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Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Page: 179

Mr PRICE (11:08 AM) —I too rise to speak against the OHS and SRC Legislation Amendment Bill 2005. It is a privilege to follow the member for Werriwa, a staunch advocate for workers through his industrial career and also as a parliamentarian. I commend him and the task force on the good work they are doing to access the views of the people of Australia about this government’s extreme industrial relations reforms.

I said I opposed this bill. I am driven to it—although I would ordinarily be inclined to oppose it—by the sad death of a 16-year-old lad from Doonside, Joel Exner, who, tragically, on his first or second day of employment, fell to his death. It caused a tremendous reaction from the students at Doonside Technology High School and the Doonside community, and of course it has had a statewide impact. Joel, I am up here again saying we need to do more about occupational health and safety. Wouldn’t you think, Mr Deputy Speaker, that this was one area where both sides of politics could agree?

It is estimated by the International Labour Organisation that there are 6,700 work related deaths per year in Australia. I find that figure astounding. Someone may say that is wrong. Even if it was one death, it is one death too many. Surely members of parliament, whether they are Labor, Liberal, Nationals or Independent, could join together and seek to have better and safer workplaces. I have to say, whatever you say about the trade union movement—and this government has an ideological hatred of them—they have done good work in the area of occupational health and safety. Over the last couple of decades, there have been significant improvements in occupational health and safety, but an estimated 6,700 deaths is just too many.

If that figure does not move you, the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggests that there are nearly half a million workers who suffer injury or illness each and every year. Again, that is far too many. Couldn’t we have a debate about how we could reduce these figures, how we could make workplaces safer and how we can ensure that, when mum, dad or the young people of Australia set off to work of a morning, they can be confident that they will return safe from death and safe from injury? This bill is not about any of this. It continues this government’s extreme ideological obsession with and legislation about industrial relations and perpetuates its hatred of trade unions. It seeks to reduce their role in the area of occupational health and safety. It is an area in which trade unions—not so much the secretaries of trade unions or the organisers but the occupational health and safety work delegates—have done such a good job in trying to improve our Australian record.

I am a bit surprised at some of the impacts that this bill will have. It means that a number of corporations are now going to self-insure. We know what this government’s record is when it comes to regulatory authorities. We only have to look at the sad fiasco of HIH and how citizens’ money was squandered. We have even had a royal commission into it. As a result of the royal commission, criminal charges were laid against the directors, but the regulatory authorities were not up to the mark. Who believes under self-insurance that workers are going to be better off or that there will be money available in the event of one of the 6,700 deaths or some half a million workers who incur injury or illness? I certainly do not believe that.

The interesting thing is that the Commonwealth does not have its own force of safety inspectors. I am not particularly critical of that but, if you are using the state government safety inspectors, aren’t those people who actually have a look and see what the problem has been at the work site the best people to determine whether or not charges should be proceeded with? Shouldn’t those state organisations have the ultimate responsibility to say, ‘Yes, we’re prosecuting’? If you do not own the inspectors, why do you want this prosecution role? I do not understand that at all.

The truth about the results of this legislation, this extreme industrial relations agenda that the government has, is that more workers will now be exposed to Comcare’s low cap on pain and suffering damages. There will be low lump sum payments for permanent impairment. How are workers better off under this regime? I understand only too well the on-costs associated with workers’ compensation that are faced by business, and in particular by small business. But I do not believe that this is the best solution that we can find.

I repeat that the death of Joel Exner in my electorate has had a profound impact on the whole community—in particular, the Doonside community. I would like to have a debate about how we can tighten rules for occupational health and safety. I think it is legitimate to have a debate about whether criminal negligence provisions should be applied to people who knowingly have unsafe workplaces that cause these deaths and which have resulted in half a million injuries. Why can’t we have a debate about what is a reasonable target to aim for in reducing industrial deaths? Why can’t we have a debate about what is a reasonable target to aim for in terms of workers suffering injury or illness as a result of going to work?

Some fundamental things about Australia are changing. The old idea that you went to work and, for a fair day’s work, you copped a fair day’s pay, is going. People think that when they go to work, they will come home to their wife or husband and to their children. Even grandparents are now worrying about their grandchildren in their work opportunities. And in this era of industrial law, they are worried about their safety. This does nothing to allay anyone’s fears. If this is the balance that the Prime Minister talks about when he talks about his extreme industrial relations agenda, it is all one way. As the honourable member for Werriwa said, it is all one way against the worker.

I am in favour of balance. I do not think that everything should be in favour of the worker, but there is no balance here. It behoves us all—you, Mr Deputy Speaker Wilkie, the members on this side, the member for Shortland and the member for Melbourne Ports, as well as the member for Canning—to work in the national interest and to find those balances. That is what the people of Australia expect. When elections are held, they expect that all parliamentarians will act in the national interest for the benefit of all the citizens of Australia—not for sectional minorities, and not in order to bring up historical gripes that a Prime Minister may have suffered over more than 30 years in public life. Unfortunately, this is what we are getting.

I will finish on this point: I have always said that I think, by and large, the people of Australia, when they go to the polls, get it right. And I will say about this government that the people of Australia will take a dim view of extreme agendas. They will take a dim view when they see that there is a lack of fairness and balance in what is being done. They will take a very dim view of the arrogant use of power, the drunkenness of power, that has come to the coalition with the control of the Senate and the House. You can gloat here, you can score your points here, but beware of the people of Australia when they next go to the ballot box.