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Thursday, 24 November 2011
Page: 9521

Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (13:38): We now move on to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2011. Before addressing some remarks to that, I would encourage elements in the Australian media to in fact report the occasion we have just witnessed. Unfortunately, there was not a huge dispute in the parliament, things were not said in the heat of the moment and, as a result, they will not be reported, as they should be.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Back ): Order! Senator Abetz, would you resume your seat for a moment. I draw you attention to the actual title of the bills and ask the Clerk to read them again to ensure that we all know the matter that is under discussion.

Senator ABETZ: Yes, we have previously dealt with that legislation and we are now dealing with the harmonised work health and safety bills. I still make the point that it would be nice were the media to give much time to this breakout of peace and unanimity within the parliament on this occasion—but I have a funny suspicion that events in the other place, namely the House of Representatives, with the demise of the Speaker for all sorts of nefarious reasons, will undoubtedly capture the attention of the media. Having said that, it is not so much that we in this chamber feel some satisfaction with good reporting; the important thing is that there are now firefighters and men and women in the fire services who know that their workers compensation claims will be somewhat easier to prosecute, as they should be, and I wish them well.

The bills we are currently considering relate to the harmonisation of workplace health and safety laws in Australia. Most people believe that this is a good reform. It would be of benefit to have harmonised laws so that you do not have the differing standards which cost such a considerable amount to business and, as a result, reduces the productivity within our nation. The idea, of course, is to have a harmonised system—a hope that was commenced by the Howard government. In February 2008 the workplace relations ministers council agreed that the use of model legislation would be the most effective way to achieve harmonisation. The Commonwealth, and each of the states and territories, subsequently agreed and signed the Intergovernmental Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in Occupational Health and Safety, which committed jurisdictions to implement the model laws by 2011.

The model bill was intended to be mirrored in all jurisdictions. Separate bills were to be introduced into each jurisdiction's parliament to give effect to the model bill. What we do know is that that has not occurred. We know that in New South Wales they have—with the support, might I add, of the Australian Labor Party representatives in that parliament—ensured that their legislation would not be as per the agreed harmonised model bill. We also know that, courtesy of changes of government in Western Australia and Victoria, there are now some concerns being expressed in relation to the harmonised legislation. We as a coalition recognise that it is important that these bills be viewed in the context of the harmonisation of occupational health and safety laws being conducted under the auspices of the Council of Australian Governments. The intergovernmental agreement also expresses the commitment of each jurisdiction to enact or otherwise give effect to those laws by the end of this year. It is questionable whether that is going to be achieved in some of the other jurisdictions.

There was a review that commenced in 2008 and was finalised in January 2009. The review conducted extensive consultations with a broad range of stakeholders, including regulators, unions, employer organisations, industry representatives, legal professionals, academics, and health and safety profes­sionals. It received over 200 submissions in response to the issues paper released in May 2008. The review panel completed its work with the submission of its second report to the ministerial council in January 2009. That panel made 232 recommendations. The ministerial council responded to that in May 2009. From those responses to recom­mendations the panel formed the basis for the model act. The model act itself was the subject of extensive consultation. The model act was developed by Safe Work Australia, with the involvement of all Safe Work Australia members. In September 2009, Safe Work Australia released an exposure draft of the model act for public comment—480 submissions were received. In December 2009, after incorporating a number of amendments proposed as a result of consideration by Safe Work Australia, input from the Parliamentary Counsel's Committee and the public consultation process, the ministerial council endorsed the amended model act, which became the agreed model act.

I do confess to being somewhat confused today, because if one believes what the Prime Minister says, this piece of legislation somehow has already been introduced and passed. In the leader's debate during the last election, when asked what her biggest achievement was, she said:

Perhaps less transparent to the Australian people: getting new occupational health and safety laws. Laws around the country. Businesses have been complaining for 30 years that they have different obligations in different states and at the same time not every individual worker had the same safety standards. Now, I have delivered that.

Well, she hadn't, she hasn't and she won't. Just like her 'no carbon tax' promise and assertion, this is a Prime Minister that seems to be addicted to the misleading of the Australian people, to exaggerate that which she may have achieved or obtained. To get all the state Labor governments to agree to her proposal was, I suppose, something to be welcomed but of course was not as she portrayed, which was that she had achieved these laws. We now know for a fact that the states are asking for the implementation to be deferred. Some states still have to pass this legislation. We know that in New South Wales they have deliberately passed legislation which is inconsistent with the harmonised laws.

Senator Bilyk: Shame.

Senator ABETZ: Senator Bilyk interjects and says 'Shame'. You know what, Mr Deputy President, I fully agree with her. But do you know why New South Wales did that? Because members of Senators Bilyk's party in the upper house of the parliament of New South Wales voted to put amendments to the harmonised bill that made it inconsistent with that which is before us today. It was the ALP, with the Australian Greens and, might I add, the shooters party, that would continue to allow trade unions to bring actions against employers when there is an independent, for want of a better term, police force or an independent bureaucracy to do these things. It is highly unwise for the unions to be involved in this. Indeed, having unions involved was specifically rejected by the ministerial council. It was put up and specifically rejected. Yet we have unharmonised laws courtesy of the power of the trade union movement over the Australian Labor Party in New South Wales.

