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Monday, 13 October 2008
Page: 5795

Senator FISHER (4:47 PM) —I rise to speak in respect of the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and the Safe Work Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2008. The coalition support, essentially, the spirit of these bills but we question whether the bills as currently drafted are able to deliver on that spirit. The spirit of the two bills is apparently to harmonise occupational health and safety and workers compensation laws across states and territories and nationally, with a view to achieving what we all want, which is safer and more productive workplaces. However, the coalition has grave concerns about whether the bills as currently drafted will in fact deliver harmonisation in terms of occupational health and safety and workers compensation laws and will in fact deliver safer and more productive workplaces.

In the provisions reflected in these bills the coalition sees yet again a failure of the Rudd government to deliver on its promise of the formulation of evidence based policy to the benefit of all Australians. How so with these bills? Business has long supported consistent national outcomes and regulation in respect of occupational health and safety and workers compensation. These bills beg, however, the questions as to the government’s true purpose in drafting the bills as it has and, secondly, as to how it proposes to deliver harmonised outcomes and safer and more productive workplaces.

Businesses largely support consistent and harmonised outcomes, particularly those businesses that operate across interstate borders. They will have concerns about how this unrolls in practical terms. They will have concerns, for example, about the potential substance of the regulation if, for example, the substance of the regulation results in the higher and highest of all standards across the states and nationally without there being evidence based assessment of why that should be so. Business will have concerns if the aim for nationally consistent and harmonised outcomes results in an equal or increased amount of red tape to what exists today.

So what is the government doing in terms of this legislation—the ‘how’? In terms of the how, they are proposing legislation that will give states the veto—the say-so—and make this new body subject to the whim of the ministerial advisory council. The government is setting up a new body that is designed to fail. The states thus far have not been able to come up with a harmonised occupational health and safety and workers compensation system yet the government is now supposedly designing a new system aimed at achieving that which still gives the states the power. And it gives the states the power in a number of ways, including a diminution in the current number of people able to represent not only the business sector but also the union sector on this new body. It essentially gives the balance of power to the states, added to which is the influence and overriding influence of the ministerial advisory council.

In so doing, the government stands to ignore the input of the very partners that the government needs to bring about safer and more productive workplaces—that is, the trade union movement and their members and employer organisations and their members. The government has not explained why it sees fit to diminish the number of representatives of each of those partners in the workplace. Nor has the government seen fit to explain the ‘why’, to justify the basis upon which it proposes to no longer nominate, for example, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry as the peak body of employers and the Australian Council of Trade Unions as the peak body of employees.

It should be incumbent on those two organisations to demonstrate why they should be the peak bodies in respect of their membership, but it raises an interesting question as to why a government does not contemplate having peak bodies to represent both of those sectors. I would put it to you that part of the thinking is to find an array of opinion so that the government can support a particular state by finding some stakeholder who comes up with the outcome that the government wants on any particular issue at any particular time. The legislation needs clearly nominated peak organisations for employers and employees for the workplace partnerships.

The government needs to explain why the states will be given veto powers, why the Workplace Relations Ministers Council needs to retain such influence, why an ACCI and an ACTU would no longer be nominated as peak bodies representative of their sectors, and why the numbers of employee representatives and the numbers of employer representatives should be reduced from what they are now. The government needs to show us that they are not intent on, instead, providing themselves with a payback mechanism for their state mates, as has been enjoyed, for example, in the COAG context in respect of water—and I need not name the states which have enjoyed unfair treatment in that forum. We look forward to the committee stage of the legislation and to the government demonstrating its evidence based policy approach to achieving safer and productive workplaces across Australia.