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Thursday, 9 May 1985
Page: 2028


Mr SHACK(10.40) —In considering the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission Bill, let me declare on behalf of the Opposition our sincere and earnest belief in the importance of occupational health and safety. The Opposition deplores the loss of life, limb and livelihood that occurs in work places across the nation because of industrial accidents and disease. Much attention is given to the economic cost of physical misfortune in the work place. This is quite properly so. A figure of $6 billion is cited regularly as the estimated annual cost to Australia of industrial accidents.

The spiralling burden of the workers compensation component of on-costs borne by employers is a widely recognised consequence of industrial accidents and illness. It is clearly acknowledged also that increases in the supplements component of wages growth over the last decade has been largely the result of a dramatic increase in the value of workers compensation claims. Workers compensation claims and premiums have skyrocketed. This affects all employers, from the individual entrepreneur and small business person right up to the largest corporate unit, and is yet another cost detracting from Australia's economic international competitiveness.

All honourable members in this House are aware of the negative employment consequences of this state of affairs. The $6 billion figure which is cited so often is an inadequate indicator of the seriousness of the problem. The really terrible cost, the human cost, of occupationally derived injury and illness cannot be encapsulated in a neat figure, phrase or formula. There is no financial award adequate to compensate a family for the loss of a loved one. There is no monetary remuneration sufficient to make up for the diminishment of an individual's ability to live life to the full because of the consequences of industrial misadventure or disease. The coalition feels the utmost compassion for the victims of such misfortune.

Occupational health and safety is a matter that has exercised the minds of people wherever and whenever they have toiled. At the crudest level it is basic common sense and mortality that leads one to work in a manner that is not dangerous to oneself or to others. This has been true from the simplest original acts of work. In the building of shelter and the hunting of food it was logical, practical and moral not to injure yourself or your neighbour who was a partner in the endeavour. Here lie the very origins of the social obligations due to one's fellows when coalescing in a community with other human beings. Neither is occupational health and safety a modern preoccupation. There have been epochs of particularly terrible labour exploitation as manifest in, for example, slavery and other forms of forced labour. Unfortunately, in some countries today the unjust exploitation of labour still exists. The forced labour camps of the Soviet Union spring readily to mind.

Generally, those who have organised labour into productive units have seen the logic and practicality, if not always the morality, of ensuring safe work practices. Nor is concern about occupational health and safety a new concern which has just cropped up at this advanced stage of the free enterprise system's development. Since the early excesses of the Industrial Revolution, where even children were drawn into dark mills and mines, there has been a steady and continuous progress which has lead to safer, cleaner and more pleasant working environments. This is laudable. One can say with confidence that workers in Australia are not chewed up and spat out, drained and damaged in the process of production. Employees in Australia enjoy working conditions on a par with, if not superior to, those of any other country in the world.

Those on the left of the political spectrum sometimes try to argue to the contrary and state that employers are, by definition, exploitative and have no interest in the health and welfare of their employees, whom they regard as inanimate, expendable and easily replaced factors of production. Even if this were so-and the coalition strongly disagrees with these assertions-it ignores the substantial body of common and statute law which has built up over many decades in a concerted effort by those concerned to ensure that our moral and social obligations to each other in the workplace are fulfilled. Such a body of law cannot accumulate unless there is broad community agreement, amongst employers as well as others, that an obligation exists for them to ensure the safety and well-being of those in their employ.

One important judgment in the area states that employers must take reasonable care for the safety of their employees by providing proper and adequate means of carrying out their work without unnecessary risk, by warning them of unusual or unexpected risks, or by instructing them in the performance of their work where instruction might reasonably be thought to be required to secure them from the danger of injury. It states that the standard of care for an employee's safety is not a low one. Under common law employers must discharge this responsibility through the provision of competent staff, adequate materials and a proper system of effective supervision. They are obliged to provide employees with a safe place in which to work. No employee, except perhaps in the armed forces, is obliged to obey an employer's directive if it endangers his or her safety.

Employers take these responsibilities seriously. A number of industries and individual companies have long been active in promoting occupational health and safety for both equity and efficiency reasons. Various companies and organisations provide training services to equip those who oversee work practices from a safety point of view with sound knowledge and solid information. Common to many private enterprises are employees responsible for accident control, fire control, industrial health and hygiene, the inspection of equipment, the investigation of accidents and injuries, the heightening of safety consciousness amongst the work force and so on.

In addition, State governments have intervened in the area to provide the statutory protection of employees at the work place. There are over 160 separate statutes regulating occupational health and safety in Australia. This proliferation of statutes is not desirable. Simple, coherent and effective legislative guidance provided within a single statutory framework in each State is clearly preferable. If the States can liaise with one another and come up with a single national health and safety code, so much the better. One must add the proviso that they lay down sensible minimum standards and avoid overregulation and unnecessary interference with reasonable management prerogatives.

