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Monday, 4 September 2006
Page: 119

Senator NASH (9:07 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the OHS and SRC Legislation Amendment Bill 2006. Each and every one of us privileged to serve in this place is very proud of the states and territories that we represent. We are particularly privileged to represent the people, communities and businesses that collectively make up our states and territories. Our role is to do all we can in this place to best represent the interests of those people in their communities. Many of those businesses do not operate in isolation; they do not operate in single-town scenarios. Many of the people in the businesses that we represent have a network of presence not just in a particular region or across a state or territory but right across this great nation.

An unfortunate 21st-century consequence of Federation is that businesses which operate on a national basis are forced in the case of occupational health and safety legislation to operate in eight separate and distinct jurisdictions. Such a situation indeed presents an impediment for many businesses who are trying to do the right thing by their workforce and develop a national approach to OH&S. Why is this an impediment? It is because these businesses are required to comply with the laws of those eight various jurisdictions—very separate and very distinct jurisdictions. The Productivity Commission inquiry report No. 27, National workers compensation and OH&S frameworks, recommended that this government amend the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act to enable those employers who are licensed to self-insure under the Comcare scheme to elect to be covered by the Australian government’s OH&S legislation.

This bill will implement the Liberal-National government’s response to the Productivity Commission. Those corporations licensed under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988, the SRC Act, will also be covered under the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991. There has been some comment that the desire of this federal government is to weaken OH&S. That is just a nonsense. We have heard that a couple of times in here tonight. Nothing could be further from the truth and those who are saying that are simply trying to scaremonger when the government has a very strong and very good track record in OH&S.

The OHS and SRC Legislation Amendment Bill proposes to deliver something that state and territory governments should have done some time ago, which is to ensure that there is harmony in OH&S requirements. This is particularly important for those businesses that operate on a national scale. Quite frankly, if the states had moved down that track, if they had been committed to ensuring there was harmonisation, then this government would not be having to move these amendments.

I noted earlier that Senator Wong said—and I hope I am not misunderstanding her; it certainly seemed very clear—that lack of uniformity can be a significant cost burden and that uniformity should be a priority. We could not agree more; it is just a little unfortunate when we have the New South Wales minister John Della Bosca leaving the Australian Safety and Compensation Commission meeting only a matter of a few weeks ago. What kind of commitment to ensuring that we get this harmonisation is walking out of a meeting that is designed purely to pull people together and to try to find a way forward? If that is the Labor state government’s approach to trying to find harmonisation then it is sadly lacking.

The amendments that the government is putting forward deliver a common-sense outcome for those businesses who become licensees operating under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. These amendments are all about common sense. Section 100 of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 gives the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations the power to declare certain corporations as eligible to apply for a workers compensation self-insurance licence under the SRC Act. Licensees under the SRC Act will include Commonwealth authorities and non-Commonwealth authorities. These licensees will benefit from operating under one OH&S scheme, which will produce better health and safety outcomes for employees. This amendment will deliver overall efficiencies that currently cannot be realised because of the OH&S requirements of eight separate and quite distinct jurisdictions.

This amendment is not rocket science; it is an amendment that just makes good common sense. The efficiencies to be realised by not having to comply with eight separate and quite distinct jurisdictions have the potential to deliver real savings which licensees could devote to improving health and safety in the workplace, which is an outcome we all want: the best health and safety in the workplace that we can possibly have.

OH&S legislation imposes a duty of care on employers to protect the health and safety of their employees. It certainly does appear that the state run workers compensation and OH&S schemes are a monopoly. We need to change that environment so that businesses can grow and we get the best outcomes for employers and employees. I ask the question: why are the states opposing the federal government on this front in the High Court? Why are they opposing a sensible national approach for employers to participate in a federal workers compensation scheme? Could it be that the Labor states are scared of competition? Surely not. The Labor state and territory governments are not possibly scared of competition. If they are not, why are they so determined not to see these amendments go forward?

