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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8043

Mr CRAIG THOMSON (12:49 PM) —I rise to support the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and the associated Safe Work Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2008. The purpose of the Safe Work Australia Bill is to establish Safe Work Australia as an independent Commonwealth statutory body to improve occupational health and safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements in Australia. The announcement of the new body follows the historic signing on 3 July 2008, by the Council of Australian Governments, of an intergovernmental agreement for regulatory and operational reform in occupational health and safety. The intergovernmental agreement commits all jurisdictions to a process for the adoption of model OH&S laws and will enable the development of uniform, equitable and effective safety standards and protections for all Australians. The purpose of the Safe Work Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill is to repeal the Australian Workplace Safety Standards Act 2005 and to deal with the consequential and transitional matters arising from that repeal and from the enactment of the Safe Work Australia Act 2008.

Historically it has been trade unions which have driven the campaign to secure not just safe and healthy workplaces but also just compensation for workers killed and injured at work. Unfortunately, in its desire to rid workplaces of union influence, the former government made it more difficult for workers’ representatives to report and investigate breaches of workplace safety laws. In fact, the whole Work Choices legislation made it very difficult for workers to raise issues of concern with safety. If you are working on a factory floor under an individual contract and you can be dismissed without any recourse to unfair dismissal legislation, and there is something that may cost the employer money to fix but is affecting safety, which employee is going to go and raise that with the employer, when there is the threat of losing their job? Which employee would be brave enough to put their job on the line in relation to these issues, because Work Choices meant that they could be terminated without any reason? So Work Choices fundamentally was attacking the safety of all workers at workplaces around Australia.

This, coupled with individual contracts, put workers in Australia in the incredible position of not only having no bargaining power in relation to the conditions in which they worked, and being dealt with on an individual basis, but also having no unfair dismissal rights. So, if they wished to raise any opposition, any issues—be they more generally about their workplace conditions or more specifically about OH&S issues—they did so at their own peril. This was the fundamental evil of Work Choices—the fundamental evil that the Australian people on 24 November rejected outright and said had to change.

There can never be too much priority placed on safety in the workplace. When people go to work in the morning, they expect to come home at the end of the day. Anything that can assist in making the workplace safer, anything that can be changed to take away those sorts of risks, needs to be supported. More than 300 Australians are killed each year at work. Many more die as a result of work related disease. Each year over 140,000 Australians are seriously injured at work. The cost to our economy has been estimated at $34 billion per year. The cost to those injured and to their families, workmates and friends is inestimable.

In my electorate of Dobell, on the New South Wales Central Coast, there are still vivid memories in the community of the young mother left widowed when her husband was electrocuted on the job at a shopping centre refit, leaving her six-year-old son and nine-month-old daughter without a father. The young mother, Andrea Veigas, later said:

Every Australian worker deserves to work in a safe workplace. I don’t want Glen to just be a statistic. I want his death to be a wake up call to all employers, employees, governments and the whole of Australia.

That is a sentiment that one cannot argue against. More recently I was able to attend the memorial of a bricklayer in my electorate who was crushed by a wall at a new residential-golf estate, leaving behind a large family who are also now without their husband, father and grandfather. These are just two of hundreds of similar tragic stories heard across the country, a constant reminder that unsafe work environments are unacceptable. I also think of the 228 truck drivers killed last year on our roads and the efforts that we need to make to ensure that this tragic road toll is reduced and that those truck drivers can go to work every day in a safer environment.

Safe Work Australia Week will be marked throughout Australia from 19 to 25 October. In reality, we should be thinking about the safest possible workplaces 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Occupational health and safety is an important consideration for all Australian workers, their families and loved ones, and, of course, business. Good OH&S practices not only provide a safer working environment but improve worker morale and productivity. By pursuing good OH&S practices, businesses face fewer workplace injuries and benefit from higher employee retention rates and enhanced corporate image. This reduces the costs associated with production delays, recruiting new staff and replacing equipment, and it avoids the resulting uncertainty and workload pressures placed on co-workers. Businesses who strive to improve their OH&S performance create safer workplaces which benefit not only employers and employees but their families, their communities and the Australian economy. Commitment to better practise OH&S is best sustained through a focus on performance outcomes which can be reported on and monitored over time. Measurement of OH&S performance demonstrates a commitment to improving the safety of workers.

Achieving uniform standards across Australia will always present challenges. Before I came to this place, I was the National Secretary of the Health Services Union, and I can fully understand the difficulties of dealing with seven different workplace safety jurisdictions. Health organisations like Ramsay Health Care, which has hospitals in most states and jurisdictions around Australia, need to have specialists in each state to deal with the separate legislation that operates in each of those areas. The changes that these bills foreshadow will make that a thing of the past. They will make it easier for businesses to deal with these issues and to put greater resources onto the shop floor to make sure that workers are safer at their workplace. Coupled with these changes are other changes constantly occurring in this country’s work environment: an increasingly mobile workforce across state boundaries, a growing trend towards short-term work contracts and a workforce where increasingly English is not the first language, as I have seen in my experience in the health services area. All these factors present hurdles for us as a society to offer safer workplaces. But our goals are attainable.

