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Thursday, 13 October 2011
Page: 11818


Mr MITCHELL (McEwen) (11:14): It is always a pleasure to follow the member for Corangamite and the lovely hardworking member for Kingston, whose parents are up in the gallery, in speaking on the Work Health and Safety Bill 2011. The interesting thing to note is that not one of the opposition members is speaking on workplace health and safety. When it comes to the crunch in caring about workers and their families, they fail Australians miserably. I am surprised we have had quorums called by the member for Gippsland, given the amount of workers in his electorate that he has left high and dry and fails to look after and support.

Mr Chester: Madam Deputy Speaker, I ask for that comment to be withdrawn.

Mr MITCHELL: What comment—workers?

Mr Chester: I ask you to withdraw the comment.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mrs D'Ath ): Is the member claiming to be offended by the comment?

Mr Chester: Yes.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Are you claiming it is unparliamentary?

Mr Chester: Yes.

Mr MITCHELL: I am happy to withdraw for you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I certainly do not want to get the little precious petal upset anymore.

As members are undoubtedly aware, the regulatory impact statement for the harmonisation of health and safety regulations confirmed that the national OHS system will bring many benefits, including economic benefits delivering up to $2 billion a year in productivity gains.

Over the past three years Labor has worked in cooperation with various stakeholders such as the states and territories, business groups and the ever-valuable ACTU to achieve a new legislative framework which will replace nine separate OHS acts and over 400 pieces of occupational health and safety regulation. This is an important step because I know that in my own state of Victoria and in New South Wales there are many cross-border issues involving jurisdictions, permits and safety regulations that people face every day working in businesses along the borders between the states. Through the measures in this bill we will eliminate the confusion, complication and higher costs for small businesses along those borders and probably along all state borders across the country.

As the member for Kingston said, it has taken a Labor government to do this because it is Labor that cares about the health and safety of workers. It is Labor that understands that, by undertaking these measures, we are enhancing safety protections for all Australian workers and their families and giving greater certainty and protection for all workplace parties.

Nationally harmonising work health and safety laws was first raised by the Whitlam government back in 1974. So while the genesis for this is very old, the arguments in favour of harmonisation remain very compelling to this day. It is important because around 300 Australians are killed at work each year. It is tragic that 300 people go to work each day, and then one day they do not come home. That is an appalling thing to think of, for their families, their friends and their communities and also for the employers. I know many employers of people who have been injured or have died at work suffer greatly, both physically and mentally, as a result of the issues raised when they lost a valuable part of their team. Many more workers die as a result of workplace related diseases, as the member for Corangamite mentioned earlier, and some 135,000 Australians are seriously injured at work.

I said in my maiden speech that I thought workplace safety and bullying are two of the most abhorrent things we can see in this country. I think back to the time when I was doing my apprenticeship in a shoemaking factory. We had absolutely no workplace health and safety. We were using glues and solvents with no fumigation, no breathing protection, no nothing. We were there at 7.30 in the morning and we did not leave until 4.30; we just sat there and worked away. There were machines that did not have guards. The amount of injuries we used to see happening every day, from minor injuries right through to major ones, was absolutely terrible. That is what started me on my journey to here, thinking that we need to address these things. We need to make sure that when people go to work each and every day they are going to come home safe. It has been a belief of mine that we can never go far enough to make sure that Australians go to work and have a safe, happy and responsible workplace and, of course, that they get remunerated properly for the jobs they do.

We know that the cost of workplace related injury and illness to our economy has been estimated at nearly six per cent of our GDP. We also know, as I said, that the cost to families, friends and others is immeasurable. Therefore, I believe that this bill is necessary as it contains new and tougher provisions, which include significant penalties for those who fail to meet their obligations for work health and safety.

The Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government stated in the second reading speech that there are three categories of penalties in this bill, based on the degree of culpability and risk. Category 1 offences, involving proven recklessness, attract a maximum fine of $3 million for bodies corporate and a maximum fine of $600,000 or a maximum of five years imprisonment or both for individuals. Category 2 offences, involving breaches of health and safety duties which expose another person to risk of death or serious injury or illness, attract a maximum fine of $1.5 million for bodies corporate or $300,000 for individuals. Category 3 offences apply for any breach of a health and safety duty, with a maximum fine of $500,000 for bodies corporate and $100,000 for individuals.

As was mentioned before, those opposite did not support the workers during their 11 long years in government. But it is Labor who have come out and said we will protect Australian jobs and Australian families. This bill implements our commitment in 2008 at COAG that all jurisdictions would harmonise health and safety laws. My home state of Victoria will benefit from $50 million in reward payments if these reforms are implemented by 1 January 2012. As I said, this bill will deliver real, tangible economic benefits: $2 billion in productivity gains and around $250 million per year in additional benefits arising from reducing red tape and improving the safety standards for workers.

