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Thursday, 18 August 2005
Page: 29

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR (11:00 AM) —Firstly, let me commend the member for Parramatta for her contribution to this debate on the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2005. We hear a lot from those on the other side of this House about people in the Labor Party not having sympathy for small business. Here you have had a small business person telling this House of the importance of occupational health and safety in the workplaces that she managed and in which she has been intimately involved over many years. I listened with heightened interest to the member for Parramatta’s contribution. My daughter works on the production side in the entertainment industry. When she tells me she is bumping in a show, the immediate concern that I have is for her safety and the safety of the young people who she is involved with in her workplace.

The Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2005 is the latest instalment in the Howard government’s attack on unionists in this country. In this bill, blind ideological prejudice has once again prevailed over commonsense and good public policy. This bill is all the evidence that the Australian community needs—indeed that public employees need—that this is a government that has been in power too long. It is arrogant and it is out of touch with the needs of ordinary working Australians.

It has now become obvious to all in this debate that the motivation behind this bill is not good governance but an ugly prejudice that stains everything it touches. For working people, whether they be in public or private employment, the issue of occupational health and safety is central to their working lives. It should be the expectation of every worker, male or female, in this country that, when they leave home on a Monday, they will return home that evening to their families. That does not always happen.

It ought to be the aim of any government of any political persuasion to enact sensible, considered legislation that takes the politics out of occupational health and safety and addresses in a balanced way the needs of employers, employees, their chosen industrial representatives and the wider community in these matters. This bill simply does not do that.

In opposing this legislation, I rise on behalf of all Commonwealth employees in my electorate of Corio, be they in Australia Post, the Australian Taxation Office, the Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong or any other place of public employment in the Geelong region. The legislation constitutes an overt attack on their industrial rights and will not advance occupational health and safety in their workplaces.

The Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991 provides the legal basis for the protection of the health and safety of Commonwealth employees in departments, statutory authorities and government business enterprises. The bill we are debating today seeks to amend that act. When you strip it bare, it is the Howard government’s latest attempt to remove the role of unions in occupational health and safety matters.

Labor opposes the introduction of the management agreements which are contained in this bill—agreements which effectively remove the need for government agencies to negotiate occupational health and safety agreements with unions and employees. The ugly prejudice of this government is amply demonstrated by the removal in this bill of any mention of unions, which are to be replaced by employee representatives, now defined as a registered organisation or a workplace staff association, which now must be invited into a workplace by an employee. Employees will now have to invite the employee representative to initiate an occupational health and safety investigation where previously unions could make a direct request to Comcare to investigate a particular workplace.

Many people who have worked in public as well as private employment know that many employees, when they raise occupational health and safety issues, do so at some risk of retaliation by their employer in some way. The unions have played a very constructive role in such situations. Under existing legislation, they have the power to take a complaint that is raised with them to Comcare for some degree of investigation and resolution. Under this legislation we have a deliberate attempt by this Howard government to change that. After nine long years in office, completely out of touch with the Australian people, the government has introduced this piece of legislation that seeks to reflect its blind ideological prejudice in removing unions from their role in initiating on behalf of employees matters before Comcare and other agencies.

A quite extraordinary provision in this bill is that under which employee representatives who become involved in developing the so-called management arrangements must be issued with a certificate to do so by the CEO of Comcare which will be valid for only 12 months. There has been no logical justification advanced by the government for that particular element of this bill. This provision alone is likely to be in breach of ILO convention 87 relating to freedom of association in the workplace, which Australia became party to in 1973.

More insidious is the provision in this bill that employers ought to control the election of who will ultimately represent workers in these important matters relating to occupational health and safety in Commonwealth workplaces and statutory authority workplaces. So much for choice in industrial matters! This government is always trumpeting its mantra about choice in a whole range of policy areas. Most recently that has focused on the areas of superannuation and student union fees. But when it comes to choice and occupational health and safety in the workplace, government members sing a different tune. Quite frankly, I think government members are acting like two-faced hypocrites in this matter. They talk about choice in some particular areas of policy but, when it comes to the choice of workers in Commonwealth agencies, the government backslides on that particular issue.

