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Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Page: 175


Mr HAYES (10:48 AM) —I suppose to some extent I should start with, ‘Here we go again.’ Once again, we have a bill before us, the OHS and SRC Legislation Amendment Bill 2005, which purports to solve all problems that businesses are facing. However, if we simply scratch the surface a little, we find a different agenda revealed. Once again, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations has introduced a bill into this place that is cloaked in a desire to protect workers, but I have to say that, on my reading of this legislation, that is not the direct implication of the legislation.

We saw it last year through a series of amendments to the Workplace Relations Act, culminating in the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005, being rammed through this parliament with virtually none of the scrutiny necessary for such a change. We also saw it with the Orwellian titled Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill and we saw it with the similarly euphemistically titled Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Promoting Safer Workplaces) Bill.

We see it again as the government tries to use its response to the Productivity Commission’s report National workers’ compensation and occupational health and safety frameworksof June 2004. I oppose this legislation because it is aimed at anything but improving the occupational health and safety of working Australians. I am sure that we will hear speakers opposite—if they have already spoken, I am sorry I have missed their speeches—leaping to the defence of this piece of legislation with vigour. No doubt members opposite have said that this bill is a win for business, particularly small business, as the member for Rankin has just been remonstrating about with the member for Hasluck. I am sure that members opposite will have been convinced simply by receiving their slick brief from the minister’s office that there is nothing in this bill that will harm or detract or be deleterious to the working conditions of Australian workers and that the simple production of this bill is the government’s response to the report of the Productivity Commission.

We will hear how tough it is for businesses to comply with the eight different jurisdictions and how life would be so much easier if they could deal with a single set of rules and a single set of regulations. There is a downside to all of this. When taken in isolation, the government’s amendments seeking to create a uniform national occupational health and safety regime, as one who was a practitioner in this area, appear to have a certain sensibility—on face value I would have to admit that they make sense. However, if you drill down into the bill, as you have to with most pieces of legislation introduced in this place, you come to realise that the devil is in the detail. Just as people are able to scratch the surface of the government’s industrial relations reform and see that the reforms proposed in the name of small business actually had nothing to do with small business and had everything to do with advancing the agenda of big business, similarly, a level of consideration to this bill will reveal that it will not improve occupational health and safety for working Australians. I do not think it will meet the government’s intended position in relation to small business compliance either.

Occupational health and safety and the risks to people as they work are very real and serious issues and should be treated as such. To put the issue of occupational health and safety into context, one only needs to look at the numbers of people who are either injured or killed—unfortunately it does happen. When we look at what happens in this country, there is a serious cause for concern. This is why we should take this not as a budgetary response, not as a cost-saving response, but as a serious view directed towards the betterment of occupational health and safety conditions throughout this country.

The ILO reported that over 6,700 workers die of occupational injuries or diseases in this country each year. The ABS found that nearly 500,000 workers suffer some form of injury at the workplace each year. For me these figures strike a note of concern, as they should for any legislator who purports to be acting for the betterment of occupational health and safety in this country.

These figures, firstly, give some idea of the number of people who are impacted by injury at work, not to mention the impacts that are inflicted on the families of those who suffer those injuries. Secondly, they make it clear that there is a need to dramatically reduce the number of occupational deaths and injuries in this country. So at this point one has to consider that this bill is aimed, first and foremost, at reducing the compliance cost on business. It is not aimed—and this is where I take objection—at reducing the injuries to working Australians. The government, through this bill and other legislation that should be considered in conjunction with it, is willing to ignore history and the needs of workers and those businesses that do not operate in more than one state—they seem to fall outside this agenda. In fact, there are real concerns that abolishing occupational health and safety regulations and reducing compliance obligations of businesses will run contrary to the aim of reducing the number of workers who are injured each year. I have yet to see a legitimate argument that the number of injuries and deaths will be reduced as a result of changing to a national regime, particularly a non-compulsory, opt-in national regime. I have yet to see any real argument that safety conditions on the job will be improved by bringing the various state regimes into a single national arrangement, particularly when those arrangements are of a voluntary, opt-in nature.

Workers compensation schemes and occupational health and safety regulations have been developed over many years by various state and territory governments in a manner that reflects the industry mix, the economic activity, the population and the various legal structures that operate in a particular jurisdiction. Naturally under that arrangement there will always be differences, but the differences between jurisdictions do not necessarily occur without a reason. To view these differences in isolation is a spurious exercise that ignores other aspects of the various schemes that have been central to their evolution. Once again, however, we see that this government is all about being willing to ignore history, to ignore the evolution of the various regimes, with the sweeping statement that things will be ‘easier under a uniform system’.

