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Thursday, 16 May 1985
Page: 2097

Senator AULICH(4.46) —I support the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission Bill 1985, which I believe will get through this House, and I believe that my discussions with my colleague have gained support for it. When debate on the Bill was interrupted I was discussing the attitude of the Opposition spokesman on industrial relations, the honourable member for Tangney (Mr Shack), to this legislation. I indicated that Mr Shack was putting as an option to the Government a proposal that we ignore the need for a major framework or structure for national occupational health and safety in the work place and simply continue with an improved operation of discussion and consultation between State government bodies and some parts of private enterprise. He was suggesting that, somehow or other, this would overcome any safety and health problems in the work place.

I have already indicated that view is totally inappropriate. It has been proved to be inappropriate by the experiences of the period under the Fraser Government. Even minor requests to provide essential mechanical support to improve the provision of statistics about national health matters were looked on with, at best, apathy by the government of the day and, at worst, outright opposition. I recall the repeated requests that were made at industrial relations ministerial conferences, particularly to the then Federal Minister, Mr Viner, for a code of occupational classifications preceding the census in the early 1980s. Such a code would have been an essential ingredient in providing a better model for manpower planning and a base by which one could then measure all matters relating to accidents in occupations. At least by such means the statistics from the Government's viewpoint would be accurate and the advice that could then be given to the private enterprise sector, namely the insurance companies, would be of real value and not a matter of guesswork as it is at present.

I wish to move on to consider that aspect very briefly, primarily in response to some statements made by Senator Watson in this debate. He indicated that employers are most concerned about the cost of workers compensation. I take for granted that they mean the cost not only in monetary terms but in terms of the damage to people's lives. I accept that that is a valid concern. I have met many employer organisations over the years whose representatives have indicated to me that the varying types of legislation throughout Australia brought down by State governments relating to workers compensation have been difficult for them to deal with. They are constantly attempting to do what their members want, which is to keep costs down. They are not sure how to go about it-or at least they were not sure until they had discussions with the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Willis), who wanted views from them. As a result the Confederation of Australian Industry and other major employer groups have proved that they are prepared when approached in the appropriate way to look after their interests in a logical manner-to ensure, for example, that they are prepared to put their members' interests first rather than to push their own political prejudices. Therefore, the CAI supports the Bill.

Mr Shack has attacked the CAI and criticised it in various forums for its support for this Bill. It is a matter of great concern that when we have a tripartite agreement on a matter as important as this, the Opposition should seek to distance itself for what I regard as cheap political purposes. The employers support this Bill, and they do so for very good reasons. They know that workers compensation and, for that matter, the insurance industry as a whole have changed in this country over the last four years.

The employers and, I guess, most honourable senators in this chamber know that there has been an investment in the insurance industry in this country by a number of major overseas companies. Those companies have tended to set the pace for the sorts of requirements they make of their subsidiaries in this country about return on investment. Those companies are not prepared any longer simply to say to their subsidiaries that they should lose on workers compensation insurance; they are advising them to use it as a suck-in, as they describe it in the trade, to other forms of insurance. Those major companies are now saying to all branches of their insurance operations that all of them must pay their way. In a sense, that is an appropriate request to be made by any major organisation involved in the business world. It means that, for example, some insurance companies are putting up their premiums at the request of their parent companies. Those companies are putting up their premiums at a percentage rate which is doing damage to the operations and viability of certain companies in this country. They are the companies which are in areas of relative risk and which may have enjoyed what could be described as fairly generous premiums and workers compensation insurance over the last 10 or 20 years. That has changed.

Honourable senators in this chamber will be aware that the Insurance Act of 1973 does not require what could be described as a detailed release of information by insurance companies on their mode of operation. The sort of information which would be extremely valuable to the public, to this place and to just curious people, let alone the government of the day, is not available. The closest information we have to that is, in fact, the ranking survey done by Australian Ratings, which recently carried out what can be described as a semi-confidential analysis of the insurance industry in this country. Of course, on the way, that company looked very closely at workers compensation. In its estimation a number of companies were in some degree of investment difficulty. I am not talking about their viability as a company; they were not returning the sorts of returns that their parent companies could expect. Many of them were heavily involved in workers compensation and were shored up by their parent company's viability and success in other areas of insurance coverage.

As I have said, this company-Australian Ratings-had access to nearly all the confidential information which certainly is not available to governments, on the proviso, of course, that it did not make that information public. The ratings, in fact, marked down virtually every company in the insurance world that was relying wholly, or to a large degree, on returns from their investment in the workers compensation area. So we have two problems. One is the problem of ordinary employers, big or small, who are faced with a dramatic rise in premiums for workers compensation insurance. Secondly, the insurance industry is going through a period of shakeout. It is not as drastic as the shakeout which led to the demise of Bishopsgate Insurance Australia Ltd and Palmdale Insurance Co. Ltd, but it is certainly a shakeout. In the future we can look forward to premiums in workers compensation insurance rising further as a result. That is not a good scene for the whole industry unless something is done.

The point I am making is that something has been done. This Government has decided that we must attack safety and illness in the work place right at the base, and the base is accident prevention and improving the working environment for people.

Senator Messner —That is not a new thought.

Senator AULICH —It is not a new thought. It is a thought which has been put forward by any number of people in industry around this country. The point I am making-Senator Messner has helped me make that point, albeit rather ponderously-is that the Opposition has distanced itself from one of the most common-sense requests which has been made by industry in this country today: That we do something about improving the safety environment in the work place. That is what this Bill is all about. I cannot understand why the Opposition stands back and ignores what is a positive move which has tripartite support. I cannot understand why the Opposition is sitting back in the nineteenth century and trying to return us to Water Babies and all the rest of it. My guess is that maybe it is trying to create a new form of literature-the sort of stuff that came out of the nineteenth century when people were trying to change the nature of society and the sort of work environment in which the young and old were forced to suffer in that period. Is that what the Opposition wants?

Senator Messner —What has Water Babies got to do with it?

Senator AULICH —It happens to be a reformist novel of the period which was an attempt to show that the exploitation of child labour in uncongenial working environments was absolutely un-Christian. Now that I have helped to jog the honourable senator's memory a little I am sure that he will understand the benefits of that sort of literature. In other words, the Opposition is trying to take us back to the nineteenth century. If that is what Senator Messner wants to do he should say so. But for heavens sake, he should not oppose what is one of the major achievements of this Government and, dare I say, the union movement and, dare I say again, top management in this country.

The simple fact is that the current approach to safety in the work place is fragmented, desultory and ineffective. Business knows that, the unions know it and this Government knows it; the only people who do not know it are those sitting opposite in the Opposition. There are members of this Government who, I believe, shortly will indicate some of the practical difficulties and problems which are suffered by people who work in environments where there is no concern for safety. This Bill attempts to overcome that.