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Thursday, 18 August 2005
Page: 32

Mr ANDREWS (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (11:20 AM) —in reply—I thank members for their contributions during this debate. The Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2005 reflects the government’s commitment to improving health and safety outcomes in Commonwealth workplaces and follows amendments to the occupational health and safety act in 2004 which introduced a new, strong compliance regime. The Australian government firmly believes that safe and productive workplaces rely on a cooperative approach between employers and employees to identify and eliminate hazards that may cause injury or death. The focus of occupational health and safety regulation must shift from imposing prescriptive processes towards enabling workplaces to make informed decisions about how best to reduce the risks to health and safety in the workplace.

Opposition speakers have wrongly suggested that this bill is an attack on unions and that it removes unions from involvement in occupational health and safety in the workplace. That is simply not the case. The bill improves not only protection for employees but also workplace democracy—something we know is anathema to the opposition and the trade union movement. We have heard the member for Corio railing against this bill in the parliament for the last 15 or 20 minutes. His speech was high on overblown rhetoric and almost devoid of substance.

Under this bill, all employees can participate in occupational health and safety matters at their workplace. Employers would negotiate directly with employees, who may be represented by unions or other representative organisations. In other words, employees will have choice—and the opposition is so vehement in opposing the bill because they do not believe that workers should be free to choose. Unions should not be given a mandated and privileged role with respect to occupational health and safety in those workplaces covered by the act. Those provisions inhibit the effectiveness of the act. Removing the privileged role of unions in workplace health and safety arrangements and giving prominence to the interests of employees will bring Commonwealth laws in line with most state and territory occupational health and safety laws.

Is it unreasonable to provide that employees must first request union involvement in occupational health and safety matters at their workplace and that they be given the right to choose who represents their interests? New South Wales Occupational Health and Safety Regulation 2001 provides that:

A Federal or State industrial organisation of employees may represent, for the purposes of consultation on OHS consultative arrangements, any of those employees who request the organisation to represent them.

The government and the Labor Party both believe that workers should have the right to be represented by unions, but the fundamental difference between the two parties is that Labor wants union membership to the exclusion of all other options. Labor is contemptuous of a worker’s right to choose an alternative to union representation simply because for Labor there is no alternative. Labor would allow union bosses to walk into any business at any time under the guise of a suspected occupational health and safety breach, even when there are no union members present at that business.

The member for Perth suggested that, under the amendments proposed by this bill, unions will be unable to directly request Comcare to investigate an occupational health and safety breach. This is not the case. The existing powers of unions to request Comcare to investigate occupational health and safety breaches are not being removed. Under this bill, employee representatives, including unions, can request an investigation by Comcare, provided it is at the request of an employee.

Opposition speakers have also lamented the changes to the provisions about electing health and safety representatives. Currently, where there is an involved union, the act gives that union a monopoly role in the conduct of elections for health and safety representatives. This has unsatisfactory results. Firstly, because unions control the nominations, they can prevent a non-union member from becoming a health and safety representative. This can mean that persons with relevant qualifications, expertise or an interest in health and safety in their workplace do not have the opportunity to take on that role. Secondly, positions can remain vacant for extended periods where there is no union member nominated. Perhaps the opposition could have explained how such unsatisfactory outcomes are promoting the best possible arrangements to ensure workplace occupational health and safety.

There is nothing sinister about the employer arranging the elections for health and safety representatives. New South Wales has a similar provision. Employers are under a duty of care to ensure that workplaces are safe. Having health and safety representatives is an important component of having safe workplaces. It is therefore reasonable to place an obligation on employers to make sure that elections for health and safety representatives are conducted. In the event that employees are not happy with the election arrangements proposed by employers, the bill enables elections to be conducted in accordance with processes prescribed in the regulations.

The key amendments relate to the employer’s duty of care and the workplace arrangements provisions. They will improve health and safety arrangements for Commonwealth employers and employees by enabling them to work more closely together to develop arrangements that suit the needs of their particular workplace. Current workplace arrangements, such as the requirements to have health and safety representatives and committees, remain. The amendments will not in any way diminish the Commonwealth’s duty of care as an employer to ensure the health and safety of its employees at work or that of others who may be at the workplace. The amendments aim to remove prescriptive requirements, introduce flexibility and ensure that employers and employees are free to develop appropriate health and safety arrangements to apply at their workplaces.

Section 16 is being amended to replace the current prescriptive elements which require an employer to develop an occupational health and safety policy in consultation with involved unions. Instead, section 16 will be more outcomes focused, allowing employers, in consultation with their employees, to develop health and safety management arrangements tailor made to the needs of their particular workplace. The bill gives employees a wider choice as to who may represent them, including another employee, a registered association such as a union or an association of employees which has a principal purpose of protecting and promoting the employees’ interests in matters concerning their employment, such as a staff association or an unregistered union.

Finally, I assure members that the measures proposed in this bill, in particular the proposed new section 16B, do not violate any implied constitutional freedom of association or Australia’s ILO obligations. It has been suggested that the mechanisms for ensuring employee anonymity proposed by new section 16B may prove to be a strong deterrent to employees seeking representation in consultations with employers about safety management arrangements. These concerns totally misunderstand and misrepresent the intended operation of section 16B. Section 16B enables the CEO of Comcare to certify that a union or staff association is entitled to represent an employee who wishes to remain anonymous. A certificate issued by the CEO of Comcare guarantees that employee’s anonymity. Section 16B provides a mechanism to protect an employee’s identity if the employee wishes to keep his or her choice about their representation confidential. It is not a precondition to unions or staff associations representing their members. If section 16B were to be deleted, there would be no mechanism to provide employees with confidentiality. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.