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Wednesday, 15 May 1985
Page: 2025

Senator SHEIL(6.38) —I lend the voice of the National Party to opposition to this National Occupational Health and Safety Commission Bill. I have been interested in the debate. I think Senator Jack Evans has picked all the weaknesses in the Bill. I am surprised that he has come to the conclusion he has after picking the faults in it. To oppose a Bill such as this is almost like opposing motherhood, and I would not like anybody to think that the Opposition is not completely sensitive to the issues involved with occupational health and safety. We definitely are. In fact I think the record over the years speaks for itself. People have been trying very hard to reduce the toll that these things wreak on us. In the years I have been in opposition in the Senate, I have always been surprised at how the Australian Labor Party can think up such nice names for the gigantic organisations it creates. I am reminded of Medibank and now Medicare. These big organisations do not do what they are supposed to do. In fact, the two organisations I mentioned are more about control than they are about health. I am sure the proposed National Occupational Health and Safety Commission will not do all the things that Senator Jack Evans hopes it will do. The type of three-headed organisation that will be created will not complete the job which I know the Labor Party and the Australian Democrats want. This is the main reason we are opposing the Bill.

I suppose that in the days when the Pharaohs built the pyramids there was not a lot of occupational health and safety. I have actually seen the polished stones on the walls along the Yangtze-Kiang River which were worn by the shoulders of coolies pulling ropes towing junks up and down the river. I do not suppose there was a lot of occupational health and safety then either.

Senator Cook —Do you want those standards in Australia in 1985?

Senator SHEIL —That is fatuous. The modern history of occupational health and safety starts in modern times, in, I think, the 1700s, when a doctor first drew attention to the increased incidence of cancer of the scrotum in chimney sweeps. I think it took about 10 years before anybody took any notice of him. There was a similar history in relation to Dr Semelweiss who pointed out that if doctors washed their hands, women would not die after child birth of puerperal fever. He almost went mad trying to convince people that doctors should wash their hands.

Senator Peter Baume —He did.

Senator SHEIL —Yes, he did. We have come a long way since then. In fact, when I was a young doctor, miner's phthsis was a dreadful scourge. Indeed, all these diseases were called pneumoconioses and were contracted by farmers, silo workers, cotton mill workers and others. They were compounded by tuberculosis which also was a scourge. All those diseases have gone. We do not hear of them any more. I think that the history of industrial safety and health actually is quite exemplary. All we are getting now is a change in the types of injuries we are seeing. I remember hammer and drill disease which was a dreadful thing to have. Now, workers have jackhammers that do not recoil and in which the noise is damped down. Nearly all of industry is well aware of the importance of occupational health and safety. My father was an engineer and we used to travel around mines, construction sites, and places such as that. Occupational health and safety was one of the prime moving forces in the development of all those safety devices. I have been in lots of factories where attention to noise, light, ventilation and the comfort of people working there has always been of prime concern. In fact, I have been in quite a few places where protective gear such as goggles, earmuffs, and protective clothing is not worn by workers. It is important that workers take advantage of the advances that we have made.

I say just out of interest that I was reading in the paper the other day about Senator Cook's workers paradise behind the Iron Curtain. It was reported that 70 per cent of the Russian work force is affected by grog. In fact, production and quality of work is down. Gangs of people have to see that workers affected by drink do not damage themselves on the machinery. That is taking it to the nth degree.

Senator Cook —It is disgusting that you should accuse me of supporting that.

Senator SHEIL —During the discussion on the National Occupational Health and Safety Bill, both Senator Jack Evans and Senator Crowley mentioned that occupational health and safety should be taken care of at a local level because every industry has its own problems. Those problems are all different. To think that they can be dealt with by a gigantic organisation such as the one that is proposed, is not right. It is not possible to have national standards for these things. For example, what we need on Thursday Island is a lot different from what is needed in Tasmania. Each industry has its own circumstances which have to be dealt with locally and on the ground.

