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Wednesday, 15 May 1985
Page: 2027

Senator COOK(6.52) —I support the Government's National Occupational Health and Safety Commission Bill 1985. Since I believe that time will beat me tonight, I will save many of my substantive remarks until I get a full crack at the debate. In the few minutes which are available to me, before I am cut off at 7 o'clock, I would like to open by replying to Senator Sheil's excursion into the gutter when, in his remarks on the Bill, he sought to link me with working conditions in Russia. I want to say this, for Senator Sheil's information: I do not support those working conditions, because the fundamental problem with them is a problem which is a feature of the problem with some working conditions in Australia. In Russia, work is organised on a target basis. People are put to work on a piece-work basis, to be paid per unit produced. Because the incentive is to chase money, safety in occupational health is forgotten in the pursuit of, in that case, the ruble. In many industries in Australia where there is piece-work-where the emphasis is on the pursuit of the dollar, not on the safety of occupational health-safety is forgotten; there is a high casualty rate; no attention is paid to dangerous chemicals, fumes, scaffolding and other safety conditions and workers, health suffers. People die, are crippled or suffer enduring diseases.

When Senator Sheil starts to link me with working conditions of an obnoxious sort like those, let me set him straight. I do not support them. I think that it is an excursion in the gutter that he should try to do so. I also think it is interesting that his examples about occupational health in what was a meandering speech were examples first drawn from antiquity. Of course, when they built the Pyramids or when they towed the barges along the Yangtze they did not know what occupational health was. They were slave societies. It might be in the mind of a National Party senator from Queensland to believe that workers in Australia should exist in slave societies, but at least in modern Australia that is not a common view. Your personal and anecdotal history of industrial diseases was interesting. It proved that you did know something about occupational health.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Cook, will you address your remarks through the Chair rather than directly to Senator Sheil?

Senator COOK —I will do so, Mr Deputy President. It did prove that Senator Sheil knew something about some events in modern industry. The problem is that once he proved his sensitivity he disproved any caring about what ought to be done about it, because he then indicated that he did not support the Bill, a Bill which is intended to bring together all of the organisations concerned, to provide a national framework to start to address the problem properly, to raise the level of consciousness about occupational health and safety and-this may come as a surprise-to save Australian industry a huge amount of money as well as to save Australian workers from untold suffering and disease which arise from industry and which often are not their fault.

I find it more than passing strange that when the Opposition, which makes a fetish out of talking about strike statistics, is taken on in a debate about occupational health and safety all it has to say is: 'Let the market decide'. If we had let the market decide there would still be nine-year-olds working in the mines. It is because governments intervened to prevent the exploitation of labour that standards were set. It is important to note in this debate that the Confederation of Australian Industry supports the Bill. The Opposition does not. Whom is the Opposition speaking for? I would like to know. The Australian Council of Trade Unions supports the Bill. The Government supports it. The Australian Democrats support it with some qualifications, qualifications which, I might say, are understandable and are certainly not out of our minds either. But the Opposition does not support it. We have a consensus document with widespread support from the key actors in the community, but the Opposition does not support it. Whom does the Opposition represent? What concerns does it really talk about? In a minute I want to turn to the Bill and what it means, but I think it is important to make some of these remarks.

Last year $6 billion was wasted through loss of production and associated costs due to occupational injury and ill health; 300 people were killed; 150,000 people were injured at work. It is one thing for the Opposition to talk in here about its concern; it is another thing to try to vote down or debate down a measure aimed at addressing that problem and trying to resolve it. What the Opposition would want to debate in here is strike statistics. Double the amount of time lost to production can be saved if we get our occupational health and safety settings right and if we are able to address those questions so that health and safety are improved, accidents do not occur on the job and people are not killed when they go to work. I would have thought that there ought to be some sort of natural inclination, in the face of a widespread community consensus, from the Opposition to come out of its dug-out and be generous for once and support this legislation.

I must say that this is a piece of legislation that I feel a little passionately about. Earlier in my career I worked as an industrial officer for a union. Part of my job was to service people who were applicants for workers compensation claims. I saw a long trail of human misery come through my office door when carpenters who had fallen off a single storey building roof and had crushed their ankles or wrists and could not work in their trade any more, were trying to recover themselves from injury, learn another occupation and, at great misery, personal cost and hardship to themselves and their families, go out into industry and try to find another career for themselves.

Debate interrupted.