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Wednesday, 17 August 2005
Page: 133

Ms HALL (6:48 PM) —Australian workplaces are changing. Workers are working longer, which has implications for workplace safety. The longer hours that they work place increased physical and psychological demands on them. Here we have a situation in the workplace with longer hours, and we are looking at the legislation before us today, the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2005.

Safe workplaces are important to employers and to workers. They can be achieved only through good occupational health and safety. All research and authoritative information shows that this is best achieved through a tripartite process involving employers, workers and unions. Poor occupational health and safety leads to an unsafe workplace, which leads to increased injuries in the workplace, which in turn leads to costs for employers. It also leads to disability for workers. Everybody involved in the process is disadvantaged. It is a cost to all parties. I believe that it is strongly in the interests of everybody in every workplace to work together to see that there is good occupational health and safety within those workplaces and that workers are protected, not only for their benefit but for the benefit of employers. It is in the interests of all parties to avoid injury and promote a safe workplace. This is achieved not by sitting back and waiting until people injure themselves but rather by a proactive approach to occupational health and safety.

Currently the situation that exists in workplaces covered by this legislation is proactive. The question that I ask myself when I look at this legislation is: what will this legislation do to make workplaces safer, to reduce injuries, to reduce disability and to make sure that there are no lost working hours? Unfortunately, I cannot see that this will achieve any of that. Rather, I think it may make the workplace a little less safe than it is now. Unfortunately, I believe this legislation that we are considering in the parliament tonight is not driven by occupational health and safety best practice. Rather, it is driven by a pathological hatred of unions.

I think that members on the other side of this House need to look at the way the system is operating at the moment. At various times workplaces covered by this legislation have actually been models for employers, employees and workplaces throughout Australia. I find it very disturbing that there has been a series of pieces of legislation introduced into this parliament to change the way very safe workplaces, workplaces that are models, are operating.

I have had to come to the decision, very reluctantly, that this legislation is not about occupational health and safety. It is not about creating a workplace that is safe for all people. It is not about protecting the interests of employers by ensuring that hours are not lost through injury in the workplace. Rather, this legislation is about the government’s extreme industrial relations agenda. It is driven by ideologues who are not interested in safety, and I think they have lost their perspective. When you are looking at the purpose of occupational health and safety and the roles of all the parties involved in occupational health and safety, you are looking at creating a safe workplace; you are not looking at union bashing. I am rather saddened by the fact that this parliament has taken occupational health and safety to this level, with the belittling of occupational health and safety within workplaces, putting it down to an issue of whether or not unions are involved.

This legislation removes the need for employers in government agencies to negotiate occupational health and safety agreements with unions and employees, through the introduction of management arrangements. Management arrangements can address consultation, training and risk management. All references to unions are removed and replaced with ‘employee representation’—either a registered organisation or a workplace staff association. Why the paranoia about unions? Is it some sort of a crime now to mention unions? Is it some sort of a crime for unions to be involved?

I think that unions have played a very important role in occupational health and safety. As somebody who has worked in that area before becoming a member of parliament—and I am not talking about working in the area of unions; I am talking about having worked in occupational health and safety, in rehabilitation and with people who have been injured within the workplace—I know how important that tripartite arrangement is. I also know how good the occupational health and safety has been in organisations and departments that have been covered by this legislation. That is why I am so disappointed with the direction that we are taking. We are not looking at what will have the best outcome for all parties; rather we are being driven by this ideological hatred of unions.

In addition, under this proposed legislation employee representatives must be invited into the workplace by an employee. That is hardly a proactive approach. I think one of the best aspects of a good occupational health and safety policy within a workplace is to have a proactive policy—one that looks at the whole of the workplace, makes recommendations and ensures that workers observe the proper safety procedures within that workplace. Workers can become very complacent too. They can be in a workplace and not take into account their proper rest periods. They may not sit properly on their chairs. They may not have the computer workstation set up properly. I am sure that the members of this House, when they are working, do not all always take into account the proper occupational health and safety approach. That is where being proactive and having someone come into the workplace is very beneficial.

Previously, a union could make a request to Comcare to investigate a workplace under the provisions of the existing legislation. Under this bill, an employee must invite them in. So no longer can a union say, ‘We’d like to come in, check out the workplace and make sure that the proper safety standards are in place.’ Now they need to be invited in—and they will not be invited in until such time as there is a problem. This is the wrong way to approach occupational health and safety. You should be able to anticipate problems that will arise in the workplace. That way you prevent injury and lost working hours through injury, and at the same time you reduce the cost to the employer—in this case, invariably that is government.

