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Monday, 4 September 2006
Page: 122

Senator ABETZ (Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) (9:19 PM) —I thank all honourable senators for their contributions in this debate on the OHS and SRC Legislation Amendment Bill 2006, and I especially thank Senator Nash for her contribution. The bill will ensure that all licensees under the SRC Act—that is, Commonwealth authorities and eligible corporations—will have the benefits of operating under one occupational health and safety scheme together with integrated prevention, compensation and rehabilitation arrangements. Integration of workers compensation and occupational health and safety schemes will promote greater coordination and feedback between the schemes and will produce better health and safety outcomes all around.

The bill does not introduce a new mechanism for private sector employers to move from the state workers compensation schemes into the Commonwealth scheme. Such a mechanism has been a feature of the SRC Act since its introduction by Labor in 1988. The amendment to section 4 will clarify the legislative requirements for employers and employees covered by the Commonwealth act. Without this amendment, those employers and employees can be subject to both Commonwealth and state and territory OH&S laws on the same subject matter.

The amendments are supported by licensees as they will remove a significant impediment to business profitability and efficiency—namely, the costs of administering and complying with as many as eight separate and different state and territory occupational health and safety requirements. As a result of the amendments, employees of the same organisation will no longer be treated differently merely on the basis of their geographical location. Employees will have the opportunity to acquire a better understanding of their occupational health and safety rights and obligations because these will remain the same regardless of where they work.

The government considers that, until the states can achieve national consistency in occupational health and safety regulation, SRC Act licensees operating in more than one jurisdiction should not be subject to the complexities and costs involved in complying with myriad different requirements. The argument that state workers compensation premium pools would be adversely affected because employers would seek to enter the Commonwealth scheme is spurious. Actuarial studies undertaken by the Productivity Commission two years ago in 2004 support the conclusion that state premium pools will not be significantly affected by employers leaving the state schemes. In fact, Victoria has recently announced that it has reduced its premiums. Other states could follow Victoria’s lead and revise the profit-making focus of their workers compensation schemes. Victoria and its state and territory counterparts could further avoid employers voting with their feet and leaving these schemes by working with the federal government to introduce greater uniformity and consistency across all jurisdictions. However, this would require the states to shift the emphasis of their workers compensation schemes away from profit making.

The amendment will not diminish OH&S protection for employees covered by the Commonwealth act. Under the Commonwealth act, all OH&S incidents can be enforced by Comcare through the general duties of care in the act. These are supported by the existing regulations, codes of practice and guidance material to assist employers to discharge their duty of care. However, where sanctions are necessary, the Commonwealth scheme includes a strong, comprehensive and effective enforcement regime based on a wide range of civil and criminal sanctions, including tough penalties for breaches of the act. The opposition has again attempted to complicate debate by linking this bill to other unrelated OH&S measures that have been proposed for a number of years.

The emphasis of the Commonwealth scheme is on prevention of workplace injury rather than punishment after the event. Comcare therefore now has a complement of full-time investigators in similar ratios of investigators to employees that other jurisdictions provide. This is in addition to other expert and state inspectors it can access if needed. I am pleased to see Senator Murray in the chamber because I will briefly respond to some of the matters that he raised. The honourable senator expressed concerns about Comcare’s enforcement capacity—in particular, the number of investigators at its disposal. Senator Murray quoted figures that suggest that Comcare has only 16 investigators. This was the case in 2004 but it is not the case now. Comcare has 33 staff investigators. I am reliably told that that is a 106 per cent increase on the 2004 figures that were quoted by Senator Murray. In addition, Comcare has access to a further 199 inspectors from state and territory OH&S authorities and 47 skilled and qualified people from a panel of private sector organisations. In other words, Comcare currently has access to—if my maths is correct—279 investigators. This is, with respect, more than enough to cope with the probable increase in the number of workers that may come within the Commonwealth jurisdiction as a result of these changes—that is, up to approximately 40,000 extra workers. I freely acknowledge that the chances are that those figures were not known to Senator Murray when he made his contribution and I am pleased that I am able to put those figures on the record. Having said that, I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.