I think the House would do well to reflect on the appalling statistics on work related deaths and injuries and illness in this country each year. It is estimated that there are around 3,000 work related deaths in Australia each year, of which 450 are the result of a traumatic incident at work and 200 are the result of someone else’s work activity. We are talking about a very serious matter here. Blind ideological prejudice ought to be withdrawn from the consideration of this matter and replaced by a considered and rational approach to occupational health and safety that will deliver the best outcomes for Commonwealth employees in reduced deaths, reduced accidents and reduced injuries in workplaces. But the government seems to want to play politics with every piece of industrial legislation. It puts up some very spurious arguments to support its point of view on this particular matter.

Some 480,000 employees experience a work related injury or illness each year, which at the end of the day translates to 2.8 million Australians suffering work related, long-term health conditions. These are appalling statistics overall. I would not be the first member of this House who has had an employee from a Commonwealth agency come into their office with a difficult situation relating to occupational health and safety considerations and injuries that have occurred in the workplace.

Occupational health and safety is not an optional extra in workplaces. There is too much at stake for working families. I say to honourable members opposite: it would be a different tune if they were in a workplace that was in some way unsafe or had the potential to be unsafe. I am sure that members opposite would avail themselves of every opportunity to protect their own lives. They would want structures in place to save their skins in their workplace. They would leave no stone unturned to ensure that the work practices and the work environment delivered a safe workplace that enabled them to get home to their families of an evening. I bet there would not be a member of the government who would not go to quite extreme lengths on some occasions to ensure that the workplace that they worked in was safe and to save their skins. Yet here we have their blind prejudice manifested throughout this particular bill.

The justifications for this legislation are quite spurious. I am reminded of this by the press release of the ACTU issued today entitled ‘Fed Govt Waters Down Health & Safety Rights For 250,000 Workers’. They make some very interesting points. The current system for Commonwealth employees has been most effective in protecting employees and it has been less expensive than similar compensation schemes around the country. So what is the justification for watering down these particular provisions? It cannot be that it is to reduce the expense related to the safety issues in these workplaces. It cannot be to deliver a better outcome, because in comparative terms Commonwealth workplaces are much safer than many others. The only reason that we have this legislation in this parliament today is the blind prejudice of an extreme government that now has control of both houses of parliament and is intent on using that majority to give expression to the worst prejudices of conservative politics in this country.

Mr Brough interjecting

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR —The honourable parliamentary secretary, the minister or whatever you are in the government—

Mr Brough —Oh, you’re ignorant as well.

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR —We are ignorant are we? I bet you would leave no stone unturned to save your skin. The honourable member would leave no stone unturned in any workplace to save his own miserable skin, yet he will not grant the same privileges and rights to workers in other areas. That is fairly typical. The minister will of course be able to get this legislation through both houses of parliament, but I will let every Commonwealth employee in my electorate know exactly what this government is doing to occupational health and safety in their workplaces.

This is a government that preaches about lawlessness in industrial relations. What unbridled hypocrisy that is! This is a government that trained mercenaries in another country to work on Australian wharves. This is a government that has unleashed dogs on Australian workers in the past. You talk about lawlessness in industrial workplaces, but what about the lawlessness of a government that is up to its ears in that sort of caper? There is a very good reason why we should retain a union presence in Commonwealth workplaces and give workers access to representatives of their choosing on these matters: those workplaces have been demonstrated to be safer than many other workplaces in this country.

There is a very good reason why the current legislation should be maintained, but it is obvious that the government will not listen to reasoned argument on this matter. You cannot listen to reasoned argument if you are an extreme and radical government introducing extreme measures in the industrial relations arena. You do not have the political or intellectual capacity in that state of mind to enact reasonable legislation in the interests of Commonwealth workers. Good governance requires that those decision makers extract all prejudice from their consideration of matters and look at the best outcomes for working people in this area.

Why should that be so? It is because the lives of Australians are at stake. Honourable members opposite can talk all they like about unions and their representatives using occupational health and safety matters for other reasons. If that is the case then why don’t you try and solve that particular problem in another way and retain the good features of a system that has delivered the best occupational health and safety outcomes relative to other workplaces in this country? You have not got the capacity to do that because you are peddling a very extreme form of industrial and workplace relations. There should be no place for extremism in workplace relations. The radical, extreme proposals that are now emanating from the coalition, courtesy of the Prime Minister’s blind prejudice, will see more Australians die in Australian workplaces. That will be on the heads of those who have put this legislation before the parliament today.