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Thursday, 18 September 2008
Page: 7931

Mr HAWKE (1:27 PM) —I rise to speak on the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and the Safe Work Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2008. The primary purpose of the Safe Work Australia Bill is to establish Safe Work Australia as an independent Commonwealth statutory body to oversee occupational health and safety—OH&S—outcomes and workers compensation arrangements in Australia.

I want to note my grave concern about this legislation as it stands before this House today, in the sense that the bill proposes a reduction in the level of industry and union representation in the mix of Safe Work Australia. Indeed, it seems to be harking back to that principle espoused by so many Labor governments around Australia that government knows better than the industry. I find it ironic that in this chamber we have heard speakers representing the ACTU—the Australian Council of Trade Unions—speak on how it is a good thing that there will be a reduction in the ACTU and Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry representation on the Safe Work Australia body through the specific reduction in social partner representation. This, of course, will have the undesired outcome of enhancing state governments’ involvement in the decision-making process on the presumption that somehow these state governments will produce better OH&S outcomes around the country.

I do not think it stands up to a great deal of scrutiny that the states have done a superior job on occupational health and safety and will therefore do a great job as part of a national body. I acknowledge that some states have performed well on reforming OH&S legislation, but my own state of New South Wales is not one of them. For example, in 2006, New South Wales introduced some legislation to harmonise occupational health and safety with some of the other states. What we saw was a litany of delays—committees, reviews and consultation. A report was produced after many months of uncertainty, proposed changes, discussion, consultation and so on. The end result was a recommendation not to proceed with this legislation which would have harmonised and produced a better result in the area of occupational health and safety. This was in spite of the fact that WorkCover New South Wales was in favour of this reform. Indeed, there is a need for reform. We do need to have a federal body to reform and improve national standards of occupational health and safety for the future. We need to take away the presumption of guilt that is thrown at employers. We need to ensure that we have not only a presumption of innocence but also rigorous mechanisms for delving into cases where employers might not be doing the right thing. At the moment, that balance has not been properly struck.

The government has proposed in this bill that the composition of Safe Work Australia will include the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Council of Trade Unions. But there are real concerns that the states, with their vested interest in not changing this legislation, will dominate the decision making of this body. It is the case that the states around Australia have been captured by unions and are beholden to unions. We have seen that at so many levels. It would be a poor outcome for Australia if we had a national body, formed under the guise of reform, that did not produce real reform—a body that could spend many months discussing and disseminating ideas but would have the voting power to vote down anything that may be meaningful or substantial.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Council of Trade Unions are serious bodies. They represent their members and workers well. With their respective responsibilities and roles, they do a great job for Australia. I would much prefer to have their input strengthened, because occupational health and safety is essentially about the relationship between the employer and the employee and ensuring that they are cooperating to produce great outcomes in occupational health and safety. The experience of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Council of Trade Unions will be valuable on this body. We should be seeking to increase and enhance their representation rather than reducing it in favour of state governments.

I think it is quite accepted around Australia today that the states do not have a brilliant record on many things, particularly New South Wales. Certainly, in terms of infrastructure, they do not have a great record of providing public transport in my electorate. My electorate has the highest dependency on cars of any electorate in Australia. We have heard today that the $12 billion metro line that has been promised by the New South Wales government since 1999 is going to be scrapped—again—in favour of a heavy rail option potentially in the next 20 years. My electorate has the highest proportion of car ownership in Australia and it has no train line running through it anywhere. So I certainly do not accept the contention that the states dominating this body will produce a better outcome for occupational health and safety in Australia. I think it will give governments an undue influence over outcomes.

I want to pay tribute to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Council of Trade Unions. I also note that the member for Corangamite mentioned Bernie Banton. Bernie Banton resided in my electorate of Mitchell, and one of my first sad duties as the member-elect was to attend his funeral. He was a great campaigner for occupational health and safety. His funeral at Homebush was a fitting and moving tribute to his life. I felt very privileged to represent the people of my electorate in recognising his service and his contribution to occupational health and safety. I note also that he was a great friend and long-time associate of my predecessor Alan Cadman.

One of the difficulties with having a single federal enforcement agency that has nine Commonwealth, state and territory reps and only two employer reps and two employee reps is that, more often than not, you get a heavily politicised outcome. Industry experience is outnumbered. If you examine clause 38 of the explanatory memorandum you will see the way that voting is conducted. It requires a two-thirds majority of members on occupational health and safety matters—other than the model occupational health and safety legislation—and an absolute majority of the Commonwealth, states and territories.

This again highlights one of the deficiencies of this bill, which is that we require an absolute majority of Commonwealth, states and territories to be present to achieve reform. Essentially, if even half of the states and territories do not agree on reform, we are not going to get reform—which again will lead to a domination by the states and territories, with their vested interests. It begs the question: where is the bold reform? Where is the new era of cooperative federalism? That is a term that has been bandied about in this debate. Cooperative federalism really produces cooperative bureaucracy—and cooperative bureaucracy does not produce outcomes; it produces bureaucracy. That is my fear in relation to the model that the government is proposing.

I do feel that, if you examine some of the provisions, there is a good case for saying that a body that represents 350,000 businesses and 280,000 enterprises that employ fewer than 20 people, that has a national network through industry associations and chambers of commerce and that has been formed virtually since Federation ought to have a strong say in the occupational health and safety policies and procedures of this nation. But I also stand up, ironically, for the Australian Council of Trade Unions. It represents two million workers and their families. It has been in place for almost 100 years as well. Look at the campaign in relation to James Hardie. Some great outcomes have been achieved over the years on behalf of workers. But this outcome is not a good one for either body in the sense that they will have a reduced say in future legislation and in harmonising OH&S legislation.

