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Thursday, 18 September 2008
Page: 7915


Mr MARLES (12:15 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008, which is a bill to create an independent national body which will oversee occupational health and safety and workers compensation in this country, to be known as Safe Work Australia. This represents the first major legislative step by the Rudd government to create in our nation one single occupational health and safety and workers compensation system.

Occupational health and safety is an issue which is very dear to my heart. In my previous life at the ACTU, and also as a member of the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission and then the Australian Safety and Compensation Council—both of which will be predecessor bodies to Safe Work Australia—I made many speeches around occupational health and safety to try and promote the issue of OH&S in the nation’s public discussion. So it is a real joy—indeed, an honour—for me to be standing here in what is really the heart of our nation’s public debate, the House of Representatives, to repeat some of those words today.

Before I talk about occupational health and safety, I would like, with your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, to take a moment to talk about an event which at first may seem unrelated but whose relevance will become clear very quickly. It is a significant event in Australia’s history and one which is central to our national identity, and that is the ANZAC campaign at Gallipoli. Gallipoli is a story which is very much at the heart of our nation’s culture. You can see that in all the Lone Pine Streets around our suburbs. The spirit of Anzac is evoked on many occasions. Even the film Gallipoli is an icon in our Australian film history, starring, as it does, Mel Gibson and directed by Peter Weir.

Why Gallipoli is so important to the Australian culture is not entirely obvious, but partly it must be that it is the story which embodies Australia’s participation in the First World War. There can be no doubt as to why that conflict was so important in Australia’s history. The loss of life of Australians in that conflict was staggering. Proportionately as many lives were lost by Australia in that conflict as by any of the allies who fought in it. That such an event happened so early on in our nation’s history makes it clear why it should be seared onto our national consciousness. You cannot go into a country town or a city in Australia with a population of more than one or two hundred without finding in it a monument to those who died in the First World War. For the record, in the nine-month campaign at Gallipoli, 8,000 Australians lost their lives. In the greater World War I conflict, 60,000 Australians lost their lives and 156,000 Australians were injured.

As I say, that may seem to be an odd way to start a discussion about occupational health and safety. So it is worth thinking about the situation of occupational health and safety in Australia today. The most conservative estimates say that well in excess of 2,000 Australians die each and every year as a result of their work, and there are many estimates far larger than that. To put that figure in context, with all its accumulated heartache, trauma and tragedy, the national road toll to the month of August this year was 1,510. In the 12 months leading up to September 2000, 477,800 Australians were injured at work, and it is estimated that, when all is said and done, something in the vicinity of 40,000 to 60,000 Australians will die as a result of work related exposure to asbestos. These figures are staggering and they beg the question of whether or not we should simply accept these figures as the price of doing business in a modern market economy. The human tragedy and misery that those accumulated figures represent for me completely answers that question: we must never accept it.

When I first heard those figures, the only comparison that I could think of in terms of Australian life was indeed the loss of Australian life and injury during World War I. But, whilst the figures may be similar, the place that occupational health and safety holds on the one hand and World War I holds on the other in the national psyche could not be further removed from each other. There are no monuments in all those country towns to those Australians who have died as a result of work related exposure to asbestos. There is no film directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson which tells the tragedy of Australia’s occupational health and safety record. While I completely understand that films and monuments are not going to save lives, that does say a little to me about the lack of priority that our nation places upon occupational health and safety. Given the lack of priority that we place on occupational health and safety, it should be little wonder to any of us that by international standards our OH&S record is found wanting.

I have made that comparison on many occasions over the last few years, and, to me, something of an improvement in the profile of occupational health and safety has occurred in those few years, I think by virtue of two events. First was the tragedy of the death of Larry Knight at Beaconsfield and the accompanying drama of the rescue of Todd Russell and Brant Webb, which absolutely held our nation spellbound for the better part of two weeks. I think what we need to remember about the heroic rescue in that case was that underlying it was an occupational health and safety incident, and a major one at that.

I also think one of the reasons we find it difficult to digest the effects of occupational health and safety injuries and deaths is the nature of the injuries and deaths. In fact, traumatic deaths are a small proportion of those who die as a result of their work. Far and away the majority of people who die as a result of their work do so by virtue of having contracted some disease. They die an often lonely and unnoticed death many years later in their homes or in a hospital. For those people, a story in the last couple of years has highlighted their situation, and that of course was the heroic life of Bernie Banton, who maintained a magnificent struggle against James Hardie in winning a landmark settlement with that company.

In these two events, I think we have seen the profile of OH&S beginning to be raised in our national discussion. We are seeing this great untold Australian story beginning to be told, and that is very welcome. But it has not come too soon, because there are many statistics which indicate that the situation is getting worse. I said that in the 12 months to September 2000, 477,800 Australians were injured at work. In the financial year 2005-06, that figure rose to 689,500. Over that five-year period, whilst the workforce grew by 12 per cent, accidents in the workplace grew by 44 per cent, with an additional 200,000 Australians being injured in that year compared to five years earlier. Of the many indictments that exist of the Howard government years, for my money, this is amongst the worst.

How we improve our occupational health and safety record is actually a difficult and complex question. Certainly it does involve telling the story of occupational health and safety in this country. But when you drill down to it there are a couple of issues which I think we do need to improve on if we are going to see changes in the workplace. For example, all too often, it seems to me, we regulate the symptoms of occupational health and safety hazards rather than the causes. For example, there is myriad regulation out there aimed at preventing people from tripping and falling at work, and of course that is a good thing. The single biggest reason why a person would trip or fall at work is that they were tired or fatigued at the time. However, there is barely any regulation around fatigue in occupational health and safety. Indeed, the great causes of occupational health and safety hazards in this country—fatigue, stress and bullying—go almost entirely unregulated, and in that we are a country mile behind the leading nations in Europe.

