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Monday, 13 October 2008
Page: 5816

Senator HUTCHINS (6:23 PM) —The incorporated speech read as follows

I rise tonight to give support to the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 and Safe Work Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2008. Let me elaborate on the current occupational health and safety system in place in Australia in the present time.

Currently, every state and territory has a different Occupational Health and Safety Act. There are even two Commonwealth OH&S Acts. More than that, there are also several state-based industry-specific OH&S laws like those that cover coal mining in Queensland. These Acts all have a large degree of overlap but their rules and regulatory provisions are different.

For any employer operating across two or more states, this means coming to grips with and implementing not one, but several OH&S regimes into their work environments.

Four years ago the Productivity Commissions raised this problem and identified the need to harmonise our multiple OH&S schemes into a set of national standards. Importantly, the Productivity Commission recognised that any harmonisation of OH&S laws should not come at the expense of workplace safety standards in any one state.

In response to this the Howard Government created the Australian Safety and Compensation Council—a toothless bureaucratic tiger whose role was reined in to “coordinating” and “monitoring”, “promoting” and “recommending”. Four years later, we’re still no closer to minimising the red tape faced by business and we still have eight distinct OH&S regimes.

Inconsistencies between jurisdictions mean that some workers are at risk of poorer safety standards than those in other states. At the same time, these inconsistencies increase the complexity, paperwork and costs for more than 39,000 Australian businesses that operate across state boundaries.

In response to this challenge, the Howard Government choked.

The ASCC was nothing but a smokescreen to cover up the inaction of the Howard Government on occupational health and safety.

It was a toothless tiger with the power to advise and not much else.

During the Federal Election, the now Labor Government made a commitment to overhaul the Australian Safety and Compensation Council and replaced it with a body that could deliver results.

This new body was to be independent and non adversarial; feature inclusive representation from all Federal and State and Territory Governments, as well as employer and employee groups; allow inclusive input to policy development and research into issues; develop expertise across OHS laws and workers compensation schemes; be responsible for data collection mechanisms through which risk, injury and cost profiles can be readily accessed across jurisdictions and industries; drive policy development which will deliver consistency across OHS legislation and across workers compensation schemes; and have powers through its ability to refer matters to the Workplace Relations Ministerial Council and enforcement of common implementation dates for reforms. Safe Work Australia will be that body.

This bill is just another example of Labor meeting its election commitments. It’s another example of Labor’s cooperative federalism—working cooperatively with the States rather than playing politics on the critical issues that matter to working families. It’s another example of Labor getting the job done.

We’ve heard a number of complaints in this place during the course of this debate about the membership of this committee. Senator Abetz had the nerve to claim that this bill is the result of deals between “Labor mates” in State Governments. There have been some concerns that employer and employee representation on this body has been reduced and government representation has been increased.

I think this is indicative of one of the many reasons that the Coalition failed time and time again to achieve any meaningful federal reform in 11 and a half years in Government.

If you want to end the blame game with the States, you’ve got to start by talking and consulting. You can’t just throw a model bill at them and tell them to pass it.

I’m not surprised at Senator Abetz’s allegations one bit—the closest the Howard Government came to cooperative federalism was threatening to pull funding whenever a State wouldn’t do what it was told. Senator Abetz and the Coalition were the bullies in the political playground—stealing the lunch money of the states that wouldn’t play by their rules.

The Rudd Labor Government is trying something that the Howard Government never even tried—we want to use the carrot, not the stick.

11½ years of the Commonwealth Government telling the States to “do what I say or else” has demonstrated that the stick doesn’t work.

By bringing the States to the table and giving them a voice in the formulation of a model Occupational Health and Safety Bill, we’re giving them a stake in the legislation that we’ll be asking them to pass—the carrot they’ve all been waiting for.

Senator Abetz and the Coalition need to get it into their heads that a bit of cooperation never hurt anybody.