In 2008 the government established an independent panel to conduct the national review into model occupational health and safety laws. This review panel examined very closely work health and safety laws in each state and territory and the Commonwealth. As the minister correctly outlined in his second reading speech, this bill seeks to secure the health and safety of workers and workplaces through the elimination or minimisation of risks, fair and effective representation, consultation, cooperation and issue resolution, provision of advice, information, education and training, and effective and appropriate compliance and enforcement measures. What we have got is a government that is delivering a whole package on these things to ensure that there is no excuse for not having a safe workplace. There is no excuse for not being able to allow people to go to work, to perform their duties in a safe environment and then to come home to be with their families. The definition of 'worker' will be extended to include persons who are currently deemed to be employees of the Commonwealth such as our valued members of the ADF and holders of a Commonwealth statutory office.

Comcare, under this bill, is established as the single regulator for work, health and safety in the Commonwealth and will operate under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission. The commission will play an important role in overseeing the role of Comcare, which will have responsibility for day-to-day regulatory functions. Unlike those opposite who show no genuine care about workers—and that is why they will not put on the record their support for this legislation—we are getting on with the job and delivering tougher national standards to ensure every Australian worker has the rights and safety they deserve and are entitled to in a workplace.

The harmonisation of work, health and safety laws will be continually enforced by regulators, facilitating a stronger partnership with business to minimise the risks of workplace injuries and deaths. The benefits of harmonisation are great. The analysis undertaken by Access Economics estimates that harmonising work, health and safety laws will save the 40,000 businesses that operate across state boundaries around $179 million per annum. The model WHS legislation will provide enhanced safety protection for workers which is simple and easy to understand. The same rights and protections will be afforded to workers regardless of where their work is carried out. Labour mobility will be increased by providing recognition of licences and training across all jurisdictions. This is very important in today's economy, where we have a growing number of fly-in fly-out, drive-in drive-out workers, so that when people are mobile and move from state to state they can be assured they will have the same workplace safety and that the qualifications they have will be recognised.

The duties contained in the model legislation will also ensure that all workers are provided with protections while at work, whether they are employees, contractors or labour-hire workers, outworkers—who we know in the past have been treated very poorly—apprentices, trainees, work experience students and volunteers through the expanded definition of 'worker' supported by a new compliance regime.

The bill implements the model legislation agreed to by the WRMC in the Commonwealth jurisdiction. Mirror laws are to be introduced by each state and territory to also implement these model laws. As the model legislation has been drafted in non-jurisdictional specific terms, the bill includes specific provisions to ensure that the model provisions can operate alongside other Commonwealth legislation without affecting harmonisation. The bill has also been subject to a further three-week consultation period on an exposure draft. Employers covered by the Commonwealth legislation were invited to comment, as were the ACTU and members of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission. In response, some 29 submissions were received and the comments made have been taken into account in finalising the bill.

The reforms will repeal and replace the current Commonwealth Occupational Health and Safety Act 1991, the OHS Act. The coverage of the bill remains similar to the OHS Act insofar as it will apply only to Commonwealth public authorities and, for a transitional period, non-Commonwealth licensees. The bill contains a mechanism allowing the minister to transfer OHS coverage of non-Commonwealth licensees to state and territory jurisdictions. It is intended that this power only be exercised once harmonised laws are implemented in each jurisdiction.

By implementing the agreed model bill, there will be some important changes to OHS regulation in the Commonwealth. They are: providing a wider coverage of contemporary work relationships, including contractors; a new statutory right for workers to cease unsafe work in certain circumstances; tougher penalties for failing to meet a duty of care; a removal of Commonwealth immunity from criminal prosecution; and a wider range of enforcement options, including infringement notices, remedial orders, adverse publicity orders, training orders and orders for restoration.

In addition, the bill will include provisions to deal with issues specific to the Commonwealth. It will extend the application of work, health and safety laws to members of the Defence Force and other persons currently deemed to be employees for the purpose of the current OHS Act; enable the Chief of the Defence Force and the Director-General of Security to disapply specified provisions of the act with the agreement of the minister with responsibility for work, health and safety matters—the minister's agreement has not previously been required; and establish Comcare as the sole regulator of OHS in the Commonwealth. This is a change to the current situation whereby Comcare and the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission share regulatory powers.

Since WRMC endorsement of the model act as at 24 June 2011, two jurisdictions have passed new work health and safety legislation. The Queensland WHS act received royal assent on 6 June 2011 and the New South Wales WHS act received royal assent on 7 June 2011. The South Australian WHS bill has been introduced into the South Australian parliament and the Australian Capital Territory's WHS bill has been introduced. What we need is the rest of the states, like Victoria, to stop dragging the chain, to get up and to look after worker safety right across this country. I wish this bill a very speedy passage.