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Monday, 13 October 2008
Page: 5810


Senator McEWEN (5:54 PM) —Madam Acting Deputy President Hurley, I congratulate you on your appointment to the big chair—another member of the class of 2004 has made it there. I am very pleased to be able to speak this evening on these two bills before the Senate. The Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and the Safe Work Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2008 establish a new Commonwealth statutory authority that is another practical example of the government’s determination to undo the wrongs of the past and to establish a modern, national and balanced approach to workplace issues that will stand the nation in good stead for the future.

As is well known, the Australian Labor Party was established by working people and their unions as a party for the workers. We take the protection of workers and their rights very seriously and we have done so throughout the long history of our party. It was the Labor Party, for example, that initiated the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission that was established in 1985 as part of the Hawke Labor government’s 1983 prices and income accord with Australia’s trade unions. The commission was very important in establishing for the first time a national focus on occupational health and safety. In particular, it developed national standards in addressing hazardous areas for workers such as manual handling, noise, plant, hazardous substances and dangerous goods. The work that the commission did has certainly provided the foundation for ongoing work in that area at both the state and federal level.

During the period of the Howard government, the commission unfortunately suffered funding cuts and a reduced role. It was eventually replaced by the Australian Safety and Compensation Council. That was a council and not an independent statutory authority and, unfortunately, in its guise as a council, the organisation did not have the clout that it had previously had. So, in the 2007 election campaign, Labor, true to its long history of supporting workers and ensuring the best possible outcomes in the area of workers’ safety, promised to replace the council with an organisation with more teeth. That is what we are doing here with these bills tonight, and it is a great thing to see Labor’s workplace relations legislation gradually implemented in the chamber.

That attitude from the Labor government is in stark contrast to the approach of the opposition. When most recently in government, the coalition was determined to make the lives of workers as difficult as possible through draconian industrial relations laws, and, unfortunately, the former government paid scant attention to health and safety at work. In contrast, as I said, protection of workers’ rights was at the forefront of Labor’s election campaign last year. We vowed to roll back Work Choices, which stripped many workers’ rights. That is a process we began earlier in the year, and we look forward to seeing more legislation along those lines as the year progresses.

Labor has always recognised that workplace safety is an incredibly important issue for workers and their families and of course for the economy. There is not much point arguing at the workplace for better wages, flexible hours, longer leave or better working conditions if you are in a workplace where you could get severely injured, contract some workplace related disease or even be killed. We know that more than 300 Australians are killed at work each year and many more die as a result of work related disease. Each year over 140,000 Australians are seriously injured at work, and that means that 17 in every 1,000 employees will be off work for at least a week due to work related injury and disease. Two of those 17 workers will need at least six months off work to recover from the injury or illness they sustained during their working life. It is estimated that there are some 689,000 work related injuries in Australia each year. The struggle that can follow a serious injury has far-reaching effects on both the injured worker and their family, on their relationships, on their job prospects and on their future income. Many of us on this side of the chamber have previously worked in trade unions or related areas and have worked closely with people who have suffered work related injuries and seen the long-term detrimental effect that can have on them and their future prospects.

What makes it all much worse is that so many of those workplace injuries and deaths can be prevented through safer practices in workplaces. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to focus on workplace safety issues. There seems to be an assumption in Australia that workplace safety is not a problem because we are a developed nation and we have reasonably good laws comparable to some other nations. There is also unfortunately often the attitude of little sympathy for injured workers and ignorance about what is at stake. In this legislation we are attempting to put workplace safety at the forefront of people’s minds. If people need to be focused on that, perhaps one of the things they could pay more attention to is the impact of workplace injuries on the economy, which has been estimated in Australia to be a cost of some $34 billion a year. In these current economic times we well know that that vast sum of money could be better spent than on supporting workers who unfortunately have been injured when they need not have been injured.

In addition to establishing Safe Work Australia, the Rudd Labor government has already started work to make Australian workplaces safer and healthier. For example, we have undertaken a review of the Comcare scheme, a scheme which the former government neglected for a decade. Under the previous government, Comcare was underresourced and unable to cope with the investigations workload that it had. Our review will outline ways in which to fix the problems in that system that is so important to us.

The government has also set up an independent panel of experts to conduct a national occupational health and safety review and has also developed an agreement with state and territory governments for nationally consistent occupational health and safety legislation. We want that review to recommend the optimal structure and content of a model occupational health and safety act that is capable of being adopted in all states and territories and federally.

The debate about these bills before us today could not be more timely as next week is Safe Work Australia Week. That is a week that brings the nation’s focus to workplace safety issues and encourages people to really prioritise safety in their workplaces. I would like to congratulate everyone getting involved in Safe Work Australia Week activities which are being held across the nation. In my home state of South Australia, our four major occupational health and safety stakeholders—SafeWork SA, WorkCover SA, Business SA and SA Unions—have truly outdone themselves this year, extending Safe Work Australia Week into a whole month.

Starting today and running until 7 November these organisations are ensuring that everyone across the state, from Port Lincoln to Roxby Downs to Mount Gambier, has the opportunity to participate in an event related to workplace safety. Those events include community breakfasts, a celebrity doctor with simple tips on how to put life back into your business and working life, and an executive management forum facilitated by Mr Tom Phillips, the former CEO of Mitsubishi Motors Australia. There is also a special South Australian health expo showcasing excellence and innovation in injury prevention.

Safe Work Australia Week is coordinated by the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, the ASCC, and is a good example of what can be done with national input and support. But the government wants to do more. The Safe Work Australia Bill and its transitional bill will establish Safe Work Australia, a replacement for the ASCC. Unfortunately, because of funding and because its powers were limited to coordinating, monitoring and promoting, the ASCC was unable to have a substantive role in promoting and ensuring occupational health and safety across the workforce. Safe Work Australia will be an independent Commonwealth statutory authority designed to improve OH&S outcomes and workers compensation arrangements in Australia.

