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Monday, 29 March 2004
Page: 27479

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (7:14 PM) —The member for Flinders describes the reforms in the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002 as tremendous and speaks of the bill as a `snorter'. The government do not seem to have been too excited about the legislation, though, because after the bill lapsed in 2000 they did not get around to reintroducing it until June 2002. He might get some late-night excitement from this matter, but it does not seem to have been a big priority of the conservative government.

I note the veneer that the member for Flinders provided in his speech. He talked about his industrial relations background. He talked about the progressive nature of some elements in the Liberal Party. He said that it was not about `breaking unions'. He said that it was an absurd constraint that the employer and the employee could not work together. I am always thankful in these debates that the member for Mitchell makes a contribution, because this veneer and facade that the member for Flinders puts forward is totally destroyed by the member for Mitchell in any debate about industrial relations.

Here today he essentially covered the building industry. I want to take issue with him on those matters. We have just been through a royal commission which spent $60 million of Australian taxpayers' money. In New South Wales, where I reside, a series of prosecutions was launched against the CFMEU. The `tremendous'—that was the word that he used—outcome was that, of the 26 prosecutions and 49 charges that were laid, one succeeded and the total fine was $2,000. So $60 million was well spent, I would say!

It is interesting to note that, in that royal commission, the question of occupational safety got short shrift. Braham Dabscheck, Associate Professor of the School of Industrial Relations and Organisational Behaviour at the University of New South Wales, in the Sir Richard Kirby lecture on 20 August 2003, said:

The Royal Commission devoted most of is resources and energy to investigating an issue which was not the most important—unions and their impact on industrial relations—and substantially less and/or limited resources and energy to an issue which was most important—occupational health and safety. An issue of less importance was thoroughly investigated; the most important issue received substantially less investigation.

He further noted:

In adopting a `no public hearings' stance on occupational health and safety, Commissioner Cole protected employers from the `public gaze'. The industry experiences 49 deaths and over 14,000 injuries each year ... Imagine, for a moment, if the employers or principals of the companies of workers killed in the last year had been required to testify in public hearings about their approach to and administration of occupational health and safety. Imagine, for a moment, say 49 individuals, one after the other, day in day out, trying to deflect the opprobrium of their occupational health and safety failures. Such hearings would have cast employers in a poor light and had the potential to demonstrate a positive role for unions.

That is the reality of the industry that the member for Mitchell talks about. The reality is that there is a death a week. The reality is that, when Dean McGoldrick was killed in Sydney, the company had a $20,000 fine placed upon them. It was estimated that, for every time they breached it, there was an $8,000 saving for the company. That is the reality, despite the rhetoric of the member for Flinders about how we will all get together and have a few cups of tea and some biscuits and that will be a good way to increase communication between the two parties. The reality is that, if the employer is faced with that objective monetary gain from noncompliance, and small penalties, they are basically not going to adhere to it. The situation in that death was that the person was on a roof without protection. There was no adequate safety harness, there had been no training and the ropes were worn and frayed. That was the picture in that particular situation.

In Canberra, we had the Canberra airport construction hangar falling down most drastically, with 54 employees facing very serious safety threats and 14 being taken to hospital. This is the reality—this is the truth. This is the way it works essentially in the real world. The member for Mitchell comes in here and talks about how it is bad with the unions having so much involvement and that proves that we should have not have union involvement. The truth is that this is a very dangerous industry and anyone with half a brain would realise that, if there were not these kinds of controls and union intervention in the field, it would be an even worse situation.

In this industry, on 17 March—not in 1882 but in 2004—we had a situation in Sydney where an unlawful worker on his second visit to this country, after having worked for six months basically suffered an injury at South Strathfield and died as a result. There are two aspects to this: the failure of the immigration department to police adequately the way in which tourist visas are being utilised for illegal work in this country, and the reality of that worker's death. To give you some indication of how constant this problem is, that was on 17 March and, since then, we have had the case of a South Korean who was illegally working in the country and who is currently in a coma and fighting for his life at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital after a similar situation. So for people to be hung up and preoccupied in this field with diminishing the role of unions is absolutely ridiculous. That preoccupation is ideologically driven. It has no sense. It is essentially about trying to undermine any kinds of union rights in this country.

As a member of parliament, on a number of occasions I have had to take up with state workplace authorities issues to do with safety on jobs. Very rarely do the workers who ring me up say: `Please give the company my name. Please tell them that I am the one that complained to you, because the employer is just so open to discussion about these matters. They are so willing to repair an unsafe situation if I raise it with them.' The truth is that, each time that I have had to do this, I have had to construct a facade about former employees complaining to me or people in the transport industry dropping materials et cetera. That is the truth. If there is no union involvement on these safety conditions, there is not going to be any real activity whatsoever.

The member for Mitchell talked about concepts of absolute union control. He talked about ad hoc decisions by WorkCover. That is not the reality. The situation is that it is a daily struggle on sites to accomplish any safety. Talking about the $60 million royal commission—which was taxpayers' money spent by the current government—it is very interesting to note that the academic commented about the lack of interest in occupational safety, but it is worse than that. The outcome of that royal commission was, of course, this Building Industry Task Force. What has been their reaction to occupational health and safety—this `snorter' of an interest by the government; this preoccupation of the government with safety? What has been the response of this industrial task force? Having ignored the issue in the actual hearings, Commissioner Cole established this body. I ask you: what did they do about the situation of the death site of Joel Exner? He was another one. He was 15 years of age and he died on his third day of work in this industry. What was the response of this glorious task force? They went to the site of his death—they actually did visit. They got into cars and went there. Did they make inquiries as to why he had died, the nature of his experience and the impact upon his family? Did they liaise with the family? No; they went to this very building site to inquire of the employer—the contractors—whether any unpaid lost time had been made up by the employer when the workers struck again because of the failure of the employer to improve safety on that site.

That was the Building Industry Task Force's total reaction to occupational health and safety in this industry at the site of the death of a worker. They did not go out there and do anything constructive about his death—to investigate it or see why it happened. They went out there just to harass people and make sure that the employees who had been on strike and had taken industrial action because the situation had not improved had not been paid for this industrial action—the most dreadful thing that could have happened in that situation! That is the preoccupation of this government.

As I said, it is typified by how long it has taken them to bring in this legislation. It does not seem to have been a very high priority, despite the positive aspects of it. Of course, Labor does associate itself with some of the positive aspects. There is an increase in the level of penalties; the dual criminal and civil system; the way in which prosecutions might be expedited by the civil stream and the reality that many infringements have gone unpunished because of the difficulties of the criminal stream. So there are positives there, but Labor essentially says that we should not be preoccupied with ideological requirements such as the fact that some dictum exists which says that we have to be against the unions, squash them in every circumstance, make sure they have no say on the site and make sure they are not a party to anything. That should not be the priority; the priority should be to actually do something about occupational health and safety.

The member for Mitchell is a regular contributor on these matters. You can be assured that he will always come in and speak on all of the government rhetoric saying, `Let's get together and work and be constructive; we're not dedicated to smashing the unions.' But I know he will join with me in wishing Ray Harty the best in the count in the Baulkham Hills Shire Council election over the weekend. It is the best result that Labor has accomplished in the member for Mitchell's electorate in the last 100 years. It is interesting to note that it is highly probable that one of the successful councillors will be Ray Harty, who has a very strong connection with the CFMEU on safety and training matters.

As I say, there are many positive aspects to this legislation, but the government's continued preoccupation with trying to minimise any union involvement in trying to guarantee some kind of safety on the site is driven by ideology. It is not driven by practical realities in the Public Service or indeed in industrial relations in this country.