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Thursday, 16 May 1985
Page: 2044


Senator MacGIBBON(11.18) — The subject, safe working practices and surroundings and the need to ensure that employees suffer no physical or psychological impairment as a consequence of their employment, is not a matter of dispute between the Opposition and the Government. It never has been. The Opposition's record on this has been absolutely clear since Federation. Despite the agreement on the topic and the importance of it, the Opposition is totally opposed to the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission Bill. It is totally opposed because the legislation is unnecessary, misguided, extravagantly expensive and is therefore wasteful. The Bill has far too wide an ambit. The powers involved are far wider than are needed for the task, and the draconian, medieval penalties needed to support those wide powers are entirely unsupportable. In short, we see no justification for the time of the Parliament to be taken up with legislation like this.

I said that it was unnecessary legislation. It is unnecessary because there is no argument advanced and there is no argument that can be sustained to suggest that this is not a field purely for the State governments. It is not a field for the Federal Government to be legislating heavily into in the way it is. I would like some speakers on the other side to show me the relevant clause in the Constitution that justifies the Commonwealth's entry into this field. The Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Willis), when he introduced this legislation in the other place, admitted that 160 statutes covering the same topic were on the Australian statute book. There is an enormous amount of legislation. We on this side of the chamber would not argue for one minute that that legislation was the best legislation that could be on the books. Quite obviously we are dealing with a dynamic field and, in a technological environment, technology is always ahead of the legislation being brought in. Clearly it is desirable that we have national standards, and agreement as to what can be done. That gives the key to what the Federal Government should be doing. The Federal Government should not be overarching, to use the phrase that Senator Sheil used-a beautiful piece of journalese we can thank the Australian Labor Party for-but should be negotiating with and counselling the State governments, getting together to co-ordinate the legislation for the benefit of the Australian industrial scene.

The Labor Party made a great thing out of the fact that this Bill is not an interventionist Bill, that it will not affect anyone and that, like motherhood, it will be for the benefit of all. Yet the most cursory reading of the Bill would cause a reasonable person to be very worried about the great interventionist properties inherent in it. The whole tenor of the Bill is, frankly, interventionist. To maintain, the way the Government does, that it is purely a Bill that will enable the Federal Government to operate in an advisory capacity in this field is almost breathtaking in its effrontery. The Federal responsibility here, as I said a few minutes ago, is to work with and through the States and encourage them to co-operate in this most important field. That is why it is unnecessary legislation. It is also misguided legislation. We simply cannot legislate to make people be safe. It is a matter of education and, until one has the patience, intelligence and the communicative skills to make a case clearly to everyone involved-employers and employees-all the legislation in the world will not be completely effective. If we have the patience and the time, to explain and to educate and to bring employers and employees to the point of view that they have a common interest in making work places and work practices as safe as is humanly possible, we will achieve the goal. But I repeat: We cannot legislate to make people safe any more than we can legislate to make people follow the law. Here we come to one of the fatal weaknesses of the Labor Party in government. It is very much part of the Labor ethos that all problems can be solved if it legislates, preferably through some central authority in Canberra. The second string to the Labor ethos is that if it has enough money or throws money at a problem it will go away and be solved instantly. It is the classical cheque book fixer of social ills. Yet we have known from time immemorial that things are not solved by the application of money alone.

The other point I made about the legislation is that it is extravagantly expensive. This is the week of the mini-Budget. We have had all the hype through the preceding months about how this Government is going to cut expenditure and save the taxpayer. Well it might, because it is the biggest taxing and biggest spending Government with the biggest deficits, of any peacetime government in Australia. But how hollow those charges are in the face of this vast new and unnecessary quango. As a result of the Minister's own statement we will appoint a commissioner and we will have a 17-man board. The administrative cost of that is enormous. We would not know what it was, but it would cost half a million or a million dollars a year just for the top echelon to operate. The National Occupational Health and Safety Commission will have 300 employees. By the conservative estimate of the Minister it will cost $24m this year and $41m next year. What will it cost next year, in real terms-$41m, or $61m? You can bet your boots that in three or four years time it will probably cost in excess of $100m.

It is absolutely absurd for the time of this Parliament to have been taken up with all this nonsense about saving expenditure when we have this wild extravagance on a body which we do not need. The money will not come from out of the air. The Commission will be paid for by the Australian community. It will be paid for directly by way of income tax and company tax. The $24m this year, the $41m next year and the escalating cost from then on will be paid directly through taxes. It will have an indirect effect, financially, in two ways: Firstly, the Bill provides that the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission can charge for its services. So we will have the Gilbertian situation of people-such as Senator Cook, when he was in the union movement-walking into a factory and saying: 'Either you agree to my demands in relation to safety precautions or I will pull the plug and we will all go on strike'. There will be disruption in the work place and then the next day in the mail there will be an invoice-a fee for payment-for somebody not pulling the workers out on strike the day before.

