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Thursday, 18 September 2008
Page: 7925

Mr CIOBO (1:02 PM) —I rise to speak to the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and the Safe Work Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2008. What we see in front of the House today is another example of Labor’s botched policy when it comes to so-called harmonisation of occupational health and safety across Australia. I know, as shadow small business minister, that the Minister for Small Business, Independent Contractors and the Service Economy, Dr Emerson, travels around Australia highlighting how this proposal will herald a new dawn and how this proposal will be a key part of Labor’s plans to bring harmonisation across Australia and to ensure that red tape is reduced.

But, like so many aspects of what Labor does, the bills that are before the House today are bills that execute, in traditional Labor fashion, its great plans to centralise power, to centralise regulation and to ensure that, where possible, those who do not have knowledge about occupational health and safety—who, it must be concluded from the legislation, are employers and employees—should, rather, turn to those who do have knowledge about occupational health and safety—who, it must be concluded again from the legislation, are in fact state government bureaucrats—to find out which is the best way forward. Because, like so many of Labor’s policies, the execution of this policy, which the minister will talk about across Australia and say is one of those key 27 areas where Labor intends to harmonise legislation to save red tape, will in fact introduce Safe Work Australia as the overarching body with responsibility for Australia’s national OH&S system as devised by the Australian Labor government. And in this case a number of key changes are being made.

Most concerning for me is that the core of this bill sees a reduction in the number of social partner representatives—that is, industry and union representatives—from three to two for each of the partners. Labor does not hold a monopoly on concern for the welfare of employers and employees when it comes to safe workplaces. Labor does not hold a monopoly, even though it is a trade union dominated political body that says it is the only one in this chamber concerned about whether or not Australia’s workplaces are safe. It is well and good to talk about having safe workplaces, but the execution of a policy designed to implement the best regulatory structure to achieve a safe workplace is a whole separate question, and that question is not best answered by the establishment of Safe Work Australia and a concurrent reduction in the number of social partner representatives. We see a one-third reduction in the representatives for the social partners when compared to the composition of the old Australian Safety and Compensation Council, which, through this bill, is effectively being replaced and rebranded—albeit in a way, as I have outlined, that compromises the tripartite approach traditionally required for OH&S regulation to effectively operate in workplaces.

We now see, as a result of the execution of this bill, the creation of an imbalance whereby workplaces directly impacted by the formulation and development of OH&S will actually be denied the opportunity to genuinely participate in the decision-making processes that underpin the entire formulation of such policy—and that point cannot be stressed enough. This Labor Party policy, despite it being sold—or perhaps a better phrase would be ‘despite the minister spinning it’—as being a step in the right direction, will actually see the massive centralisation of power here in Canberra and an increase in percentage and proportional terms of bureaucrats and not of groups like ACCI or, indeed, of the trade union movement.

It is worth noting that we should not easily sideline groups like ACCI. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is a very influential organisation—and rightly so, because ACCI represents over four million employees and hundreds of thousands of employers. From my perspective, it is very clear that a group that specifically advocates for and represents hundreds of thousands of employers—and, through those employers, four million employees—should be listened to. To have a watering down of their role in this process seems to me absurd. But it does not seem absurd to the Labor Party, because we know, as I said, that Labor’s approach in this bill is not to have a belief that employers and employees should have a place at the table in the same proportions as they did previously, but rather that the best decisions when it comes to OH&S are of course made by the bureaucrats. So that is the theme that we see woven throughout this legislation, and that is the outcome that will be achieved.

There would be many employers and employees, I am sure, especially in Australia’s small-business sector—which, of itself, represents about 2.4 million small businesses employing around four million Australians—who would be scratching their heads at this proposal by the Labor Party. They would be scratching their heads because we saw, up until last weekend, the Labor Party in power in every single state across our federation. They were glorious days for the Australian Labor Party. But, thankfully, that wall of trade union and political apparatchiks has now been broken. It is like the busting of the dam. And there is a new sunlight over in Western Australia. But the dam wall has been breached, and we look forward to more of it coming down in due course. But, that notwithstanding, small businesses across Australia would be scratching their heads today because they would be wondering why it is that the Rudd Labor government believes the best way forward on OH&S is to ensure that maximum power is given to state government bureaucrats and representatives when they themselves are responsible for the mess of OH&S laws that exist across Australia today.

The federal minister stands up and says how Safe Work Australia is a step in the right direction, through the centralisation of power here in Canberra—one step removed from the state based OH&S systems that we had—and that that is a step forward. But, by the way, it will actually be the state based bureaucrats that have the majority say when it comes to the operation of Safe Work Australia. It is little wonder then that I have had small-business owners, employers and employees talk to me about their concerns about what this bill will actually mean. At the end of the day, it is well and good for the minister to stand up and make a comment, and it is well and good for the Rudd Labor government to claim that this is a step in the right direction, but the execution and the implementation of it are fundamentally different. I have genuine concerns that, when the coalition explores this further in the other place, the actual result of the implementation of this legislation will be that we will see employers and employees effectively sidelined from the formulation of OH&S policy development—and that would certainly be a step in the wrong direction.

