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Monday, 27 August 2001
Page: 26686


Senator COONEY (5:00 PM) —I must add to what Senator Murray so eloquently said about doctors and young doctors. There is no doubt that young doctors, particularly since they have no ability to get a provider number until they have done years of training, have become very vulnerable. They are, in effect, used to subsidise the public purse by doing work above and beyond the call of duty. I think the Australian Medical Association is to be congratulated for the work it has done in bringing to our attention the terrible hours—and I use the word `terrible' advisedly—that these young doctors have to work. It does bad things to their health and also threatens their ability to give us proper treatment when we go to them as patients. They also have families to look after and civil lives to lead. We must remember that.

So the question of long hours, as Senator Murray has said, is a very big issue. He has used young medicos as a means of illustrating what he means, but it is an issue that affects us all. Indeed, in this chamber tribute should be paid to Senator Herron, who reduced the hours of the Senate from the very long hours we used to work, bringing us back to a reasonable working day, if you call going until 10 o'clock tonight a reasonable working day. So we ourselves understand the problems of long working hours.

These are bills which address issues which will need addressing from now on in. They address issues that have been dealt with many times in the past, both at a state and a federal level. The bills deal with the issues of work and these, I think, come down to three things. As far as safety is concerned, the first thing to do is to ensure that accidents do not happen. Accidents can be not only the direct infliction of a wound but also the infliction of stress related diseases such as those of the heart and the head. They can be injuries to the general health of a person. Therefore, it is important to be a civil society. We are not simply here to work; we are here to occupy our places as people in a reasonable society, going about our work, certainly, but also going about our play and our recreation and going to church, if we are so inclined, and so on.

That is the thing: when we approach this issue of work, we have to put it in the context of what a civil society is all about. It is not a good thing that we have people working extraordinarily long hours. If someone works 100 hours a week, that is not a good thing. I heard a terrible story—it did not happen in the Commonwealth—of a woman who returned to work five days after delivering her child. I think she worked for an accountancy firm or a legal firm, and they all sat and clapped her as she came in. I thought that was a dreadful business, first of all, because of the terrible thing that was done to her health and, secondly, because of the child. As you would understand, Mr Acting Deputy President, this is not only about the need to produce children but also grandchildren, and it is important that they not only be produced but that they be brought up as decent citizens of this country and of the world generally.

The bills before us are of great importance. The wording of the title of one of the bills perhaps sums up what the situation should be in the workplace. It talks about safety, rehabilitation and compensation, and that is what ought to exist. Safety is the primary issue. If there is safety, it means that people are not injured. If people are not injured, their quality of life is preserved. If they are not injured, nobody has to pay compensation in any event. If a person is injured, real effort should be made to rehabilitate them, to get them back to work and to their social life—or their civil life, as I have been calling it. If they are injured, and they are rehabilitated but not rehabilitated in time, or if they cannot really be rehabilitated, then the system has to give them proper compensation.

Those concepts of safety, rehabilitation and compensation flow through the history of this area. Workers compensation, it is suggested, was begun by Bismarck back in the 19th century in Germany. The remark he is said to have made is that industry should bear the blood of the worker. He was a chancellor who believed in blood on the battlefield too, but he said about workers compensation or whatever he called it—that was what he meant—that the compensation for that should come from industry: it was industry that took the person's health away and it should be industry that supported it. So that is a concept that has been there for a very long time. The other thing about that is that it is also industry that should take the responsibility of ensuring that people are safe.

Senator Collins and Senator Murray have addressed the issue of how an occupational health and safety policy should be developed. It is said that it should not be developed through the unions anymore; it should be developed in consultation between the employer and the employee. That is a very strange approach to take in this area. Are we to conduct our road laws by having safety committees in each street, so that in one street a group of citizens will come to an agreement that cars should be able to proceed down that street at 80 kilometres per hour, whereas when you get to the next street there is another agreement between the residents of that street and the law enforcement authorities that cars will go at 40 kilometres per hour? In other words, safety can be fluid, depending on who makes the arrangements. That is the sort of thing that is done here. It is as if the road traffic regulations are going to be arranged by a conference between employers and employees. In my view, safety is absolute. You cannot say, `Look, we'll agree not to have guards on these machines. If the machines gobble up limbs, then you've got to have guards on them, and it's the employer's responsibility to see that they are there.' If you have floors upon which people slip, it is the employer's responsibility to make sure that they are not slippery for any time that would allow an accident to occur. If you have a vat of caustic soda, you have to properly guard it.

