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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 26318

Senator FORSHAW (12:45 PM) —I rise to speak on the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002. I do so with the understanding that the government will be moving amendments in the committee stage which have been agreed should be passed and that is why we are able to deal with it today as non-controversial legislation. Speaking first in the second reading debate, let me say Labor have always said that there was an opportunity with this bill to achieve some valuable reform in respect of health and safety for Commonwealth public servants. We have acknowledged that the bill contains some useful provisions. The approach, of course, goes right back to the year 2000, when a very similar bill was proposed by the government. We made it clear then that we supported the bulk of the bill but were opposed to those blatantly anti-union parts of the legislation which sought to restrict the role of unions in occupational health and safety.

Until today, the government has forsaken the opportunity to re-present this bill in a form which would be acceptable to all parties. I am pleased that today this divisive, unhelpful approach has been set aside by the government to allow the positive aspects of the bill to progress through the Senate with our support. It is a shame that it has taken so long to get to this point. Indeed, the government's lack of commitment to the positive aspects of the legislation is shown by the fact that it has sat dormant for almost two years since its introduction in June 2002.

Recently a Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee inquiry considered this bill. We certainly found serious deficiencies, mainly in schedule 1, which sought to limit the role of trade unions in workplace health and safety. The anti-union provisions in the bill were not surprising in the light of this government's secret plans to cut unions out of public sector bargaining altogether. Those plans were revealed in a leaked cabinet submission in December 2002 under the previous Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. The then minister was developing a proposal to require that all new Public Service positions and all promotions be subject to the acceptance of AWAs. This would have thrown the long-established merit principle right out the window. It would have meant that you do not get a promotion if you are the right person for the job; you get a promotion if you agree to accept an AWA. Part of the same proposal was that the government was going to ban all union collective agreements—it would only agree to non-union agreements. So much for choice! Employees could not choose under such a proposal to be represented by their union if that proposal became policy.

The provisions in this bill that would have restricted the involvement of unions in health and safety issues are just another part of that same strategy. As we have made clear in our comments in the legislation committee's report, we do not support those provisions. I also want to draw to the attention of the Senate the fact that, in the government's own report, the government senators on the committee recommended that the Senate pass the bill. But in the last four paragraphs of their comments before they made that recommendation they actually drew attention to the lack of substance, the lack of any real argument or factual basis for the government's proposals with regard to removing or severely truncating the role of unions being involved in the development and maintenance of health and safety policies and processes within the Public Service. For instance, they said:

The Committee considers that, while enabling employees to have a more direct say in addressing OH&S matters in their own workplace may be a desirable outcome in its own right, this simply addresses part of the process by which measures might be developed to achieve OH&S outcomes. It does not of itself ensure that better OH&S outcomes will result.

To paraphrase, the government's proposals were very much directed at removing unions as a collective body from having much say in the development of decent occupational health and safety processes and promoting the role of individual employees. As the government senators noted, there was no real backup for that proposition. They went on to say:

When pressed on the issue, departmental witnesses were unable to demonstrate how the bill in general or the provisions on workplace arrangements in particular would lead to OH&S improvements. Instead, the department's evidence suggests that it is assumed that OH&S improvements will flow from changes to the way HSRs are to be elected.

Further, they state:

3.31 The Committee also notes that the department did not take the opportunity in supplementary evidence after the hearing to demonstrate how the bill will achieve improvements in OH&S matters.

... ... ...

3.32 The Committee is disappointed that the department was not able to do more than simply assert that the proposed measures would lead to improvements, rather than show, by way of elucidation or relevant examples, how the bill would achieve this end.

They were the observations, very strong observations, of government senators on this committee. They recognised that there was not only a lack of real substance and valid argument behind the proposals from the government in the legislation at that time but also they ignored the evidence that unions had played a very constructive role both in terms of organisation and in terms of education in the development of decent health and safety policy. I am pleased that the government has now recognised the wisdom of those remarks, and of our position, and is going to amend the legislation to remove those rather draconian provisions.

We have made it very clear that we support those parts of the bill that strengthen the enforcement aspects of occupational health and safety for Commonwealth employees. These are the provisions that will ultimately be passed today in this non-controversial legislation debate. We agree with the government that there is merit in increasing the levels of penalties in the act and in introducing civil pecuniary penalties for Commonwealth employers in addition to refining existing criminal penalties. This dual criminal and civil system of enforcement is also consistent with state occupational health and safety systems. We accept that introducing a civil stream of enforcement can expedite prosecutions.

Under the current criminal-only system, very few prosecutions are brought at all. The Senate inquiry into the previous bill back in 2000 found that, of 50,000 reported accidents and 1,770 investigations, only nine prosecutions had been brought. This is exacerbated by the immunity of the Commonwealth and most Commonwealth authorities from prosecution. It therefore appears that criminal penalties alone, as under the current act, have little deterrent effect. An important aspect of this new dual system is that the bill will add a new provision, which was not in earlier legislation in 2000, to make it possible to secure a pecuniary penalty order against the Commonwealth or a Commonwealth authority. We are pleased to support the bill as it will be amended, by agreement, in the committee stage. We therefore support the second reading of the bill.