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Thursday, 12 February 2009
Page: 1165

Mr OAKESHOTT (1:51 PM) —It is significant that we have just had the 20-year celebrations of the building of this parliament. As a new member I enjoyed looking at some of the photos of the original building works here. There was one photo of particular relevance to the Employment and Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 2008 which stood out to me. It showed two fellows on the building site, high up—I think they were working on putting in the flagpole. They were in their crane boxes, leaning across to each other and I think they were handing a spanner across. They had no harnesses on, I think only one had a hard hat on and one had a cigarette in his mouth. It was a stark reminder for me and, I hope, everyone in this chamber that the positive in all this is that workplace standards and occupational health and safety generally have come a long way in 20 years. It would certainly be a completely different way that tools would be passed above us if this building were being built today.

The figures that were just mentioned by the previous speaker highlight to me the importance of this bill: 434 is a figure I have not heard before and the figures from the Australian Safety and Compensation Council are certainly stark. The comparison with road tolls is relevant to communities such as mine—we are pretty well Pacific Highway towns on the North Coast of New South Wales and therefore the comparison is a very real one. Many deaths that occur in the workplace are also on the highway for communities such as mine, whether through the movement of products or people travelling to work. I was once told that in raw economic terms—removing family and emotional impacts and the financial impacts with regard to long-term compensation—the cost to government of a death on the highway is over $1 million. That is for all that has to go on for one single accident on the highway.

In purely economic terms, if we can do more to reduce and minimise workplace deaths then we are doing good economic work as a group of parliamentarians. Of course, there are also the financial and personal economic circumstances that we need to consider. This is the unsexy work of government, dealing with death in the workplace, but in so many ways it is vitally important work as well. Without being too clichéd, we are judged by how we look after the less fortunate. Death in the workplace is obviously an unfortunate and unwelcome situation. All death is shocking; however, I think we would all agree that death in the workplace is particularly shocking in that someone leaves in the morning and is expected to come home at night, but they do not. That has long-term ramifications for those left behind, whether in a family context or a community context.

This is therefore an important bill and I am pleased that once again it is a win for the good guys on the side of trying to get national consistency and trying to break down these state-by-state changes in the technical details of various pieces of legislation. National consistency should be a broad goal in as much legislation as possible and I am really pleased to see Comcare recognising that and this bill recognising it as well.

I appreciate and endorse comments on the youth allowance and the need for government to consider a revisit of access to youth allowance generally. I also make the associated point that I hope government considers visiting strenuously, on a state-by-state basis, the issues of OH&S laws across this country—the differences in those state laws, return to work, rehabilitation and compensation generally. It is incredibly frustrating to see the differences. I hope that whilst we see some national work with regard to industrial relations laws—which I hope as a general principle are welcomed by this House—sitting side-by-side with it should be national consistency with regard to occupational health and safety standards and workplace standards, return to work and rehabilitation. It is a frustration in communities such as mine. We had some proposed changes in New South Wales which were incredibly confronting for the private sector in communities of the mid-North Coast. The changes had very strict legal definitions and very punitive laws proposed under the guise of the good work of protecting workers in the workplace. However, trying to make sure genuine injuries are genuinely compensated is a balancing act. From the private sector’s point of view, over the last couple of years the state of New South Wales was pushing too hard.

On the flip side, in the public sector, there are frustrations that genuine injuries are not necessarily always the ones that are getting genuinely compensated. A former New South Wales Minister for Police once made the comment that he did not know what to do about what he termed ‘Newcastle disease’: a very large number of people in the police force on the coast north of Newcastle were, whilst on the books of the police, out of the workforce on a day-to-day basis for one reason or another. It was a dilemma that even government had to grapple with.

In conclusion, I certainly support this legislation. It is long overdue and national standards and consistency are certainly welcome. I hope that this is a general direction, to engender national consistency in industrial relations laws and occupational health and safety standards. I commend the bill to the House.

Debate interrupted.