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Monday, 9 October 2006
Page: 78

Senator BARNETT (5:36 PM) —I stand to speak in favour of the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2005. I will be making some arguments in favour of the bill, I will respond to and rebut some of the allegations and concerns that Labor—and, indeed, the Democrats and the Greens—have expressed regarding the bill and I will share two significant examples from Tasmania which I think underline the need for this type of legislation.

The bill contains amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991, which provides the legal basis for the protection of the health and safety of Commonwealth employees specifically in departments, statutory authorities and government business enterprises. The Howard government believes strongly that safe and productive workplaces rely on a cooperative approach between employers and employees to identify and eliminate hazards that may cause injury or death.

In my view and in the government’s view, the bill not only improves protection for employees but actually improves workplace democracy, and I will speak more about that shortly. It removes the privileged role of unions in the workplace, specifically workplace health and safety arrangements. Labor has claimed during this debate and on the public record that if employers do not reach an agreement with a union this will weaken occupational health and safety protection for employees. This is totally and utterly false.

The amendments made by the bill do not affect existing occupational health and safety policies. These policies are preserved. Indeed, in no way do they diminish the Australian government’s duty of care to its employees. Under the bill, employers are required to develop health and safety management arrangements in consultation with their employees rather than and specifically with involved unions. The amendments do not remove unions from the consultation process; they just remove the privileged role that unions presently enjoy. They also reflect that employers owe a duty of care, as I have indicated, to their employees, not to their unions.

The requirement for employers to develop health and safety management arrangements in consultation with employees as part of their general duty of care means that if an employer did not develop adequate health and safety management arrangements or if they did not undertake suitable or reasonable consultation with employees then the employer may be in breach of its duty of care to the employees under the act. That is reasonably simple, but Labor refuses to acknowledge the arguments put and to accept them as true.

Labor has also claimed that the powers for the unions to request an investigation, make appeals and request the institution of proceedings for occupational health and safety breaches are being removed. I want to make it clear that under the bill the powers for unions to request an investigation, make appeals and request the institution of proceedings for OH&S breaches are not being removed. Only Comcare and investigators presently have the power to institute prosecutions for offences against the act. This will not change.

The most significant amendments to the act involve removing the mandated right of ‘involved unions’ to intervene in occupational health and safety matters to the exclusion of other employees and their representatives in workplaces covered by the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act. The bill also removes the requirement for employers to implement prescriptive and detailed OH&S policies.

So what are the main reasons for removing the mandated role for unions? You might think, as a prima facie case, that it is just a good idea, but let us look at the reasons behind this move by the government. Firstly, we believe strongly that safe and productive workplaces rely on a cooperative approach between employers and employees to identify and eliminate hazards that may cause injury or death. Secondly, it is an imperative that Australian government employers be required to consult with all employees, not just with the unions, specifically about the development and implementation of occupational health and safety arrangements.

Why should unions be given a mandated and privileged role as is currently the case? That is wrong, and we are going to remove that once this legislation is passed. And why should they have a mandated and privileged role specifically with respect to OH&S matters in those workplaces covered by this act? So, consistent with the government’s belief that there should be greater cooperation between employees and employers at the enterprise level, the bill aims to enhance consultation and cooperation between employers and employees by facilitating a more direct relationship between them to address OH&S issues at their individual workplaces.

The removal of a mandated role for unions will simplify the process for the establishment of designated work groups. It will also simplify the election of health and safety representatives. I want to stress that, currently, that is limited to those employees nominated by the involved union. Why would that be the case? Because there is a history of Labor legislation and Labor union control of the workplace. That will change, and is changing, and we are seeing the benefits flowing through to the Australian community in terms of an increase in the number of jobs—175,000 new jobs since Work Choices came into being—and an increase in real wages of 16.4 per cent over the last 10 years under the Howard government. I will mention more about that in due course. It will also simplify the prescriptive requirements for the operation of health and safety committees.

We are looking at the end result of occupational health and safety of the employees. We are not looking at entrenching union involvement; we are not looking at entrenching certain procedures. We are looking at outcomes: what is in the best interests of employees.

