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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8125

Mr PERRETT (6:29 PM) —I too rise in support of the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and a related bill. I thank the member for Isaacs for his contribution to the debate. I too listened with amazement to some of the comments coming from those opposite, especially from the member for Curtin. It was quite surprising to hear in that sustained attack the suggestion that the board is somehow stacked with ALP operatives. Over the next few months perhaps that will change if they come from Western Australia, but there seems to be a suggestion that the composition of the board is fundamentally flawed because it was recommended by the states that happened to have Labor premiers. The way the opposition railed about this, maybe they do not have much faith in these governments changing over the next couple of years, even though they are three-year appointments. We will wait and see.

‘Bipartisanship’ is a word we hear often in this parliament; I have heard it a couple of times over the last couple of weeks. But the word ‘bipartisan’ is obviously not understood by those opposite, so I thought I would just inform them a little bit. The English teacher in me asked me to bring along the Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary. I just thought I would look up the word ‘partisan’. ‘Bi’ obviously means two, but ‘partisan’ is a word that means ‘a strong, especially unreasoning, supporter of a party or a cause et cetera.’ In military terms, it is a guerrilla in wartime. The other meaning is ‘loyal to a particular cause or biased’, from the French origins or, in the Italian dialect, ‘partisano’. So the word ‘bipartisan’ is obviously something not particularly understood by those opposite. Maybe they do not understand that it is ‘bi’, meaning two. Sometimes when I hear the member for Wentworth talking I think he must think that, when you trot out $30, it is ‘b-u-y partisan’ and you can buy support for something. Hopefully, the true meaning of the word ‘bipartisan’ will come into play in this House over the next couple of weeks.

This Safe Work Australia Bill will set up a new independent body to help make Australian workplaces safer and will drive better workers compensation arrangements. My background before I was elected, apart from being an English teacher, included working for the peak mining body in Queensland—the Queensland Resources Council. The member for Isaacs touched on the building industry. Obviously, the mining sector, whilst it has nowhere near the same number of fatalities, has incredibly dangerous work sites. Certainly in years gone by there have been huge numbers of fatalities, especially in coalmines. When things go wrong in a coalmine and they explode, there are very serious consequences. So the mining sector is one that has benefited from union involvement over the years. Unlike the member for Curtin, the mining sector has that great relationship between government, unions and employers—that is, mining companies. They understand that tripartite approach to health and safety. I see Bill Shorten, the member for Maribyrnong, walking in. More than anyone, he understands how important the role is that unions play in making sure that health and safety conditions are improved in mining communities.

My other unfortunate, sad connection with health and safety is through my younger brother, Tim, who worked in the building trade. He was working in the building industry only about 10 metres over the border in New South Wales when a crane collapsed on him and the two men standing beside him, who were both killed. So it certainly has touched my family. In a lot of ways, my younger brother has never really recovered. Even though his back injuries were very serious, his psychological damage was much more serious.

I am looking forward to this Safe Work Australia initiative replacing the Australian Safety and Compensation Council. This will reduce the duplications and inconsistencies relating to workplace health and safety throughout Australia. It delivers on our election commitment to uphold safety standards while reducing complexity for employees and employers. Safe Work Australia will be jointly funded by the Commonwealth and state and territory governments and will include a total of 15 members from each of the Commonwealth, state and territory governments, two employee representatives and two employer representatives. The role of the Australian Safety and Compensation Council was to coordinate, monitor and promote national efforts on health and safety and workers’ compensation. Safe Work Australia will do much more than that, and it will drive national reforms to protect health and lives at work and cut costs for employers. This is all part of the Rudd government’s positive approach to corporate federalism, irrespective of whether the state governments are Labor, Liberal or some amalgam of those. The new body will be appointed by the minister and will make recommendations directly to the Workplace Relations Ministers Council.

