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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 9160

Mr McCLELLAND (9:59 AM) —It is fortunate that I am on time because I think we are running slightly early.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—The Main Committee is very efficient!

Mr McCLELLAND —The primary purpose of the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment Bill 2002, when first presented in the House in July this year, was the transfer of the operational responsibility for the Seafarers Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Authority from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations to Comcare. The opposition indicated at that time that it was something we would be able to support.

The Seafarers Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Authority, otherwise known as the Seacare Authority, has responsibility for the occupational health and safety and workers compensation schemes for seafarers. The occupational health and safety responsibility arises under the Occupational Health and Safety (Maritime Industry) Act 1993. The workers compensation responsibility is found in the Seafarers Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1992. According to the Seacare Authority's latest annual report, the OH&S Act covers 29 employers and approximately 260 ships. The seafarers act covers 26 employers, 3,152 employees and 135 ships.

All in all, the Seacare Authority has an important responsibility in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of those persons who work in the Australian maritime industry. It does this by protecting seafarers from risks to their health and safety and by ensuring that those who are injured at work receive appropriate rehabilitation and compensation. The authority itself employs no staff. It has seven members, six of whom are appointed by the minister. The chairperson of the authority is Mr Geoff Gronow, a lawyer, and the deputy chairperson is Mr John Rowling, who is the Assistant Secretary of the Safety and Compensation Policy Branch of the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations. Furthermore, there are four members selected from the industry, two of whom represent employers, namely, Mr Warwick Norman and Mr Malcolm Herndon; and two from the employees' side, Mr Paddy Crumlin and Mr Martin Byrne. Mr Crumlin is the national secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia and Mr Byrne is the assistant federal secretary of the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers. The last of the seven members is Mr Clive Davidson, who is the chief executive officer of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Labor supports the current compositional arrangements of the Seacare Authority. We say that it is appropriate that industry bodies such as the Seacare Authority draw on those who represent the employees' interests through their unions, as well as industry representatives and other specialists in the field. It is also pleasing to note that there have been no work related fatalities under the Seacare scheme over the last financial year. Indeed, the industry has been fatality free for the last seven years. Unfortunately, however, it is the case that it is a dangerous industry, and the accident and dangerous occurrence rate and the incidence of injury continue at relatively high levels. The latest annual report says that the maritime industry has a greater incidence of compensable injuries than other high risk industries such as mining, construction, transport and storage. Its rate is considerably higher than the Australian average. Again, this reflects not the endeavours of those involved in overseeing the industry safety but rather the dangerous nature of the industry to which I have referred.

Until 1997, the Seacare Authority was placed within the Department of Transport and Regional Services. In November 1997, with a shift in ministerial responsibilities, the operational responsibility for the Seacare Authority was transferred to the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, as it is now known. However, with the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations under the current minister, the government proposes that the Seacare Authority should move again, this time to Comcare. I can indicate that my office has consulted with representatives on the Seacare board and also with legal advocates who commonly do this sort of work, and they concur with the government's proposal.

Labor supports an arrangement whereby the Seacare Authority, which has responsibility for the occupational health and safety and workers compensation issues, will be more closely aligned to the Commonwealth's principal provider of such services, Comcare. This will allow greater scope for the sharing of ideas, expertise and resources, and as such this part of the bill is to be commended.

In October this year, the minister wrote to my office to foreshadow various amendments to the bill that would be principally of a minor or technical nature and would be directed at amending anomalies, updating obsolete provisions and smoothing out legislative hitches in acts of parliament that come under the minister's portfolio responsibilities. After discussions with the minister's office, all of the provisions now contained in the amendments that are to be moved by the government are agreed to by Labor.

As stated earlier, some of the amendments are simply to update obsolete provisions or modernise the language of the relevant act, such as amendments to the National Labour Consultative Council Act 1977. Some amendments will delegate provisions that require updating regulations from time to time. This approach has much to commend it in the context of these particular regulations because it will allow necessary changes to legislative instruments to be made more expeditiously in circumstances where they are essentially of a non-controversial nature. Other amendments remove sexist language, substituting gender neutral language. While this move is largely symbolic, it is nonetheless important. The changes dealing with the Criminal Code merely undo hitches which may have criminalised what should be lawful activities, such as casting a vote in a union ballot, and in other circumstances providing appropriate defences and qualifications.

It should be noted that there are some amendments which perhaps exceed what could be called minor and technical, but they are sound and we believe they should be supported. For instance, I indicate our support for amendments that will allow for full benches of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to deal at first instance with applications for equal remuneration and orders to give effect to certain articles in the Termination of Employment Convention. Till now, such applications were to be dealt with by a single member of the commission, even though many such applications had a potentially groundbreaking effect on the nation's industrial laws. We believe it is appropriate that such significant matters receive the attention of a full bench of the commission from the start, not just under an appeal procedure.

I should also mention an alteration to section 170N of the Workplace Relations Act which will allow equal remuneration applications to proceed even during a bargaining period. We believe this makes sense. The important objective of ensuring that female workers are not treated in a lesser fashion than their male colleagues should not be put on hold simply because enterprise bargaining is occurring. There are also other alterations, which I will not specifically address. In our opinion, they all have merit and are supported.

In concluding, I wish to indicate that the Australian Labor Party will continue to support balanced, fair and sensible legislative proposals from the government. I extend my thanks to the minister and his department for their cooperation and the information provided to my office in consultations over this bill.