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Monday, 13 October 2008
Page: 5803

Senator MARK BISHOP (5:22 PM) —I rise in support of the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and the Safe Work Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2008. These bills seek to establish Safe Work Australia as a Commonwealth statutory body. It will replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, which was set up by the previous government. As we all know, that council had limited functions, in that it coordinated, monitored and promoted national efforts on health and safety and workers compensation. Under the new government, Safe Work Australia will have a much more comprehensive role. It will develop, monitor and enforce national standards in health and safety. Its role will also include the harmonisation of workers compensation requirements and, as has been stated by previous speakers, it will be jointly funded by Commonwealth, state and territory governments. It needs to be said at the outset that this bill is a significant step towards uniform health and safety laws in this country.

Every year, more than 300 Australian workers are killed doing their jobs, while a further 140,000 are seriously injured. Many more die as a result of work related disease. It is estimated that the cost to our economy is something in the order of $34 billion per annum. To partners, children, friends, family and fellow workers the cost is immeasurable. This Labor government is committed to improving workplace safety and its foundation, the workers compensation system. Since coming to office, the new government has undertaken a review of Comcare, reached agreement with our state colleagues to harmonise occupational health and safety legislation and set up an independent panel to conduct a review of national occupational health and safety. Safe Work Australia will play a central role in OH&S and workers compensation reform as it will be the vehicle that will give effect to the recommendations of the review panel. More particularly, and equally importantly, it will develop a national policy for OH&S and workers compensation; prepare, monitor and revise OH&S legislation; develop a compliance and enforcement policy to ensure national consistency; develop proposals relating to the harmonisation of workers compensation arrangements; and drive national communications strategies to raise awareness of health and safety in the workplace.

The importance of best practice in occupational health and safety standards cannot be overstated. It is the right of every worker to return home at the end of the day as safe and injury free as they were when they embarked upon their journey to work. It is the responsibility and moral obligation of every employer to ensure that they provide a safe working environment, and it is the responsibility of government to develop, review and enforce health and safety standards. As we all know, accidents do happen, and when they do there should be adequate and accessible compensation that provides for the cost of rehabilitation or security for those who are left behind. It should not matter if you are injured in the far north of Western Australia or down in southern Tasmania.

These bills are part of the government’s commitment to create a seamless national economy by reducing duplications, overlaps and, where possible and feasible, inconsistencies and differences between the states. Currently in Australia there are no less than nine different laws governing occupational health and safety. Harmonisation of this plethora of laws will be welcomed by workers, unions and employers alike. But, more importantly, reform of occupational health and safety and workers compensation systems will not only increase profitability and productivity; it will also better protect the lives and health of Australian workers.

I now want to turn to some aspects of the government’s plans for the new body. I must say at the outset that we are entering new terrain which is potentially fraught with conflict. There is potential for conflict because the government seeks to create national standards across a national economy but we remain saddled with a Constitution moulded in the late 19th century. Australia in those days was of course a set of minimally connected states, a minimally aware bunch of coastal cities trying to shift from a city-state mentality to that of a sovereign nation. In that context, the Australian Constitution reflects the dominant paradigm of the time—that is, the emerging Commonwealth was granted limited, restricted and defined powers that were truly national in outlook. For example, defence, customs and post and telegraph were expressions of power. But, apart from the express powers enumerated in section 51(xxxv) of the Constitution, all other powers were left by express reservation to the states. In essence, there was a weak centre and a set of powerful flanks. Now of course we have, we are told, a virtually seamless national economy—indeed, the events of recent weeks in financial markets suggest a seamless international or totally globalised economy, particularly in the major advanced nations—and on that foundation the government seeks to establish Safe Work Australia. By definition, such a body, despite the latterly better intentions of the High Court, can only have the power that is expressly granted under the Constitution.