Going back to the old days again, we have seen some very bad injuries that have occurred to people, where scalps have been torn off, where fingers have been lost and where limbs have been lopped—all because there has not been proper attention to safety. In my time, in any event, the obligation was on the employer to ensure that there was safety. As I said before, the safety is directed not only at injuries that are in the nature of a wound or of the lopping of a limb but also injuries in terms of heart attacks, stress and so on. An employer just simply cannot discharge his, her or its obligations by saying, `Look, we had a conversation with the employees and have agreed upon a set of rules.'

The reality is that you can get employees to agree to take guards off machines to get their work done more quickly, you can get employees to agree to have slippery floors, you can get employees to allow front-end loaders to go into areas in a storage room where they should not go and it is true that you can get employees to agree to long hours. I see Hansard here—we might even get Hansard staff to work longer than the many long hours they already work. But that is not the point. We have to look, not at the agreement, not at what suits everybody, but at what is safe. That is the big issue about which we have to ask ourselves. The provisions that we have in this legislation do not address that. I refer to the second reading speech on the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2000. It says:

In relation to the employer's duty of care, amendments are proposed to section 16 of the act to replace the current prescriptive elements of the section requiring an employer to develop an occupational health and safety policy and agreement in consultation with involved unions. Instead, employers will be required to develop, in consultation with their employees, safety management arrangements that will apply at the workplace.

Unions are responsible bodies set up under the Workplace Relations Act and their officials are elected by their members to carry out duties on their behalf. If it is any sort of union at all, one of those duties is to ensure that safety prevails. It is much easier for the officials of a union outside the workplace to ensure that safety is carried out in the workplace, rather than that duty being undertaken by the employees, who are subject to all sorts of pressures from the employer, in terms of hours, wages and what will be allowed to get a job done quickly. You do not have to be any great genius to understand that a union outside the workplace is going to have more strength to ensure that there is safety within the workplace. The material that we have been given here shows the number of instances that occur in the workplace because of the lack of safety. The idea of asking employees—vulnerable people who can be tempted by way of wages and other advantages to concede issues—is going to lead to a much less safe workplace than the present situation. This is very interesting: the second reading speech also says:

Improved outcomes can also be achieved by encouraging employers and employees and others with responsibilities under occupational health and safety laws to voluntarily comply with their statutory obligations. Other amendments in this bill therefore provide greater encouragement for voluntary compliance.

Hopefully, you are going to have a voluntary compliance with safety provisions, but that is not the point. It is a lapse in that voluntary compliance for 10 minutes that can at times lead to disaster. If we are serious about having a decent, safe workplace, then we have to do more than have a voluntary system in place to ensure that it operates. To think that we can go around and be discretionary as to whether or not there should be safety is a nonsense. What if you went to the football grand final and the organisers said that it did not matter how many people you crowd into the stadium or into the ground and it was up to the people who came in as to whether or not they sat on the field or occupied the corridors that would otherwise be used for people to come and go, as long as it was all done voluntarily, as long as it was understood by everybody? When you put that proposition forward it indicates just how great a nonsense it is.

I want to say a few words about rehabilitation. A lot of good people do rehabilitation, but we have to ensure that those who are rehabilitators are up to the mark. I should pay tribute to somebody here: over the years I have listened to the wisdom of Mrs Dawn Vincent, who has had much to say on rehabilitation, particularly at the Commonwealth level. There is always scope to ensure that rehabilitation can be done better than it is. It needs people who understand the position, it needs proper resources and at times it needs patience. I think there ought to be an assurance that proper rehabilitation takes place.

There have been discussions here about civil and criminal penalties. I think there are times when a civil penalty imposed on someone for what they have done wrong is more appropriate than a criminal penalty that milks that person not only of the money that they might have but also of their reputation—because of the criminal conviction. If an act has the characteristics of a criminal act, then people should be punished for a criminal offence. If safety is not looked to properly, then I think that is reprehensible, because all sorts of terrible injuries can occur through the lack of safety. There is a passage on page 3 of the second reading speech that I think indicates a good thing:

The improvements to scheme benefits will provide greater access to compensation for employees who suffer a hearing loss, ensure that all employees covered by the Act can receive compensation beyond age 65 if they are injured over the age of 63 years and enable claimants to have the cost of treatment from a wider range of health practitioners than at present reimbursed, without having to seek a referral from a medical practitioner.

That passage deals with the recognition that people can go on after 65. I think allowing that to happen is an act of wisdom. People have to come to the realisation that people over 65 still have a lot to contribute and that if they are injured then they ought to be compensated in a way that perhaps they have not been in the past. As medicine and attitudes change, I think we will have people who are vigorous at the age of 80. Mr Acting Deputy President, you will no doubt be looking forward to that in years to come. There is no doubt of the understanding in this legislation of the significance of safety, rehabilitation and compensation. Those concepts are there, but the way those concepts are going to be put into practice, how they are going to be executed, is what is amiss.