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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8139

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (Minister for Employment Participation) (7:31 PM) —I thank members for their contribution to this cognate debate on the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008. At the outset I would like to remind members that this legislation will give effect to the Intergovernmental Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in Occupational Health and Safety agreed by COAG on 3 July this year. I also note that very little has been said by members opposite about that historic agreement in the course of this debate. The intergovernmental agreement is a watershed in Commonwealth-state relations. For the first time, governments from each state and territory and the Commonwealth have formally committed to the harmonisation of OH&S laws and the implementation of uniform OH&S legislation, complemented by consistent approaches to compliance and enforcement.

The Australian government recognises that occupational health and safety is primarily a state and territory government responsibility and that true reform in this area can be achieved only with the Commonwealth, state and territory governments working cooperatively, as partners rather than as adversaries. The intergovernmental agreement ushered in a new era of cooperation and collaboration between the Commonwealth and the states and territories—a collaboration which will improve the health and safety of workers across Australia and reduce the complexity of regulation for businesses.

All members who have spoken to this legislation have accepted that Australia’s health, safety and compensation systems are unnecessarily complex and costly. Inconsistencies between the jurisdictions mean that some workers are at risk of poorer safety standards than their counterparts in other states. At the same time, these inconsistencies increase the complexity, paperwork and costs for the 39,000 Australian businesses that operate across state boundaries. The establishment of Safe Work Australia is an essential first step towards improving safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements across Australia. Safe Work Australia will be an independent national body with an inclusive, tripartite membership. It will have 15 members, including an independent chair, nine members representing the Commonwealth and each state and territory, two members representing the interests of workers, two representing the interests of employers, and a CEO. Safe Work Australia will have its own staff and will operate under the Commonwealth’s accountability and governance frameworks. Safe Work Australia will play a pivotal role in realising the shared commitment of the Commonwealth and all state and territory governments to work together to achieve harmonisation of OH&S laws. It will have the important task of developing a model OH&S act, model regulations and model codes of practice for approval by workplace relations ministers.

The opposition have sought to deflect attention from their own appalling record in the area of occupational health and safety by arguing that Safe Work Australia has been designed to fail in achieving its objectives. They have questioned the composition of Safe Work Australia and the voting rules relating to the model OH&S legislation. They have claimed that the legislation is fundamentally flawed because it creates an imbalance between the representatives of the state and territory governments, on the one hand, and the representatives of employers and employees on the other. They have also claimed that these rules reduce the role and effectiveness of the workers’ and employers’ representatives. Contrary to what the members opposite would have this House believe, Safe Work Australia will be a genuine tripartite body. There will be two employer and two employee representatives on Safe Work Australia. The Commonwealth, states and territories will have only one representative each. With two members each from worker and employer bodies, the social partners will continue to play a significant role in the decision making and effectiveness of Safe Work Australia.

The Deputy Leader of the Opposition contends that government representatives will be able to repeatedly override legitimate concerns raised by the social partners during OH&S harmonisation discussions. Not so. All questions will be decided by a two-thirds majority of the votes of members present and voting at a meeting. In the highly unlikely event that there is a split between the states and territories on the one hand and the employer and employee representatives on the other, the independent chair will have the deciding vote. Questions relating to the model OH&S legislation will require an absolute majority of all voting members who represent the Commonwealth, states and territories. This is as it should be because it is the Commonwealth, states and territories that will be required to enact the model OH&S laws.

What the members opposite have failed to acknowledge is that the composition of Safe Work Australia and the voting rules were agreed by the Commonwealth, state and territory governments as part of the negotiations on the Intergovernmental Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in Occupational Health and Safety. They have conveniently overlooked the commitment demonstrated by the states and territories by negotiating the intergovernmental agreement. They have also conveniently overlooked the fact that the state and territory governments will be contributing 50 per cent of the funding for Safe Work Australia—another example of the cooperative approach adopted by this government. The opposition has also criticised the fact that Safe Work Australia is reliant on the cooperation and participation of the ministerial council to which it is required to directly report. The government makes no apology for this. If Australia is to have a harmonised set of OH&S laws, then it will only do so with the agreement of the states and territories. The ministerial council will have the responsibility to agree, by consensus, to the model OH&S legislation proposed by Safe Work Australia. Unless at least a majority of jurisdictional representatives on Safe Work Australia support the proposed model OH&S legislation, it is unlikely that the ministerial council would reach agreement by consensus.

The members opposite have also sought to misrepresent the reporting arrangements that apply to Safe Work Australia. Opposition members would have this House believe that the government is unwilling to report back to parliament on Safe Work Australia’s operations—that it would only do so every six years. This completely misrepresents the reporting requirements contained in the legislation, so allow me to correct the record. The provision latched onto by the members opposite relates to the review of Safe Work Australia’s ongoing role and function after a period of six years. Like any other body established by the Australian government, Safe Work Australia will be required to produce an annual report. This will be the responsibility of the CEO. The CEO will be required to provide an annual report to the minister, to Safe Work Australia and to the ministerial council. The annual report will, of course, be a public document. I am happy to provide an undertaking to this House to table a copy of Safe Work Australia’s annual report.

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 therefore commend the bills to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.