I think that this bill is a retrograde step. It is something that the government really need to address, instead of getting caught on the hang-up they have about unions. This is not about unions; it is about a safe workplace. It is about protecting workers, protecting employers and having a safe working environment.

Also, under this legislation employee representatives involved in developing occupational health and safety management arrangements must be issued with a certificate by the CEO of Comcare, valid for only 12 months. It allows employers to conduct elections of employee health and safety representatives, a role that was previously conducted by the union or a person specified by the commission. Once again, I feel that this bill is being driven wholly and solely by this government’s hatred of unions—something that I really do not think occupational health and safety is about. I ask the government to look at it very reasonably and consider its implications.

In the last parliament, I was involved in an inquiry conducted by the Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations. The committee’s report was called Back on the job: report into aspects of Australian workers compensation schemes. The terms of reference for that inquiry were geared strongly towards fraud—the incident cost of fraudulent claims and fraudulent conduct by employees and employers. It was directed toward fraudulent behaviour, and it also looked at issues related to workers compensation. One of the things that I found most upsetting at the time was that, when some members of the committee tried to get occupational health and safety written in as a term of reference, the minister would not include it. The committee looked at rehabilitation programs and the benefit of these, but once again I emphasise to the House that occupational health and safety is imperative in any workplace. Minister Dutton was also part of that inquiry. I certainly hope that he learned from that inquiry the importance of occupational health and safety and that it is an issue that has an impact on each and every person involved in the workplace. That is what occupational health and safety is about. It is not about a union, employer or worker; it is about a safe workplace. Every piece of legislation, Minister, should be designed to develop that.

This report detailed some of the important issues related to occupational health and safety—the kinds of things that I think occupational health and safety legislation should include. One of the recommendations was that there be a commitment to the national occupational health and safety strategy that was put in place for the years 2002 to 2012, to address the unacceptable level of workplace injuries and fatalities. That is what occupational health and safety is about. It is not about attacking unions and getting unions out of the workplace; it is about creating a safe workplace.

There were five national priorities: reducing high incidence and severity of risk; developing the capacity of business operators and workers to manage occupational health and safety effectively; preventing occupational disease more effectively; eliminating hazards at the design stage; and strengthening the capacity of government to influence occupational health and safety outcomes. Nowhere does it say that you get better occupational health and safety outcomes by getting unions out of the workplace. That is why I have a problem with this legislation: it is not about occupational health and safety; it is about attacking unions. Even this report highlighted the fact that unions did have an important role to play—

Mr Dutton —Mr Speaker, I raise a point of order. The point of order is on relevance. The member for Shortland has said so far that she is confused, disturbed and sad. We do not dispute any of that, but I do not know how that is relevant to this bill.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. IR Causley)—Order! There is no point of order.

Ms HALL —There can be no point of order because I am very clear about this legislation. The thing that confuses me is that members on the other side of this House do not understand what occupational health and safety is about. The minister has just demonstrated that to the House. Occupational health and safety is about a safe workplace. Minister, it is time that you learned and understood that.

Mr Dutton —Mr Speaker, I raise a point of order. Again, the point of order is on relevance. I do not understand how repeating verbatim the findings of the report can be relevant to this debate. If the member for Shortland wants to fill in time for the next five minutes—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The minister will resume his seat. There is no point of order. This is a debate about occupational health and safety. The member for Shortland is within her grounds.

Ms HALL —At no stage have I been reporting verbatim a report. Rather, I have been referring to a report that the minister was part of. It is an excellent report that makes some outstanding points about occupational health and safety, points that the minister has obviously moved away from since moving into his new role, given that this was a unanimous report supported by all sides of parliament.

In this report—and this is a quote—it says:

...union involvement was a factor in the management of a workplace that affected safety and claims performance.

The report found that unions contributed to safety within the workplace. From what I have read in this legislation and from what I have seen of the performance of Minister Dutton, I can only say that this is not about occupational health and safety. Having good strong occupational health and safety procedures benefits all parties. All government approaches to this issue should be driven by developing and adopting legislation that will deliver the best outcome—fewer injuries and deaths in the workplace. This delivers a benefit to all parties.

Occupational health and safety is not about industrial relations, which is what this legislation is about. Rather than being about creating the safe working environment that I have spent so much time talking about and that I have emphasised to such an extent, this legislation is about the government having another go at the unions. Occupational health and safety is not about attacking unions; it is about creating a safe working environment which benefits all. Evidence demonstrates that this is best achieved through a tripartite approach involving workers, unions and employers.