Employees still retain the right to nominate to be represented by an employee representative—read ‘the union’—or an association in respect of their dealings with employers on OH&S matters. Employee representatives will have to be certified by Comcare and satisfy Comcare that an employee has chosen to be represented by that representative or association. The identity of the employee will remain confidential.

In terms of some of the arrangements, I wish to make it clear that the bill will also remove the requirement for the implementation of detailed health and safety policies and the requirement that these be developed in consultation with an involved union. Why on earth would you prescribe such an arrangement where the involved union has to be part of the process? Why is that a requirement? I will tell you why. It is because of the Labor-union relationship, where the unions have donated over $46 million to the Labor Party since 1996—and no doubt that figure is rising fast. They have an intimate relationship, and that is the reason they have entrenched the role of the union in this arrangement.

I have a couple of other comments about Labor’s opposition to the bill. I believe it is doing the bidding of the Community and Public Sector Union. I know that Labor claims that the bill is evidence of the government’s wish to diminish the rights of workers and to reduce the influence and role of unions in the workplace. Labor also believes that the unions should have a mandated and preferential role. That is Labor’s position. That is the position on the other side of this chamber. But it is not in the best interests of the workers and the employees around this country. In fact, Labor supports that view regardless of the wishes, in many respects, of the employees, the workers and their families. That is a point that I will be coming to very shortly, because there is evidence of that in Tasmania.

The Australian government believes workers and businesses should have the freedom to choose working arrangements which best suit their needs—the freedom where workers choose whether to belong to a union or engage directly as an individual or workplace with their employer to set workplace agreements without third parties. Both the Labor Party and our government believe workers should have the right to be represented by unions. There is no argument about that. There is no debate about that. But the fundamental difference between the two parties is that Labor want union membership to the exclusion of all other options. In fact, they see that there is no alternative. I will give you a good example of that. Labor have opposed Australian workplace agreements as part of the framework for our industrial relations arrangements here in Australia. Why do they do it?

Senator Scullion —They want to scrap them!

Senator BARNETT —That is what they want to do. Senator Scullion is entirely correct. They want to scrap them. They want to get rid of them. The Prime Minister proudly announced the one millionth AWA in Adelaide just a few days ago. I can advise the Senate that in Tasmania we have over 24,000 AWAs currently operating. In Tasmania at least, people on AWAs on average are earning 48 per cent more than people on an award. Why would you want to deny that of those working men and women and their families? Why would you want to do it?

It is because the Labor Party have a view which is ‘one size fits all’. The Leader of the Opposition, Mr Kim Beazley, has made it clear: he just wants awards or collective agreements. Collective agreements, really, are where the unions have control. They have a dominance in such agreements. He is listening very carefully to Greg Combet and is in fact doing the bidding of Greg Combet for and on behalf of the union movement. As I say, you know that link: it is there with the $46 million. Just follow the money. He who pays the piper calls the tune. With respect to the Labor Party, that is exactly what is happening.

In terms of AWAs in Tasmania, I want to make one point as an aside. Work Choices came in in March. In April, there were 150-odd AWAs. And what has happened since then? They have increased. There were 750 in the month of August and they are on the increase. We have over 24,000 now. People who are on AWAs are earning more, on average—48 per cent more in Tasmania—than those on an award. So why does the Labor Party want to deny those people that extra money?

The two incidents in Tasmania I want to refer to relate to occupational health and safety arrangements at the Beaconsfield mine. In today’s Australian, on page 3, a certain Bill Shorten is reported making certain comments. I am going to read those comments and then respond to them. The article is headed ‘Shorten demands reports on mine’ and says:

Australian Workers’ Union boss Bill Shorten has demanded the public release of safety reports and other technical documents relating to the Beaconsfield gold-mine tragedy after reports that management was warned of a potential disaster.

On Saturday, The Weekend Australian revealed that an independent expert’s report warned mine management three months before the Anzac Day rockfall that its mining method may have been inadequate.

Well! It goes on:

Greg Mellick is holding a closed-door inquiry into the disaster at the Tasmanian mine, which killed worker Larry Knight.