Several State governments are presently reviewing their existing occupational health and safety legislation. South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria and New South Wales have all taken steps towards the creation of a single authority within their States solely responsible for occupational health and safety matters. I intend to make some more comments about the State legislation shortly. For the moment, it can be seen that this Bill arises out of a similar impetus for review and revision on the part of Commonwealth. Further, it arises from the Government's belief that, while occupational health and safety is the legislative responsibility of the States, it is, nevertheless, a national issue which must be addressed by Australia's national government. The coalition agrees with the Government that occupational health and safety is a national issue which the Commonwealth must address.

The coalition also agrees with the Government's Interim National Occupational Health and Safety Commission on the 'desirability of developing appropriate consultative machinery at the Federal level, and the need for further examination of Commonwealth-State responsibilities and mechanisms for co-ordination in the implementation of occupational health and safety legislative requirements'. The coalition does not agree, however, that the establishment of a statutory commission is the appropriate instrument for the Commonwealth's achievement of those goals. The coalition believes that occupational health and safety is first and foremost the business of those who are directly involved in and affected by it-employees and employers.

A few minutes ago I conveyed a broad brush historical continuity of the consultation and negotiation that has taken place between those who organise productive activities and those who participate in them. The concrete, modern manifestations of this are the work place consultative arrangements involving employees and employers or their representatives. As the Interim Commission notes:

'many workplaces in Australia have joint health and safety committees sorting out problems and constructing preventative measures on a daily basis.

The National Labour Consultative Committee recently endorsed such arrangements. On top of this layer of activity, we have the State judiciaries, the State governments and their bureaucracies all busy constructing health and safety guidelines of both a voluntary and compulsory nature. The Commonwealth, too, has a judiciary, a government and a bureaucracy doing likewise for the benefit of employers and employees in the Territories. We have an enormous amount of activity consuming an enormous amount of resources at these three levels of operation and yet we still have not conquered the major problems in the occupational health and safety field.

The Opposition does not agree with the logic that proposes the establishment of a National Occupational Health and Safety Commission. This is the logic that the creation of special structures leads somehow to the generation of overnight solutions. It assumes that one big body can do the work of smaller bodies more effectively. Regrettably, this reaction to problems has led to an endless proliferation of quasi-autonomous government organisations, or quangos. The coalition disputes that this was the appropriate structure through which to achieve national goals in occupational health and safety. Let me be clear: The issue is national. The Commonwealth has a definite role to play. That role is properly one of direct partnership with the States. The Commonwealth can contribute by co-ordinating the various approaches of the States to the problems in this area. The Commonwealth can contribute by helping to propagate positive attitudes in relation to occupational health and safety amongst both employers and employees.

What will the establishment of this Commission achieve that could not be simply achieved by direct interministerial and departmental contact between the Commonwealth and the States? Establishment of the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission shows an insensitivity on the Government's part to the decades of positive and productive progress achieved at the grass-roots level in the work place where it counts most. The Government proposes to create a Commission with powers to blunder into the work place, to order the production of documents, to summons witnesses under threat of $1,000 fines or six months gaol or both, and to compel people to give evidence under oath at its inquiries. Is this consensus at work? It is as though the Commonwealth had suddenly found occupational health and safety and intends to descend from above dispatching subpoenas left, right and centre, hoping to change the world. Will it do so? The coalition clearly doubts it. It is pointless for the Government to say that these draconian powers are merely academic and will never be used. If that is so, why are these provisions in the Bill in the first place?

Furthermore, the industrial relations consequences of a commission let loose on industry with all those sorts of powers could be horrendous. We must remember that occupational health and safety can sometimes be an extremely delicate industrial relations matter. It is inextricably bound up with the conduct of relations between employers and employees. There is much anecdotal evidence about unions using health and safety matters as a ruse in their conduct of industrial campaigns against employers. There is some very interesting research evidence also on the positive correlation between high levels of absence due to industrial injury and high levels of industrial disputation in industry. Dr Ian Low, the physician who pointed out this phenomenon, also cited evidence that poor industrial relations in an industry reduced employee motivation to resume work after injury and heightened the perceived level of pain an employee was suffering. Another researcher has posed the theory that union interest in occupational health and safety matters tends to heighten during times of wage restraint. Union officials feel that they must be seen to be doing something for the benefit of union members and in the absence of a struggle over increased wages, occupational health and safety comes under greater scrutiny by them. I do not wish to suggest that unionists are not genuine in their interest in health and safety matters, but I do wish to indicate the complex interlinkages between occupational health and safety and industrial relations in general.

