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Monday, 13 October 2008
Page: 5737

Senator FEENEY (1:08 PM) —I rise to support the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008. In doing so I commend the government, and particularly the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, for the timely introduction of this bill, a bill that meets an important election commitment made by the Labor Party at the 2007 election.

This bill establishes a new independent Commonwealth statutory body, Safe Work Australia, to improve occupational health and safety and workers compensation outcomes for Australian workers. Labor’s platform for the 2007 election contained an important commitment:

Labor will work with the States and Territories to achieve a nationally consistent occupational health and safety framework which reflects best safety practice within Australia, and which is consistent with the best international standards. This framework should be clear and capable of enforcement at the workplace level.

This bill represents the government’s fulfilment of that very important commitment.

Safe Work Australia will be a cooperative body representing the Commonwealth, the states and territories, and employees and employers. It will be a reform-focused body with the power to make recommendations directly to the Workplace Relations Ministers Council, which includes the Commonwealth, state and territory workplace relations ministers. Safe Work Australia will have a number of important responsibilities. These responsibilities include developing national policy on occupational health and safety and workers compensation; preparing model occupational health and safety legislation and codes of practice for adoption by the Commonwealth, the states and territories; developing a compliance and enforcement policy to ensure that a nationally consistent approach is taken; developing proposals for the harmonisation of workers compensation arrangements across all jurisdictions; and reducing the complexity and costs for businesses. Safe Work Australia will replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, an entity that was set up by the Howard government as a purely advisory body. In contrast to the ASCC, Safe Work Australia will play the central role in occupational health and safety and workers compensation reform.

Senator Abetz spoke moments ago about botched policy. Frankly, the other side is in a good position to recognise botched policy when it sees it—because, of course, it had custody of and inspiration for such policy over the past 11 years. Senator Abetz called for evolution, and evolution is what this bill represents as we go from the coalition stone age to a far more effective and just system under the Rudd Labor government. The Liberal and National parties had custody of our occupational health and safety law for 11 years. As a result, if I may quote the Deputy Prime Minister from her second reading speech in the other place:

Our health, safety and compensation systems are in a sorry state—unnecessarily complex and costly. Inconsistencies between jurisdictions mean that some workers are at risk of poorer safety standards than their counterparts in other states. At the same time, these inconsistencies increase the complexity, paperwork and costs for the 39,000 Australian businesses that operate across state boundaries.

Under the previous government, the Commonwealth’s own occupational health and safety body, Comcare, was developed into a backdoor way of allowing employers to escape the jurisdiction of the states and territories. Because the Commonwealth’s rules were less rigorous than those of the states and territories, employers tried to shift from state jurisdictions into the federal jurisdiction—that is, into Comcare—and the Howard government was happy to enable them to do so. In fact, this was a deliberate and calculated device to circumvent state laws. Senator Abetz has called upon this house to have regard for harmonisation, but of course it was nothing more than a rush to the bottom under the previous government. In the last days of the Howard government the then minister, Mr Hockey, granted an additional seven Australian companies eligibility to apply to move to Comcare. Given that this was a privilege initially granted to only 19 companies in the country, this represented a significant expansion. Senator Abetz has spoken mischievously about potential deals with Labor mates in state governments but, in consideration of Mr Hockey’s deeds in the dying days of the Howard government, one might just as easily speculate about deals between the Howard government and its mates in some of these major Australian businesses. This is why the current minister announced very shortly after she took office that she was imposing a moratorium on employees transferring into Comcare’s jurisdiction. She pointed out, very properly, that many questions had been asked about the protections available to workers in the Comcare scheme compared with those available under state and territory laws. There was deep concern about the capacity of Comcare to have the expertise and the resources to deal with many of these companies that have transferred into its jurisdiction.

The minister also pointed out that the Howard government failed to work cooperatively with the states and territories to achieve consistent workers compensation and occupational health and safety laws. The Howard government was not interested in consistency; it was simply interested in facilitating the movement of employers into an inferior scheme. In fact, I would go further—I would say it refused to consult with employers, employees or the state governments in seeking a genuine harmonisation. The Howard government was notorious for its refusal to work cooperatively with the states on issues like this. It always preferred to act in a unilateral and high-handed way, grabbing all the credit for itself and never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

In January this year, the minister announced a review of the appropriateness of self-insurance under Comcare, with the aim of determining, among other things, whether Comcare provides appropriate occupational health and safety and workers compensation coverage, whether Comcare has the capacity to ensure that employers under its jurisdiction provide safe workplaces, and what arrangements are required to ensure that all workers working at workplaces under Comcare’s jurisdiction have their health and safety protected. This review is very welcome and I look forward to seeing its recommendations.

It is important to note that those opposite had their chance to get this issue right but, as was so often the case, they dropped the ball. In 2004, the Productivity Commission conducted an inquiry into workers compensation and occupational health and safety. The commission’s report recommended that all Australian jurisdictions adopt uniform occupational health and safety regulations, it recommended a national workers compensation scheme and it recommended nationally consistent standards for workers compensation. We might very well ask: what happened to those recommendations? The then Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews, rejected them. He rejected recommendations from Australia’s principal advisory body on microeconomic policy and regulation, the Productivity Commission. Why did he do that? I can only surmise that it was due to deference by the minister and the then Prime Minister to what they saw as the interests of some employers—although I am sure the sensible majority of employers would have welcomed a uniform national occupational health and safety scheme. The then minister also rejected the Productivity Commission’s recommendation for an expert body to develop a national scheme. Instead we got a weak, toothless advisory body, the ASCC—which the other side are now trying to turn into a virtuous body.

