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Thursday, 13 October 2011
Page: 11823


Mr CREAN (HothamMinister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government and Minister for the Arts) (11:37): In summing up this debate, I would like to congratulate all members for their contributions to the debate, including those from the opposition who spoke last night. I think there is strong and important bipartisan support for this. Obviously, this is something very dear to the heart of those who sit on this side of the House. It is something we have campaigned for for a very long time. As a former general secretary of a great trade union and as President of the ACTU, this is an agenda that we have been pursuing for some considerable time. In fact, one of the very early disputes that I was involved in with the Storemen and Packers Union was with wool storemen around the weights of bales. There were far too many wool storemen injured because of excessive weights. Because of the nature of the industry, growers were seeking to increase the size of the bales. We put a limit of 204 kilos on them. If that was exceeded it was reduced to 180 kilos. That had a significant impact, not only in terms of lessening the industry. It also led significantly to important mechanisation within the industry and a much safer work environment for what is and always has been a vital industry for this nation's future.

Although the Work Health and Safety Bill 2011 currently before the parliament applies largely to Commonwealth public sector employment, it does form a crucial part of the Australian government's commitment to nationally harmonise work health and safety laws. This is an agenda item that was pursued with great determination by the current Prime Minister when she was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations in our last term. Quite apart from getting rid of that dreaded Work Choices legislation, ensuring that we were moving in the direction of harmonised work health and safety laws was a key achievement of hers in the portfolio.

The bill gives effect to the national framework proposed by the Council of Australian Governments. It was developed in a tripartite way with the involvement of not just the Commonwealth but all state and territory governments, business groups and the ACTU. This is a reflection of tripartism at work. It is a commitment to address a key issue and get agreement despite difficult issues surrounding it. It also brings Australia one step closer to having a nationally harmonised system of work health and safety laws by 2012. This bill complements legislation being enacted across all Australian states and territories. It will lead to enhanced work health and safety protections for Australian workers and greater certainty for business. Make no mistake, these are landmark reforms which have been long in the making. What we have here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide all Australian workers with the same protections, regardless of where they live and where they work, and to overcome the frustration and complexity faced by businesses of nine different occupational health and safety legal systems and standards.

When I introduced the legislation on behalf of the minister in this House in favour of occupational health and safety harmonisation I gave great detail on the background as to how we got to where we did. In fact, it was exhaustive detail. I will not repeat them here but they were compelling arguments. An enormous amount of work has been put into this and it is incumbent upon this House to give effect to them. Reform and harmonisation of Australian work health and safety laws was made possible because the Australian government forged that constructive working partnership with the states, business and the ACTU. Getting consensus on the content of a new legislative framework that can be adopted by all jurisdictions has been no easy task. Each of the parties came to the table with strong views about the content of the model of work health and safety laws. Amendments have been proposed and we will move to consider them in detail after the second reading. It is not that the parties did not consider the various proposals that are now reflected in the amendments. They did. I made the point before: there were areas of disagreement and tripartite negotiations always result in a level of compromise. As much as people might consider the importance of those amendments when they are moving them, in their view to strengthen the legislation, what they cannot ignore is the importance of arriving at the consensus that we have. I do not question the motives of those who put the amendments forward but simply say that they do not reflect the agreement. If they are passed by this House they risk upsetting that agreement and therefore the movement to harmonisation, given that we have to move these things not just here but through the states.

In many cases there were compromises. It is a credit to all of those involved that they persevered with the process over the past three years in particular. Each jurisdiction will face changes in current occupational health and safety arrangements in order to achieve the goal of uniform OH&S laws. What the parties have been able to agree represents the best possible outcome: a balanced and interrelated package of measures that will lead to enhanced safety protections for all Australian workers and greater certainty and protections for all workplace parties. Certain members have indicated that they will be moving amendments and I will respond to the detail of those when they are moved. I again make the point that members in the Australian government have signed up to play our part in implementing what has been long needed—a nationally harmonised OH&S system. This means having a Commonwealth work health and safety act which accords with the model work health and safety act endorsed by the Workplace Relations Ministers Council in December 2009.

The bill before the parliament honours this commitment made under a COAG intergovernmental agreement and, accordingly, we will not be supporting the amendments. I urge other members to do likewise. This bill is only the first step towards a nationally harmonised system of legislation. The harmonisation process will also include model regulations and codes of practice that are expected to be finalised at the national level later this year. The process to develop national regulations is again a collaborative one, being achieved in partnership with governments, employees and employer bodies.

It has been suggested that we should delay consideration of this bill until the model regulations have been finalised. However, I point out the task before the parliament today is to consider the model bill, not the model regulations. The parliament will have the opportunity to separately consider the regulations and the accompanying regulation impact statement for the regulations once they are before parliament. So parliament is not being denied that opportunity. This model bill should not be delayed because delaying the passage of this bill in order to simply consider the regulation impact statement is a circular argument. Those regulations cannot be made until the bill is passed.

The bill itself has been subject to a national regulation impact statement prepared by Access Economics. This analysis showed that the adoption of the model Work Health and Safety Act across Australia is expected to benefit multijurisdictional businesses as well as confer an overall net benefit to the nation in the order of $180 million. In other words, this is a win-win outcome. It is a win for workers because they have a safer environmental framework in which to work. It is a win for businesses because they save money lost in down time through workers being injured and away from work.

The content of the bill has also been subject to exhaustive consultation over the past three years and it has been endorsed not only by the other government jurisdictions but also by the industry stakeholders. Key industry groups—ACCI, AiG, the MBA—have all welcomed the introduction of this bill into the Commonwealth parliament and have strongly urged members to pass the legislation. Importantly, other jurisdictions are getting on with the job of implementing their model bills. Five out of nine jurisdictions, including the Commonwealth, have put the model laws before their parliaments. Legislation has already passed in both Queensland and New South Wales.

Against that background, I thank members for their contributions. After we move into consideration in detail I will respond to the particular amendments. This is an outcome well worth waiting for, but it should have been done a long time ago. We are proud to be associated with a government that introduces this legislation following the processes that have led to the bill. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Debate interrupted.