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Thursday, 18 September 2008
Page: 7923

Mr CHEESEMAN (12:52 PM) —I have certainly noted the contribution just made by the current member for Cowper. I am appalled that the coalition would suggest that liability for workplace injuries ought to be pushed onto employees. The Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 brings together two core themes that the Rudd government has. There is the issue of reform of the Australian federation through cooperative federalism and there is the issue of better workplace laws, of which perhaps the most important one is worker safety.

Cooperative federalism is one of our major reform areas. Cooperative federalism is about reducing duplication. It is a way we can improve consistency. It is a way we can improve efficiency. It is a way we can improve national productivity. It is a way we can simplify rules and improve public knowledge and understanding of rules. The Safe Work Australia Bill is about exactly that. This bill is good for workers as it will establish better national safety standards. It is good for workers as it will establish simpler, standardised, better understood, workplace safety rules. Safe Work Australia, as an independent national body, will have the role of improving occupational health and safety and of improving safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements across Australia as a whole. These aims will be good for business, good for government and good for workers. These reforms are a part of the Rudd Labor government’s goal of creating a seamless national economy that is not being dragged down by duplications and border disputes.

Of course there is more to this than economic efficiencies. More than 300 Australians are killed each year at work. Many more die as a result of work related diseases. Each year, over 140,000 Australians are seriously injured at work. The cost to our economy has been estimated at $34 billion per year. The cost to those injured and to their families, workmates and friends cannot be measured. My view is that 300 Australians dying each year is completely and totally unacceptable. We should not accept it. We should never accept that it is the way of the world that every year some fathers and mothers will walk out the front door while off to work, wave goodbye to their kids and families, and never come home. My view is that we have to raise the bar on workplace safety rules, raise the bar on knowledge of workplace safety procedures and raise the bar on adherence to those rules.

Let us look at this comparatively. No, we are not the worst-off country in the world when it comes to workplace safety—not by a long way. We have indeed built a workplace system, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Australian trade union movement, that is one of the best in the world. Our workplace safety systems are some of the most advanced in the world. We have come a long way. But we still have a long way to go.

Let us think of where Australia is today, broadly speaking—and Australia is one of the best countries in the world. Our workers compensation schemes are of course still very problematic. Workers compensation has been the source of major disputes between governments, businesses and unions for a long time. The schemes are very complicated and they are often very costly. There are all sorts of inconsistencies between jurisdictions. There is a long way to go in this area of workers compensation.

Then there are safety standards. Safety rules and regulations are a mishmash from one state to another. There are different rules and different standards, making it very difficult for workers, businesses and governments. Workers who move from one state to another are often confused or ignorant about workplace standards and procedures, leading to noncompliance and then accidents. There are many reasons why workplace accidents occur. Two central reasons are a lack of knowledge of and a lack of adherence to workplace safety procedures. If you have six different systems, of course you are going to have more confusion, a lack of knowledge, often indifference and a reduced inclination towards compliance with our safety rules. As they say, knowledge leads to action; confusion leads to inaction. In the workplace, confusion often leads to accidents. The establishment of Safe Work Australia will ultimately lead to simpler, universal rules and a better understanding of rules by workers and their employers. And that will lead to action.

Australia today has the opportunity to set a whole new standard in workplace safety. The establishment of Safe Work Australia is an essential part of the government’s strategy to facilitate improvements to safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements across Australia. Since we have come to office, the Rudd government have undertaken a review of the Comcare system, set up an independent panel of experts to conduct a national occupational health and safety review, and developed a landmark intergovernmental agreement with our state and territory counterparts to harmonise occupational health and safety legislation nationally. This bill, along with the intergovernmental agreement, brings a new era of cooperation between the state and federal governments on this matter. It addresses another key area of cooperative federalism that will save lives, simplify rules and reduce the cost of doing business. Safe Work Australia will replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, which was established by the Howard government and was a narrowly focused body with limited powers. Safe Work Australia will provide new benchmarks. It will be yet another example of why Labor is the party of reform.

Safe Work Australia is being tasked with some important jobs. Safe Work Australia will develop a national policy relating to occupational health and safety and workers compensation; prepare, monitor and revise model occupational health and safety standards and model codes of practice; develop a compliance and enforcement policy to ensure nationally consistent regulatory approaches across all jurisdictions; develop proposals relating to the harmonisation of workers compensation arrangements; collect, analyse and publish occupational health and safety and workers compensation data and undertake and publish research; drive national communications strategies to raise awareness of health and safety in the workplace; further develop the National Occupational Health and Safety Strategy; and advise the Workplace Relations Ministers Council on occupational health and safety and workers compensation matters. It is a big, big job. When this is achieved it will be seen as one of the great reforms within Australian workplaces and Australian industry. Safe Work Australia, in short, will be a big step forward for workers, their employers and their communities. It will be a body which will take Australian workplace safety laws to the next level to simplify safety laws and make them more effective and efficient.

I ask all members to think about this. There are four shires within my electorate. One of those shires—one of the smallest shires, the Colac Otway Shire—has had more than 900 work related injuries in the past five years, costing more than $18 million in rehabilitation and compensation payouts. That is a cost to local families, a cost to local businesses and a cost to government. Of course we always need to put things into some sort of absolute perspective. When the industrial world first came to Australia there were no workplace safety laws at all. In bits and pieces each colony, then state, put in place its own rules. These rules and regulations developed in their complexity in different ways in different states. Today, for the first time in Australian history, the states are committing to harmonising occupational health and safety legislation through this mechanism. This is essential and is a very productive reform.

I would also like to pay tribute to some of my former friends and colleagues within the trade union movement who for many years have championed occupational health and safety within their workplaces and have contributed substantially to making workplaces much, much safer. Their efforts have led to many more families being able to enjoy safe workplaces. When incidents occur they are looked after through the necessary compensation arrangements that have been put in place. I commend this bill to the House as a very substantial improvement in workers’ occupational health and safety.