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Monday, 13 October 2008
Page: 5806

Senator XENOPHON (5:38 PM) —I indicate that I will support the second reading of this bill. The Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 establishes Safe Work Australia as an independent statutory body to replace the previous Australian Safety and Compensation Council, which was an advisory body to the minister. I endorse the remarks of other senators, Senator Bishop included, about the importance of having an effective occupational health and safety body in this country. I should also indicate that in my time as a member of the South Australian parliament I was a member of the Parliamentary Committee on Occupational Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation and moved for an inquiry into workplace injuries and deaths in South Australia. The report of that inquiry was delivered on 12 October last year. The committee heard extensive evidence about the very human impact when a person is seriously injured or killed in the workplace. That is why it is important that we get it right. It is important that we have a comprehensive framework in place that actually makes a difference in reducing the unacceptably high level of death and injury in the workplace.

In relation to that I want to acknowledge and pay tribute to the work of Andrea Madeley, whose 18-year-old son Danny died several years ago in a horrific industrial accident. She has been a champion for those who have experienced the loss of a loved one as a result of death in the workplace. Andrea established VOID, Voice of Industrial Death. She has been a very strong campaigner, as has her group. She has provided support for families who have lost a loved one and for community groups who want to agitate for reform in relation to occupational health and safety. It is important that we understand that that is what we are here for—to ensure that this legislation maximises the benefit of reducing the impact of the unacceptably high levels of death and injury in the workplace.

It is because of my experiences as a state member of parliament that I welcome this move to, in the government’s words, ‘harmonise’ occupational health and safety practices across states, which will no doubt be welcomed by businesses that operate nationwide. I accept the argument made to my office during a ministerial briefing that, because national standards have been advisory and each state has had its own legislation, consistent and effective outcomes have been hard to achieve. However, I do wish to focus some attention on another of the government’s claims, which is that this new body will be truly independent, and I note the comments made by Senator Siewert in her contribution on this bill. As an Independent senator in this place, I do not take descriptions of independence lightly. As I look at this new body, Safe Work Australia, I raise a number of concerns in relation to its independent representation of the broad range of interests associated with occupational health and safety. I accept the argument that, because the states make the occupational health and safety laws, it is vital that any national body is founded through their cooperation and support. However, it is important that any independent national statutory advisory body is truly representative of all key bodies and is not top-heavy with departmental heads, members hand-picked by ministers or business representatives from the big end of town.

This balance is all the more significant when one recognises that many of the past problems with OH&S legislation have been in red tape, compliance costs and complexity, which have rendered it unworkable in the small-business context. In my own state of South Australia, the peak employer body is Business SA, but it would be fair to say its membership does not represent the diverse views of all businesses. Indeed, its role in the recent workers compensation changes in South Australia, which were pushed through by a Labor government, indicates that its views are by no means universally endorsed.

I note the concerns of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the ACTU in relation to the reduced numbers of non-government representatives and I indicate that I will be moving amendments to deal with what I consider to be an anomaly. I note the comments of Senator Abetz in relation to this and also those of Senator Siewert. I also note the comments of bodies such as the Law Council of Australia, who point to the lack of representation from legal and insurance bodies on a body that is about occupational health and safety outcomes. These are matters that are of significant concern to me and significant in the ultimate outcome of ensuring that we have an effective occupational health and safety framework in this country.

I would like to refer to some work that is about to be published in the Journal of Occupational Health and Safety—Australia and New Zealand. It will be published in volume 24, No. 5 at the end of this month. It is by Dr Kevin Purse of the Hawke Research Institute at the University of South Australia. Dr Purse is someone whom I have known for a number of years through his work in occupational health and safety. He is a person for whom I have high regard. I have high regard for his ability to look at the big picture and to analyse the defects in occupational health and safety structures in Australia and the states.

In the article headed ‘Safe Work Australia: a new one-stop regulatory shop?’ there are a number of important points that have been made by Dr Purse in relation to this legislation. I propose to address some of the issues raised by Dr Purse and to refer to the matters that he has raised in his article that is soon to be published. I would recommend that article to all honourable senators, if they have an interest in this particular field. Dr Purse’s analysis is, I believe, robust, fair and very comprehensive.

Dr Purse makes the point in terms of the history of this that the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission was established in 1985 by the Hawke government as part of the Hawke government’s implementation of the prices and incomes accord. He states:

The National Commission played an important role in providing, for the first time, a forum that enabled the federal, state and territory governments, in conjunction with the trade union movement and employer interests, to address OHS issues on a national basis.

Dr Purse goes on to say:

Arguably, its major achievement was the development of national standards in seven key hazard areas: manual handling, hazardous substances, noise, plant, major hazardous facilities, dangerous goods, and the certification requirements for industrial equipment operators.