Surely if those state governments were confident that their workers compensation, OH&S schemes and environment were the best possible ones to deliver, they would not be concerned about the federal government’s arrangements. Let’s face it: a lack of competition equals a lack of performance. We on this side of the chamber know that only too well. We on the government side of the chamber believe in competition and the benefits it delivers. Indeed, it is the failure by the states to get on and harmonise the occupational health state legislation that has forced the hand of this government to introduce these very sensible amendments to the legislation.

The state governments are even opposing the right of national employers to join the federal workers compensation scheme. What the states should be doing is abandoning their self-interest objections and focusing on the challenges of running a modern business. By their approach, it seems that the Labor states are stuck in the Dark Ages. As the Australian Financial Review said in its editorial on 4 August:

There is no logical reason for workers’ compensation to be exempted from national competition reform and no reason why firms operating nationally should have to deal with the eight separate compensation schemes run by states and territories.

The government recognises the real impediments that are put in front of businesses operating on a national scale as a result of this environment. I am told that about a dozen businesses, including the national transport operator Linfox and the National Australia Bank, have quit state run schemes to self-insure under the Commonwealth authority Comcare. I listened with interest earlier when Senator Sterle talked about his previous life in the transport industry.

Senator Conroy —Is that right? You’ve met a truck driver, haven’t you?

Senator NASH —I have met several truck drivers. I am glad you are noting my movements, Senator Conroy. I did not think you would have such an interest.

Senator Conroy —No, you’ve met two.

Senator NASH —Quite interestingly, more than that.

Senator Ferris interjecting—

Senator NASH —Indeed. But in listening to the skull and crossbones explanation, I did note with interest that, to my knowledge, there has been no complaint whatsoever about Linfox’s change of arrangements. It is unfortunate that those who sit on the other side choose to scaremonger instead of trying to contribute to taking this nation forward in the interests of those employees who work so very hard around this nation.

Unlike those opposite, who will oppose this very sensible piece of legislation just for the sake of opposition, this government has a plan to take OH&S forward in this nation. Those on the other side have nada—nothing. The best way to address the very serious issue of OH&S is to promote a culture where there is greater cooperation between employers and employees, and that is what this government is doing. We need to have an environment where everyone is acting in the best interests of the workforce. We do not need the environment that exists in some jurisdictions where we are introducing laws that are punitive and that punish the employer above all else.

This government—the Howard-Vaile government—is leading the way in which Australians approach OH&S by taking a cooperative approach to identifying and eliminating hazards that may cause injury or death. Through the National OHS Strategy, which my colleague Senator Troeth referred to before and which was developed in 2002, there are five national priorities for OH&S. They include reducing high incidence and severity risks, improving the capacity of business and workers to manage OH&S, preventing occupational disease more effectively, eliminating workplace hazards at the design stage and strengthening the capacity of governments to influence better OH&S outcomes.

I would like to acknowledge the important role Australia’s trade unions have played in the promotion of health and safety in the workplace. Senator Wong referred to the track record of Australian trade unions. But occupational health and safety is not the sole province of the unions. Some of the amendments to the bill involve removing the mandated right of ‘involved unions’ to intervene in OH&S matters to the exclusion of other employees and their representatives. This government believes it is imperative that Commonwealth employers be required to consult with all employees—not just unions—about the development and implementation of OH&S arrangements.

It is vitally important that we get this right for the future of this nation. The amendments in this bill are a very positive step forward. I refer to my earlier remarks: if the companies that are working nationally right across this country have to deal with eight separate and distinct jurisdictions when it comes to OH&S and their ability to comply, their ability to be productive is severely lessened. We need to ensure that there is an environment where those businesses and those companies can operate in the best possible manner while at the same time ensuring that employees are protected and that the OH&S requirements are being met so that we can have the most productive, safe workplace in this nation that we are able to have.