The establishment of Safe Work Australia is an essential part of the government’s strategy to improve safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements across Australia. In order to achieve this it is vital that we have a central organisation that can collaborate with the Commonwealth, states and territories. The Safe Work Australia Bill establishes the operational arrangements to support this new statutory body, including provisions relating to the nomination, appointment and terms and conditions of members. The bill covers conflict-of-interest issues, procedures relating to the conduct of meetings and to decision-making processes, and the development of plans and requirements for reporting to the Workplace Relations Ministers Council. It enables the chair to constitute committees to draw upon a wide range of expertise for the performance of its functions.

Safe Work Australia will be a reform focused body with the power to make recommendations directly to the Workplace Relations Ministers Council. Safe Work Australia will replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council. Safe Work Australia will be funded by both the Commonwealth, at 50 per cent, and the states and territories, at 50 per cent. Safe Work Australia will be a tripartite body comprising 15 members, including an independent chair, nine members representing the Commonwealth and each state and territory, two members representing the interests of workers, and two representing the interests of employers and the CEO. The minister will make all appointments to Safe Work Australia based on nominations from each body.

What a change it makes to hear discussion in this chamber about tripartite organisations, given the last 12 years. Very rarely in the last 12 years have members opposite mentioned in this chamber that unions and representatives of employees should actually be included as voices on these bodies. It is a great thing that this government is setting up this tripartite organisation to assist in making sure that our workplaces are safer.

Safe Work Australia will develop national policy relating to OH&S and workers compensation; prepare, monitor and revise model OH&S legislation; develop a compliance and enforcement policy to ensure nationally consistent regulatory approaches across all jurisdictions; develop proposals relating to the harmonisation of workers compensation arrangements; importantly, collect, analyse and publish OH&S and workers compensation data and undertake research; drive national communications strategies to raise awareness of health and safety at work; further develop the National OHS Strategy 2002-2012; and advise the Workplace Relations Ministers Council on OH&S and workers compensation matters.

The development of the National OHS Strategy 2002-2012, which I just mentioned, will be an important facet of the new Safe Work Australia body. This strategy already contains important targets for making Australian workplaces safer. These are to sustain a significant, continual reduction in work-related fatalities, with a reduction of at least 20 per cent by 30 June 2012, and to reduce the incidence of workplace injury by at least 40 per cent by 30 June 2012. The five priorities identified by the national strategy to achieve short- and long-term OH&S improvement and to nurture long-term cultural change are: to reduce the impact of risks at work; to improve the capacity of business operators and workers to manage OH&S effectively; to prevent occupational disease more effectively; to eliminate hazards at the design stage; and to strengthen the capacity of government to influence OH&S outcomes.

The national strategy focuses on particular OH&S risks and industry sectors to maximise the impact of the initiatives. The risks targeted are musculoskeletal disorders, falls from heights and hitting or being hit by objects. These three risks account for more than half of the workers compensation claims across Australia. The four priority industry sectors originally targeted were building and construction, transport and storage, manufacturing, and health and community services. More recently, agriculture, forestry and fisheries were added as priority sectors. These sectors were chosen because they were identified through data analysis as having the highest incidence rates and/or a high number of workers compensation claims compared with other industries. By working with these sectors, not only are lives being saved but these industries will set examples of OH&S best practice for other employers to follow.

The bill will also create and maintain mechanisms for the review and revision of the effectiveness of Safe Work Australia in performing its functions. This will ensure that the new body is active and operating efficiently and responsively in meeting its strategic and operational goals. The minister will make all appointments to Safe Work Australia: the independent chair—and for this appointment the minister must consult the Workplace Relations Ministers Council; a Commonwealth representative; one representative nominated by each state and territory; and two representatives nominated by worker and employer groups authorised by the minister—this will enable the minister to identify bodies that represent workers and employers and seek nominations from them.

Safe Work Australia will be assisted by a non-voting CEO and staff. Safe Work Australia’s voting rules were agreed in the context of the intergovernmental agreement. For decisions other than decisions on the model OH&S legislation, 50 per cent of the voting members are required to constitute a quorum, with a two-thirds majority of those present required to agree to the decision. For decisions on the model OH&S legislation, there is an additional requirement that a majority of the Commonwealth, state and territory representatives must agree. Safe Work Australia will be jointly funded by the Commonwealth and the states and territories. Funding is estimated at $17 million in the first full year, with the Commonwealth contributing half of that—some $8.5 million.

The government has set itself the task of creating a seamless national economy unhampered by unnecessary state duplications, overlaps and differences. Occupational health and safety is a prime candidate for this sort of reform. Since coming to office we have undertaken a review of the Comcare scheme, set up an independent panel of experts to conduct a national OH&S review and developed a landmark intergovernmental agreement with our state and territory counterparts to harmonise occupational health and safety legislation nationally.

This bill, together with the intergovernmental agreement, ushers in a new era of cooperation and collaboration between the Commonwealth and the states and territories in this important area—a collaboration which will improve the health and safety of workers across Australia and reduce the complexity of regulation for businesses. Again, what a difference it is to hear in this chamber the government talking about cooperating with the states and territories rather than trying to railroad them and run straight over the top of them as the previous government did with Work Choices.

Safe Work Australia will replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council established by the Howard government as an advisory council whose functions were confined to coordinating, monitoring and promoting national efforts on health and safety and workers compensation. Occupational health and safety and workers compensation are too important to be neglected any longer. Workers’ lives and health are at stake, and so too is the efficiency of our economy. Occupational health and safety and workers compensation reform will increase profitability and productivity and better protect the lives and health of Australians. Safe Work Australia will play a pivotal role in this reform. I commend the bills to the House.