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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8120


Mr DREYFUS (6:09 PM) —I rise today to speak to the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and related bill. This bill will establish Safe Work Australia as a new and independent statutory body to improve occupational health and safety outcomes for working Australians. Safe Work Australia will also handle workers compensation arrangements throughout Australia. Occupational health and safety has been, until now, primarily a state responsibility. Following the Work Choices decision of the High Court, there is at least the possibility that it may not remain so, but Labor was elected at the last election with a commitment to do more to ensure that appropriate standards are provided to all Australian workers wherever they work. It is Labor’s policy to work cooperatively with the states and territories to ensure that there are appropriate minimum national standards and to bring about a nationally consistent occupational health and safety framework. That framework will reflect best Australian and best international safety practice. This bill gives effect to the policy that Labor was elected to implement.

Safe Work Australia will replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council and will enable better collaboration between the Commonwealth and the states and territories to deal effectively with the health and safety of Australian workers. Safe Work Australia will be funded 50 per cent by the Commonwealth and 50 per cent by the states and territories and will be able to make recommendations directly to the Workplace Relations Ministers Council. Safe Work Australia will be able to coordinate the national policy on occupational health and safety laws and prepare model legislation which can be applied to all jurisdictions. As you have heard from other speakers, Mr Deputy Speaker, this is another example of the Rudd government’s action on creating a seamless national economy without the countless state duplications, overlaps and differences.

As I said, Safe Work Australia will replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council. That council, established by the former government, did not have the functions to effect any substantive change in this area. The council was confined to coordinating and promoting occupational health and safety policy nationwide. Safe Work Australia will undertake that function and many other functions as well. Safe Work Australia will develop national policy on occupational health and safety issues. It will draft, monitor and revise model occupational health and safety legislation for nationwide application. It will develop consistent policy on compliance and enforcement to ensure national consistency, following the national review of occupational health and safety laws announced by the Deputy Prime Minister in April 2008. It will develop harmonisation proposals for workers compensation arrangements. It will collect, analyse and publish data on occupational health and safety and workers compensation. It will further develop the National Occupational Health and Safety Strategy 2002-12 and it will advise the Workplace Relations Ministers Council on occupational health and safety and workers compensation matters.

Occupational health and safety is a critical area of reform. We need to ensure that all workplaces in Australia are safe workplaces. Safety should be of paramount concern to all stakeholders in all industries. We have heard the sombre statistics from many speakers in this debate. More than 300 Australians are killed each year at work. Very many thousands more die as a result of work related diseases—many more than the national road toll. Over 140,000 Australians are injured at work every year. This comes at a cost of $34 billion a year to the Australian economy and an inestimable amount of pain and loss to workers, their families, their workmates and their friends.

There are many recent appalling examples of work related death. The disaster at Wittenoom and the disgrace of James Hardie come to mind. In that regard it has been estimated that the total number of asbestos related deaths will reach at least 40,000 and possibly as many as 60,000 people by 2020. In total, almost half a million Australian workers experience a work related injury or illness each year, which means that there are millions of Australians suffering from work related health conditions.

Maintenance and improvement of occupational health and safety is critical to ensuring the livelihoods of all working Australians. People are entitled to expect that at the end of their working day they will come home uninjured. Good occupational health and safety conditions are also good for business, as employees enjoy safer working conditions, have improved morale and deliver higher productivity. Workplaces with good occupational health and safety can face fewer workplace injuries and benefit from higher retention rates.

In 2002, the National Occupational Health and Safety Strategy adopted under the former government had the following national priorities: (1) reducing high incidence and severity risks, (2) improving the capacity of business operators and workers to manage occupational health and safety effectively, (3) preventing occupational disease more effectively, (4) eliminating hazards at the design stage and (5) strengthening the capacity of government to influence OH&S outcomes. It should be noted that there is no direct reference to the traditional protectors of safety on work sites, the trade unions of this country. It was the coalition government’s blind ideological opposition to trade unions which led it to repeatedly attempt to limit the role of unions in maintaining levels of occupational health and safety in workplaces. I could mention the former government’s attempt to remove unions from their role in occupational health and safety which we saw in the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2000, which lapsed on the prorogation of the parliament for the 2001 election.

It is worth noting that the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, the former government’s own commission, reported in November 2002 in these terms:

… there is indirect but strong evidence that employee participation, either direct or representative, is an essential component of effective occupational health and safety management.

This is a pithy endorsement of a principled approach recognised for decades in the United Kingdom and in this country, and that approach is a collaborative approach to safety between employees and employers, including in that process the relevant unions. Freedom of association and rights of union entry to workplaces are important components of this approach to safety. Unions have a key role to play in safety. Most employers are very responsible and very concerned about safety, but not all are. State occupational health and safety authorities cannot visit or inspect every workplace, and the work of state agencies is supplemented by unions.

In June 2002, the former government made a further attempt to attack union involvement in occupational health and safety with another bill, the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002, which was not supported in the Senate. The former government continued to ignore the large body of work that demonstrates the invaluable role that unions have played in improving safety. I will mention just a couple of examples of that work. There is a 2003 paper by Professor Walters entitled Workplace arrangements for OHS in the 21st century, which stated:

… in workplaces, in which joint arrangements were in place and especially where trade unions were involved, injury rates were considerably improved.

In another work the following year, Professors Walters, Johnstone and Quinlan, in a report entitled Statutory OHS workplace arrangements for the modern labour market, reported on a range of international and Australian studies and said that the research gives:

… support to the notion that joint arrangements, trade unions and trade union representation on health and safety at the workplace are associated with better health and safety outcomes than when employers manage OH&S without representative worker participation.

Regrettably, these and other studies were ignored by the former government and, indeed, are continuing to be ignored by those opposite who have spoken on this bill.

