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Monday, 9 October 2006
Page: 94

Senator HOGG (7:45 PM) —I rise in this debate on the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2005 because I think it is terribly important to discuss workplace health and safety in a proper context. I cannot challenge the figures that Senator Troeth just quoted on the cost of accidents to GDP and to people at large in the community. I have no doubt that those figures are pretty much on the mark, and they are frightening. However, this legislation is designed—not surprisingly—to cut the union movement out of the issue of workplace health and safety.

I have a long experience in business and industry in dealing with employers. When it comes to workplace health and safety, some employers are very good; but some are very bad. There are some employers whose track record you would not put up anywhere for the shame that it would bring not only to the employer but to the people who are generally associated with them in driving the agenda in a particular workplace.

In my first speech here, I spoke about three things: the dignity of people in their youth, the dignity of people at their work and the dignity of people in their retirement. This legislation affects the dignity of people at work. Key elements of a person’s dignity at work is their capacity not only to earn a fair and reasonable wage in return for a fair and reasonable day’s work but also to earn that wage in a safe and healthy environment. As with all these things, it is never the good employers whom one is confronting on the issue of safety and health in the workplace; it is generally the bad employers.

In my 30-year association with the retail industry, there were some very good employers in terms of health and safety but there were also some bad employers who were generally dragged kicking and screaming to the table on the issue of workplace health and safety. They tended to avoid the issue of occupational health and safety—and I think this is fairly typical of a number of employers who do not have a good track record in this area—like the plague, because they saw it as a cost to their business. They saw it as an impediment and a nuisance—one of those things that got in the way of their doing business. In many instances, they saw it as having no social value and as an inconvenience. I do not claim for one moment that that is the view of the majority of employers; nonetheless, there are employers who do see it in that light.

The thing about the laws that we make in this country is that, invariably, they are not made for honest people; they are made for people who, at the end of the day, want to stretch the law to its limit or to transgress it for their own personal or corporate gains. Of course, nothing is more true when one thinks of what happens with occupational health and safety. As I said, this legislation is designed to cut out a key element in giving advice to employees. The legislation seems to be premised, particularly from the spin in the second reading speech, on some equality of understanding of what is health and safety in the workplace. No matter where employees work, they need to have a very basic understanding of the health and safety issues that apply to their place of work. If they do not have that knowledge—and many of them do not—then they need education in these issues to gain an understanding of the problems, remedies and processes associated with them.

I should have sufficient time in my contribution to go to some parts of the second reading speech on the bill and point out where the jargon wheel has been at work. The spin doctors have been at work trying to create a vision of this legislation being about equality in the workplace—a sharing, caring and loving workplace where no-one suffers any discomfort or injury as a result of the conditions that apply there. I am not saying that it is necessarily all the responsibility of the employers; I am not saying that at all. There is also a role for employees in workplace health and safety. They need to accept their responsibility for it as part of their employment. But if they do not know or understand what that role is, what their responsibility is and what the dangers are in the workplace, they will be exposed to personal health risks. To say that one should just trust the employer is a highly naive way of dealing with workplace health and safety.

As far as the employer goes, there is—and has been, over a long period of time—a responsibility, in my view, to provide training. An employer who is responsible in the occupational health and safety area would provide some reasonable training to their employees so that their employees would understand what the issues are. But again in my experience, where there has been an attempt to get a cooperative approach through the union movement with particular employers, that has been denied. Of course, unless that training is provided there will be a gap in the knowledge of the employees and also, unless the employers are subjected to training, there will be a gap in the knowledge there as well. Also, the employer—with the employee—needs to be able to educate themselves, identify the problems, identify the issues and identify the remedies, not just in a process if they cause inconvenience to the business but as part of an integral contribution towards greater productivity within the particular business. So it is a bit disturbing in some ways that this legislation, which has done the rounds before and has not successfully passed through this chamber, comes back once again.

I find it difficult to see why the legislation is coming forward at this time, when I think that it is not so long ago—as a matter of fact, it was May this year—when we all sat in awe at what was happening at Beaconsfield in Tasmania and at the peril that the miners at Beaconsfield were placed in at that stage. It is interesting to note just some of the comments that have been attributed to the Prime Minister about the unions at Beaconsfield. At a press conference on 3 May, the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, said:

Everybody is working together, the mine management, the unions—

and so on. In an interview with Neil Mitchell on 3AW on 5 May 2006, the Prime Minister said:

It’s been a great cooperative effort to see the community, the unions, everybody working together. I think it’s great.

And then you go to the press conference by the Prime Minister on 8 May 2006, where he said:

It’s just been terrific to see the way that community has worked together. The mayor, the churches, the union leaders, all of them have come together.

