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Thursday, 18 August 2005
Page: 21

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (10:23 AM) —I rise to comment on some of the provisions of the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2005 and to make some reference to the history of this bill. I had some concerns with the bill’s predecessor in the last parliamentary term, the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002, and I have some problems now with this proposed bill. I accept the member for Moore’s comments in relation to ensuring improvements to occupational health and safety at the workplace. I think the member for Moore is genuine in his views about improving safety records at workplaces, but I am not sure that he fully appreciates the intent behind some of the provisions of this bill.

It seems to me that this bill, along with similar bills that were raised in the last parliament, seeks to write unions out of history to some extent. It seeks to remove the word ‘union’ and replace it with ‘employee representative’. Whilst that seems a rather inoffensive thing to do, it really does underline the obsession that the government has in relation to trade unions. It is important for us to consider this debate in a real context. In an ideal workplace, employees, without fear or favour, would be able to raise health and safety issues with their employer in order to prevent injuries or indeed fatalities. My notion of an ideal workplace is where a person working in the workplace would be able to raise with their employer the issue of problems that might precipitate injury or death and to propose ways to prevent those incidents occurring. But we do not live in an ideal world and unfortunately we do not always have ideal workplaces. It really is naive for members to believe that, by removing unions from occupational health and safety matters, we are going to reduce the likelihood of injuries or fatalities. That is an incorrect assumption made by the government, if indeed that is its assumption.

There is no doubt that the role that the trade unions play in this area is critical, because in many workplaces, I am afraid to say, employees are not in a position to raise with their employer concerns they have regarding health and safety matters. That is the reality that confronts many Australian workers today. Removing or diminishing recognition of third parties—in this case trade unions—as this bill proposes, is motivated more by the obsessions of this government rather than a concern for the health and safety of Australian workers at the workplace. That is a fundamental problem I have with this bill.

The bill in its previous form in the last parliamentary term—and indeed I contributed to the debate on that bill at the time—had a long history in itself. The Senate, for example, reviewed that bill. It was a bill that was very similar to the one we are debating today, although I will go a little later to the fact that this new bill is actually more restrictive in regard to employees having representatives at their workplace. But first I will refer to some comments made by Senator Murray last term in relation to that very similar bill, which has now been superseded by this proposed bill. Senator Murray is often lauded by the government as someone who is balanced and reasonable in his approach to industrial matters. He had this to say when he was speaking to a very similar bill, whose provisions were similar to the ones now in this proposed legislation:

A key area of concern to us—

he was referring to the committee to which he belongs—

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 went on to say that he believed that the unions were in an irreplaceable position in terms of collaborating to reduce the likelihood of injury or death at the workplace. He further went on to indicate that, yes, we had to ensure that health and safety matters were not being used improperly by anybody, but that, in the end, whilst it—that is, the matter to do with improper use of OH&S provisions—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 right when he concluded that it was not the preferred option to do away with rights or certain powers of unions as currently allowed. Unfortunately, as far as we are concerned, this government has continued to place an impossible condition on this bill. It reminds me of the conditions it has been placing on a variety of bills that are not particularly to do with industrial relations matters. Unfortunately now we constantly see in other fields the government placing provisions with the intention to diminish the rights of unions or registered organisations pursuant to the Workplace Relations Act. So we see, for example, the attempts to diminish collectivism or collective bargaining in the education sector by compelling TAFE colleges to offer Australian workplace agreements if they want to receive funding for educational services.

Mr Hardgrave interjecting

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —The minister at the table wants to raise something about industrial matters. Of course he does not have the guts to get up and enter this debate. We know what he has done in my electorate. He came down last year to propose a Sunshine college. I do not see the Sunshine college being built anytime soon. So I am happy to have a debate with the minister anytime he likes on what he is doing for TAFE colleges in this country, because he is doing nothing for western Melbourne. He came down to Taylors Lakes, and I actually met with him. I gave him the benefit of the doubt when he came down. He told locals in Taylors Lakes, schools and Victoria University that he was going to build a college for the underprivileged young people in my electorate of Gorton. I went up, I listened and I think I treated the minister with some respect. I listened to him and gave him the benefit of the doubt. But I have to say that I am most disappointed that the minister indicated when he was in the electorate that we were going to have a college up next year, but it appears now that that is not the case. That is a really disappointing thing. But I need to return, if I can, to the bill. If the minister does not interject, I will leave him alone.

Mr Hardgrave —You’re verballing me now. You’re completely verballing me.

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —See, Mr Deputy Speaker, that is his problem: the minister is all mouth, no action. The minister is all talk and does nothing.

