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Wednesday, 8 May 1985
Page: 1522

Senator CROWLEY —Has the Leader of the Government in the Senate seen the report in today's Age indicating that the Federal Opposition will oppose the occupational health and safety commission legislation? Can the Minister comment on the difference of opinion on this matter between Mr Shack, who opposes it, and Mr Macphee, who last May agreed with the thrust of the legislation? Can he comment on Mr Shack's claim: 'We have no confidence that a new bureaucracy in the form of a national commission will effect any improvement'? Does this lead us to understand that the Opposition would prefer to do nothing or is it recommending that such matters be left to private enterprise? If that is the case, what of the record to this point that has achieved so little and leads to the need for this occupational health and safety commission?

Senator Chaney —Mr President, I take a point of order. Slabs of that question relate to the Opposition's position, which has nothing to do with the matters administered by the Minister. I ask you to ask the Minister to restrict his answer to matters relating to the Government's administration.

The PRESIDENT —I think the point of order taken by the Leader of the Opposition is reasonable. I would tend to rule the question out of order but for the fact that there is legislation before the House and that the Minister is entitled to answer in respect of that legislation. I therefore call the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Button.

Senator BUTTON —Thank you, Mr President. The first part of the question asked whether I had read an article in the form of news comment regarding this matter in today's Age. It so happens that I have it in front of me and have been reading it in the last couple of minutes. Of course, the Government is committed to the introduction of this legislation, to the establishment of a statutory authority and to the monitoring and supervision of voluntary health and safety standards on a co-ordinated basis for the whole of Australia. Legislation will be introduced shortly, or has been introduced, I am not sure which, to establish a national occupational health and safety commission. This legislation was announced a year ago in circumstances, I might say, which had the full approval and support of the then Opposition spokesman on these matters, Mr Macphee. Of course, the Opposition is entitled to change its mind on these matters, as it has done on everything else. There are clearly different opinions within the Opposition about this matter. I do not think that there is any difference of opinion within the Government on the issue because its prime motivation has been the enormous cost of occupational accidents and illness in Australia.

I remind honourable senators that Mr Shack, in pursuit of his reputation of being impeccably dry, has said that the cost of such a statutory authority to taxpayers would be unfortunate. The cost to this community of occupational injury and illness has been enormous over a very long time, and it is to the discredit of governments of both political persuasions in the past that they have done nothing about it. To make the point graphically to Opposition senators, who always have important statistics in their mind, I point out that during the period of this Government the level of industrial unrest and the number of man days lost through industrial stoppages have been the least for 17 years. Before this period of industrial tranquillity now existent in Australia a great deal of emphasis was always laid on the cost to industry of industrial stoppages, a point with which I agree entirely. The costs and burden of industrial stoppages have been enormous in the past and they still are. However, they are now much better than they have been. Even at the worst period of industrial disputation, measured in terms of man days lost through industrial stoppages of one kind or another, that figure never approached the number of man days lost as a result of occupational accidents and illness in Australia. It was a record which, by international terms, was extremely bad. There may have been all sorts of reasons for that; I do not wish to debate them. However, Australia's record on a comparative basis internationally, was appalling. That is why I strongly commend the view of the Government to the Senate. I also commend the view of Mr Macphee and other members of the Liberal Party of Australia who have addressed these problems in a thoughtful way.

Senator Lewis —You never solve anything.

Senator Withers —You never solve anything by throwing money away.

Senator BUTTON —I commend to people such as Senator Withers and Senator Lewis, who sit here and do not look as if they are likely to have an industrial accident in the pursuit of their careers-not even an accident induced by getting up to ask a question occasionally-that they give attention to the importance of this legislation which is very important, both in financial cost terms and social cost terms, to this community.