To think that it is possible to have meetings in a commission as big as the proposed National Occupational Health and Safety Commission and expect it to come up with results that will help in the work place is not practical. I agree also that it would be expensive. Although I have heard of the enormous costs in work time lost and deaths I do not believe that the Commission with its reports and codes will be able to reduce that cost. In fact, there are few indications to suggest that the Commission should be created at all. There are industrial health and safety organisations in operation now. They go out to new factories or to places where enterprises are to be started and give expert consultations. How does one tell a senator who is going up in a space shuttle what his occupational health and safety code will be? It would be ridiculous to have a national code for that sort of thing. However, that has happened in the world today. Most of the problems are now known. When new things such as repetition strain injury occur, they are quickly recognised and researched.

Senator Elstob —Why were not the dangers of asbestos told to people? That was known in the early 1930s and nobody explained it to anybody?

Senator SHEIL —The danger of asbestos was known for years. I remember learning about it.

Senator Elstob —The dangers of it were never told to the people who worked it.

Senator SHEIL —It was not known that one needed such a little dose to contract the disease. The severity of the disease is not related to the dose. In all those other diseases, one had to be exposed to a high dose over a long period, before one got the disease. Asbestos was different. Everything is not perfect. Other honourable senators have recognised that even the Commission will not have a 100 per cent perfect record. Senator Crowley said that not even the unions expect a 100 per cent perfect result. She said that they just want a fair go. This Commission will not achieve that. As has been stated, the Commission is a three-headed hydra. The three heads will snap. We will have a commission, an office and an institute. They will cost $33m and employ 300 people. We can argue about the powers of the Commission and whether they are draconian. They are big powers and the Commission will have an over-arching role. That is the new in-word in the creation of Federal bureaucracies. People will see a great range of activity with a Federal body over-arching all other things. It will have an overriding interference in the development of quite a lot of industries, particularly heavy industries. The Commission will interfere with local government zoning and licensing, for example. It will interfere with the licensing arrangements of State governments.

The big danger that I see with the Commission is that it could be used as a vehicle by militant unions to interfere in industries. The Commission will have draconian powers. For example, it will be able to call for the provision of documents. It will be able to hold inquiries in which people have to be sworn. It will be able to impose fines, gaol sentences or both. Therefore, its powers will be big.

As has been stated, for different reasons, there have been times of deterioration of industrial relations throughout the country. Of course, the row in Queensland has nothing to do with occupational safety and health. When there are problems of an industrial nature I can see that the Commission, following its investigations and its formation of the various codes, will issue those codes and they will become Federal industrial health and safety codes. Those codes may be incorporated into a Federal award. Once they are incorporated in a Federal award they come under the control of union organisers. In other words, the Government is putting the whole thing in the hands of the union organisers. If a person happens to be a militant union organiser the danger is that a whole development will be held up, causing the loss of jobs and costing money.

Senator McKeirnan-And shop stewards, and members of parliament.

Senator SHEIL —All of them can do that. I turn to the last couple of points that I want to raise. The Bill was referred to the Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills. The Committee came up with a couple of recommendations and they have been circulated to honourable senators. The first point I make is that the Bill reverses the onus of proof. The employers have the onus of proof reversed on to them. It is a tenet of our common law that one is innocent until one is proven guilty. This Bill seeks to do the opposite.

The second point, and the last, concerns the disclosure provisions and the publication of documents. Earlier I referred to the powers which the Commission will have. It is quite possible that trade secrets will be disclosed and published because the Commission has the power to publish. The ability of the Commission to investigate matters and make codes, the fact that a code can be put into a Federal award and the award used by militant unions to disrupt industry, the reversal of the concept of a person being innocent until he is proven guilty, as well as the ability to disclose trade secrets, I think, are sufficient reasons to reject the Bill, particularly as the Bill, with all the investigative, advisory and other powers which are contained in it, will not improve or enhance occupational health and safety one little bit. The Commission will be just as big a failure as Medibank was and Medicare is.