That in itself was a significant achievement. He goes on to say:

In practice, however, the goal of national uniformity was never achieved because the National Commission’s model national standards were frequently adopted by the various jurisdictions on a modified basis only or, on more than one occasion, not at all. This in turn contributed to growing criticism of its performance, which subsequently found more general expression in a 1995 Industry Commission report.

…            …            …

The National Commission’s standing declined further following the election of the Howard Government in 1996. Funding cuts and a substantially reduced role … were the most obvious hallmarks of this decline. 

Dr Purse goes on to say:

One other particularly important contribution during the Howard years was the 10-year national OHS strategy announced in 2002, which called for reductions of at least 20% in work-related fatalities and 40% in work-related injuries by 2012.

I note the comment of senators such as Senator Feeney about the enormous cost—the many thousands of Australians who are injured each year in workplace accidents and the many who are killed in the workplace. Those figures do not include those who have died from asbestos related diseases. I disclose that I am a patron of the Asbestos Victims Association of South Australia and am very proud of my involvement with that organisation.

The history of this particular legislation is that the Deputy Prime Minister in the lead-up to the 2007 election announced that there would be an intention to abolish the council—a ‘toothless tiger’ I think the Deputy Prime Minister, then Deputy Leader of the Opposition, called it—if it won office. I understand the policy intent. There was good reason to abolish what was in place, but I have real concerns about the governance arrangements. The points made by Dr Purse are ones that I endorse. He states in his soon-to-be published article:

There are at least three obvious points that can be raised concerning these governance arrangements. The first is that representation would be highly skewed towards government nominees. The second concerns the cumbersome decision-making criteria. While this is no doubt intended to secure decisions which have a high degree of consensus and therefore a greater level of commitment from state and territory governments, the downside risk is that this could result in lowest common denominator outcomes. The third point, which follows on from the other two, is that the parties most directly concerned—employers and unions—would have a lesser role than the jurisdictional members, both in terms of representation and voting strength.

Those final matters are some of the matters that I believe would be dealt with by the amendments that I propose to move.

This legislation, as Senator Siewert has pointed out, is defective on the issue of the independence of this body and the way it interacts with the ministerial council. I look forward to the amendments that will be moved by Senator Siewert—and by Senator Abetz, for that matter—in relation to the issue of the governance structures. As Dr Purse states:

From the government’s perspective, the most pressing issue will undoubtedly be the development of model national OHS legislation to be adopted by the states and territories.

That is clearly the case. Dr Purse makes the following point:

With a national workforce of only 10.7 million workers, it is increasingly difficult to justify the continuing plethora of state and territory laws on OHS in Australia. Perhaps even more importantly, if followed through, the July 2008 commitment by COAG to the principle that a national approach must not compromise or reduce OHS standards provides a firm basis for reform.

That to me is another key criterion: let us not have a race to the bottom here when it comes to OH&S legislation. It is also important that there be an effective national compliance and enforcement policy. I see this legislation is providing a framework and a foundation for that. These are matters that must be dealt with.

In relation to the challenges ahead, I note that Dr Purse makes the point that the final shape of the government’s Safe Work Australia legislation will be determined in this place, subject to the concurrence by the House of Representatives. He says:

… it is clear that the government has laid out an ambitious plan for a nationwide restructuring of OHS regulation and, to a lesser extent, workers compensation arrangements.

Dr Purse is optimistic. He believes that, even though we no longer have wall-to-wall state Labor governments:

… the prospects for a national model OH&S legislation have never been better.

That is something that clearly I believe is encouraging, because we need to act on the unacceptably high level of people who are injured and killed in the workplace in this country.

I note that there is a role, as Senator Bishop alluded to, for looking at workers compensation issues. I am very concerned at what the South Australian Labor government has done in workers compensation. I believe that Safe Work Australia will play an important governance and structural role with respect to workers compensation in the various states and that it can only be beneficial in being able to make recommendations that cut red tape and go to the core of workers compensation matters that need to be dealt with—after all, if we can effectively tackle issues of occupational health and safety, that will inevitably lead to a reduction in deaths and injuries in the workplace and will of course mean that workers compensation schemes will not have the same cost pressures on them. A concomitant effect will be maintaining and, particularly in South Australia’s case, increasing the levels of benefits to injured workers, given the draconian changes that were introduced only recently by the South Australian government.

With those remarks, I look forward to the committee stage. This is an important piece of legislation. I think it is important that we get it right and I look forward to the amendments that will be moved by my colleagues Senators Siewert and Abetz so that we can ensure that this is truly an effective and independent body that will make a very real difference in occupational health and safety in this country and, by extension, reduce the level of death and injury in the workplaces of Australia.