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Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Page: 181

Ms HALL (11:19 AM) —I would like to concur with the words of the member for Chifley and congratulate him on making such a well-argued contribution to this debate. His contribution highlighted many of the concerns that we on this side of the parliament have about the direction this government is going in with not only occupational health and safety but also workplace relations and any issue or law that relates to the workplace.

This government has a very poor record in the area of OH&S. I have made contributions to many of the debates that have looked at the changes that the government has forced upon workers who are covered by Comcare and those who are covered by the Commonwealth employment act. I have to say that, under this government, the laws have been weakened and changed to such an extent that I have real concerns. As somebody who has actually worked in the area of rehabilitation, with workers who have been injured and were covered by Comcare, I find it very disturbing that what was once I think possibly the best scheme available in Australia for workers injured at work has now been changed to such an extent that it does not provide the protection that workers need and deserve. It actually works against the rehabilitation process.

This piece of legislation that we are debating today—the OHS and SRC Legislation Amendment Bill 2005—allows corporations licensed as self-insurers under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1998 to be covered under the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act. It will be administered by Comcare. This is hardly legislation about occupational health and safety and ensuring proper coverage for workers who are working in those precincts that are going to be covered by this legislation.

While I am making this short contribution to the debate, I would just like to mention a number of negative implications of the government’s changes to occupational health and safety. In doing so, I would have to say that a number of these implications have also been identified by the ACTU. Entitlements under Comcare vary to those of other states and territories. As I mentioned at the start of my contribution to this debate, Comcare, I thought, was once the best coverage that was available to injured workers in Australia—I was comparing that to WorkCover and other workers compensation legislation. Unfortunately, that has changed drastically and dramatically under this government.

As to consequences for employers remaining in state OH&S systems, the movement of large multistate employers to Comcare administered national state schemes could mean that premium revenue lost by states and territories would leave remaining employers to face higher premiums in the future. Given the government’s workplace relations legislation, I think that is a real concern. Reduced premium pools in states and territories will in turn place increased pressure on entitlements for injured workers. There are privacy considerations for individuals. Human resource departments of employers who self-insure will have to have access to information on employees which, under state and territory schemes, only insurance companies could have access to. They are real concerns.

Along with those concerns I have concerns that the amendments already made to the act—amendments I have mentioned previously—remove the need for employers and government agencies to negotiate OH&S agreements with unions and employees through the introduction of so-called management arrangements. I made a contribution when that was debated in the House, and I stand by what I said at the time. I think that members on this side of the House have serious concerns about that change. Also, all reference to unions has been removed and replaced by ‘an employee representative’, which once again shows that this government is not driven by what is best for the workers and for Australia as a whole; rather, it is driven by its ideological hatred of unions. Everything this government does is driven by this. It is not looking at what is going to deliver the best outcomes as far as workplace safety is concerned.

Employee representatives must be invited into the workplace by an employee, which this government makes as difficult as possible. Where previously a union could make a request to Comcare to investigate a workplace, an employee must now invite an employee representative to initiate that investigation. I have to say that the role played by the unions was very valuable in ensuring that a workplace was safe. It was a proactive move and something that in the past prevented many workplace injuries. Employee representatives involved in developing OH&S management arrangements must be issued with a certificate by the CEO of Comcare which is valid for only 12 months. Finally, employers are allowed to conduct the election of employee health and safety representatives, a role previously conducted by a union or a person specified by the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission.

My contribution to this debate is intended only to be short. I believe this legislation is not what occupational health and safety should be about. This legislation is not about improving safety in the workplace; rather, it is just more of the same for a government that is driven by an ideological hatred of unions.