The key reason, as I said, is because of the actual composition of SWA. It will, without a doubt, lead to a situation where government representatives will be able to repeatedly override legitimate concerns raised by those social partners in the union movement and, for example, ACCI. During OH&S harmonisation discussions, including concerns relating to increased costs or impractical safety proposals for workplaces, we will see state government representatives saying, ‘Well, sorry; you are just going to have to cop that. That is just going to be part of it, because this is what we need because it will no doubt suit the bureaucracy, even though in practical application employers and employees could in fact be much worse off.’ We see many examples of this in practice at a state government level today. We have seen many examples of Labor’s botched handling of OH&S at a state government level—examples where, at a state government level, we have seen the encroachment of ridiculous attempts to ensure compliance and execute so-called safety concerns to actually achieve other outcomes that state Labor governments have sought.

There are issues such as right of entry. How many instances exist in Australia where we see right of entry requirements executed through OH&S laws? How many times will Australians—both employers and employees—now be subjected to encroachment by unions into workplaces under the guise of OH&S? My concern is that, with SWA effectively subject to ministerial direction, we could see this Rudd Labor government, which owes a very big debt to the trade union movement, making sure that they do their bidding. Let us not lose sight of the fact that this side of the House is not owned by any one organisation, unlike the Australian Labor Party. And the Australian Labor Party, we know, is the political wing of the trade union movement of Australia. I see members opposite shaking their heads—members of the government are saying that that is not the case. You cannot be a member of the Labor Party unless you are in a trade union.

We know that the Australian government is only there today because about $100 million of trade union funds flowed into an advertising campaign to help get Kevin Rudd elected. The member for Griffith knows that he has a very big debt to pay back to Australia’s trade union movement. There can be no doubt—and it should be of especially great concern to Australia’s 2.4 million small businesses—that the government’s rush to bring in SWA will actually see all sorts of opportunities created down the track, under this new, centralised, you-beaut, Labor policy, under ministerial direction, for unions to have access to workplaces, pretending to have, or being spun as having, genuine concern and regard for occupational health and safety.

We see as well that the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Minister Gillard, appears to be determined not to listen to stakeholders—those representatives of employers and employees with significant involvement in workplaces—because, through the reduction of their representation and the reliance on state representatives who have already repeatedly failed, as I have outlined, we see that that seems to be the strategy for the execution of this legislation and the development of Safe Work Australia.

In addition, the foundation upon which Safe Work Australia has been established is also fundamentally flawed because it requires the direction and success of SWA to be contingent on the cooperation and participation of the Workplace Relations Ministers Council, to which it directly reports. We know that members of the ministerial council have repeatedly failed to attend or, at times, cooperate with the Commonwealth in these meetings in which there have been issues and legitimate concerns raised about just how effective SWA will be in an environment where state Labor governments have traditionally been unwilling to cooperate and genuinely contribute to discussions about the harmonisation of OH&S laws across Australia.

Where the ministerial council fails to meet or refuses to cooperate and consider Safe Work Australia issues, the work of SWA will effectively come to a halt. That is another key concern that the coalition has about the proposed legislation. It will ensure that we see the creation of an unjustifiable imbalance. Improving OH&S performance will be critically dependent on there being an effort and buy-in from all stakeholders, and a process that does not seek to engage workers and employers in a meaningful way will not lead to improvements in workplace health and safety. Labor’s duplicity in this regard is further highlighted by its failure to report back to parliament on the progress of SWA. How extraordinary that this bill proposes that SWA report back to this parliament only once every six years. Once every six years is what the Labor Party is putting forward as its plan to ensure that Safe Work Australia remains accountable to this parliament.

We have the sidelining of employer representatives, the sidelining of employee representatives, the centralisation of power in Canberra and control being given to the state representatives who have failed in the past but who will now have the casting and controlling number of votes on SWA—representatives who are also now being required to report back to the parliament only once every six years. This is potentially a recipe for a great deal of pain, problems, increased red tape, additional compliance costs and lower employment. That very reasonably is the expected outcome as a result of the creation of SWA.

I say to all of Australia’s small businesses—and also, of course, the large businesses—and to those employees who are genuinely concerned about the safety of their workplaces: keep a very close eye on the execution, implementation and development of OH&S laws under SWA. It is my concern that we will see a body that will be dominated by state bureaucrats, a body that will execute the same kinds of botched and failed policies that we have seen all over this country under the raft of Labor governments that existed—and still do exist in large part. We will also see a Prime Minister and a minister who are so indebted to Australia’s trade union movement that, under ministerial direction, we see the thin end of the wedge getting driven into Australian workplaces.

All of these concerns are the reason why the coalition will ensure that this bill is properly scrutinised, is thoroughly investigated and has its consequences fully explored in the other place. The coalition will not oppose this bill in this place, but we certainly reserve the right to examine it much more closely. Whilst in principle we support the notion of less red tape, we also have those very specific and genuine concerns about what this bill will actually result in for Australia’s 2.4 million small businesses and, more importantly, across all workplaces in this country.