The second major concern is that, in terms of national policies, national legislation and national implementation and communication strategies, Safe Work Australia will need to overcome the rock of statehood—state government departments, state agencies and generally state interests. Indeed, I know from experience that the power of vested interest groups in this area is a sight to wonder at. Indeed, in the context of a range of industries that are increasingly indigenous to particular states, I see huge misunderstandings that will require careful consideration by the powers that be in Safe Work Australia. By that, I mean manufacturing interests in New South Wales and Victoria; mining interests in Queensland, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and, increasingly, in South Australia; grain-growing interests, which are fundamentally different on the west coast from those on the east coast; and a whole range of biotechnology and value-added service industries which develop and have developed in clusters in particular geographic locations. In each of these instances unsuitable policies, heavy-handed regulation, mindless copying from one industry to another and the desire to delegate responsibility up and away from a lower level in the name of harmony all suggest that caution needs to be the rule of thumb.

The next concern I have is about national coordination, or cross-state harmonisation, and relates to my experience in this field in a former life, between 1986 and 1996. Despite what some people say, they were not halcyon days for national coordination, national harmonisation or national responsibility. My vivid memory of those days, in this area of work, was one of endless meetings, seemingly without purpose, driven by state departments of labour, in coordination with national departments, which simply resulted in layer upon layer of bureaucracy that would have made the presidium of the former USSR react either in embarrassment or in awe—I do not know which.

I particularly remember one committee, charged with the design of chairs for checkout operators in supermarkets, having no less than seven appeal committees attached to the working party and nine—get that!—review committees, charged with doing the same job. The bottom line was and is that the majority of checkout operators prefer to stand, not to sit. The real occupational health and safety issue was the height of the workstation and the ability to manoeuvre hips as an aid to shifting parcels of goods. Nevertheless, we had dozens of committees which examined this issue for years on end and which eventually were unable to find a workable or a sensible solution.

Similarly, the design of a workstation for the loading of grocery items onto shelves above shoulder level was eventually the subject of similar committee investigation and review—alas, with an identical outcome. Eventually, my union simply retained an industrial health firm to interview a number of shelf stackers to find out the nature of their problem relating to lifting above their shoulders. A mechanical tool was designed to assist in loading shelves above chest level. The union sold the concept to national retailers and they purchased hundreds of the units and placed them in supermarkets around Australia. Independent retailers soon followed suit and, hey, injuries caused to shelf stackers from reaching above their shoulders to load high shelves were virtually eliminated.

I recite those two tales simply to highlight that sometimes nationally charged agencies can develop a life and a set of concerns remote from that which is needed at the shop floor level. None of this of course ever occurs deliberately or with mala fides; it simply occurs, a bit like the tides. Lessons of the 1980s and 1990s need to be learnt and not mindlessly replicated or repeated.

Similarly, in the field of workers compensation and the desire for uniform protection, the real issues that need to be addressed are, in no particular order: the relationship between workers compensation and common law; the cost to employers; the benefits to affected or harmed workers; incentive, as it relates to workplace health and safety reform; and the costs, as population bases become larger as national companies shift from localised state schemes to national schemes. Each of those matters goes to the grant of power reserved to the states and the legislative schemes and restrictions they have enacted and re-enacted over a period of 100 years.

In turn, as sure as workers compensation provides a real benefit to injured or hurt workers, its cost premium can be prohibitive. The proof of this lies in the huge liabilities carried by various state instrumentalities and the premiums charged by insurance companies in this field.

All of the matters that I have identified are merely problematic. They are issues that require hard thinking and serious policy responses. If this is not done, the net result will simply be the transfer of a bankrupt or near bankrupt state agency to a national body. This is a real danger, because one of the prime objectives of Safe Work Australia is ‘developing a national policy for occupational health and safety, and workers compensation’. I do not say it should not be done; I simply say there are consequences to decisions, as there always are. And some of those consequences fall under the category of ‘known knowns’, to paraphrase former United States Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.

A lot of work is being done to centralise and coordinate through the COAG process. A lot of the proposed legislation, regulations and bodies that are being created in a host of areas are beneficial in intent. That cannot be denied. No sensible person could quarrel with breaking up dysfunctional bureaucracies, getting rid of defunct state agencies or voiding past legislation when its use-by date is up. The only caveat I offer is to learn from some of the errors and some of the mistakes from previous attempts in this area of reform. In that way we will truly attain a Safe Work Australia that looks forward and assists those who will be most in need. I commend the bill to the Senate.