Secondly, there will be an enormous amount of harassment, such as time taken up while inspectors go through the place and see what the operating procedures are, top management being tied up talking to petty officials all the time and the filling in of innumerable forms day after day, at a cost, in real terms, to the company involved. As I said earlier, there will be the absolute blackmail of union representatives or a representative of the Commission going to a work place and saying, at critical times, the way union representatives are very skilled in doing: 'You agree to this condition or we will go on strike'. That is the old concrete-pour mentality of the Builders Labourers Federation. The Government will write a cheque for that type of action through the whole industrial world of Australia.

The fourth point I raise concerns the wide powers which are contained in the Bill. This Bill goes everywhere through Australian industry. There are no limits to it. The Bill provides that the Commission has the power to recommend that some of its findings be incorporated in industrial awards. Once we get into the area of industrial awards, again we allow the union officials to enter premises. Again, we have harassment and disruption, to no good purpose, in industry. Mark my words: No one believes that the introduction of this National Occupational Health and Safety Commission will reduce in a statistically significant way the death rate or the morbidity rate in Australian industry and that is what it is all about.

On the subject of wide powers, we find the old hoary chestnut of support for international conventions-in this case, support for the International Labour Organisation convention on safety practices. There is nothing less that Australia needs than to get into bed with the ILO. As I said here a few weeks ago and as I put on the record, I got overwhelming support from all around Australia to the notion that Australia abandon its membership and withdraw from the ILO. I reaffirm that point. There is a very strong feeling in the community that we should get out of it. The last thing that we should be doing is going along hand in hand with its conventions for safety proposals. We are able to determine what the appropriate standards in Australia are. After all, we have led the world in this area, and during the great majority of years since Federation that has been under Liberal governments. It is not the Australian Labor Party that has lifted the standards of living or safety in the work place in this country. We do not need to conform to the Utopian views of the Socialist Internationale as expressed through the International Labour Organisation on this matter. We are well able to look after ourselves.

On the subject of powers, we get to the quite draconian penalties that the Bill involves. The Commission has the power to summon witnesses and to seize documents. The power does not extend only to people who are directly involved in any dispute; it has a very wide ambit as to whom it can drag before the courts. Senator Sheil raised the point that the Commission can support people who make any complaint-whether real or imaginary-and protect those people, particularly those who make false charges, from any censure by the management. These are things that no reasonable person would support. All this is backed up by penalties of $1,000 or six months in gaol. The possibility for abuse under this legislation, to the detriment of the general good welfare of society, is quite enormous.

In the debate that has taken place here, I have to compliment Senator Sheil and Senator Messner for the cases which they have put. They have left me with very little to say about this legislation. The Australian Democrats, as usual, have supported the Labor Party and, at the same time, criticised the legislation in a way that is totally illogical. One can only assume that since all the Labor speakers on this are from the Left and the far Left, it is a matter of great interest to the Government that the legislation goes through. It has said to the Democrats 'We want this legislation', so the Democrats, once more, have been the sycophantic followers. I think that the kindest thing that can be said about the Labor Party's argument in this place is that it is an academic argument of people who have no involvement or experience in industry and, at worst, is mischievous. I have had an interest in industrial affairs in factories and manufacturing processes that goes back for over 30 years. I have looked at conditions of work and employment all around the world-not only in Australia.

One ought to make the general observation that while the thrust of the Labor argument has been that management is at fault, that is not the whole picture. It is not the whole picture by a long way. Quite clearly, at times management succumbs to economic pressures. There are greedy manufacturers-there is no argument about that-and we do not defend those people. The overwhelming picture in Australia is one of management awareness of the needs to operate safely and carefully and to preserve the health of the work force. I do not believe that argument can be challenged.

The other point of view is not mentioned; that is, that the employees are not always co-operative in regard to safety measures. It does not matter whether those people are employed in the rural industry or the manufacturing industry. Mr Acting Deputy President, as you would know, a property owner can tell his farm workers or people on the station to follow certain procedures, to wear gloves, to not inhale fumes and all the rest of it when applying poison, but his workers will go down the paddock and operate without any respect for common sense and safety procedures. Precisely the same thing occurs in both urban and industrial operations. A proportion of the work force will not recognise the dangers of what they are doing, no matter how many times they are told. I guess this gets back to the earlier argument I made about the impossibility of legislating for a 100 per cent success rate. We are dealing here with human relations. Human nature simply cannot be confined or controlled by legislation. It does not matter how draconian the legislation is.

