the reduced role of unions under the occupational health and safety act. There were a number of comments about the ideological rhetoric associated with labour market opposition and about unions and union-backed members of health and safety committees. But it is important to note that, when you look at the lower workers compensation claims, these committees have really delivered. I think that the Comcare system, the federal occupational health and safety system, is really outstanding. It is something that other governments have looked at because of the success of the system. The Senate committee also gave qualified support for the more flexible dual civil-criminal system. Senator Murray from the Democrats expressed some concerns and acknowledged the place of unions in the maintenance and advancement of workplace health and safety.

My concluding comments are: think carefully about any changes that are driven just by ideology, not by the needs of workers and the desire to create a safe workplace. Think carefully about changes that are about eliminating unions, changes that are based purely on ideology and not on fact. I caution the government very seriously about proceeding with this legislation, because I strongly believe that it is going to create a situation where our Public Service that has such a fine safety record will move away from that and will end up with a far inferior safety record to the one it has now. It will put pressure on its workers. It will create an environment that is not in the best interests of the government or the workers. If you end up in a situation where you have more claims and poorer workers compensation outcomes then you have a system that is not working.