In late 2005, we saw the former government—then with its new control of the Senate and following on from its introduction of the harsh Work Choices legislation—make a further attack on the involvement of unions in occupational health and safety, with a further bill, the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2005. Those amendments introduced so-called management arrangements which replaced occupational health agreements, traditionally developed through tripartite agreements between unions, employees and employers. The 2005-06 legislation also removed all reference to unions and replaced the term with ‘employee representatives’ and proposed that employers, not employees, would control the election of workplace health and safety representatives. This was very much a backward step which ignored all of the accepted wisdom about the need to involve unions in occupational health and safety matters.

It was all part of the former government’s attack on the working conditions and rights of Australian workers in the form of the harsh Work Choices laws. It really poses the question: why would you seek to limit the role of unions in occupational health and safety when unions have a unique and well-recognised role to play in identifying occupational health and safety hazards and have all developed specific strategies to deal with occupational health and safety issues?

The speeches from opposition members on this bill have demonstrated that those opposite have learned nothing from the election last year. It would seem that they still do not understand that the Australian people have rejected the harsh Work Choices approach to industrial relations. Most of the speeches from those opposite, rather than talking about safety matters, spent time attacking state Labor governments and unions. I refer in particular to the speech given by the member for Curtin, the new shadow Treasurer, who described Safe Work Australia, the institution that this bill is going to introduce, as ‘just another botched policy’. One could ask whether the member for Curtin failed to ask the employers’ body, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, before she rushed to condemn the Safe Work Australia proposal. Perhaps she should have asked ACCI before she rushed to condemn, because these are the welcoming words of the Chief Executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in relation to the introduction of this bill on 4 September. Mr Peter Anderson had this to say:

The introduction of the Safe Work Australia Bill is an opportunity for industry and business organisations to give higher priority to workplace safety and to reaffirm their commitment to a consultative approach to occupational health and safety (OH&S) issues, at both a policy and workplace level.

It is also an opportunity for governments and the parliament to establish a sustainable and genuine tripartite body at a national level to further the goals of the National OH&S Strategy, and to work towards greater national consistency and practicality in OH&S policy, legislation and standards.

ACCI will work with governments, business organisations, unions and the parliament in examining the Bill and improving institutional arrangements for OH&S in Australia.

Far from thinking that there was anything flawed about this policy or the establishment of Safe Work Australia, we have, from one of the premier employer bodies, welcoming words.

The member for Curtin, the new shadow Treasurer, is so blinded by her hatred of the trade union movement that, in her speech on the Safe Work Australia Bill—an important piece of legislation about occupational health and safety—when she talked about the construction industry she did not once mention safety. Indeed, the member for Curtin frothed at the mouth about the Australian Building and Construction Commission instead of talking about the subject matter of this bill, which is occupational health and safety.

The member for Curtin said that the building commission is ‘under threat from the Labor government’. It again appears that the member for Curtin has not understood what happened in this country last November. Labor was elected on a platform which included the abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission from January 2010. That could not have been made clearer, and the Australian people appreciated and approved that policy because they were sick of the confrontation and conflict of the former government’s approach to industrial relations.

The member for Curtin went on to refer to some statistics about the building and construction industry, noting that it contributes some 6.7 per cent to Australia’s GDP and also that it employs 940,000 workers, which is nine per cent of the Australian workforce. You would think that we might then have heard from the member for Curtin some statistics about the safety record in the building and construction industry. But no, there was not one word about safety in the building and construction industry from the shadow Treasurer. Indeed, the shadow Treasurer ranted about unions, bleated about the powers of the Australian Building and Construction Commission and attacked former Federal Court judge Murray Wilcox QC, who is presently inquiring into the regulation of the building and construction industry.

What the member for Curtin should have done is to refer to the statistics of the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, which show the alarmingly bad safety record of the building and construction industry. I will just give some of them, because they show what a problem we have in this country and why it is important that we pay attention to occupational health and safety, particularly in the construction industry. The 2005-06 figures showed that the fatalities incidence rate in the building and construction industry was twice as high as the all-industries rate. Over the same period, the serious claims incidence rate was the fourth highest of all industries. This equates to 39 employees a day sustaining a serious work-related injury or disease requiring one week or more off work. There were 30 notified fatalities during the nine-month period from July 2007 to March 2008—that is 30 deaths in 36 weeks, and that is the worst performance since 1 July 2003. I would say to the member for Curtin that she should stop worrying so much about the trade unions in the building and construction industry and start worrying about safety in the building and construction industry.

If the Building and Construction Commission is to be mentioned at all in the context of occupational health and safety, a better inquiry might be to examine whether the threat of an investigation by the commission, or a threat of the use of coercive powers, may have had an overall negative effect on safety in the building and construction industry. There have been a number of recent suggestions that this is the case, arising from the fact that an action taken by a worker in relation to a safety concern is likely to be treated by the commission as an illegal industrial action with all of the consequences which flow from that.

Some curious criticisms have been made of this bill by those opposite in the course of this debate—notably claims made by opposition speakers that the six-year review period for Safe Work Australia, which is provided for in this bill, is somehow inadequate. In making those claims, they appear to have created the impression that Safe Work Australia will not be reporting at all when, of course, that is far from the case. Clause 70 makes it clear that there is to be an annual report to the minister and to the ministerial council. What happens every six years is a review of the Safe Work Australia process and project and a report to the parliament about that.

The introduction of Safe Work Australia and the involvement, hard work and expertise of the trade union movement will improve workers’ safety. These reforms are needed to create better workplaces—which are safer workplaces—which will increase productivity and profitability. The wellbeing of working Australians is vital to this government. I commend the bills to the House.