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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8041

Mr KEENAN (12:40 PM) —I rise to discuss the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008. Before going into the substance of the bill, I would like to make some general remarks about workplace relations and employment. We all, rightly, bring our own perspectives and our own experiences to the issues we face in this parliament. They form part of the equation when we form our views about issues. It is perfectly reasonable, when we as parliamentarians are faced with a large number of decisions, that we do rely on our experiences to guide us in forming judgements. In my own case, I am guided in my views on workplace relations by my own experiences, and in this field they have been many. I have been an employee, I have been an employer, I have worked casually, I have worked full time and I have worked part time. I have worked in different parts of Australia and I have also worked overseas. I have done many and varied jobs since I commenced my working life. I delivered milk when I was 14, I have flipped hamburgers, I have poured beers, I have waited tables, I have been an usher at the cinema, I have been a data entry clerk and I have done all types of administration. I have had many more occupations than I would care to list. Most of these jobs have been great but, occasionally, I have come across employers who have not lived up to their obligations. I must say that these times have been relatively few and far between in what has been a long and varied career.

The times that I actually remember with most trepidation are the times when I have been unable to find work. Members of the House will probably be familiar with that intense and unwavering feeling of insecurity that can pervade all aspects of your life. A loss of confidence can accompany this. The failure to be able to find work, in my view, is one of the worst fates that can befall any individual Australian. This parliament must always bear that in mind when considering the appropriate structure for our workplace relations system, including in this case occupational health and safety laws. The more complex and complicated we make that system, the more people will be subjected to the insecurity of being unable to find work.

I have heard suggestions in this debate, and at other times, that members of the coalition are not concerned about safety in Australian workplaces. I consider this suggestion offensive and silly. To seriously suggest that any member of this House would condone an unsafe workplace is ludicrous. It is just as ludicrous as the suggestion that any member of this House would somehow welcome deterioration in the working conditions of any Australian worker. Debates in this area are about finding balance in our workplace relations system and are a vitally important business for this parliament. But let us conduct them in an atmosphere where members are not subjected to nonsensical allegations that have no basis in reality. The debates in this portfolio are vitally important to the wellbeing of my constituents in Stirling and to the constituents of every single member of this House. If we get the system wrong, we bring the progress Australia has made over the last several decades to a complete halt. I think that all members of this House should treat these debates with the seriousness they deserve, and I would invite all members to do so when we are debating this bill.

The bill’s purpose is to establish Safe Work Australia. The coalition does not oppose this bill or the consequential provisions, although we do have some concerns about significant flaws within the bill. Safety in the workplace should be a core priority for both employers and employees. Every employee should be able to undertake their tasks in a safe environment. The coalition broadly supports the idea of a national occupational health and safety system and is committed to ensuring that every Australian workplace is a safe one. There are significant benefits to be gained from a national system, both for employees and employers. However, we are concerned that this bill will not achieve this.

There are significant costs for employers in managing seven different sets of occupational health and safety laws and workers compensation requirements. These are wasted funds that could be better spent. These funds could be used to provide skills training for employees, education in occupational health and safety policies and employee development. Instead these funds are spent on complying with the seven different occupational health and safety regimes and workers compensation systems.

Yet this bill, strangely, reduces the level of influence that employees and employers currently have in developing occupational health and safety policy. It does so by reducing the number of union and industry representatives and allowing state government representatives to dominate occupational health and safety policy decisions. This bill will allow state Labor ministers to continue to hijack the national discussion on occupational health and safety, just as we saw with the New South Wales Minister for Industrial Relations last year. This is an ill-considered measure that is a backward step from the current situation.

Every workplace is different. I believe it is crucial that employers and employees work together to achieve workplace health and safety. But surely we would be best off doing that through getting those who know their workplaces best involved in developing occupational health and safety policy. Removing the influence of employees and employers from this process is irresponsible government. The influence of employees and employers and their union and industry representatives should be encouraged. Their participation should be increased, not lessened. Occupational health and safety policy outcomes that require changes to culture and other significant changes depend on employers and employees. Removing them from, or lessening their influence on, the policy development process is a very retrograde step.

I want to turn now to the other significant flaw in this bill, and that is that it proposes that parliament receive a report on the progress of Safe Work Australia every six years. I encourage the government to consider shortening this period of reporting. There is no logical element to a six-year time frame. It is totally out of line with the parliamentary term and it will not provide future governments with the information they will require to develop a national system. It is not responsible for the government to propose a bill that provides for an independent authority that will be dominated by state representatives and will remove employee and employer representation to only require that a report be provided to parliament every six years.

This bill is another example of a Labor policy that has been introduced with little consultation. Safe Work Australia is in some aspects a regressive step. Australia cannot afford ill-considered policies that increase the influence of incompetent state Labor governments at the expense of employers and employees and their representatives in union and industry bodies. I hope that the Senate will look at these matters in an inquiry into this bill. If they do, I encourage the government to work with the coalition to provide the best possible environment for developing a national occupational health and safety system in the best interests of all Australian workers and businesses.