The minister makes the claim in his second reading speech that the proposals in this bill will produce better health and safety outcomes all round, including for employees affected by these changes. I am particularly sceptical that this will be the case under the arrangement that is being proposed. We have all heard the government making similar claims about the industrial relations proposals. We have heard through the government’s $55 million propaganda campaign that having a single industrial relations system would be better for all involved. For some time now as a member of Labor’s industrial relations task force I have been visiting people in Launceston, Townsville, outer metropolitan Brisbane and suburbs of Perth and Darwin, and I can tell you that the overwhelming response has been that people do not trust what is being put to them. People are concerned not simply for their own industrial welfare but for the plight of their children and families as their rights are driven into the ground by this government’s move to have a form of industrial legislation which it says will be ‘easier’ for everybody. It will be easier—easier for employers to use the situation to drive down, as the Chief Judge of the Industrial Relations Commission has recently said, the wages and conditions of those most vulnerable in society. True it is that people are very concerned out there.

People in my electorate have signed petitions and spoken to me about their opposition. They do not believe that benefits will flow to them after the unification of various state systems, as has been proposed by this government. I certainly find it difficult to believe that working Australians will see any benefit when it comes to the unification of occupational health and safety regulations for large businesses operating in multiple states. This is the point: we are talking about large businesses. We are not to be taken in by what is being said in relation to small business compliance. We are—make no mistake—talking about large businesses that operate in more than one state or territory jurisdiction.

The real risk is that the impacts will be felt by every single employee and employer throughout this country. There are serious consequences for employers who will remain in a state system after the multistate businesses—the corporations that are sizeable enough to work in the various state and territory jurisdictions—leave. There is going to be a financial void in the state system as a consequence of their removal. The employers who will feel the effect will generally be small businesses. As a direct result of this wonderful new approach, they are likely to find that the largest contributors to the pool of insurance at a state level leave and someone will have to make up the shortfall in those insurance premiums. And guess what: that someone will be the small businesses that remain in each of the state and territory jurisdictions. Changing the mix of insurance premium revenues will have adverse consequences for those remaining in the state and territory systems—those employers that only operate in each of those state and territory systems. As I say, in the main those employers will be the small businesses of this country.

One way or another, the shortfall in revenue will have to be dealt with. There are only two options. First, the premiums of businesses that remain will have to go up. I would have thought that the potential for this sort of impact on small business alone would have resulted in the Minister for Small Business and Tourism opposing these changes. I have to say that the minister is constantly criticising state governments, particularly the New South Wales government, on reducing compliance costs for small business. Will she support legislation that is likely to have a real and direct impact on the state and territory workers compensation scheme insurance premium costs faced by the very same small businesses? I do not know about you, Mr Deputy Speaker, but if I were a small business operator I expect that I would want the minister who represents me to have spoken out on these changes and acted to ensure that the level of workers compensation premiums that I would pay would be protected. There are no guarantees in this legislation. There is no compensation for those who are going to be hit by increased charges as a result of the departure of those larger organisations that operate in more than one state.

Once again, the minister for small business is keen to criticise other governments for not doing enough to help the small business community, while supporting her colleagues in their efforts to actively undermine small business in favour of large, multistate corporations, as we are seeing in this piece of legislation before us today. This government talks a lot about supporting the small business community but, when it comes to the crunch, it really fails to deliver. Increasing premiums of small business operators is only one possible outcome to accommodate the premium revenue shortfall. The other one is probably more serious because it is a reduction of entitlements of injured workers. Sadly, history informs us that this will probably be the option that is adopted.

One should not consider this bill in isolation. Despite it being introduced as a stand-alone piece of legislation and despite it seeming to be, as I said from the outset, a sensible resolution or proposition, this bill must be seen in the context of changes that have been recently introduced in the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991. When a light is shone on this bill, its contents and its interaction with the changes that have been previously debated in this place, you can see that, in addition to its agenda of lowering worker entitlements, the agenda of this bill is once again to drive a stake through the heart of the union movement. That is clearly revealed in the bill that is before us.

Amendments have already been made to the Commonwealth occupational health and safety laws that remove all reference to unions, replacing them with employee representatives which can be either a registered organisation, as in a union, or an unregistered staff organisation—some form of loose congregation of people in the workplace et cetera. These changes to the Commonwealth occupational health and safety laws also require the employee to invite employee representatives into the workplace. While unions were previously allowed to request, for instance, a visit from Comcare to investigate a matter, now it falls to an individual employee to initiate such requests.

These changes are aimed at creating an environment in which it is particularly difficult to get people who have a degree of expertise in considering occupational health and safety issues into the workplace. They are aimed at making it as difficult as possible for union representatives to bring occupational health and safety breaches and concerns to the attention of the relevant authorities. And they are aimed at making sure that individual employees have to take sole responsibility for initiating everything—a change probably developed with the secret hope that no individual employee would run the risk of jeopardising their future employment by raising occupational health and safety concerns.

I find it difficult to believe that a multistate firm faces significantly higher compliance costs as a result of having to deal with multiple occupational health and safety regimes. On the contrary, it seems to me that the real agenda here is a reduction in the level of protection of entitlements for employees. A reduction in compliance costs should not come at the expense of entitlements for working Australians. I oppose this bill and I give notice that I will continue to oppose each and every bill that this government presents between now and the next election that is designed to do nothing more than continue down the ideological path of an anti-worker agenda.