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Monday, 13 October 2008
Page: 5796

Senator STERLE (4:54 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and related bill. The purpose of the legislation is to establish Safe Work Australia as an independent Commonwealth statutory body to improve both occupational health and safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements in Australia. The legislation establishes the operational arrangements to support Safe Work Australia, including those relating to the Workplace Relations Ministers Council. Safe Work Australia will be a reform focused body with the power to make recommendations directly to the Workplace Relations Ministers Council and will replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, which was established by the former Howard government as an advisory council, whose functions were limited and were confined to coordinating, monitoring and promoting national efforts on health and safety and on workers compensation.

A further difference from the former Howard government’s attempts towards safer workplaces is that the budget for Safe Work Australia will be funded 50 per cent from the Commonwealth and 50 per cent from the states and territories. Safe Work Australia will be an inclusive tripartite body of 15 members. The membership will comprise 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 for Employment and Workplace Relations will make all appointments to Safe Work Australia based on nominations from each body.

As a former long-distance line-haul truckie, I know nothing more important than the value of getting home safely at the end of a hard day’s yakka—and every worker should expect to have that right. Every Australian worker has a fundamental right not only to get home safely but to expect and receive the highest level of occupational health and safety standards not only from their employers but also from their fellow employees.

It is important for us to acknowledge that, whilst occupational health and safety is an important issue to us all, we in Australia still do not have a single system of reviewing and improving occupational health and safety standards. This legislation will address this. In Australia right now we have nine systems of assessing and monitoring occupational health and safety—one for each of the six states and two territories and one for the Commonwealth. Each of these systems performs an important role and protects workers’ interests. However the duplication of systems often becomes confusing and does not allow the system to fully address all occupational health and safety issues.

The Rudd Labor government’s Safe Work Australia will improve occupational health and safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements in Australia by streamlining all systems and creating a greater, safer outcome for Australian workers and for all Australian workplaces. The former Howard government did little to address occupational health and safety. The Howard era did very little more than make occupational health and safety more complex and created a complicated framework of funding and responsibilities. There were differences in jurisdictions, and different employers, under differing state and Commonwealth rules, were subject to varying standards. By attempting to attract national employers to be part of the then Commonwealth system, the Howard government attempted to usurp the state and territory governments and consolidate power. The approach of the Rudd Labor government could not be more different.

Through cooperative federalism, the Commonwealth government has sat down with the states and territories and worked out a solution which is in everyone’s interest, not in just the political interest of one conservative government. Cooperative federalism may be one of this government’s greatest achievements. Rather than blaming and bickering between governments, the Rudd Labor government has been able to bring together states and territories to make real progress towards reductions in duplication, as well as improving consistency. A more efficient Australia will be able to better perform and increase productivity.

I draw senators’ attention to the funding approach of this legislation, which is further evidence of the cooperation between state and territory governments in Australia. Safe Work Australia will, unlike its predecessors, be a body which is jointly funded by the Commonwealth and the states so that the states have a real sense of ownership in what Safe Work Australia ultimately does and in what occupational health and safety objectives they can achieve. Safe Work Australia’s goal is to develop national policy around occupational health and safety and workers compensation and, importantly, to guide us down the path of harmonising our nation’s differing occupational health and safety laws. Safe Work Australia will provide new benchmarks. It will be another example of why Labor is the party of reform. This is a very significant step towards ensuring higher standards of occupational health and safety in this country.

This bill will be good for business, good for government and good for workers. These reforms are part of the Rudd Labor government’s goal of creating a seamless national economy that is not being dragged down by duplications and border disputes between states and territories.

The average figures for workplace injuries in my home state of WA are terrible figures. Fifty-one Western Australians—I say again: 51 West Aussies—are injured at work every day. In an effort to reduce this number and improve education about occupational health and safety, the former WA Labor state government ran the ‘Come home safe’ campaign. This was a state-wide television and radio advertising and information program that supported the state government’s priority of safer communities and safer workplaces. It aimed to make workplaces safer by achieving a positive change in workplace safety culture and practices. The campaign focused on the importance of arriving home safely from work and featured children and family members waiting for their loved ones. This campaign was broadcast and communicated across WA, and from most accounts it was very effective in raising awareness of workplace safety—but it was unfortunately limited to WA.

Each of the separate state and territory occupational health and safety organisations attempts to communicate the message of workplace safety, but not all are able to do so effectively or have the resources to do so. Figures from the Western Australian Department of Consumer and Employment Protection estimate that on average a WA worker is killed every 19 days, while a worker is seriously injured every 30 minutes. If Safe Work Australia can reduce the chances of only one family losing a loved one through an accident at work then it will have been a success and a sound use of resources. More than 300 Australians, sadly, are killed each year at their workplace and many more die as a result of work related diseases that could have been avoided.

