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Monday, 13 October 2008
Page: 5819

Senator LUDWIG (Minister for Human Services) (6:23 PM) —If there are no further speakers in respect of the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and related bill I will seek to close the debate. I thank senators for their contributions to the debate on these bills. 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 2008. This is an historic agreement and 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 only be achieved with the Commonwealth, state and territory governments working cooperatively as partners rather than as adversaries. The intergovernmental agreement ushers in a new era of cooperation and collaboration between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. It is a collaboration which will improve the health and safety of workers across Australia and reduce the complexity of regulation for business. The establishment of Safe Work Australia is an essential first step in this process. 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 with approval by workplace relations ministers.

However, during the course of this debate, various senators have expressed concern about aspects of Safe Work Australia’s governance and have indicated that they intend to move amendments to the bill. During my summary I will turn to the various issues that have been raised and, of course, they will be dealt with as well in the committee stage, I would expect. Various senators have questioned the composition of Safe Work Australia and the voting rules relating to the model OH&S legislation. Opposition senators have sought to deflect attention from their own appalling record in the area of occupational health and safety by claiming that this 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.

The membership of Safe Work Australia was agreed in the intergovernmental agreement. It seeks to balance the interests of the jurisdictions, who will be required to enact the model OH&S legislation as agreed by the ministerial council and by the employers and workers who will be affected by the model legislation when it is enacted. I acknowledge that the membership levels agreed in the intergovernmental agreement involve a reduction of employer and worker bodies when compared with the various bodies that preceded the one proposed by this legislation. Both the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission and the Australian Safety and Compensation Council had three representatives from employers and workers. Having said that, however, it is difficult to see what benefits will accrue from increasing the worker and employer membership on Safe Work Australia. Workers and employer representatives together comprise one-third of the membership of Safe Work Australia.

The Commonwealth, state and territory governments, who will jointly fund the operation of Safe Work Australia, are represented by only one member each. Indeed, the Commonwealth’s representation on Safe Work Australia has also been reduced when compared with its membership on the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission and the Australian Safety and Compensation Council. In each case the Commonwealth had two members. With two members each, the social partners will continue to play a significant role in the decision making and effectiveness of Safe Work Australia. Quite frankly, any suggestion that increasing worker and employer representation will increase the expertise available to Safe Work Australia or improve the quality of decision making in Safe Work Australia simply does not stack up. Not only will worker and employer representatives be involved in Safe Work Australia’s operations, they can also engage with the harmonisation process through participation in advisory committees and through any consultation process undertaken by Safe Work Australia.

The opposition would have us believe that state government bureaucrats will be able to repeatedly override legitimate concerns raised by the social partners during OH&S harmonisation discussions. Quite frankly, this is not the case. All questions will be decided by a two-thirds majority vote 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.

During the debate today, senators have also taken exception to the fact that the bill does not specifically name the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry as bodies who can nominate representatives for appointment to Safe Work Australia.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 pm to 7.30 pm

Senator LUDWIG —Prior to the suspension of the sitting I was providing a summary of the debate on the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008. In concluding those remarks I was going on to say that, by not naming the representative bodies in the legislation, the minister is able to seek nominations from the most representative organisation of employers and workers at the time nominations are sought. In this way the minister is able to ensure that a balance of worker and employer interests are represented on Safe Work Australia.

Turning to the issue of voting rules, Senator Siewert has expressed concern about the voting rules and in particular the provisions requiring an absolute majority of the states and territories for any decision about the model OH&S legislation. The voting rules were also agreed in the intergovernmental agreement. Questions relating to the model OH&S legislation will require an absolute majority of all the 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.

Turning to the role of the ministerial council which was also mentioned by a number of senators contributing to the debate, senators criticised the fact that Safe Work Australia is reliant on the cooperation and participation of the ministerial council to which it is required to report directly. 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 the ministerial council would reach agreement by consensus.

What the criticisms of the bill fail to acknowledge is that the composition and governance arrangements of Safe Work Australia 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 overlook the commitment demonstrated by the states and territories in negotiating the intergovernmental agreement and contributing 50 per cent of the funding for Safe Work Australia. The intergovernmental agreement obliges the states and territories to take all necessary steps to enact the model OH&S act.

Occupational health and safety and workers compensation are, quite frankly, 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 these reforms. With those words, I commend the bills to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bills read a second time.