The fact is that New South Wales has worked to stymie reform in occupational health and safety. It has worked to delay legislation that was looking to ensure that the presumption of guilt was examined and removed, even when WorkCover was in favour of this reform. I think that highlights that there are some flaws in this model and that there could be a case for some strong reform. I think the limitation of the involvement of the social partners will, without a doubt, lead to a situation where government reps override legitimate concerns that are raised by the social partners during their discussions.

If we are really going to be serious about reform we should look at the notion raised by one of my colleagues—that is, to have a federal body where industry and the unions are the main partners, where they tackle the real issues and recommend a model directly to the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. I think that is a much better model than going through the ministerial council. It is another layer of bureaucracy that will, I think, stymie what may well be legitimate attempts at reform by the government and reform that we would all like to see in relation to occupational health and safety to ensure better workplaces. That is the approach that is adopted by this government too often: if we are in doubt, we may send something to a committee. If we are in doubt about the committee, we will have a review. If we have a review then we will need a report. We will take time to look at the report and then we may be able to produce an insubstantial and weak policy response that will not do very much to address the core problems that we are having. That is not a good way to run government, and over time that may well produce some poor results here.

I do not think this model, as it stands, will produce the results that the government is seeking. The states and their vested interests are set to dominate. We may well be back here at some time in the future to revisit this body in order to ensure that industry and the unions have a greater say at the table and are able to work together to propose new and meaningful reform. I find it a concern that the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations is determined not to listen to the stakeholders. I think the representatives of employers and employees with significant involvement in workplaces really need to be listened to on this. We should come back here, revisit this legislation and ensure that we have a body that has much more input from industry and the unions.

The foundation upon which Safe Work Australia has been established does appear to have that flaw in it. With the direction and success of Safe Work Australia being contingent on the cooperation and participation of the ministerial council, it certainly raises some questions about whether, if the ministerial council is not meeting or not operating well, we can again move forward with reform. Safe Work Australia will be required under this model to report directly to the ministerial council. The fact is that there may be members of the ministerial council who repeatedly fail to attend or cooperate with the Commonwealth in these meetings, which raises some concerns about how effective it will be when state governments are unwilling to cooperate or genuinely contribute to harmonisation questions.

As I stated previously, I think it is an acknowledged fact and maxim at the moment that most state governments are captive to the unions. Very little can be done in any of the states without getting a union seal of approval or a tick-off from the unions. Certainly a balance has not been struck between achieving good economic outcomes and good outcomes for members of unions. When we have states that are beholden to unions and captive to their policies and will not change their outlook on things that need modernisation and reform, we really have a blockage and an impediment to achieving reform in Australia that we do need to take steps towards removing. I think having all those partners that are so beholden to unions means that the whole structure of Safe Work Australia is out of kilter. If the ministerial council fails to meet or refuses to cooperate, there will be a concern that the operation of Safe Work Australia’s reform program and its policies may well come to a halt. I do not think that will be a good development.

Improving occupational health and safety, I might add, is a critically important area. It is critically dependent as well on a collaborative approach and a collaborative effort. If we are really serious about achieving some improvement in occupational health and safety, we want a process that engages workers and employees in a meaningful way. That is my essential criticism of this legislation. Many of the states have already rejected attempts at meaningful reform. Many of them have tied up reform in bureaucracy, committees and reports and then have ultimately rejected that reform. I do not think we are going to see much movement in terms of having states come to the federal table for more discussions, more debate, when they still have those vested interests and those blockages to achieving real and meaningful reform.

The bill currently proposes an inadequate process for reporting back to parliament every six years on the progress of Safe Work Australia. I do not think it is acceptable that Labor wants to introduce a state dominated independent authority that has no requirement to report to this place for six years. That is an important point for us to make a contribution on. If you are serious about achieving real reform, I do not think setting a six-year time frame for a report to this place is really a meaningful time frame in which to say, ‘Look, we’ve got states that want some reform and we’ve got a Commonwealth that wants some reform. We’re going to get a new body, Safe Work Australia, together. We’re going to have a discussion about reform and we’re going to set a report date to the Commonwealth in six years time.’ I really do not see that as a genuine time frame for us to make a contribution.

I do believe that this government sometimes has some reasonable objectives—and occupational health and safety does require some examination and, hopefully, cooperative federalism. But we are really getting a very weak policy response and we are really setting ourselves up for failure by setting up a body that is dominated totally by the states, without industry and genuine national union representation—without their input and without their ability to vote down or vote up proposals. In my view it falls into the category of some of the other failed government policies of GroceryWatch, Fuelwatch, the abolition of the ABCC—

Mr Ramsey —Whale watch.

Mr HAWKE —Yes, ‘whale watch’, as the member for Grey said.

Mr Dutton —Pension watch.

Mr HAWKE —Yes, ‘pension watch’. I could go on but I will not. I will spare the House the continued examination of failed Labor policies. But there is a sense with this government that, in attempting reform, we get a weak response that is designed to make people think that something is happening when, actually, very little will change. Meaningful reform will be held up and the vested interests of the states will continue to dominate in this vital area of occupational health and safety, and that will not be a good outcome.

We really should be examining ways of enhancing the input of the industry and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry—the peak body representing businesses in Australia. We should be finding ways to ensure employers and employees are making a meaningful contribution to OH&S policies at a national level and collaborating to produce better results. That would be one way of ensuring there is real reform in the next five or six years. In summary I would say that, until we get a model that is cognisant of those facts, I think we need to pause and reconsider some of the mechanisms in this legislation.