Mr Hardgrave interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott)—Order! The minister will desist.

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —The fact is that this minister is a failure—the disc jockey without any substance at all. He is all talk, all repetition. But you see, when he came to my electorate, he chose to promise the construction of a Sunshine college. And do you know what he has done? He has done nothing; he has talked.


Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —But he is happy to interject.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The honourable member does not have the call.

Mr Hardgrave —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. Apart from misleading the House in his comments, he really is not talking about the bill. I am happy to debate him anywhere, any time, about these issues, but this is not the place on this occasion.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The minister has made his point. The member for Gorton will come back to the bill before the House.

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —If the minister at the table stops interjecting while I am speaking on the particular bill, I will happily—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Gorton will not respond to interjections.

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —return to the bill.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —You will return to the bill.

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —If the Deputy Speaker actually does his job and ensures that the minister allows me to debate this matter, I will be happy to talk about this matter.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member will come back to the bill.

Mr Hardgrave —Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: I would ask the member for Gorton to withdraw that reflection on your good self.

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —Mr Deputy Speaker, there is no reflection on you.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Gorton will come back to the bill before the House and will not stray.

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —I will certainly not stray, and I will tell you what I will also not do.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —You will come back to the bill before the House.

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR —I will not go to an electorate and promise something and disappear and not deliver anything—and that is what the minister at the table did at Sunshine in my electorate recently. I will not hold my breath.

In relation to the provisions of the occupational health and safety bill before us, I was saying that increasingly, whether we see it in the educational bills or in this bill, this government places conditions on matters not relevant to the particular bill to impinge upon registered organisations of employees. If this bill were really about occupational health and safety, a number of things would be recognised by the government because they are recognised by all the experts and they are recognised by all independent commentators—that is, unions have always historically played a constructive role in ensuring that workplaces are safe. And in this bill, if the government were concerned about OH&S and not concerned about attacking unions, it would not diminish the role of unions in this very important area. It is a tragedy to see.

I know and accept that we have different manifestoes, different philosophies, different views on certain matters, and that is to be expected. But I would have thought that in relation to health and safety there would be a bipartisan approach and there would be some understanding that in the real world there are workplaces where Australian workers are not in a position to raise with their employer concerns they have about the way in which the workplace operates that may precipitate injury or death. Unfortunately, there has clearly been no acceptance by the government that unions play a constructive role. To that extent, it has chosen to diminish their capacities.

The bill has also diminished the capacity for employees to have employee representatives. I turn to a provision in the bill which differs from, and is more stringent than, its predecessor bill—namely, proposed new paragraph 16B(1)(b). In comparison to the earlier provision, the proposed new provision is more stringent. It is more stringent because it contains the additional requirement that the employee’s representative has to satisfy the officer—that is, the chief executive officer of Comcare—that the employer requested that their identity be protected and, further, stipulates a higher threshold before the certificate may be issued. Under the proposed law, the officer must be satisfied that the requirements are fulfilled. Previously there was a discretion that the officer could consider whether those things would occur; now it is mandatory. It may seem a subtle change but this bill, if it is enacted, will create more difficulty for working people to ensure that they have a genuine employee representative at the worksite. So, notwithstanding some of my concerns about the efforts by the government to diminish unions—even accepting that for the moment—there is an effort here to place further regulations in the way of employees to diminish their capacity to be properly represented in occupational health and safety matters.

We have concerns about this bill. Its design is not to improve health and safety at the workplace. This bill is a manifestation of lobbying by some employers, telling the government that they do not want unions involved directly in health and safety matters. Not all employers believe that should be the case. I am ashamed to say that this government has chosen to accept some arguments—spurious arguments—put by some employers who have no regard, or little regard, for health and safety matters.

The government has a blindness towards unions that is becoming rather obsessive. It has now reached the point where the word ‘union’ is such an anathema to the government that the government is scared of having it in legislation. When the marriage bill was being debated, I thought that the government might have opposed the definition of marriage being ‘a union between a man and a woman’ because the word ‘union’ was in the bill! That is how bizarre this government has become in its attempts to write unions out of legislation, literally. I guess it is in the perverted thinking that, if the government takes the word ‘union’ out of law, unions will not exist. We know that is not the case.

As Senator Murray indicated in his comments in the last parliamentary term on a similar bill, we would like to see the government and the opposition reaching agreement on the need to put aside any partisan concerns we might have on industrial matters generally and agree that, when it comes to occupational health and safety, there is no room for party politics and there is no room for conflict that will not ensure improvements in health and safety at the workplace. Alas, this bill fails to do that. On that basis I, for one, certainly cannot support it.