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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8115

Ms HALL (5:46 PM) —Like the previous speaker, I take great pleasure in speaking to this legislation as somebody who has spent a large part of their working life advocating change in this area. It is really pleasing to see that the government is taking action to improve occupational health and safety throughout Australia—something that unfortunately deteriorated under the previous government. We need to have a safe workplace because it contributes to the overall productivity of the country and the social fabric of our society.

The Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 proposes to establish Safe Work Australia as an independent Commonwealth statutory body with the purpose of improving workers compensation arrangements and occupational health and safety outcomes in Australia. It establishes operational arrangements to support Safe Work Australia, including provisions relating to the nomination, appointment and terms and conditions of members; conflict of interest issues; the conduct of meetings and decision-making processes; 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. This is a cooperative approach that stops the blame game that has taken place in so many areas by bringing the states and other players together to work constructively to create safe workplaces throughout Australia.

Safe Work Australia will be a reform focused body with the power to make recommendations directly to the Workplace Relations Ministers Council. It will replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, which was established by the Howard government as an advisory body whose functions were confined to coordinating, monitoring and promoting national efforts on health and safety and workers compensation. I think I can safely say that that body was not a great success and did nothing to enhance workplace safety within Australia.

Safe Work Australia will be funded 50 per cent by the Commonwealth and 50 per cent by the states and territories. It is estimated to cost $17 million in the first full year, and the Commonwealth will contribute $8.5 million. It will be a tripartite body made up of 15 members, including an independent chair, nine members representing the Commonwealth and each state and territory, two members representing the interests of workers, two members representing the interests of employers, and a CEO. The minister will make all appointments to Safe Work Australia based on nominations from each body.

The members, supported by the CEO and staff, will together form a statutory agency under the Public Service Act. This will be subject to Commonwealth governance regimes and will be a prescribed agency under the Financial Management and Accountability Act. It will remove inconsistencies between jurisdictions and make our health, safety and compensation systems less complicated. Previously, inconsistencies between jurisdictions resulted in the risk that safety standards for workers were poorer in some states than they were in others.

Back in 2003 I was a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations. We conducted an inquiry into aspects of workers compensation schemes and prepared the report Back on the job. One of the findings of the report was that there was a need for national consistency. The need for greater national consistency in the operation of workers compensation schemes was raised frequently throughout the inquiry. The committee felt strongly that a national framework for workers compensation was needed to remove the complexities and deal with cross-border issues. This would lessen the potential for problems to exist in the area not only of workers compensation but also of occupational health and safety. As a long-term advocate for a consistent system—a system that is actually focused on the need to create a safe workplace—I feel that this legislation before us goes a long way towards doing that.

The inconsistencies, some of which I have referred to, increase costs, complexity and paperwork for businesses that operate across state boundaries. I have been a caseworker working with somebody who has been injured in a different jurisdiction. At that particular time, the complexities of the system worked against the employer, against the worker and against obtaining a good outcome. That is just one example of how the inconsistencies that come from not having a seamless approach to workers compensation and work safety create problems.

This consistency is badly needed because more than 300 Australians are killed at work each year and more die as a result of work related diseases. They are mums or dads, somebody’s son or daughter, who go to work to earn a living to care for their families and loved ones and, as a result of their work, they lose their lives. Each year more than 140,000 Australians are seriously injured at work. Many of those will never work again, despite the fact that they would very much like to work and that they do everything in their power to undertake rehabilitation and retraining. Their lives are changed forever. That is one of the issues that Safe Work Australia will be addressing by creating safe workplaces. While the cost to the economy is estimated at $34 billion a year, the associated cost to the injured workers and their families just cannot be measured. It is not only loss of income but also a loss of their whole way of life, their self-perception and their relationships with their friends. It really is a life-changing event. I do not think that too many people really appreciate the significance that a workplace injury can have on a man or a woman.

If the passage of this bill is delayed beyond this spring sitting, Safe Work Australia cannot commence before 1 March 2009. This would put the COAG timetable for occupational health and safety harmonisation in jeopardy as the exposure draft of the model legislation is due to be released in May 2009. The member for Chisholm is following me and I know that she will be emphasising all these important issues. Safe Work Australia will develop national policy relating to OH&S and workers compensation; prepare, monitor and revise the model of OH&S legislation; develop a compliance and enforcement policy to ensure consistent regulatory approaches across all jurisdictions; develop proposals relating to harmonisation of workers compensation arrangements; collect, analyse and publish OH&S and workers compensation data; undertake and publish research; drive national communication strategies to raise awareness of health and safety at work; and further develop the National Occupational Health and Safety Strategy 2002-12. I will finish there and allow the member for Chisholm to take over. I strongly support this legislation.