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Monday, 13 October 2008
Page: 5814

Senator POLLEY (6:14 PM) —Madam Acting Deputy President Hurley, I too place on record my congratulations on your elevation to such esteemed high office in this place.

I rise to speak on the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and the Safe Work Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2008. I say from the outset that perhaps there is a case for those on the other side of this chamber to seek some assistance because I think too many of them actually suffer from short-term memory loss in relation to their attacks on Australian workers over their almost 12 long years in government. To have people like Senator Boyce come into the chamber and make the assertions she did during her speech is a real case of short-term memory loss—or maybe it is just selective memory.

As promised prior to the last election, the Rudd government is delivering a new independent national body to lead and improve occupational health and safety and workers compensation arrangements in Australia. As most of us in this place would be aware, there have been too many changes at the state level over the last decade or so. I know that all workers in Australia are very much looking forward to these changes and this new legislation.

The purpose of this legislation is to establish Safe Work Australia as an independent Commonwealth statutory body to improve occupational health and safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements in Australia. The legislation establishes the operational arrangements to support Safe Work Australia, including provisions relating to the nomination of, the appointment of and the terms and conditions of members, conflict-of-interest issues, procedures relating to the conduct of meetings, and decision-making processes. The legislation also enables the chair to constitute committees to draw upon a wide range of expertise for the performance of its functions.

Safe Work Australia will be funded by both the Commonwealth and the states, with each side contributing 50 per cent of the cost. Safe Work Australia will comprise 15 members, including an independent chair, nine members representing the Commonwealth and each state and territory, two members representing the interests of workers, two members representing the interests of employers, and the CEO. Safe Work Australia will develop national policy relating to occupational health and safety and workers compensation; prepare, monitor and revise model OH&S legislation; develop a compliance and enforcement policy to ensure nationally consistent regulatory approaches across all jurisdictions; develop proposals relating to the harmonisation of workers compensation arrangements—and I do not think we can emphasise too much the importance of that; collect, analyse and publish OH&S and workers compensation data and undertake and publish research; drive national communications strategies to raise awareness of health and safety at work; further develop the National OHS Strategy 2002-2012; and advise the Workplace Relations Ministers Council on OH&S and workers compensation matters. So there is definitely a very important responsibility attached to that board. The legislation will also create and maintain mechanisms for review and revision of the effectiveness of Safe Work Australia in performing its functions. This will ensure that the body is active and operating efficiently in meeting its strategic and operational goals.

Safe Work Australia will replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, which was set up administratively by the previous government as an advisory council. In contrast to the ASCC, Safe Work Australia will be funded by both the Commonwealth and the states and territories and will provide a central role in occupational health and safety and workers compensation reform. The government has set itself the task of creating a seamless national economy unhampered by unnecessary state duplications, overlaps and differences. Occupational health and safety is a prime example for this sort of reform.

More than 300 Australians are killed each year at work and many more die as a result of work related disease. Each year over 140,000 Australians are seriously injured at work. There were 139,630 serious workers compensation claims in 2005-06. A large majority of these claims—around 70 per cent—involved injury or poisoning, totalling 98,360 claims. The most common industries where workers are injured at work are transport, construction and manufacturing. According to the ACTU, every week nine Australian workers die under traumatic circumstances. I do not think that we can overestimate the impact that illness, serious injury and death causes to individuals, families and workplaces—and let us not forget the effect on the economy. But we cannot overlook the human cost—the impact on people’s future earnings, their capacity to support their families and the mental health issues that arise from these injuries. Too often workers have to regain their confidence and self-esteem. All these things have an impact on their families and the community as a whole.

Researchers estimate that at least 2,500 workers a year die as a result of illness or injuries, and about 170,000 people suffer a work related injury or illness. The figures are actually higher than this because these are only the deaths and injuries recorded by the workers compensation authorities. Many more Australian workers suffer injuries or illnesses that go unrecorded. Factor in to all of this the work related diseases such as cancer, asbestosis and occupational asthma and the total number of work related fatalities rises to around 2,900 a year. In Tasmania in 2007, nine workers lost their lives in traumatic workplace incidents. I believe this is unacceptable, and the Rudd Labor government believes this is unacceptable. The cost to our economy of these injuries has been estimated at $34 billion per year. However, you cannot put a cost on those injured and the effects on their families and friends and the wider community.

The establishment of Safe Work Australia is an essential part of the government’s strategy to improve safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements across Australia. Since coming to office we have undertaken a review of the Comcare scheme, set up an independent panel of experts to conduct a national OH&S review and developed a landmark intergovernmental agreement with our state and territory counterparts to harmonise occupational health and safety legislation nationally. The legislation, together with the intergovernmental agreement, ushers in a new era of cooperation and collaboration between the Commonwealth, states and territories in this important area. It is a collaboration that will improve the health and safety of workers across Australia and reduce the complexity of regulation for businesses.

Occupational health and safety and workers compensation are issues too important to be neglected any longer. We do not have to search too far back in our memories to recall the sorts of attacks that the previous Liberal coalition government made on Australian workers. In fact, I think there had not been such an attack since 1929, and we saw the effects of that with the former Prime Minister in fact losing his seat and repeating history.

Workers’ lives and health are also at stake, and so too is the efficiency and impact on the running of our country’s economy. Occupational health and safety and workers compensation reform will increase profitability and productivity and better protect the lives and health of all Australian workers. Safe Work Australia will play a pivotal role in this reform. Every worker has a right to a safe workplace and to a work environment that enables them to live a socially and economically productive life.

I would like to join with my colleague the former speaker in putting on record my thanks to those people who take up the position of occupational health and safety officers in workplaces around the country. In fact, I know firsthand from the experience of my husband, who held that position in local government for a number of years, that it can be very challenging. It is not always easy when you have to take on the bosses—in his case, local government—and companies to ensure that workplaces are safe. After all, everyone is entitled to a safe work environment. This bill reaffirms the Rudd government’s commitment to safer workplaces.

I join with my colleagues in commending this bill to the Senate and I hope those on the opposite side of the chamber will show some sense and will support this in the interest of all Australian workers and their families.