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Monday, 13 October 2008
Page: 5741

Senator BOYCE (1:25 PM) —I would also like to speak on the government’s Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and related bill. This bill claims to establish Safe Work Australia as an independent Commonwealth statutory body with the aims of improving occupational health and safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements in Australia. As Senator Abetz outlined, the opposition supports this bill but has some very strong reservations about some aspects of it as it currently stands and will seek to amend those.

According to the explanatory memorandum that accompanies the Safe Work Australia Bill, the organisation will be:

… an inclusive, tripartite body representing the interests of the Commonwealth, the States and Territories as well as workers and employers in Australia. SWA will be a reform-focussed body with the power to make recommendations directly to the Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council (WRMC).

This new statutory body will replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council which our government established, which was also designed as a tripartite organisation to coordinate and harmonise workplace safety and workers compensation laws across all Australian jurisdictions. Senator Feeney somewhat derisively referred to the Australian Safety and Compensation Council as an ‘advisory body’ and described it as ‘weak and toothless’. Could I please take you back to the great powerhouse of the proposed new body, Safe Work Australia. It will have the power to make recommendations. Wow! That is a really big change. My God! People will be quivering in their boots at the idea of a new body that can make recommendations to a ministerial council. What a novel change. The new government body is in effect simply a rebranding of the coalition’s Australian Safety and Compensation Council, albeit in a way that actually compromises the tripartite approach that our government took to workplace health and safety regulation to operate effectively in workplaces.

The coalition were and remain very aware of the need to have greater harmonisation in business regulation across Australia, and we are very supportive of any sensible approach to achieving better workplace safety arrangements across Australia. But we are also extremely concerned that the government’s proposed body will actually have less rather than more representation from the various stakeholders that were involved in the Australian Safety and Compensation Council. Safe Work Australia, in replacing the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, will actually reduce the number of representatives from industry and unions. They have been referred to both by Senator Abetz and by the shadow Treasurer, Ms Julie Bishop, as the social partners in the program to develop coherent workplace health and safety regulations across Australia. The industry and union representatives are each to be reduced from three to two. So in fact we will have four representatives from industry and from unions instead of the six that were on the Australian Safety and Compensation Council—a reduction of a third in the number of people who actually know what the jobs involve and who actually understand what happens in the workplace in something other than an abstract way.

This aspect of the reduction of representation for both unions and employers very much concerns the coalition. We need, in the area of workplace safety and health, to proceed with policy development in a calm, considered and experienced way that involves all the interested parties in developing viable solutions. What we do not need here is a board of directors, albeit with no power except to make recommendations, telling a ministerial council what the latest academic view or the latest bureaucratic view of workplace health and safety is. We need input from people who actually do the jobs and understand how the jobs can be done. The shadow Treasurer, Ms Julie Bishop, in the second reading debate on this bill in the other house said:

Labor talks—often—about its commitment to occupational health and safety, yet Labor does 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 improvement in workplace health and safety that are necessary—

and meaningful, on the ground for employers and—

for Australian workers. 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 things—

by developing policy, by talking through issues—

‘with’ people, not by doing ‘to’ people.

Our primary concerns hinge around the fact that the government’s new body limits the involvement of social partners in the development of new ideas and of sensible reforms. It must be asked, why would Labor want to do that, why would they want to limit the number of employer and employee representatives? We have already heard the concerns of Senator Siewert that this makes no provision for the peak bodies such as the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the ACTU to be involved in the Safe Work Australia body.

As in many other areas, the proposed solution by the Rudd Labor government is simply a public servant style answer. Their proposal for a body with less representation of effective stakeholders will lead to a situation where the government representatives will be able to repeatedly override the legitimate concerns and issues raised by the employers and the union representatives during OH&S harmonisation discussions, including concerns relating to increased costs or, at the very worst, to impractical safety proposals in the workplace.

We all know what happens in practice when you have poor law or poor regulation: it is ignored by citizens. People recognise it for the foolishness that it is and proceed to develop their own ways around it. We will end up with more and more industrial police forcing people into ways of going about their jobs and achieving in their businesses that are not sustainable and have no respect within the community that they are best meant to serve if we do not involve closely the people whose jobs are, in the end, what we are talking about. How those jobs are done is best sorted by the people who actually do the jobs.

Under Labor’s proposed body, Safe Work Australia, we will have the bureaucrats outnumbering those who are actually working in the workplaces across Australia. There will be very limited capacity to oppose this apparently very powerful body—remember it can make recommendations. So, under the guise of safety, various proposals will come up to be further developed and there will be further changes made to codes, policies and regulations. But they will really be aimed at producing the sort of industrial outcomes that the Rudd Labor government wants to achieve on the behalf of minority interests that otherwise would not have gotten to the table with the current stakeholders at state level.

