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Wednesday, 25 November 2009
Page: 12820

Mr SYMON (12:34 PM) —I rise today to speak in support of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill 2009. This bill amends the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 to provide absolute discretion for the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations to consider a request for declarations of eligibility for a licence to self-insure under this act. The Comcare scheme that is established by the act provides workers compensation and occupational health and safety arrangements for Australian government employees and the assorted private companies that self-insure their liabilities for workers compensation under the scheme. Some of these private companies are former government business enterprises which were allowed to obtain Comcare coverage when they were sold. Other private companies that were allowed to take up Comcare coverage were those enterprises that operated in competition with these government business enterprises or in competition with former government business enterprises. This has seen the Comcare coverage extend into areas of private enterprise that the scheme was never designed for, such as mining, transport and construction.

There are now 29 corporations licensed to self-insure under the act. They include companies such as Asciano—formerly known as Pacific National—Chubb Security, John Holland, National Australia Bank and even TNT Australia. The Comcare scheme, as I have already said, was primarily designed for a different purpose and that was for white-collar jobs in the public sector—not blue-collar jobs in heavy industry or transport in some of the companies I have just mentioned. As we know, there is an existing moratorium, placed on 11 December 2007, to prevent new private sector entrants into Comcare. This bill will place the effect of that moratorium into the act.

Recently, as part of the harmonisation of occupational health and safety, the Workplace Relations Ministers Council proposed that, following the implementation of uniform occupational health and safety laws, coverage of Comcare self-insured licensees would be transferred to state and territory jurisdictions. There are very good reasons for that. Uniform OH&S laws and nationally consistent approaches to compliance and enforcement will remove Comcare’s need to provide OH&S coverage to self-insured licensees. Especially important to me is that transfer of this OH&S coverage will also reduce the number of dual-jurisdiction work sites. To me, it is quite ridiculous that you can have different workers working on the same site under different safety rules and procedures, but that can certainly happen under the current arrangements. You could have a large building site where, for instance, John Holland was the head contractor—and, as I have already described, that company comes under the Comcare scheme—but where all its subcontractors on the site, from all the various different trades and services, could well be covered by the state occupational health and safety acts. Therein lies the problem: which one takes precedent and which is right?

Both acts are worded differently and both have different provisions and operate in different forms. Currently, it is almost impossible to have a scheme that melds together the different state and federal acts that actually works on the ground and does what it should—that is, look after the people that are at that workplace, of whichever state they may be in. Under the Commonwealth and in each state and territory, workers compensation systems vary and they provide different coverage, different payments and different medical and rehabilitation expenses to injured workers and to dependants of workers who tragically die or who are injured whilst at work or because of the work they have been doing.

According to the 2008-09 report of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission, the number of Comcare investigators employed that year was 62. That is a significant increase from the 16 who were employed in 2004-05 but, as I have mentioned previously in the House, it is not sufficient to cover the expanded coverage of the scheme. Every year, over 300 Australian workers are killed at work. It is not known how many die from various occupational diseases, but it has been estimated at 10 times that number. Every year, over 140,000 people are injured whilst they are at work. These figures are huge and they are appalling not only in human terms but also in dollar terms. The drain on the Australian economy is estimated at $34 billion per year. As I have said before in this House, there is no excuse for ignoring the safety of workers in the workplace. It should be the prime responsibility of every employer. There is nothing more important than a worker returning home at the end of a working day or shift in as good a shape as they were at the start of that day’s labour.

There is certainly no good reason why some workers should be afforded less protection at work than others in a different state or territory. As I have said, every state and territory has different acts and regulations covering occupational health and safety and workers compensation arrangements, and good practice and sometimes not-so-good practice can be found in every jurisdiction. What might have been good practice 15 or 20 years ago in one state may not be current good practice in other states. It may now not be best practice. But, as we all know, legislation ages and time moves quickly. For instance, it is very easy to forget that only 15 years ago the vast majority of the population had no access to or, in many cases, no knowledge of many things we take for granted today. Access to the internet and the ease with which you can get information is still relatively new. But many of the things that have been done in this place over the years have simply not kept up with that.