The Bill proposes the creation of a three-headed structure. Under Part V of the Bill, the staff of the Commission is organised into two bodies, the National Occupational Health and Safety Office and the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety. These two bodies, the coalition believes, will have a natural tendency to expand themselves and this will inevitably lead to the establishment of two extra bureaucracies as well as that of the Commission itself. Thus the Bill effectively sets up three new Commonwealth instrumentalities-the Commission, the Office and the Institute.

The provisions of clause 38 of the Bill for the establishment of national standards and codes of practice have a particularly grave potential for overriding the jurisdiction of the States in occupational health and safety matters. It is true that they are only advisory, but what if codes recommended by the Commission were incorporated into a Commonwealth award? They would then take precedence over State legislation for all employees covered by that Federal award. This has the potential to create Commonwealth jurisdiction over all employees covered by Federal awards in whatever State they live.

The objects, functions and powers of the Commission set out in clauses 7, 8 and 9, are so general as to confer virtually unfettered power on the Commission to range far and wide on the issue. The budgetary consequences if the Commission should ever seek funds to enable it to discharge all its objects, functions and powers could be outrageously large. There are projections in the Interim Commission report that in its second year of operation, should this Bill be passed, the Commission will have an average staff of 300 and a net budget of $33.1m. The Opposition will not seek to amend the Bill. The amendments we could propose would be so extensive as to create a different Bill altogether. In any case, we have a fundamental objection which leads us to reject the Bill outright. We totally reject the notion that the creation of a statutory commission achieves anything more than the expenditure of more Commonwealth funds-funds contributed by taxpayers who are keen to see government expenditure controlled and the tax burden lessened. The Opposition continues to live in eternal hope that the Labor Party may one day grow out of its well-meaning but ever centralist paternalism and that it may critically assess its penchant for quango creation. It is a rather regressive throwback to the heady days of Whitlamism when many optimistically thought that statutory commissions could perform some strange potent magic which could be delivered by no other structures. Time and, more importantly, public opinion have moved on since then and the community wants less bureaucracy, less cost and more action.

The coalition gives the highest priority to occupational health and safety matters. As I stated in my opening remarks, the coalition deplores human suffering and economic waste. Regrettably, I feel that we-the Government and the Opposition-are in agreement about the desirability of action in this area but we are doomed to remain divided on how it should be pursued. The Government's proposed Commission begins the task of and possesses an enormous potential for the massive expansion of Commonwealth power over occupational health and safety. That we cannot support.

Statutory commissions, once established, tend to take on life and momentum of their own. Many Ministers have rued the day that they or their colleagues or predecessors set one up. It is a great pity that the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Willis) is bent on pursuing this aspect of his ministerial program. The costs will be externalised upon all of us in the form of increased Commonwealth intrusion, increased Commonwealth expenditure and the upsetting of a very fine grass-roots system of consultation and negotiation between employers and employees on occupational health and safety matters. I reiterate the statement of my predecessor as Opposition spokesman on employment and industrial relations, the Hon. Ian Macphee, who said when the report of the Interim National Occupational Health and Safety Commission was tabled on 29 May last year:

The Opposition strongly supports the role of the Commonwealth in co-ordinating a national occupational health and safety strategy. Indeed, it pursued that objective in office. The question is, how it is most effectively done and cost-effectively done.

A statutory commission is not the answer. It is never a satisfactory substitute for the appropriate parties to get together, put their own cases and contribute their own experiences and research to each other. If this could be done directly by and between the governments of the States and the Commonwealth and their departments we could make positive progress in occupational health and safety that much quicker, and at much less expense. Communication, unfortunately, is not the Minister's strong suit. Most of his ministerial initiatives to date have centred on the commissioning of commissions and committees of inquiry-the Kirby Committee of Inquiry into Labour Market Programs, the Hancock National Superannuation Committee of Inquiry and the Interim National Occupational Health and Safety Commission. The Interim Commission was the first of these groups to report. We believe the Minister has uncritically and unthinkingly accepted its recommendations-recommendations which of course perpetuate the existence of the Interim Commission itself albeit, in a more secure form. The exercise of ministerial responsibilities requires more than commissioning commissions and committees of inquiry; it requires action. In this case, it requires direct communication, direct liaison between the State and Federal Ministers and the responsible departments. Creating a new statutory commission is not the answer.

Honourable members may be aware that the Confederation of Australian Industry is involved in the present Interim Occupational Health and Safety Commission, that it supports the establishment of the permanent Commission and that if a permanent Commission is established the CAI will be represented on it. The Opposition believes that the CAI has involved itself in the Commission in the hope that it might be used to restrain State governments from the regulatory excesses to which they have tended in recent times. The Opposition judges that this will be a faint and forlorn hope.