A simple example is the way in which people persist in sun bathing on the beach or persist in smoking. There is an enormous amount of service on those dangers. When one goes overseas one sees women in their thirties and forties, let alone in their fifties, in the cooler temperate climates of England and North America and one compares their skin with the skin of Australian women who engage in excessive sunbathing on the beach. They end up with deep mahogany tans by the end of Christmas. One sees the way it affects the appearance of Australian women later in their lives. There is positive evidence on the dangers of skin cancer, skin ageing and so on from excessive solar radiation. But one still goes to the beaches around Australia and finds them packed. You cannot even walk between the bodies during the holiday periods. Of course the same applies to lung cancer and smoking. I think it is rather interesting that one honourable senator who spoke on this Bill and who knows better smokes. Yet that honourable senator stood up here yesterday and talked about industrial safety.

One other thing I wish to refer to in a general way is the incidence of industrial deaths and the cost of industrial accidents in Australia. Three hundred deaths a year are attributed to industrial accidents. We deplore that loss of life. We deplore even more, those who are incapacitated. I think the morbidity resulting from avoidable injury in the industrial scene is deplorable. I refer not so much to the loss of limb-I think people can cope with that-but incapacitated people such as quadriplegics and those suffering cerebral impairment from head injuries, for example. That is the terrible part of industrial injury because it is a continuing burden for their families and for society to bear. I do not agree with one of the honourable senators from the Labor side who said that the figure of 300 deaths was a vague figure. I think that the statistical procedures in this country are sound enough for us to be reasonably sure that that is the correct figure.

However, the cost of $6 billion to society resulting from industrial accidents and injury is a real one. I must say, however, that while it is a true cost, the cost of those injuries could really be brought down. I am saying that the operation of workers compensation and invalidity schemes, particularly those applying to Commonwealth employees, provide no incentive for people to avoid a classification of invalidity. Thus more people end up being invalided out on pensions than would be so if that incentive were not built into the legislation. This is something I wish the Government would look at. I guess what I am saying is that the Government should take a longer view and examine the effect of the legislation rather than being carried away in its warm feelings and obvious good intentions in relation to this. Once again, as on so many matters, the Labor Party never takes the long term view. The Labor Party looks at society today, sees the immediate problems in front of us and gives no recognition to where communities come from. The Labor Party does not look at the problem in perspective. It does not look at the past, see what might be possible in the future and make a balanced judgment.

The argument advanced by Senator Sheil is a very real one in relation to the vast improvements attained in industrial safety in Australia. In 200 years we have come an enormous way down the path, but we are nowhere near the end. The scientific base, in its broader sense, is getting bigger and bigger every day so that more and more things are known, particularly in relation to industrial society. Many of the practices we regard as safe today I have no doubt will be viewed with great disfavour in the future. I do not take a pessimistic view because I think we have come a long way although, in no way, have we reached the end of the line. I think we are just starting.

Finally I come back to the point that the Government is blandly deceptive when it says that the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission will be purely advisory. My goodness, a $14m advisory body. Does the Government really believe that the body will be advisory when it is proposed that 300 people will be working for it? The Commission is an ideological solution for some groups in the Labor Party. It makes them feel good to go down that path. I think a few members of the Labor Party have mischievous intentions with respect to the operation of Australian industry. The establishment of the Commission represents a cosmetic approach and does not get to the heart of the problem.

The final word must rest with the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills because some conclusions of that Committee were misquoted by Senator Cook. As honourable senators know, the Scrutiny of Bills Committee has a majority of Labor members. The Committee's report on the National Occupational Health and Safety Bill is very interesting. The Committee has drawn attention to three clauses. Since the matter has been misquoted I will quote from the record the conclusions in relation to the three clauses. Clause 52 concerns the reversal of the onus of proof. The report states:

The Committee draws the clause to the attention of Senators in that the reversal of the persuasive onus of proof may be considered to trespass unduly on personal rights and liberties.

'To trespass unduly on personal rights and liberties' is a very strong statement. Clause 63, relating to the objection to the dissemination of information, basically deals with commercially secure information being made public. The conclusion of the Committee is:

The Committee draws attention to the clause in that it may be considered to trespass unduly on personal rights and liberties.

Again that is a very strong censure. The report states in relation to clause 64, referring to the delegation of power to people not members of the Commission:

The Committee is concerned that this provision imposes no limitation, and gives no guidance, as to the attributes of the person to whom a delegation may be made and accordingly draws the clause to the attention of Senators in that it may be considered to make rights, liberties and/or obligations unduly dependent upon insufficiently defined administrative powers.

There is nothing more to be said.