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Monday, 29 March 2004
Page: 27482

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (7:24 PM) —I also rise to oppose the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002 and to raise concerns that Labor has with a number of the provisions. Although I commend some of the provisions, unfortunately this bill is imperfect—it has something to offer, but it is inextricably connected to provisions that would diminish the capacity for employees and their representatives to highlight health and safety matters in the workplace.

Given the history of this bill and its predecessor, you would have thought now that, if the government were serious about enacting legislation that would improve health and safety in the workplace, it would attempt to reach agreement with the opposition in order to bring about those beneficial provisions to which I refer. Unfortunately, that has not happened in this case. In this term, and no doubt in earlier terms, of the Howard government, I suppose we have been getting used to an approach whereby the government seeks to bring in a bill which is predominantly motivated by its enmity towards unions. That is unfortunately one of the underlying motives of much of the legislative package or plans that the government seeks to put in place.

As a result, because of the government's narrow and ideological pursuit of registered organisations of employees and its alleged fear that unions have too much say, unfortunately we tend not to reach agreement. Not only do Labor fail to reach agreement with the government, but, given the fact that we do not hold the balance of power in the Senate, in this term, in the industrial relations arena and in the related occupational health and safety realm, except for a very few occasions the government has failed to reach agreement with the opposition and the minor parties and Independents. That is a telling thing.

I understand that the government often raise the argument that the Democrats support a certain bill—I suppose that for them it may well be that the Democrats and other minor parties and Independents are litmus tests as to what is acceptable, or certainly what will pass through the Senate. However, again, in this instance, the Democrats' spokesperson on occupational health and safety matters, Senator Andrew Murray—who is often lauded by the government as being balanced and reasonable—has been on the record in his opposition to this bill because of its efforts to diminish the unions' role in health and safety matters.

I am beginning to understand where this government is at when it comes to its hatred of unions and its obsession with them. Although on the one hand it boasts that there are historically low rates of disputation, on the other it seems to want to argue that the country is overrun by militant union officials. I do not know how it expects anyone to reconcile those two images: on the one hand, the government wants to boast the lowest industrial disputation figures in recent memory; on the other hand it wants to exaggerate the prevalence of anarchic militant behaviour on the part of unions. The fact is that this government is obsessed with unions and, as a result, this bill will unfortunately not pass.

Labor do support those parts of the bill which strengthen the enforcement aspects of OH&S for Commonwealth employees. We agree with the government that there is merit in raising the penalties in the OH&S act. Indeed, we also support the idea of introducing civil pecuniary penalties for Commonwealth employees in addition to refining or improving upon the existing criminal penalties. We accept that introducing a civil stream of enforcement can—and I think would, in many instances—expedite prosecutions. There certainly are provisions in this bill that we would immediately seek to support. However, as earlier speakers on this side of the chamber have said, unfortunately we have the same areas of concern that we had with the bill that was introduced in 2000. We are concerned that there will be unnecessary impediment to the unions' role in health and safety.

I would have thought that, if the government were to exempt one area from its attack upon organisations of employees, it would be occupational health and safety. The one area where I would have thought we could achieve bipartisanship on industrial matters and matters to do with occupational health and safety would be on whether or not we are going to reduce the likelihood of someone being injured or killed in the workplace. I would have thought that that area would be sacrosanct to parliamentarians presiding over laws for the betterment of safety in the workplace. But, unfortunately, like so much of the legislation put forward by this government, there is always an attachment, there is always a condition. The condition in this instance is to diminish unnecessarily and unfairly, I would argue, the role of unions. In the end, the unions are there to protect the interests of their members. When it comes to these matters, I could not imagine anyone credibly arguing that that should not be their role. Beyond the industrial relations implications, beyond the illogical approach by the government to stymie the unions' role in health and safety matters, I would have thought it would be convinced that the greater the cooperation of all parties in this area, the better.

This bill deals with some elements from a report commissioned by the UK parliament as a means of reducing the incidence of workplace deaths and injury. I am not sure if this has been introduced into the debate, but the 1991 act is similar to the Robens model. The Robens model arose out of the report in the United Kingdom on health and safety matters and was commissioned by the UK parliament. Essentially, it was an approach that recommended greater self-regulation in the workplace through a collaborative approach between workers and employers, which Labor does not disagree with at all. The model recognised the role unions would play—either through union officials or employee representatives—and the principle of freedom of association, which was an important part of Robens's approach.

It is not contradictory to oppose some elements of this bill and support that approach; indeed, it is consistent. We also ask that the government reconsider, in light of what has been said not only by us but, as I mentioned earlier, by Senator Murray. He indicated in an earlier Senate report his concerns about the proposed legislation. He said:

A key area of concern to us is the place of unions in the maintenance and advancement of workplace health and safety. Unions supplement the regulatory and inspectorial roles of State H&S departments in an irreplaceable way.

Senator Murray's conclusion was that he believed that the unions were in an irreplaceable position in terms of collaborating in order to reduce the likelihood of injury or death at the workplace. He went on to indicate that, yes, we had to ensure that health and safety matters were not being used improperly by anybody, whether it be a union or an employer, but that, whilst it needs to be addressed:

... the way to deal with those abuses is not to clamp down on legitimate useful or effective union H&S activity.

I think Senator Murray was quite correct when he concluded that it was not the preferred option to do away with the rights of unions as currently allowed. Unfortunately, this government has continued to place an impossible condition, as far as Labor is concerned, in this bill. It reminds me of the conditions we see in other bills. One example is in relation to education funding, where universities will be given money, provided they do not give any of those moneys to registered student organisations on campus. The government will provide education funding to universities on the basis that they implement Australian workplace agreements.

We have this supposed primary policy of the legislation being enacted but always with the condition that somehow we have to look to diminish the rights of workers at their workplaces—or, indeed, to diminish employee organisations. Again with this bill we see the government looking to do the right thing. I commend them for some of the provisions in this bill, and we are on the record for indicating our support for those provisions. But, unfortunately, they are not able to escape their ideological trappings and therefore place conditions which are not acceptable to Labor and other parties, as we will find soon in the Senate.

I will finish by asking the minister and the government to reconsider the bill—to redraft it to take out those onerous provisions that are not necessary for the improvement or enhancement of health and safety in the workplace. I implore the government to consider the fact that health and safety in the workplace is too big an issue to be playing partisan politics with. There is no need, I contend, for some of the provisions that would diminish the capacity of unions to play a role on behalf of their members. I concur with Senator Murray's comments that union involvement only adds to the benefit and does not detract in any manner. Unless the amendments moved by the shadow minister, the member for Rankin, are passed, I cannot see this bill being acceptable at all to Labor, and therefore I ask members to oppose it.