In contrast to this sorry record of neglect, the Rudd government and the Deputy Prime Minister, whose commitment to the rights of Australian workers is well known, are determined to create a national occupational health and safety regime free from inconsistencies, unnecessary duplications and overlaps. This is an important national project and a good example of the Rudd government’s determination to make Australia’s federal system work better through cooperation between the Commonwealth and the states and territories.

It is true, of course, that there have been some differences of opinion among the states, and between the states and the Commonwealth, about the provisions of the legislation abolishing the ASCC and establishing Safe Work Australia. That is to be expected. The states naturally have their own points of view, and some states have expressed the desire to retain various aspects of their own state-specific occupational health and safety regimes rather than to immediately agree to a uniform national scheme. That is part and parcel of a project of this nature. Despite these differences, the Commonwealth and the states and territories have an important shared objective, and that is to create a system which will improve Australia’s occupational health and safety performance, leading to greater workplace safety for all Australian employees. This is not a government that is interested in facilitating a race to the bottom, to the lowest common denominator, as our predecessors were.

Why is this question of such great importance to Australian workers and to Australian employers? It is because each year, over the past 10 years, between 250 and 350 Australian workers have been killed in workplace accidents. In other words, between 1997 and 2005 nearly 2,400 workers were killed in such accidents. And, in each of the last 10 years, many thousands have been injured—some very seriously indeed. It is estimated that there is some $30 billion per annum in economic loss due to workplace accidents across the country. In each of the last 10 years, between 146,000 and 153,000 workers made serious compensation claims. In other words, each year between one and two per cent of all Australian workers receive a work related injury or suffer a work related illness serious enough to make a compensation claim. It is worth pointing out that these are minimum figures. They do not cover all workplace deaths and accidents. They do not include cases in which no-one made a claim for compensation; they do not include injuries resulting in absences from work of less than a week; they do not include many transport related injuries and deaths, since these are often not classified as workplace related; they do not include deaths and injuries among ADF personnel or members of police services; and they do not include asbestos related cases, which are compensated through other mechanisms.

I am pleased to note that the number of workplace fatalities and work related compensation claims has been slowly declining over the past 10 years. This is partly due to more effective workplace safety legislation in the states and territories, but it is also due to changes in the structure of the Australian workforce. The number of workers engaged in dangerous physical work in places such as mines and factories is declining. The number working in relatively safer white-collar jobs is increasing. The workforce is slowly ageing, and older workers are less likely than younger workers to be killed or injured at work. On the other hand, the number and incidence of workplace deaths and injuries among women are increasing as the gender balance in all areas of the workforce continues to shift towards women. The proportion of all serious claims where the employee was female increased from 28 per cent in 1997-98 to 33 per cent in 2004-05.

As we would expect, different industry sectors have very different incidences of workplace fatalities and injuries. The highest incidence of fatalities is in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector, followed by the transport and storage sector. These two sectors each have an average annual fatality rate of more than 10 per 100,000 workers. Everyone would agree that that is unacceptable. The mining and construction sectors both have an average annual fatality rate of more than five per 100,000 workers. The agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector, the transport and storage sector, the mining sector and the construction sector also have the highest rates of compensation claims for work related injuries and illnesses. All four sectors have an average annual rate of more than 20 serious claims per 1,000 workers. In other words, each year more than two per cent of all workers in these sectors make a serious compensation claim. These figures show that there is an unacceptably high rate of fatality, injury and illness in these industry sectors in particular.

If we look at absolute numbers rather than incidence rates, the two sectors which produce the largest numbers of serious compensation claims are the manufacturing sector and the health and community services sector. Australian factories are safer places to work in than was once the case, but they are still far from being as safe as they should be and could be. It is apparent that our hospitals and health centres, a rapidly expanding sector of employment in this country, are also not as safe as they should be in terms of the health and safety of the people who work there.

I do not wish to suggest that all Australian employers act without regard to the health and safety of their employees. Of course that is not the case. I do not suggest that the majority of employers act in such a way. But it nonetheless remains a fact that there are some employers, unfortunately, who put the interests of their business ahead of the wellbeing of their employees in the scale of their priorities. This attitude leads to the health and safety of employees, and on some occasions the very lives of those employees, being put at risk. If that were not the case, we would not need an occupational health and safety regime at all.

As well as an effective, uniform, national occupational health and safety and workers compensation scheme, we need recognition of the vital role the trade unions play in the protection of the health and safety of Australian workers and in the maintenance of workplace standards. Government agencies, no matter how well intentioned or well funded, and no matter how extensive their powers, cannot be in every workplace every hour of the day, and nor is that desirable.

But when employees join trade unions, and when those unions have the legally protected right to check on the safety of their members and on whether the law is being observed at work, they do represent an extraordinary resource for government and regulators in this very important area. That is why this government works cooperatively with both business and unions to improve the safety of Australian workplaces, rather than treating the unions as enemies, as the previous coalition government did. We have just heard a speech from Senator Abetz in which he referred to the trade unions as ‘social partners’. This represents a magnificent elevation in their status from the 11 years of victimisation that they enjoyed under the previous government. But those weasel words do not change the fact that the trade union movement in particular has been shunned as a participant in this area for the past decade, and that is something that has now changed.

This is a very important piece of legislation. It will benefit both employers and employees. It will reduce the number of workplace fatalities and injuries and work related illnesses. In doing so, it will save lives. It is a very serious attempt to deal with a very serious issue and it is building on a very sorry legacy from the previous government. I commend the bill to the Senate.