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Monday, 13 October 2008
Page: 5733

Senator ABETZ (12:48 PM) —On behalf of the coalition opposition I indicate that we support in general the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and the Safe Work Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2008; however, we do believe that the legislation has a number of flaws in it and we will be seeking to amend the legislation during the committee stages. Adding to the succession of Labor’s botched policies since it came to government, we are now forced to consider the establishment of Safe Work Australia, a body that will be dominated by state representatives making decisions about OH&S policy for employers and employees, who will have no real voice or influence in this process.

The need for this sort of legislation to harmonise occupational health and safety issues in the Australian context results from the failure of successive state governments to in fact get their acts together. So the need for us to have this harmonised approach results from the states not being able to do it by themselves. We as a coalition government sought to show leadership in this area, and I think we achieved a lot with the Australian Safety and Compensation Council. I will possibly say more on that later.

What federal Labor has now introduced is a body that will be dominated by the same state governments that have so abysmally failed their workers and employers in this particular area. The Labor states, after having failed so miserably, are now in effect being given a veto power, given the way that this body is to be structured. With great respect to the Prime Minister, this is not cooperative federalism. But it indicates yet again that this legislation has been introduced as a result of deals with Labor mates in the various state governments.

With this legislation, Labor is seeking to abolish the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, which was established by the coalition whilst in government to facilitate the tripartite coordination and harmonisation of workplace safety and workers compensation laws. Under the coalition, the ASCC was designed to facilitate a national approach to workplace safety and workers compensation utilising a tripartite consultative method to draw on and include employee and employer knowledge and experience in the move towards a national OH&S workers compensation system.

Whilst the coalition is broadly supportive of a harmonised national occupational health and safety system, it would be difficult to imagine a body better designed to fail in achieving this objective than the body proposed under the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 by the Rudd Labor government. Reading the bill, it is quite clear that it was designed by bureaucrats for a bureaucrat, but of course with the additional spin that the Rudd government has now become so famous—or should I say infamous—for putting out into the public arena. Not only does Labor’s bill fail to define the role of Safe Work Australia but someone, somehow, appears to have even forgotten to include the objects of Safe Work Australia and its role in bringing about improved safety outcomes for workplaces. We will be moving amendments in relation to that matter.

Unlike the ASCC, established under the coalition, Labor has purposely, at the behest of its state Labor governments, agreed to give excessive control of Safe Work Australia to the state ministers and reduce—and this is important—employer and union representation by 33 per cent; that is, from three to two for each category. Those that are impacted by occupational health and safety standards, those that pay for it and administer it on a workplace level, have been sidelined in favour of Labor state government bureaucrats. It seems as though the Prime Minister must have had his personal hand in this, because his great claim to fame was, of course, that he was coming to Canberra as the chief state bureaucrat from Queensland. Can I just say to the Prime Minister that the business of running Australia is a bit more than just trying to appease the odd state Labor bureaucrat. It is a lot more important to get this right.

The key partners in this should not be seen as the state Labor governments that have so abysmally failed over the years; the key partners are in fact those who have to deal with these laws, namely the workers themselves and the employers. By reducing the representation of the social partners and compromising their capacity to effectively represent the interests of both industry and employees, Labor is destroying the tripartite approach traditionally required for occupational health and safety regulation to effectively operate in workplaces. Labor’s proposed structure for Safe Work Australia will create an imbalance whereby workplaces directly impacted by the development and formulation of occupational health and safety will be denied the opportunity to genuinely participate in the forum where such regulation is developed.

The bill highlights the hypocrisy of Labor, who prior to the election spoke often of their commitment to occupational health and safety while regularly criticising the coalition—yet now, after the election, Labor have conveniently forgotten about workers and forgotten about industry and do not appear to understand that a process that does not seek to actively engage employers and workers in a meaningful way will not produce the improvements in workplace health and safety that are necessary for Australian workers. Even worse, we have a bill before us today that throws out previous reforms and an accepted understanding from both Labor and coalition governments that, when it comes to occupational health and safety, consultation is a proven mechanism for improving health and safety in workplaces.

When it comes to effective safety in the workplace, there can be no contest that improving and sustaining OH&S performance in the workplace from both an employer and an employee perspective is achieved by doing with the people and not by doing to the people involved. This is particularly the case where achieving outcomes involves significant changes. Some are costly changes or changes to culture in the workplace. Once again, Labor have failed Australian workers and workplaces in the proposed establishment of Safe Work Australia. The reason Labor have failed is quite frankly, I think, that they do not get it. Labor simply do not understand some of these issues because they do not have the real experience of either having been at the workplace themselves or having been an employer.

The current composition of Safe Work Australia fails to have proper regard for the views of industry and employees, which will undermine its credibility, and the outcomes it seeks to achieve, prior to the bill even being passed. We have a situation here now where there is rare unity between the ACTU and the ACCI. They are jointly complaining about some of these measures. We as a coalition agree with their concerns. When we have a situation where the coalition, the ACTU, ACCI and, I think—reading some of his suggestions—Senator Xenophon are all on a unity ticket in relation to some of these issues, you have to ask the question: why is it that Mr Rudd knows best? It is typical of this arrogant Labor government that it knows best and of course Mr Rudd, if he is in any doubt, will always give in to state Labor bureaucrats—and it is quite clear that Safe Work Australia has been largely designed by them. That is why we believe there are substantial flaws in this legislation.