The Prime Minister said:

Thirty years—on the day we delivered it—there were some public servants that had tears in their eyes because they spent all their working life waiting for someone to deliver that reform. Wasn't easy, but I got it done.

You can just imagine the TV coverage of all these assertions by the Prime Minister as a go-get-'em type Prime Minister achieving something after 30 years, when she had not at all. But it seems that she was willing to say any words that came into her mind at any time if she thought that might help her win the odd vote during that election campaign. She went on to say:

And what I think that shows is if you believe in something passionately, then you will work through.

So we are told that the Prime Minister got it all done, signed, sealed and delivered. Perhaps Senator Evans might believe that—we do not know—but we do know that in some areas it is unravelling. The harmonisation of the nation's numerous occupational health and safety laws in general terms in principle is a good thing. It was started by the Howard government, in fact, in October 2006. Yet, of course, we were told that some people had been working on this for 30 years and were starting to cry—and if they did sobeit, but it was first started on the official level in October 2006.

The arguments for harmonisation appear compelling to many, and I must say that I am one of those who is compelled by those arguments. But I am also very disappointed that the government has sought to bring on this legislation for debate when the regulations are yet to be finalised. The coalition believes that, in fairness to all sides of the chamber, the government should have provided a copy of the final regulations and the final regulatory impact statement. This legislation is what is now being described as 'coathanger legislation', where you have just got the wire frame of the coathanger but it is what you hang on it by way of regulations that actually counts, that actually makes the difference. So what this government is yet again seeking to do is to introduce a scheme whereby the Australian people, and more importantly their representatives in this place, are unable to fully judge that which is going to come into being.

Indeed, I recall some draft regulations in one of the areas which would have all building sites that have the potential of a worker to fall more than two metres to be fully safety fenced. That therefore means every single domestic residence, every unit that is being built in the broadacre allotments, would need to be individually fenced off. And we wonder in Australia why we are dealing with cost increases in housing and issues of housing affordability and young people who are not able to get into houses. If these regulations come to pass under this coathanger legislation, every house building site will need to have such a safety fence erected around it. That will simply add to the cost of housing. Of course you want safety on every worksite. Of course you want the minimisation of injuries. I must say I am not sure that this bill itself will deliver that but it will at least develop as much as possible a harmonised scheme.

There are some issues that are of concern to the coalition and we have amendments and will deal with those through the committee stage. Training in occupational health and safety is always an important issue. At this time of transition to new arrangements the availability of courses is vital, and unfortunately the availability of accredited courses has been reduced by 26 per cent since restrictive changes were introduced by the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission in 2010 in order to facilitate transition—so called—and ensure the availability of training courses.

I will put forward an amendment to the transitional bill enabling the continuance of courses accredited under the 2006-07 regime. The change made supports union training at the expense of a private provider with no beneficial outcomes. Many an hour, as you know, Mr Acting Deputy President Back, has been spent at the Senate estimates asking Safe Work Australia as to the reason for this change. Was there any problem with the service delivery? Was there any problem with the outcome of the safety training? All we ever get from the bureaucracy, with great respect, is, 'Well, it was a decision and that decision is the decision and therefore that is the decision.' As to the rationale, we are never told why that decision was made. We are never told why 26 per cent of the service providers should be knocked out of the ring, service providers that have been employed by Commonwealth departments and agencies, to whom Commonwealth depart­ments and agencies have written letters of commendation saying how good the training was. But you know what the fault was, don't you, Mr Acting Deputy President. It was not union authorised training. That was the great difficulty with it and that is why they had to be pushed aside—no fault with the training, no fault with the outcome, but deliberately disallowed. And no answers have been given at Senate estimates. Indeed, one of the bureaucrats said in relation to this issue that I think they have now answered over 200 written questions on notice from me on this issue. The reason they got so many is that they cannot come up with a plausible argument as to why this form of training, which has been so exceptionally good, endorsed by Commonwealth agencies and departments, is now no longer allowed.

There are also matters on the major bill that I will be dealing with in the committee stage dealing with the failure to include the term 'control' in identification of duties of care, removal of the right to silence and protection from self-incrimination. Also in relation to the time frame there are certain issues that need to be dealt with. So, whilst the coalition will not oppose this bill, we will put forward some commonsense amend­ments. It is, as I said before, important to point out that this is coathanger legislation. The regulations will be determinative of the benefit of this change. Model regulations were circulated and I must say they are exceptionally restrictive, with the one example that I gave. The final regulations still have not been released, nor has the regulatory impact statement. If the minister's timetable is to be adopted, these regulations will come out over the next few weeks, one hopes. Indeed, in one area I understand they will be coming out the week before Christmas and then they will have to be applied as of the commencement of the following year. So the decision regulatory impact statement that is currently floating around offers some very real concerns.

I note that in answers in Senate estimates the department could not clearly say that the harmonisation will be achieving the clear goals that were laid out from the outset. The clear goals and the so-called modelling and the savings that would be made in this area will clearly no longer be made because of the fact that we will no longer have genuinely harmonised legislation since a number of states will be going their own way. I look forward to the committee stage, where I will be able to pursue some further remarks.