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Monday, 13 October 2008
Page: 5800

Senator FARRELL (5:10 PM) —The introduction of the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 is timely and appropriate. I am particularly proud to be a member of a government that is meticulously focused on delivering its electoral promises, for which it received a mandate at last year’s federal elections. A constructive and workable federalism requires a national and cohesive approach in legislation and in practice with regard to key issues of our time. The myriad state based occupational health and safety schemes, plus the existence of differing state based and national workers compensation schemes, do not augur well for achieving economies of scale. The introduction of the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008, of which I am a proud supporter, is part of a comprehensive policy strategy to cement productivity gains and efficiencies through national standards that will take effect throughout Australia.

As is often noted by members and senators, 140,000 Australians are injured at work every year, at a cost to the nation of approximately $34 billion. The current approach to occupational health and safety and workers compensation needs to be improved. The standards of workplace safety and the level of compensation benefits should not be contingent upon where one resides in Australia. Geographical and state based anomalies are no longer acceptable in the 21st century in modern society. Australian employers do not require the regulatory duplication, the burden and the red tape of operating in at least half-a-dozen forms of state occupational health and safety and workers compensation jurisdictions. These include the national Comcare system, a scheme originally designed to administer workers compensation entitlements to federal public servants but which has now morphed into a de facto national scheme by stealth through the inclusion in Comcare of private enterprises that operate Australia wide.

Incremental anomalies and untenable outcomes will continue to prevail and grow if this Safe Work Australia Bill is not allowed to pass through the Senate. Long-term decisions need to be made within a national framework that allows clarity and certainty for employer decision making. A miner at Mt Isa should expect the same occupational health and safety and workers compensation entitlements as a miner working in the Pilbara region. Safe Work Australia, as the Deputy Prime Minister has pointed out, will not be a toothless, Howard-era advisory council but rather will be, as the minister describes it, ‘an independent, reform focused body, with the power to make recommendations directly to the Workplace Relations Ministers Council’.

For 24 years, Australian governments of all persuasions—and, by extension, Australian citizens—have satisfied themselves with the iniquities and inequities of varying occupational health and safety and workers compensation laws. We do not expect the Medicare system, for example, to provide different financial outcomes for our citizens depending on which part of Australia they reside in. Accordingly, we should expect no less from our occupational health and safety and workers compensation laws. This bill must be supported in the Senate so that the urgent and overlooked imperative to harmonise these laws is not delayed for a moment longer than it should be.

As the Prime Minister has noted on many occasions, this government is here to serve all Australians, not just sectional interests. It is for this reason that Safe Work Australia will be a tripartite body encompassing broad representation and allowing for the expression of the voices of employers, workers, state governments and territory governments.

Safe Work Australia will be enacted into law as a prescribed agency under the Financial Management and Accountability Act, while from an administrative perspective the 15 members who will comprise the tripartite body will ensure that its task is not hamstrung by the creation of a bloated bureaucracy—as witnessed in the failed Howard government’s entanglement of employers in Work Choices, endless red tape and bureaucratic overlap. Work Choices was, of course, a disaster—not just for workers’ rights and conditions but also for its undermining of occupational health and safety at the workplace through its unfair dismissal provisions. Under Work Choices, if a worker complained about an occupational health and safety issue they ran the risk of being sacked if the boss did not approve of what they had to say, so we should acknowledge the important occupational health and safety benefits that come from ripping up the Work Choices legislation and replacing it with fair and balanced industrial laws.

The Liberal Party have been keen to criticise the composition of the Safe Work Australia board of directors. After consultation with the workplace relations ministerial council, the minister must select an independent chair to preside over the meetings. The minister must select a representative of the Commonwealth government, one representative nominated by each state or territory and two representatives nominated by both worker and employment groups authorised by the minister. It is at the discretion of the minister to identify which bodies represent workers and employers and to seek nominations from them. In total, there will be nine board directors representing each of the state and territory governments and the Commonwealth, two board directors representing the interests of employers, two board directors representing the interests of workers, and one independent chair.

We have heard time and time again from those opposite about the supposed injustices in the composition of the board. Their argument is that the majority of directors should be representatives from employer groups and unions and that the Australian government has got the balance wrong. I fail to see how you can have a national organisation that aims to standardise occupational health and safety policy across federal, state and territory jurisdictions without a representative of each of those governments. I challenge the Liberal Party to identify which states or territories they feel should not be represented on the Safe Work Australia board. If they feel that they should all be represented, then presumably they reckon that the Australian government should increase the number of union and employer representatives on the board until they reach parity with the government representatives. However, to do that you would need to install an additional five directors onto the board on top of the four already there, to even things out with the government representatives. But then, of course, you could not just have five extra board directors from employer and union groups because that would mean that one grouping would get one more vote than the other. To achieve what the Liberal Party is calling for you would actually need six new board directors, bringing the total board to a gigantic and unworkable 21 directors. As the saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth.

Unless the Liberal Party are calling for some states and territories to have no representation on the Safe Work Australia board, then they can only be hoping for a massive and unworkable increase in the size of the board itself. The reality is that all major stakeholders are represented on the board of directors and they will have a say in the formation of the new occupational health and safety policy. None of these stakeholders could be removed from the board without Safe Work Australia losing its ability to effectively coordinate occupational health and safety policy across all jurisdictions. The Australian government has got the balance right between all stakeholders, and I am confident that Safe Work Australia will improve the efficiency and safety of workers.

In my former role as secretary of the South Australian branch of the SDA, it was my job to help ensure that retail workers could perform their duties safely in the workplace. While the SDA has been successful in fighting for safer workplaces in the retail industry, it is an unfortunate fact that avoidable workplace injuries still occur in the retail industry across Australia. The phasing out of plastic bags at retail outlets has the potential to exacerbate that problem. While I applaud any moves to protect the environment, it should be noted that in our switching to reusable mesh or calico shopping bags it is retail workers who are likely to pay the price. These reusable shopping bags can hold more items than ordinary plastic shopping bags and can therefore become substantially heavier. Considering how often the checkout operator must lift shopping bags every day for extended periods of time, it becomes obvious that workplace injuries are far more likely to occur with reusable bags. Back, neck and arm strains will be more common amongst checkout operators, and there needs to be serious consideration given to limiting the amount of heavy lifting these workers should be expected to perform. Unfortunately many of these reusable bags are in an unsanitary condition when they are presented at the checkout. I have heard of retail workers having to handle dirty and smelly bags, some stained with old meat products that have not been cleaned out properly—or worse. Retail workers should be able to expect to work in sanitary conditions. I am worried that many young retail workers will not have the courage to refuse to load an unsanitary bag when a customer presents one at the checkout.

The ALP government of Gough Whitlam, way back in 1974, attempted to harmonise workers’ compensation laws. The Whitlam government bill failed at the altar of sectional interests. Let us hope that we do not repeat the same mistake here. As the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has pointed out, this bill reaches out to those who are inclined to engage in a new spirit of cooperation symbolic of new federalism, one that avoids name calling and state blaming. This is because Safe Work Australia will be jointly funded by the Commonwealth and the states and territories, working cooperatively to solve problems with occupational health and safety laws in Australia. While it may not be an original thought, Mr John Merritt, a director of WorkSafe Victoria, once said: ‘A civilised society is best judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens.’ Our most vulnerable citizens surely include those who have been maimed and injured in the workplace, along with the children and spouses dependent upon the 300 workers who are killed in the workplace throughout Australia each year. The passage of the Safe Work Australia Bill will take us into the 21st century. I commend support of the bill.