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Thursday, 16 May 1985
Page: 2099

Senator SHORT(4.59) —In view of the large number of speakers already in the debate, I will try to keep my remarks brief. However, because the Opposition is opposing the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission Bill I would like to emphasise several points. The first is that our opposition to this Bill in no way reflects any lack of concern about the objectives of the Bill. The main objective, as mentioned by the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Willis) in his second reading speech, is the development among the community of an awareness of issues relating to occupational health and safety matters and facilitation of public debate on them. There can be no possible disagreement that this a laudable objective. The safety and well-being of people in employment are, or should be, of major concern to all Australians. Australia is generally regarded as having a very bad record in the field of occupational health and safety relative to many other industrial countries. The financial cost is enormous. The figure of $6,000m has been cited, and that figure may or may not be accurate. There is a disturbing lack of hard data in this area but, whatever the cost, it is certainly appallingly high.

The cost of occupational health and safety cannot be measured purely in financial terms. To this must be added the huge social and personal costs incurred by persons who are injured or whose health suffers in other ways in the work force and by the families and children of people killed in the working environment. There should be no doubt whatsoever that the Opposition is in total agreement with the Government that improved occupational health and safety in Australia is an urgent priority.

Where we differ from the Government is on the ways of achieving this priority. That is why we are opposing the Bill before the Senate. The Government proposes to establish a large new Federal statutory authority, the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, to operate in this area. The Commission would function in two divisions-the National Occupational Health and Safety Office and the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety. The Government's proposed Commission follows closely the recommendations of the May 1984 report of the Interim National Occupational Health and Safety Commission. Page 63 of that report gives estimates of the cost of the Commission in its first two full years. The cost in the first year is stated to be $23.7m and in the second year $41.2m. Those figures would, of course, be even higher when inflation is taken into account. They come on top of the $6.4m already allocated in the 1984 Budget for the Interim Commission. Of the $41.2m estimated for the second year of operations, no less than 60 per cent would go simply in salaries and other operating costs.

Although the report claimed that there would be quantifiable offsets to the figures I have just mentioned, it also said that no attempt had been made to quantify them and, indeed, it described them as intangible benefits. The staffing levels estimated by the Commission are very high-350 by the end of its second year alone. In other words, the Bill will establish an extremely costly and heavily-staffed new statutory body for which no cost benefit analysis appears to have been undertaken.

Why is the Government really wanting to establish this new and costly Commission? The answers, I think, are clear from a careful reading of the Minister's second reading speech. The answers I get from there are twofold: First, the proposal derives from the Government's efforts to comprehensively implement Australian Labor Party policy, which is understandable. That policy, as we see every day in this Parliament, is all about increasing the intrusion of government into an ever-increasing range of activities. The Labor Party has a deeply held philosophy that, if there is a problem in any walk of life, the answer is to have the Government attempt to solve that problem. That is what a socialist Party, which the Labor Party is, is all about. It is about taking away from people the responsibility and the opportunity to tackle and solve their own problems and rather to say: 'We, the all-knowing government, will solve the problems for you'. One reason for the Bill is that it fits like a glove into a socialistic approach to life. The second reason is that the proposal for a National Occupational Health and Safety Commission is part of Labor's prices and incomes accord with the Australian Council of Trade Unions. The Labor Party is, therefore, locked into the proposal because, as it has demonstrated so very clearly in recent days in areas of taxation and wages policies, it has become a captive and a servant of the trade union movement. How else can one explain the Government's abject posturing to the ACTU by refusing to contemplate the discounting of future wage increases for the effects of devaluation in the next national wage case when everyone in Australia knows that not to do so will be to put in jeopardy all the potential gains from the devaluation of the Australian dollar?

What would the proposed Commission actually do? The Minister has acknowledged in her second reading speech that the States, not the Commonwealth, have the constitutional responsibility in the area of occupational health and safety. All that a Federal Commission could do, says the Minister, would be to co-ordinate and facilitate. That view is also clearly stated in the May 1984 report of the Interim Commission. What does 'co-ordinate and facilitate' mean? According to the Government, it means undertaking work in the areas of standards development, research, training, and information collection and dissemination through 'the close co-operation and involvement of employer and employee peak councils and Commonwealth, State, and Territory governments'. Fine words, but what do they actually mean? In practice they mean the establishment of a substantial new bureaucracy which would duplicate work which would just as effectively be carried out by existing institutions, including the National Safety Council, the National Labor Consultative Council, tertiary academic institutions, State governments, existing Federal departments, such as Employment and Industrial Relations and Health, and other institutions.