We know that OH&S systems are aimed at preventing workplace accidents, while the workers compensation systems are designed to deliver support needed to workers and their families when such accidents occur. Historically, both occupational health and safety and workers compensation arrangements have been fragmented across the Commonwealth and states and territories. As we know, each state and territory has its own health and safety laws. While there is some consistency across those laws, there are still, unsurprisingly, some fundamental differences between them. That inconsistency between the jurisdictions can create a lot of confusion and makes it very difficult for workers who may move from one state and territory to another, as we know increasingly workers in Australia do, and also difficult for employers who operate across more than one jurisdiction. I understand there are some 36,000 employers in Australia who operate in more than one jurisdiction. As workers move into a new jurisdiction they want to know what their rights and entitlements are, particularly in relation to compensation, because it may be different from what they had before. If a worker has an ongoing workers compensation claim, then it needs to be made easier for both the employer and the worker to ensure that that claim can be dealt with consistently.

The legislation before us today seeks to set in place the structure to facilitate more consistency across the nation, putting in place a set of high-standard occupational health and safety rules across all jurisdictions. Safe Work Australia will take forward the initiatives of the Commonwealth and the states and territories to streamline and harmonise workers compensation arrangements. For the first time in the history of our Federation, governments from each state and territory and the Commonwealth have formally committed to the harmonisation of occupational health and safety legislation through an intergovernmental agreement.

When Safe Work Australia comes into being, it must take into account the interests of the Commonwealth and the states and territories as well as workers and employers. It will be a reform focused body with the power to make recommendations directly to the Workplace Relations Ministers Council. The states and territories have agreed to an arrangement whereby the Commonwealth will fund 50 per cent of the budget for Safe Work Australia, while the states and territories together will fund the remaining 50 per cent. Details of those funding arrangements are set out in the Intergovernmental Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in Occupational Health and Safety made between the Commonwealth and the states and territories on 3 July 2008.

Safe Work Australia will be a positive move financially for the government. The Commonwealth will be required to pay an initial minimum amount of $8.5 million which would be subject to indexation by the CPI as a minimum in the following years. This amount is less than the amount outlaid for the running of the Australian Safety and Compensation Council. It is an example of how a wise investment can deliver excellent benefits for Australian workers and employers.

The Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 will assist the nation in improving occupational health and safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements in Australia because it will empower Safe Work Australia to do a number of things. It will develop a national policy in respect of occupational health and safety and workers compensation; prepare model occupational health and safety legislation and codes of practice for approval by the ministerial council and for adoption by the Commonwealth, states and territories; and develop compliance and enforcement policy to ensure that a nationally consistent approach is taken to compliance and enforcement. This is very valuable for employers who work across a number of jurisdictions; they will know the rules wherever they are operating. Safe Work Australia will also develop proposals relating to the harmonisation of workers compensation arrangements across all jurisdictions. It will develop proposals for national workers compensation arrangements for employers with workers in more than one jurisdiction. Importantly, it will build expertise across occupational health and safety laws and workers compensation schemes that will be readily accessible across jurisdictions and industries, which will reduce the complexity and costs for businesses.

Another feature of Safe Work Australia will be its ability to undertake data collection and research and to publish its findings. This will ensure that all jurisdictions and industries have access to up-to-date, industry-specific information. Employers and workers will be able to adopt practices that will reduce instances of risk and injury in workplaces across Australia. While facilitating data collection might seem a minor part of the bills before the chamber, it is in fact very important. We should never forget how important good data was in assisting and sustaining the victims of asbestos related diseases during their long fight in the pursuit of compensation. So I am very pleased to see that data collection is specifically mentioned in the bills as an important focus of Safe Work Australia.

The Safe Work Australia legislation will also create and maintain mechanisms for review and revision of the effectiveness of Safe Work Australia in performing its functions. This will ensure that the organisation is active in operating efficiently and is responsive in meeting its strategic and operational goals.

The bill also deals with the membership of Safe Work Australia. This will consist of representatives from Commonwealth, state and territory governments, as well as people representing the interests of workers and employers in Australia. This will make Safe Work Australia a truly representative body rather than just an expert body. It is an innovative structure. I am very pleased to support such a structure, particularly when it includes at a national level not only government representatives but also worker and employer representatives. The importance of having a representative body is also reflected in the bill by the stipulation that SWA needs to have at least two-thirds of its voting membership in place in order to perform its functions. I think that stipulation highlights the importance of the body and the need to ensure that all interests in the very vexing and sometimes difficult area of workplace safety are taken into consideration.

In closing, while commending the bills to the chamber, I would like to acknowledge the many workplace occupational health and safety delegates in Australia who volunteer to undertake the role of monitoring what happens in their workplaces, of advising their workmates on how to keep themselves safe and of reporting and improving on health and safety in their workplaces. They are the front-line warriors who ensure that workplaces in Australia are safe. No matter what legislation we pass in this place, it would be pretty irrelevant if we did not have these delegates on the ground doing what they do very well. I would also like to acknowledge the work in South Australia of the Asbestos Victims Association. It was at the forefront of ensuring that South Australians who were afflicted by the terrible diseases from asbestos had an opportunity to fight their case for compensation. Like Senator Xenophon, I would also like to acknowledge the work of Dr Kevin Purse, who is a fearless campaigner and sometimes a fearless critic of federal and state governments in the area of workers compensation. I thank him for his work.