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Monday, 29 March 2004
Page: 27495

Mr ANDREWS (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (8:22 PM) —At the outset, I thank those members who have contributed to this debate and those who have indicated that the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002 makes many positive contributions and has many positive aspects, including the increased penalties and the dual criminal and civil enforcement systems. The main objective of the bill is to enhance protection for Commonwealth employees by preventing injuries and accidents in Commonwealth workplaces. The key amendments proposed in this bill will shift the focus of occupational health and safety in Commonwealth employment away from imposing solutions and prescriptive processes towards enabling those in the workplace to work together to ensure it is safe and healthy.

Safe and healthy workplaces require maximum commitment and effort from all parties. Both employers and employees must play an active part in developing appropriate workplace health and safety arrangements. The amendments in this bill facilitate an integrated approach to health and safety in Commonwealth workplaces by providing for direct involvement of all employees, removing the mandatory and privileged role that unions presently hold. This of course has been the major subject of criticism—naturally flowing, I must say, from members of the Labor Party opposite, in particular. The government does, however, recognise the contributions unions can make and have made to health and safety in Commonwealth workplaces. The bill therefore provides that unions can still be involved, provided that this is at the request of the employees.

The bill will ensure that employees have access to the type of representation they want, in consultation with their employers, on health and safety matters. In particular, the amendments change the specific requirements for an employer to comply with their duty of care to employees. Instead of employers being required to develop an occupational health and safety policy in consultation with involved unions, under the bill employers must develop safety management arrangements in consultation with employees. Safety management arrangements will focus on the needs and circumstances of a particular enterprise to ensure the health and safety of employees. The bill will not remove any existing consultative mechanisms in the act such as designated work groups, health and safety committees, and health and safety representatives. The amendments remove the mandated role for unions in these arrangements, providing instead for direct employee involvement.

In particular, the amendments will allow any employee to become a health and safety representative. I stress this point. What is being railed against by the opposition—and I think the member for Kennedy in his contribution—is the position of unions. This bill only removes the privileged and mandated role for unions. It will remove their monopoly. However, unions can still be involved in occupational health and safety at the request of employees. We say, as a basic democratic principle, it is appropriate for all the employees in a workplace—whether or not they are a member of a union—to be able to be involved in the sort of representation that they require in relation to occupational health and safety.

Under the amendments in this bill, unions will still be involved in this process, including in the development and implementation of safety management arrangements, requesting investigations, appeals against decisions of an investigator and requests to institute proceedings. Removing the mandated role for unions will bring the Commonwealth legislation into line with most of the occupational health and safety laws in most other Australian jurisdictions. Similar amendments removing the mandated role for unions in occupational health and safety were passed by the parliament in December 2003 for the offshore petroleum industry. The opposition on that occasion did not object to those amendments.

The amendments providing for increased flexibility and employee involvement are balanced by the introduction of a stronger, more effective compliance and enforcement regime. This new regime provides for a mix of preventative, remedial and punitive civil and criminal sanctions and higher penalty levels. The current maximum penalty in the act for breach of the employer's duty of care is one of the lowest in Australia. A number of state and territory governments have recognised the benefit of this type of compliance and enforcement regime and have moved to adopt similar measures.

I remind honourable members that the Commonwealth has continued to work towards a national occupational health and safety system in Australia. The Commonwealth has developed a national occupational health and safety strategy which has been endorsed by all workplace relations ministers in state and federal governments. No-one should question the Commonwealth's commitment to improved health and safety outcomes for all Australians, not just Commonwealth public servants, on that basis. Workplace health and safety is an important issue for all Australians. The promotion of injury prevention and high-quality occupational health and safety is a key priority for the Australian government. The amendments in this bill ensure health and safety in Commonwealth workplaces is not neglected and reflect the Commonwealth's commitment to achieving safer workplaces for all Australians. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.