Fifteen years ago, just being able to find a copy of another state’s act, regulation or code of practice took a great deal of time and money, as you had to make phone calls, send letters and parcels across the country or have access to a very good technical library, which most people certainly did not have. Because of that the best practice outcomes in one state could remain buried within that state. That state may have enjoyed the benefits of that for some time, but most people in other states were not aware that there was better practice—not only in safety at work but also in many other legislative areas—elsewhere. As I said, with internet access now available virtually everywhere, there is a much greater need for consistency in the regulation of occupational health and safety. So, from my point of view, when a solution to a problem is found in one jurisdiction there is no reason why that should not be applied as best as it possibly can to any other jurisdiction.

One of my jobs prior to coming to this place was as a safety officer and at times I was a health and safety representative. I worked in the construction industry and I saw firsthand the effect of people not understanding safety systems or, even worse, understanding but not following them and I saw what could be the terrible results when shortcuts were taken with safety on site. When it comes to safety, there can be great communication and consultation but also agreement between the employer, the employees and the union. Many very good safety systems have, in the end, come into place because of consultation, not through argument but actually through agreement, which provides the best result for everyone in the workplace. When the system operates properly, it is about being proactive; it is not about reacting to something that has happened. It is about analysing the risks and working out what may happen before it does so that systems can be put in place to prevent it. The OH&S compliance issues that arise from having competing schemes operating are still not fully understood because, in many workplaces, they are still quite a new phenomenon. But the number of work site inspections, notices and prosecutions are much lower under Comcare than under competing state schemes.

Last year in this place, when we were debating the Safe Work Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2008, the member for Corio said:

… if you were an employer in Victoria—

in the year 2005-06—

…  you were 24 times more likely to be the subject of an inspection—

under WorkSafe Victoria—

than if you were an employer in the Commonwealth jurisdiction.

This figure does not indicate that work practices and safety outcomes improve just because an employer has managed to move from a state OH&S system and into the federal Comcare system. It comes about because of the very small number of inspectors who were employed then and are employed now and the work site inspections undertaken in comparison with WorkSafe Victoria.

There is an interesting report that was presented to the Workplace Relations Ministers Council way back in 2005. The Comparative performance monitoring seventh report of November 2005 found that Comcare undertook 245 ‘workplace interventions’, also known as site visits. In the same time, WorkSafe Victoria undertook 43,719. In that period Comcare issued only 17 safety prohibition and improvement notices in Victoria, whilst WorkSafe Victoria issued 12,492 notices. In 2008-09, Comcare had increased this to 46 prohibition and improvement notices—but this was still obviously way behind. And in this report’s time frame Comcare did not prosecute anyone in Victoria, whilst WorkSafe Victoria launched 110 prosecutions that year. In 2008-09, Comcare covered 163,707 employees in the 29 licensed self-insurers, some of which I previously mentioned.

The role of a workplace inspector for a safety authority is a vital one, but there must be a sufficient number of inspectors to cover the workforce and there must be the will in the organisation to be proactive where it counts—that is, at the workface, on the job site. Just as important as the workplace inspector’s role is the development of proposals for national workers compensation arrangements for employers with workers in more than one jurisdiction. Rather than forcing states and territories to toe the Howard line—as we saw with the spectacular failure of Work Choices, where millions of workers were ripped off in their wages and conditions with no recompense—the Rudd government is vitally aware of the impact that changes in the workplace can have on the lives of working people. And although we know—we really know—that Work Choices is still held very dear to the hearts of all those opposite, without exception we see and hear, day after day, in this place and in the press, the sheer arrogance and the out-of-touch views that exist in the Liberal Party. Their views also extend in many cases to the safety of people on the job.

We do not need competing workers compensation and OH&S systems that provide different levels of safety and coverage. We need the best result for every worker, whether they be in one state or another. There should be no excuses for that. As the minister said in her second reading speech, when occupational health and safety powers go back to the states for all of these licensed self-insured companies under Comcare, there will be better safety outcomes because there will be more inspectors—more people on the job. They hopefully can not only stamp out bad practices but also guide into good practices. We need occupational health and safety systems and workers compensation schemes that work proactively to reduce accidents and to improve safety outcomes. I commend this bill to the House.