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Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Page: 173

Dr EMERSON (10:37 AM) —The OHS and SRC Legislation Amendment Bill 2005 allows corporations licensed to self-insure under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act to be covered under the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act, which is administered by Comcare. The legislation was discussed in the last term of the parliament. I well recall the Productivity Commission making recommendations along these lines, but the small business community had severe reservations about this. It is to that matter that I will confine my remarks today.

Obviously, on the face of it, you can certainly mount an argument about this legislation moving towards a uniform national occupational health and safety regime. But really it specifically provides for businesses, multistate employers, to opt out of the state regimes and move into the federal regime that is administered by Comcare. When this Productivity Commission report was brought down, I well recall the small business community being very concerned about this, and I share those concerns. It is interesting that the legislation has now come forward in this parliament, and I do wonder about the extent of consultation with the small business community that was done by the relevant minister.

I would be surprised if the small business community at large thought this was a good idea, because, by large multistate employers opting out of state workers compensation regimes, the likelihood is that premiums will need to rise for those businesses that remain in the schemes. That would have two consequences: firstly, an obvious consequence for smaller businesses that premiums will go up, and, secondly, it would put pressure on those state schemes to reduce the compensation paid to those unfortunate enough to suffer injury or illness in their occupations.

At the time the government baulked at the Productivity Commission’s recommendations on the basis of representations from small business. Now the government is proceeding with the legislation. That is why I sought to intervene and ask the member for Hasluck whether he could assure the chamber that small businesses in his community are relaxed about this piece of legislation and feel confident that their compensation premiums will not rise. Unfortunately, on two occasions, the member for Hasluck refused to answer that question. So it is now a matter of testing with the small business community in Western Australia whether they are relaxed and comfortable, as the Prime Minister would have them, about the prospect of increased premiums associated with this measure.

I have never been one to seek to set small business against large business. I think the right philosophic approach to these matters is that we are all Australians and that we should all seek to contribute to and benefit from the prosperity of our great country. So I am not trying to set up a divide between big business and small business and say that this legislation is designed for big business at the expense of small business. But I am concerned about the impact of this legislation on the small business community. I would certainly welcome any comments from the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations in his summing up along the lines of any assurances that he has given to the small business community that they will not be adversely affected by this legislation. Similarly, although far less likely, I would like to know whether the minister is confident that injured workers will not be adversely affected by this legislation. I see it as being very much in prospect that injured workers will be adversely affected because the premium pools in the various states will be smaller as a result of this measure. If the premium pools are smaller, that puts more pressure on those funds and, as a result, state governments will come under greater pressure to reduce compensation to those workers who are injured or who suffer illness in the workplace. That really is the core of my argument in relation to small business and injured workers.

Moving to a more philosophic statement, in all these matters where we have a federal system, it seems to be the disposition of this government to argue for a centralised system—a system that is centralised in Canberra. There is such a concept as competitive federalism. With respect to the decisions of business as to where to locate their business, the different fees and charges, as well as other matters, are relevant to those decisions. It can be good for the country that there is competition. We do not necessarily want a lowest common denominator. We do not want high fees and charges. So when you have competitive federalism you can actually get benefits out of that.

The Howard government seems to say that anything that is administered by the states must be bad and anything that is administered by Canberra must be good; therefore everything must be administered by Canberra. This Prime Minister would make Gough Whitlam blush. In the Whitlam era, the great allegation against Gough Whitlam was that he was a centralist. The Prime Minister was probably in on that criticism as a relatively young politician, but he has practised it. Everywhere you look, the Prime Minister has sought to override the states, to take control of the states. The government cannot get on with the states, so it wants to control them.

We have seen this most spectacularly with the industrial relations legislation. State systems have operated in the national interest; however, this government says that it is going to take over the state systems by using its corporations power. It is seizing control from the states through the use of the corporations power. That is this government’s philosophy. You can see it in schools funding and also in the creation of these technical colleges, whereby the government wants to bypass the states and create a dozen technical colleges that will not produce one graduate for at least another six years.

Mr Danby —They could fund existing technical education, couldn’t they!

Dr EMERSON —That is right. Everywhere you look, you can see a very centralist government, and here is another example of that. I am not at all convinced that that philosophy is the right philosophy. What I do argue for is that, where state systems can be harmonised, they should be. That would achieve what the Productivity Commission has sought to achieve—to reduce the compliance and administration costs. Multistate employers, which have operations in different states, complain with some justification about very different arrangements for workers compensation. The answer to the problem should be sought through the harmonisation of the state arrangements rather than through the Howard government’s seizing control which, instead of providing a competitive federalism, will provide one level of government with monopoly control and will mean that there will be no competition. You will not get the best ideas or the best practice from each of the jurisdictions; instead, the Commonwealth will say, ‘We know best.’ As a consequence, it is quite possible that the premiums will rise, because you will not get the competition and therefore you will not get the efficiency. People will opt into Comcare and then premiums might rise. If the larger businesses in Australia want to do that, that is a decision they are taking with their eyes wide open, but the fundamental problem is that this will more likely cause premiums to rise in the state jurisdictions. This will be to the detriment of the state systems, to the detriment of small businesses and to the detriment of injured workers.

Finally, I am disappointed that the member for Hasluck has twice refused to answer that question. I would hope that he would return to this chamber and give an assurance that small businesses in his electorate of Hasluck will not be adversely affected. If he does not, I think there is only one conclusion that can be drawn—that he will not give that assurance because he cannot give the assurance. I see that the member for Canning is here. He speaks on behalf of small business on just about every occasion, so I will be very glad to hear him assure us that small businesses in Canning will not be adversely affected. The proof of that pudding will be in the eating. This legislation will pass the House of Representatives and the Senate. I do fear the consequences to small businesses in the electorate of Canning, in my own electorate and in Australia more generally. I fear for injured workers who remain in those state systems where, as a consequence of this legislation, premiums will rise.