The Rudd government were elected on a platform to restore balance and fairness to Australian workplaces. We have well and truly started on this journey by abolishing Howard’s unfair Australian workplace agreements. We saw that in no uncertain terms on election night when the member for Bennelong was voted out. That was something which had not happened previously to a sitting prime minister, apart from a gentleman by the name of Stanley Melbourne Bruce, the first Viscount Bruce of Melbourne. I looked up Stanley Melbourne Bruce; he was certainly an interesting character. He was only the second Australian to be granted a hereditary peerage of the United Kingdom parliament, and the only one whose peerage was formally created—that is, he took a seat in the House of Lords. Apparently there had been one granted before but the guy died at sea on his way to taking up his seat in the House of Lords. Stanley Melbourne Bruce was kicked out of federal parliament for introducing legislation that was attacking workers. At a time of riots and lockouts in New South Wales in 1929, he responded with the maritime industries bill, which basically did away with the ‘fair go’—much the same as when John Howard was trying to get rid of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration—and Australians, basically fair-minded people, responded by giving Labor a landslide victory. Stanley Melbourne Bruce, the first Viscount Bruce of Melbourne, was defeated by Labor’s Ted Holloway in his electorate of Flinders. I am not sure if the Holloway family is around or listening to this but they really should have their hands shaken.

Mr Shorten interjecting

Mr PERRETT —I am not sure if Ted Holloway was a Queenslander. I might have to check. Obviously, the Queenslanders sent down Maxine McKew to get rid of John Howard. I will defer to the member for Maribyrnong as to Ted Holloway’s state of origin. Obviously the Hon. John Winston Howard was only the second prime minister to be voted out. Why? Because he attacked the ‘fair go’ and, more importantly, attacked the unions and health and safety, which is really an attack on the lives of people in workplaces.

We have also started work to make Australian workplaces not only safer but healthier. For example, we have undertaken a review of the Comcare scheme. Another shameful Howard government legacy was their gross neglect of Comcare. It was critically underresourced and unable to cope with its investigations workload. This obviously puts lives at risk, as anyone working in the construction sector would know.

The Rudd government has also set up an independent panel of experts to conduct a national occupational health and safety review and has developed an agreement with state and territory governments for nationally consistent occupational health and safety legislation. Having come from the mining sector, I know how particularly advanced this is, with governments, miners and unions sitting down together to work out ways to make businesses work smarter so that mining companies that go between states will not have to deal with different frameworks. This bill delivers on that agreement.

All Australians expect that, when a family member goes off to work, they will return home safely. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. More than 300 people are killed each year at work and more than 140,000 Australians are seriously injured. That sounds like simple statistics, but I can attest that my brother was seriously, seriously damaged by that workplace accident. So statistics do have personal tales behind them.

Australians still face danger in work sites around the country, and this is totally unacceptable. I think of people like Chris Geer and Steve Sayer, who fell to their deaths on a Gold Coast construction site earlier this year, at the time of the Queensland state conference, and there have unfortunately been more deaths, even on the Gold Coast, where my brother worked in the construction sector.

There should be no greater priority for employers than workplace safety, and I know that the overwhelming majority of employers are striving to do the right thing. I say that again: I know that most employers are trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, many of these employers have been entangled in red tape as they battle the different laws in place throughout Australia. The inconsistencies between the states also lead to poorer safety standards and lower compensation for some employees. Once again, I refer to my brother Timothy, who was a classic example. He was working for a Queensland company on the Twin Towns Services Club but, because it was 10 metres over the border—in fact, I think the crane even swung over into Queensland at stages—and the deaths and the accident occurred right over the border, there were all sorts of problems and red tape with getting Sydney lawyers to deal with something that was really a Queensland accident. It will be great to resolve some of those issues by having greater consistency.

National cooperation will help overcome these issues and improve people’s lives. Greater cooperation will improve health and safety standards for workers and reduce the complexity of compliance and regulation for business. To achieve this, Safe Work Australia will develop a national occupational health and safety and workers compensation policy; prepare, monitor and revise legislation; develop a compliance and enforcement policy to ensure regulatory consistency across the nation; progress harmonisation of workers compensation arrangements; collect, analyse and publish occupational health and safety and workers compensation data; drive national awareness strategies; and advise the Workplace Relations Ministers Council on occupational health and safety on workers compensation matters.

We must all be aware that, when it comes to occupational health and safety, there is too much at stake to be distracted by political games and turf wars. We have to get this right. This really is a time for bipartisanship. The only way to get this right is to work together in cooperation with all of the state and territory governments. Safe Work Australia will establish a platform to bring about even greater consistency and cooperation between all governments in the future. We must also continue to work with the many unions who strive to make workplaces safer for their members.

In closing, I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for introducing this legislation and for her commitment to safety in the workplace. She well knows that this type of legislation saves lives. I commend the bills to the House.