We invite Mr Rudd to reconsider some of these issues and not be the arrogant ‘I know best’ Prime Minister that he has so quickly become. It seems that he can go overseas to tell the US congress how to vote and consider legislation, but he does not have the time to sit down with my good friend Senator Xenophon and others to encourage them to vote for certain pieces of legislation. It is just yet again indicative of the picture that Mr Rudd is painting of himself of an out-of-touch Prime Minister, arrogant enough to fly out of the country to tell the US congress how to vote but not interested in Australian senators and how they might exercise their vote—more interested in US senators than in Australian senators. It is that attitude that permeates this legislation in virtually every clause.

In the case of Safe Work Australia we are now witnessing a common Labor trait, where they cross their fingers behind their backs and tell Australian workers and business that they are doing one thing but instead make decisions and create ineffective regulations that create more problems than they solve. Labor’s limitation on the involvement of social partners—representatives of both employers and employees—will, without a doubt, lead to a situation where government representatives will be able to repeatedly override legitimate concerns raised by social partners during OH&S harmonisation discussions, including concerns relating to increased costs or impractical safety proposals for workplaces, or genuine proposals that may be lobbied against by a small sector in a few states. The proposed voting procedures under Labor’s bill are also unbalanced, giving state governments veto powers and simultaneously marginalising the role of what are called the social partners—I would say, the real players.

With limited capacity to oppose various proposals, there is no doubt that Safe Work Australia will be used by the government to develop other codes, policies and regulations, under the guise of safety, to achieve certain industrial outcomes on behalf of minority interests that would otherwise need to be discussed with stakeholders at a state level. Clearly the government has borrowed this approach from its Labor counterparts on a state level, where workplaces in many cases are already overwhelmed with impractical and unworkable occupational health and safety laws. Now Labor wants to introduce a body to achieve harmonisation which will be dominated by those same Labor governments and their advisers who have already failed to establish, in many cases, workplace occupational health and safety and workers compensation systems in their own states. Remarkably, Minister Gillard is determined not to listen to stakeholders and instead has chosen to reduce their representation and rely on state representatives who have already so abysmally failed in their own backyards.

The foundation upon which Safe Work Australia has been established is fundamentally flawed, with the direction and success of Safe Work Australia being contingent on the cooperation and participation of the ministerial council to which it is required to report. Members of the ministerial council have repeatedly failed to attend and/or cooperate with the Commonwealth in these meetings, which raises some legitimate concerns about just how effective Safe Work Australia will be in an environment where state Labor governments have been unwilling to cooperate and genuinely contribute to discussions about the harmonisation of occupational health and safety laws across Australia—particularly the New South Wales state government, which has been reported by some as having the very worst OH&S system in the country. Where the ministerial council fails to meet or refuses to cooperate and consider Safe Work Australia issues, then the work of Safe Work Australia comes to a halt—end of story. Just last year, we had the then New South Wales minister for industrial relations—I understand that was the minister of ‘Iguana’ fame—refusing to cooperate in a national discussion on occupational health and safety. If anything, Labor is now making it easier for uncooperative state governments to undermine the occupational health and safety harmonisation process for their own political gain.

Further, the proposed structure creates an unjustifiable imbalance. Improving occupational health and safety performance is critically dependent on a collaborative effort and the buy-in of all stakeholders. A process that does not seek to engage workers and employers in a meaningful way does not necessarily lead to improvements in workplace health and safety. In relation to these stakeholders, we will be moving amendments to ensure that the appropriate peak bodies are chosen to represent the stakeholders and that it is not, as is the case in the legislation at the moment, at the whim of the minister so that she can play favourites and approve those that she would like.

Labor’s duplicity is further highlighted by its unwillingness to review its processes and report back to parliament on the progress of Safe Work Australia. The bill currently proposes an inadequate process of reporting back to parliament every six years. It is incomprehensible that Labor wants to introduce a state-dominated, independent authority that has no requirement to report to parliament for six years in relation to its operations. Sure, under clause 70(2) there is the provision for an annual report, but there are only two sections dealing with what the annual report needs to cover. Can I respectfully suggest to the government that they should consider amending that further, to allow or to specifically state that they must also report on the operation of Safe Work Australia in relation to the legislation—what the faults are, what the benefits are—so that, if there are actual issues to be addressed, those issues can be addressed immediately. Occupational health and safety happens to be a very important issue—something that I would have thought everybody in this chamber would be absolutely agreed upon. Therefore, if an issue arises urgently then this body should be able to report to the parliament on those issues and have them dealt with, with amending legislation, as matter of extreme importance.

In brief, Safe Work Australia is, unfortunately, just another botched policy on top of the failed Fuelwatch, GroceryWatch, the proposed abolition of the ABCC and, in the last months, the failure of the award modernisation process, which industry says could potentially lead to significant job losses and inflationary outcomes. There is one common thread running through all of these botched Labor policies: the Labor government does not have a plan and is incapable of listening to Australians and delivering credible and acceptable policy solutions.

In brief, the opposition will support this legislation, but we will be pursuing a number of amendments during the committee stage to ensure that occupational health and safety in this country is properly addressed. If Labor want to now have a different body to that which the coalition had in the ASCC, so be it. They can make that their own and give it their own name—Safe Work Australia—but what it should have been is a genuine evolution of that which we had initiated. Unfortunately, a lot of the proposals are in fact regressive. Worst of all is the diminution of the union and employer roles in this vital area. I would have thought everybody would be agreed that, if anything, these social partners are a vital part of the cog and for Labor to overlook them is inexplicable. I look forward to the committee stage. (Time expired)