And so on. Yet the spirit enunciated there by the Prime Minister in the wake of what was a tragedy does not seem to have lasted terribly long, because, if one reads the second reading speech, one sees that the spin doctors have been at work. I will just turn to that in the few minutes that I have left now. On the first page of the copy that I have, the second reading speech says:

The focus of occupational health and safety regulation must shift away from imposing prescriptive processes and towards enabling those in the workplace to work together and make informed decisions ...

There we are starting off straightaway with the idea that prescriptive processes are not warranted. I challenge that. There are times when there is a need to have prescriptive processes, such that both sides of the equation—that is, the employer and the employee—understand exactly what this is about. The idea of having some form of self-regulation just does not work. The speech says that these people are to make ‘informed decisions’. They cannot make informed decisions by osmosis or through something that might be drifting around in the air conditioning in the workplace that will enable these people to become aware of the workplace health and safety dangers and hazards at that place of work. The premise there is not followed up anywhere that I could see in the second reading speech other than in a very nice phrase, a nice turn of words, that says that this will enable ‘those in the workplace to work together and make informed decisions about how best to reduce risks to workplace health and safety’.

As I said, you cannot make informed decisions unless you have the knowledge, unless you have the expertise, unless you have the capacity. To expect that to rest with the average employee at a place of work is totally naive. But there is nothing wrong with people working together to try and minimise the hazards. That is quite proper, and that has always been the approach and the path that I have sought to go down. You cannot minimise these problems simply from one side or the other; it must be a cooperative spirit—but a cooperative spirit where there is a vacuum on the part of the employee in terms of their knowledge and understanding of the hazards and where there is the firm whip hand that the employer has as the employer just does not add up. The second reading speech goes on:

A cooperative approach to occupational health and safety in individual workplaces will lead to improved outcomes.

I have no problem with that at all. When you go to the next page, the jargon flows thick and fast. It says:

The OHS Act therefore requires amendment to modernise and streamline outdated provisions ...

Once people start talking about ‘modernising and streamlining outdated provisions’, I really get the shivers up my spine, because that presupposes that everything else that has gone before in occupational health and safety was wrong, was bad or was improper. In most instances, what has been improper—what has been wrong—is that there has been no health and safety regime put in place by the employer where the employee could participate and where the employee understood what was taking place.

The second reading speech talks in that same sentence about modernising and streamlining:

... outdated provisions which are currently inhibiting its effectiveness and denying the right of more employees to be involved in occupational health and safety at their workplace.

I find that quite offensive because I have found that, when employees are confronted with the idea of being involved in protecting their health and safety at the workplace over a long period of time, they have never been backward in coming forward to do so. They have been willing participants in the process but they have craved assistance and guidance that is independent of the employer. Not every employer, unfortunately, can be trusted to tell the truth or to not hide things that will affect the health, safety and wellbeing of employees.

So, whilst the spin on that sounds good, if this is the whole motive behind the legislation—and I have no doubt it is—then it misses the point that the employees in an industry, any industry, will not of their own volition have the knowledge, the understanding and the capacity to deal with their employer on health and safety issues unless they have the right to seek third-party advice. That third-party advice has traditionally been provided by the trade union movement. They will not be able to go out and engage their own occupational health and safety adviser. They have traditionally sought to get that advice through the trade union movement. I turn to page 3 of the second reading speech and more spin comes out at me:

Employers and employees will be able to make informed decisions about how best to reduce any risks to workplace health and safety at their own workplace. This will ensure that there is a more integrated and focused approach at the workplace level because the health and safety management arrangements will be tailor-made to the needs of particular workplaces.

Whoever strung those two sentences together needs to get out in the real world and find out what happens. That is complete nonsense. To put this up as supporting this piece of legislation and as the reason to have the Senate pass this legislation is appalling indeed. There is no way that, based on the model that is being put forward, people will make more informed decisions. That is not outlined anywhere in the second reading speech or, as I can see, in the explanatory memorandum.

As to saying that it will ‘ensure that there is a more integrated and focused approach’, that is just pipe dreaming. There is no foundation, as any shop steward would know, to that claim. Saying that it will lead to health and safety arrangements that will be ‘tailor-made to the needs of particular workplaces’ is just not logical. None of that follows at all. What we have is a nice piece of spin put on this piece of legislation to give it a degree of presentability and make out that it is somehow the saviour of employees in the workforce.

As I said, the focus needs to be not on those good employers—and there are good employers; I am the first to admit it—but on those employers who are not good. And it does not need to be on those employees who are good in terms of their responsibility in workplace health and safety; it needs to be on those employees who have no knowledge or understanding at all. Taking out the role of unions in this area—whilst this bill does not seek to do it exclusively, it will nonetheless achieve that—is unfortunate indeed. I believe this bill should be committed to the same fate that it has received on previous occasions.