Each year over 140,000 Australians are seriously injured at work. The cost to our economy has been estimated at $34 billion per year. The cost to those injured and to their families, workmates and friends cannot be measured. Between 1997 and 2006 around 147,800 compensation claims were accepted. Across Australia during the same period, sadly, approximately 300 deaths occurred each year. That means that 2,700 people died from a workplace related accident. According to the peak workers body in my state of Western Australia, UnionsWA, 460 people died in the workplace between 1988 and 2008. That is just in Western Australia alone. UnionsWA’s figures also tell us that there has been a gradual decrease in fatalities, from a high point of 36 in 1988 to a low point of 12 in 2006. Unfortunately, that figure increased to 25 in 2006-07 and 27 in 2007-08. But 460 workplace fatalities in Western Australia over this period is clearly unacceptable. The fatalities were from across industries: 136 fatalities in the mining industry; 104 in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries industry; 70 in the construction industry; and 31 in the manufacturing industry.

A figure that I wish to go to now is that relating to deaths involving heavy vehicles, truckies and other users of the road networks, because these figures would not be captured in workplace fatality numbers; they would be recorded as road or traffic deaths. Once again I will refer to my time on the road. This really is dear to my heart. I can probably also speak for Senator Williams on the other side, another good-blooded ex-truckie in this chamber. I know that he would hold work safety close to his heart, especially for those men and women out there on the roads hauling all our produce and materials through the dark hours of the night—those unseen champions of industry who go about their job every day and every night without so much as a whimper. In 2007 there were over 200 road deaths in Australia involving heavy vehicles. One in five road deaths involve heavy vehicles. In other words, the heavy vehicle transport sector is a significant contributor to Australia’s road toll. In 2007 road fatalities involving an articulated truck increased by 5.4 per cent. Trucks as a whole account for approximately six per cent of total vehicle kilometres travelled but are involved in approximately 15 per cent of all road fatalities. Over the past five years over 1,000 Australians have died as a result of a road accident involving a heavy truck. Those are sobering figures. Three-quarters of these fatal accidents involved an articulated truck. These statistics place transport workers at high risk of death or serious injury in their workplace, an unacceptable situation. I cannot stress this enough. When we talk about road fatalities and truckies: their workplace is the cabin of that truck; their workplace is that bitumen road underneath them. That is why it is so frightening to hear these statistics. They would not be picked up in any workplace fatality statistics that we collect, but they are workers who are killed while doing their job.

A national body of coordination will improve occupational health and safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements in Australia. Through Safe Work Australia we will have one body that is tasked to address the national problem of occupational health and safety standards in Australia. This new body is being tasked with some important jobs. Safe Work Australia will develop a national policy relating to occupational health and safety and workers compensation; develop, prepare, monitor and revise model occupational health and safety standards and model codes of practice; develop a compliance and enforcement policy to ensure nationally consistent regulatory approaches across all jurisdictions; develop proposals relating to the harmonisation of workers compensation arrangements; collect, analyse and publish occupational health and safety and workers compensation data and undertake and publish research; drive national communication strategies to raise awareness of health and safety in the workplace; further develop the National Occupational Health and Safety Strategy; and advise the Workplace Relations Ministers Council on occupational health and safety and workers compensation matters.

This bill will raise the bar on workplace safety rules and ensure consistency in workplace standards and in the education of those standards by employers and employees to ensure that workers can work in a safe environment knowing that, if an accident were to occur, their income and family would be protected while they recovered.

Workers compensation issues and standards of occupational health and safety have been the subject of fierce debate between governments, employers and unions for many years. Jurisdictions and schemes are complicated and often inconsistent. This bill will present a way forward. This is the path towards attaining a goal of national consistency and understanding and awareness of occupational health and safety issues.

This bill continues the already significant work of the Rudd Labor government in improving cooperation between the state and federal governments, and the establishment of Safe Work Australia is an essential part of the government’s strategy to facilitate improvements to safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements across Australia. Since coming to office less than 12 months ago—I know it seems a lot longer, Madam Acting Deputy President, but it was less than 12 months ago—the Rudd government has undertaken a review of the Comcare system, set up an independent panel of experts to conduct a national occupational health and safety review and developed a landmark intergovernmental agreement with its state and territory counterparts to harmonise occupational health and safety legislation nationally.

This bill, along with the intergovernmental agreement, brings a new era of cooperation between the state, territory and federal governments on this matter. It addresses another key area of cooperative federalism that will save lives, simplify rules and reduce the cost of doing business. This will be one of the great reforms within Australian workplaces and Australian industry. As I have indicated, Safe Work Australia will be a great step forward for workers and employers and for occupational health and safety in this country. It will be the body which will take Australian workplace safety laws to the next level to simplify safety laws and make them more effective and efficient. The government has set itself the task of creating a seamless national economy unhampered by unnecessary state duplications, overlaps and differences. We do this because we care about building a better Australia now and into the future.

Occupational health and safety affects everybody. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Australians have their lives changed because of an injury at the workplace. This means that every year Australia’s poor occupational health and safety record has horrible consequences for Australian workers and Australian families. We can do something about this and we can improve Australia’s occupational health and safety standards. That is what Safe Work Australia will achieve. It is time to start the process of changing Australia’s occupational health and safety performance. That start begins with this bill, and I urge all senators to support it. I commend the bill to the Senate.