The attempted Victorian reforms are, of course, the most notorious example of excessive and punitive occupational health and safety legislation. Had the Cain Government managed to push its occupational health and safety Bill through the Victorian Parliament prior to the last election, union-appointed safety representatives would have had the power to shut down any business without warning if a representative considered a situation to be potentially unsafe. Under the proposed legislation, Victorian employers would have faced a fine of up to $10,000 and/or five years imprisonment for failing to obey a safety representative's directive. Victorian employers now fear that if the Cain Government gains control of the upper House they will have the legislation foisted upon them without amendment.

The Cain Government has an equally distasteful Bill waiting in the wings which would give it monopoly control of workers compensation in Victoria. The legislation would completely exclude private insurers from the workers compensation area. This is a totally unjust and unwarranted infringement of the right to trade freely in goods and services. The Victorian economy, and employers and employees therein, will suffer if the Government obtains monopoly control of workers compensation. While the Cain Government argues that its takeover would lead to lower workers compensation premiums, it cannot be argued in the short run and it certainly would be shown not to be the case in the long run. Monopoly control inevitably leads to monopoly pricing. Higher workers compensation premiums would be the inevitable result.

The Victorian legislation would have terrible consequences for employees and employers alike. Other States have planned similarly damaging legislation. South Australians and West Australians have been threatened with legislation incorporating worker-appointed safety officers with wide powers in the work place. They have been threatened too with extremely heavy penalties under the proposed legislation. In the Act legislation could result in the imprisonment or levying of fines, even against the self-employed and public servants.

All of these health and safety overkills are taking place in States and territories governed by the Labor Party. This is no accident. The Labor Party, beholden to the trade union movement, is directly implementing trade union policy on occupational health and safety. Employers will be squeezed by unreasonable union and legislative demands and the Labor governments of those States will not lift a finger to reverse that trend. This Government has only one constituency to satisfy, and that constituency is the trade union movement elite, the Australian Council of Trade Unions. Employers cannot realistically expect Labor governments to be very interested in their concerns. They are a party of the trade union movement.

This brings me back to the Confederation of Australian Industry's support for the Government's proposed National Occupational Health and Safety Commission. I suggested to honourable members that the CAI was supporting the Commission in the hope that it may act as a restraining influence on the excesses of State legislatures. I am afraid that there is only faint hope of the CAI's wishes being fulfilled. Why should one Labor Government act to curb the excesses of other Labor governments? Is it not more likely that a Commonwealth statutory commission, created and nurtured by a Federal Labor government, will attempt to duplicate rather than restrain the intrusions of its State counterparts? The fact that 12 of 17 members of the Commission are needed to pass any recommendation is irrelevant in this case. The damage is done later when, by the insertion of a commission code in a Federal award, the policing of that code could pass automatically to union organisers, and union organisers alone.

The bottom line in all this is the cost. At the beginning of my speech I outlined the coalition's view of the terrible social and economic costs which result from occupational injury and illness. In my closing remarks I would like to explore the economic costs a little more closely. By doing this I am seeking to put the economics of occupational health and safety into its proper social context, and particularly in the context of the greatest of all the social problems facing Australia-unemployment. The Metal Trades Industry Association neatly summed up the problem when it said:

The spiralling cost of worker's compensation . . . is reducing industry's capacity to meet international competition, and consequently reducing employers' ability to employ more people.

There we have the problem in a nutshell. Improved standards of occupational health and safety are vital if we are to minimise the negative social and economic consequences of industrial injury and illness. As the MTIA quote indicates, the economic consequences have a profound, widely felt community impact. Workers compensation premiums have been said to be the key issue in the cost control problem facing Australian industry. Costs have zoomed alarmingly in all States. Compensation claims by private insurers rose by 148 per cent in the five years to 1982. Over the same period, the consumer price index rose by only 57 per cent. A recent MTIA study revealed that workers compensation premiums were the third-highest cost of employing labour, behind wages and leave entitlements. Clearly, these costs must be contained if our economy is to be placed on an internationally competitive footing. They certainly must be contained if our economy is ever to generate sufficient jobs to make inroads into our very high and entrenched unemployment. The unemployment statistics released today give us no hope for the immediate future.

Improved standards of occupational health and safety can contribute to the minimisation of occupational injury and illness. This will lead to less human suffering and less economic pain. Optimally, through a lowering of workers compensation premiums, improved occupational health and safety can restore our international competitiveness and produce new, real jobs for the hundreds of thousands of Australians who want them. Regrettably, the coalition does not feel that the establishment of yet another quango will positively contribute to these goals and we will oppose the Bill.