Another issue, which is related to the first, is the manner in which we keep statistics in this country. We keep very good statistics around workers compensation. But if you take a moment to look at those statistics, you will find they are a measure of the symptoms. They are describing the kinds of injuries that have occurred; they are not describing the causes which gave rise to the injuries. As a result, when that is the base data that we are working with when we try and formulate policy, it should be no surprise that the regulation that evolves is regulation around symptoms rather than causes. But underlying all of that is this: to solve these issues and to take the kinds of decisions that we need to around those two issues that I have highlighted, and to raise the profile of occupational health and safety in this country, we need to have a proper apparatus for occupational health and safety and workers compensation in Australia. That is why the bill that we are debating today is so important and why it is so critical to giving us the machinery to solve these issues.

The first point to be made about what is wrong with our public policy architecture around occupational health and safety is that instead of having a single system in Australia we have nine systems—six states, two territories and the Commonwealth jurisdiction. Whilst there is a great deal of consistency between each of those jurisdictions, there are differences as well. In all my time in occupational health and safety, it was never obvious to me why a Victorian set of ears was more sensitive to noise than those in Western Australia. To be fair to the Howard government, they did understand this issue, but their response to it was a knee-jerk response which made the whole field of occupational health and safety and workers compensation even more complex, and in fact did the wrong thing in terms of providing a safety framework.

Through an old regime of licences, which ultimately were an incident of competition policy, which in a sense is another story, the Howard government allowed a number of companies to access Comcare—the Commonwealth workers compensation scheme—and then, via that, the Commonwealth’s occupational health and safety jurisdiction. It was a cobbled together idea. There was no preparation in there. The single biggest issue is this: the Commonwealth jurisdiction is simply not set up to enforce occupational health and safety laws in environments that are heavily blue-collar like construction sites or transport yards. If you look at the enforcement indicators that exist, in the financial year 2005-06 there were 70 prosecutions in the state of Victoria and none in the Commonwealth jurisdiction. In terms of provisional improvement notices, there were 11,168 in Victoria and 12 in the Commonwealth jurisdiction. Taking account of the relative sizes of the jurisdictions, if you were an employer in Victoria in that year you were 24 times more likely to be the subject of an inspection than if you were an employer in the Commonwealth jurisdiction. That is not a marginal difference; that is a situation where on the one hand a system is being enforced and on the other it is not. And it is absolutely fair to say that Commonwealth occupational health and safety under the Howard years represented the Wild West of occupational health and safety law. It was to that scheme that they tried to attract national employers through what was essentially a federal power grab. It was confrontational federalism at its worst. Today, in this place, the legislative process has begun to rectify all of that.

The Rudd government are approaching this in an entirely different way. We are engaging in cooperative federalism by putting in place Safe Work Australia, a body which is being established with the cooperation of all the states and territories in Australia. Importantly, Safe Work Australia will, for the first time, unlike its predecessors, be a body which is jointly funded by the Commonwealth and the states so that the states have a real sense of ownership in what Safe Work Australia ultimately does. Safe Work Australia will be charged with the responsibility of developing national policy around occupational health and safety and workers compensation and, importantly, of guiding us down the path of harmonising our occupational health and safety laws to a more consistent regime of workers compensation in this country. It will look after the standards and codes which traditionally have been looked after by NOHSC and the ASCC.

To be frank, the drivel that we just heard from the Deputy Leader of the Opposition about the kinds of people who are going to be on this body was astounding. It demonstrates that she has not the faintest idea about how those bodies worked or how this body works. In fact, the best experts in occupational health and safety and workers compensation are, without a doubt, those people in Australia who are actually running these jurisdictions. This body will be a tripartite body, as NOHSC and the ASCC have been, which is very important because you then get the expertise of both the union movement and the employer movement involved in the deliberations.

Safe Work Australia will also have responsibility for collecting data and, given the issue that I raised before, this offers real hope for actually getting statistics and information properly orientated around occupational health and safety in this country. Safe Work Australia will also be charged with the responsibility of developing a communications strategy. As I said at the outset of my contribution, raising the profile of occupational health and safety in our national discussion is very important. Safe Work Australia will have an independent chair. I have worked under the independent chairs of NOHSC and the ASCC, Jerry Ellis and Bill Scales, both of whom have made an enormous contribution to occupational health and safety in this country in what I might say were very difficult circumstances for both of them. They have taught me the importance of having a strong, independent chair leading an organisation such as this. As I say, there will be representatives from each of the jurisdictions, from employers and employees, giving the body a proper tripartite basis.

This legislative initiative today, together with the Rudd government’s review of the Comcare scheme, together with the establishment of an independent panel which is looking at the national occupational health and safety framework in Australia, and together with the landmark intergovernmental agreement between all the states and territories and the Commonwealth around harmonising our occupational health and safety laws, represents a very significant forward program to rectify what is, by international standards, a very poor occupational health and safety record. We absolutely need to do that and as quickly as we can. Occupational health and safety affects everyone. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Australians have their lives changed because of an injury in the workplace. That means that every year Australia’s poor occupational health and safety record breeds a well of misery which is unmatched in its scale in almost any other part of Australian life. It is time to start the process of changing Australia’s occupational health and safety performance. That start begins with this bill.