It talks a little bit more about Bill Shorten and his role. You see that Mr Shorten was involved in the preparation and signing off of the state government inquiry into the safety of the Beaconsfield mine. I just ask the question: is Bill Shorten doing this for the purposes of grandstanding over the Beaconsfield tragedy? He says he is calling for the public release of those reports. But I find it bizarre because, on the other hand, he was involved and helped draft the terms of reference for the inquiry, and the reports are being subjected to that inquiry. Mr Shorten actually signed off on the inquiry. He had meetings with the Labor Premier of Tasmania, Paul Lennon. Now he is calling for the public release of the documents, when he has actually signed off on a closed door inquiry headed up by Greg Mellick, whose competence and capability I have the utmost respect for.

But I believe that it is double standards at work and that, if Mr Shorten has an issue with any of those reports or advice relevant to the inquiry, he should convey those concerns to those charged with determining the cause of the tragedy—Greg Mellick and his inquiry—and he should spare the people actually affected by the disaster any further anxiety and suffering. Beaconsfield and the people of Beaconsfield have had enough—they have had a kick in the guts, and the families concerned have had enough indeed—and it is not for Bill Shorten or anybody else to be grandstanding over this particular matter. I note that the Australian story quotes Lauren Kielmann, who is the late Larry Knight’s daughter. It says she:

... told The Australian yesterday she did not blame mine management for the rockfall that killed her father.

“It would have been better that they did follow up ... recommendations. But I think they did the best they could. It was just a horrible accident.”

So Bill Shorten is playing it up, and I would ask him to stop that and to actually apologise for any concern or offence that he might be causing.

I come to the other incident. The incident relates to a matter instigated by the state Labor government, being the appointment exclusively of four unionists in Tasmania—two from the AWU and two from the CFMEU—to undertake the work of the independent workplace standards office of Tasmania. It is a state government agency. The government has appointed those four unionists exclusively to undertake occupational health and safety inquiries in the workplace. Why would that be? Steven Kons, the Tasmanian Attorney-General, actually announced it publicly by putting out a media release saying that these four unionists have been appointed and that the industry associations involved were ‘comfortable with the arrangements’, implying that they were supporting the arrangements. As soon as I heard about and saw that, what did I do? I rang the associations. I said, ‘Is that right? Is it true that you’re supporting these arrangements?’ ‘Absolutely not’ was their response.

So the Attorney-General has named three organisations publicly—and I will tell you who they are: the Australian Mines and Metals Association, the Master Builders Association and the Minerals Council of Tasmania—saying that they were okay with these arrangements. I rang them, talked to them and of course they are opposed. Not only are they opposed; the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry are also totally opposed. In fact, they put on the front page of their business report and of their monthly newspaper their opposition. They are not happy. Indeed, the Housing Industry Association are entirely unhappy with the state government arrangement to appoint four unionists exclusively to undertake occupational health and safety arrangements in Tasmania.

So why do you think they are going down that track? I have contacted the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews—and I thank him for his leadership in this area and across the board—asking him to consider blocking the state government’s exclusive appointment of these four union officials to conduct workplace safety inspections. It is a recipe for union intimidation and it would compromise the independence of workplace standards in Tasmania. Mr Kons, in his public statement to the media, also said that this particular proposal of appointing four unionists exclusively to undertake these inspections was ‘modelled on similar systems existing in mainland states’. I thought that was strange—would that be true? He was saying it was true; it was based on ‘systems’ in other states. I made some inquiries, and do you know what: it is an utter furphy. He has not even publicly apologised for putting out that inaccurate and wrong information. No such models exist.

Senator Kemp —Disgraceful!

Senator BARNETT —Disgraceful behaviour! I want to pay a tribute to Michael Hodgman QC, MP, shadow Attorney-General in Tasmania, for exposing the state government’s behaviour and indeed the three recent incidents where two of these four unionists have been apparently caught out breaching their responsibilities. The Australian building and construction commissioner is undertaking inquiries at the moment with respect to those three incidents. I hope that an inquiry is undertaken quickly and that we find out why they are in these arrangements. At the end of the day it is a special deal for special mates. (Time expired)