Whilst noting Senator Watson's comments in his personal explanation, I particularly mention the potential role of the National Safety Council which receives partial support from the Federal government. The National Safety Council operates Australia-wide. It has for many years been heavily involved in occupational health and safety. Given the responsibility, I believe that the National Safety Council could play a much more important role in relation to some of the tasks being proposed for the new Commission. I do not deny that much of the work envisaged for the Commission would be desirable. The point is, however, that we do not need to establish a new bureaucratic institution to have this work done. I also have grave doubts about the value of employer and employee peak organisations, and Commonwealth, State and Territory governments getting involved in an inevitable, endless round of discussions and negotiations on health and safety issues, particularly when the Commonwealth has no legislative responsibility in this area. It is very difficult to see what these discussions would achieve. Even if it were deemed desirable to have consultation, that again could be achieved without setting up the new Commission.

There is, I believe, a considerable risk that the establishment of the new Commission would move the focus of attention away from the real area of importance, the actual work place. It is at the work place that accidents and health hazards occur. It has been overwhelmingly demonstrated that unless individual employers and employees have the right attitude to occupational health and safety then the progress towards a safer working environment that we are all seeking will not be achieved. It is to this area that I believe more resources and attention should be devoted, not to more bureaucratic structures.

I am also concerned about several of the regulatory provisions of the Bill. Part VII gives the Commission wide powers to conduct public inquiries, to summon witnesses and to apply punitive sanctions, including imprisonment, to witnesses who fail to appear. I am also very concerned that the Commissioner conducting an inquiry is not bound by the rules of evidence. I can see no justification whatsoever for such a draconian approach, particularly when the Commonwealth has no legislative responsibility in this whole area. The Government has made no attempt to explain or to justify the reasons for this approach. These functions would also duplicate the functions of existing State industrial commissions in many ways, at a time when there are already something like 160 pieces of legislation and regulative provisions throughout the Commonwealth in this area of occupational health and safety.

The Government is aiming to achieve a uniform set of national standards for occupational health and safety. I personally agree with this aim, but I do not believe that the establishment of the proposed Commission will help to achieve it. Since the Interim Commission was established in 1983, the Victorian and New South Wales governments have attempted to push further ahead with their own legislation. In Victoria the legislation has been stalled because the Government does not have control of the upper House. That legislation is extreme. It gives so-called safety representatives, appointed by the labour unions, power to issue provisional prohibition notices which could halt factory production and interfere with the right of the employer to conduct business without any attendant responsibility or accountability placed on the safety representatives.

The Victorian legislation goes much further than that applying in any other industrial country. The proposed comprehensive New South Wales legislation contains elements, such as the cost of training staff and the right of refusal to work, which are potentially highly disruptive and expensive and which are unlikely to improve occupational health and safety. Legislation is also proposed in South Australia and Western Australia. The Western Australian proposals are very open-ended and allow for extensive regulation. All of these proposals, in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia, have come forward despite the establishment of the Interim National Occupational Health and Safety Commission and despite the knowledge that the Commission will be, if the Government gets its way-as appears to be the case, given the support of the Australian Democrats-made a permanent body. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the establishment of a national commission will in any way deter the States from doing what they want to do regardless of the desirability of adopting a national approach. That is not to say that we should not seek to have a national approach, but rather this will not be facilitated by the new Commission.

The Opposition agrees fully with the Government that Australia's occupational health and safety performance must be considerably improved. We disagree with the Government that this improvement will be brought about by the establishment of yet another bureaucratic and very costly Federal statutory authority in an area in which, as I have said before, the Commonwealth has no constitutional authority. It is for this reason, supplemented by the reasons that have been mentioned both by others and me earlier, that the Opposition opposes the Bill.