I heard Senator Feeney earlier express surprise that the Liberal government had a concern about unions and regarded them as a social partner in this. I find that ridiculously offensive but I must admit I did listen with some surprise to his new-found concern and respect for employers as a spokesperson for the Rudd Labor government. The only way that good, safe work practices happen is when employers and employees work together to achieve them. That is certainly something that the previous government set out to do despite the number of times that the state ministers refused to come to the table, refused to get involved.

The inconsistency we have spoken about within state regulations is costing business money. Yes, sure it does if you have to have a workplace health and safety officer who understands the intricacies often irrelevant to actual safety but just relevant to ticking the right boxes. If you need to have a workplace health and safety officer who can understand the rules of seven different jurisdictions, seven different sets of policies, seven different ways of applying them often—despite what the rules say—there is always room, as I think everyone here knows, for their interpretation. How they are applied by different workplace inspectors can vary radically from state to state. So, yes, there is a cost to business in doing that. But there is another cost to inconsistency in policy and that is the cost to employees who may injure themselves because they are working under one set of rules that are not appropriate to the area that they are working in because those rules have been made a long way away from the workplace and from where the job actually happens and it is not understood by those people.

I note that this bill says that Safe Work Australia will report to a ministerial council and again this is an area of concern given the previous performances of ministerial councils in the workplace relations area. Senator Abetz referred to people refusing even to attend ministerial council meetings. So, I have no high hopes that we will get any quick action out of this when we look at a body that is not dominated by people in the industry who have a vested interest in getting quick solutions to problems that may be seen or reforming policy when that is an issue but dominated by a public servant mentality that makes recommendations to a ministerial council. I do not think that anyone would suggest that a ministerial council is the way to get a quick decision. They are certainly powerful decisions when they are made, but they are not quick decisions. Again, we have some serious concerns here.

I would also like to follow up Senator Feeney’s comments regarding the previous government’s development of Comcare, which did allow some organisations to function under a coherent, unitary system of workplace health and workplace relations policies. As the shadow Treasurer has already commented, this saved millions and millions of dollars for some of those companies involved by not having to go through little extra hoops, by not having to have seven sets of instructions on how to do exactly the same job in exactly the same factory. I think that one of the things that we hope will come out of this harmonisation is a realisation that, in many cases now, we have national companies doing the same work in every state but doing the same work differently because there is no coherence to the state workplace health and relations policies or programs. So, yes, there is a saving there.

Senator Feeney appeared to imply that there was something rather sneaky and scary about the fact that there was a way that companies could save this money and get a uniform outcome. I notice that Senator Feeney was not able to give us any figures on workplace health and safety in those organisations. So I presume, on that basis, that they were positive and that, therefore, he did not want to tell anyone how they had actually succeeded in assisting companies not only to save money but also to improve their workplace health and safety record. Senator Feeney also noted that the workplace health and safety record of Australia has been slowly improving over the past 10 years. It could have improved a lot faster if the previous Howard-Costello government had had the cooperation of the states in bringing together issues such as the harmonisation of workplace health and safety regulations. Nevertheless, the intent of this legislation to produce harmonisation, to get cooperation, is supported by the opposition.

It is quite interesting that, in the current economic climate, when building in Australia has basically hit the wall, we have the other efforts of the Labor government to assist in the workplace. Their attempts to destroy the Australian Building and Construction Commission is just one example of this. It is worth noting that last year the construction industry in Australia contributed 6.7 per cent to Australia’s GDP and employed about 940,000 workers. That is nine per cent of the Australian work force.

Coalition government efforts in the past to reform the lawlessness and the corruption within the building and construction industry actually had a direct and positive effect in improving that industry and giving us the result that we got last year: a significant reduction in the number and cost of strikes and increased output and productivity. It is rather ominous to think about where the building industry might be now if it were not for the reforms that were forced through by the Howard-Costello government despite the outcries and lack of cooperation across the board that came from state Labor governments who were more intent on building up debt than they were in building their states or in building infrastructure in their states.

I also note with interest that next week—19 to 25 October—will be Safe Work Australia Week and there will be various celebrations going on around the country, as there rightly should be, to highlight and create awareness about what safe work involves and how everyone can contribute to improve the record that we have in occupational health and safety. I was somewhat bemused to note that in New South Wales—which of course probably has the record for being the most intransigent of the states and having the most confused of the regulatory bodies in this area—the Safe Work Australia Week will be launched at the Lismore City Hall, and they will have a big celebration. They will be celebrating not a reduction in workplace health and safety incidents and not a streamlining of regulation; they will be celebrating the 1000th workplace advisory visit. This is where someone turns up on your doorstep at your factory and attempts to tell you and your staff how to do your job better than you currently are. I think this is probably the sort of thing that we can look forward to a lot more under the proposed legislation. As I said, we will be seeking to amend certain aspects of it.