The passage and enactment of this legislation will put into motion the Intergovernmental Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in Occupational Health and Safety agreed to by the Council of Australian Governments in July—a truly momentous landmark in the development of Commonwealth-State relations. Something never seen in the 11 and a half years of the Howard Government.

I want talk a little bit about the primary function that Safe Work Australia will adopt under this bill—developing model Occupational Health and Safety legislation for adoption by the States and Territories.

This is a fundamental policy role that Safe Work Australia’s predecessor —the Australian Safety and Compensation Council—was denied.

The Productivity Commission noted in its review in 2004 that any harmonisation of OH&S laws should not be a case of harmonising down to the lowest common denominator, but rather harmonising up to the best practice OH&S standards of the day.

Assuming the bill passes through this place, there needs to be an acknowledgement by the new members of Safe Work Australia that industry-specific issues need to be confronted and accommodated by any model legislation developed.

I draw the Senate’s attention to one particular industry-specific problem—the pressure placed on truck drivers to meet deadlines and the occupational health and safety hazards this poses.

The trucking industry is facing a safety crisis. 275 people died in heavy vehicle accidents in the twelve months between March 2007 and March 2008—an increase of 19.7 per cent on the previous year.

It’s time that the trucking industry had some recognition in OH&S Laws for the unique risks that truck drivers are faced with every day.

I’ve heard many of the horror stories from drivers about the demands placed on them—forcing them to speed, or ignore breaks and sleep time, and even in some cases use illicit drugs to push through and meet an unrealistic deadline.

These stories take up pages and pages of the Transport Workers Union submission to the National Transport Commission investigation into driver remuneration and payment methods in the Australian Trucking Industry.

I’ll give you a couple of examples: Greg from Port Melbourne says:

   “I am paid by the hour, but know that there is no way you can survive on 7.6 hours pay a day so you work as much overtime as you can to survive. As a result I have driven whilst I’ve felt fatigued in order to finish the job and earn more money. I have experienced being pressured to accept lower rates in order to keep work and was been told indirectly that I must do the job or face consequences such as termination.”

Keith, an owner driver from Hemmant in Queensland sums it up:

   “Blokes are dying because they can’t get enough money no matter how hard they push themselves.”

The role of Safe Work Australia is not simply to harmonise our OH&S laws across States and Territories. The role of Safe Work Australia is to take a leading role in the development of Occupational Health and Safety policy—to be the open forum for debate between governments, employers and employees on occupational health and safety standards.

This is a unique opportunity to build on our existing OH&S standards and ensure that we are enforcing best practice measures in every jurisdiction in Australia, across every industry. This means delving into the industries facing unique challenges and doing something about it.

In the case of the trucking industry, the TWU argues that the rates of pay and conditions in the transport industry force drivers to succumb to the pressure to work excessive hours, exceed legal speed limits, drive through break and sleep times, and in some cases use illegal stimulants to keep them going.

All of these pose not only a risk to the employee or self-employed driver, but they are a threat to the very safety of any motorist. These pressures arise from unsafe payment practices.

The existence of the link between remuneration and safety standards was made very clear in the NSW Industrial Relations Commission Mutual Responsibility for Road Safety case. The Full Bench of the NSW IRC found that:

   “… every 10 per cent more that drivers earn in pay rate is associated with an 18.7 per cent lower probability of crash, and for ever 10 per cent more paid days off the probability of driver crashes declines 6.3 per cent”.

In response, the Transport Workers Union has proposed a safe rates system to the National Transport Commission. This would include enforceable rates of pay and conditions for employees and owner-drivers which do not encourage or require the drivers to engage in unsafe driving practices, and enforceable requirements on planning for safe and legal performance of road transport journeys. The safety of truck drivers and other road users should dictate journey planning, not the requirements of clients; establishing a chain of responsibility in which all contracting participants from the driver through to the ultimate client are held accountable for the safe and legal performance of road transport work; and an appropriate and adequate enforcement regime—providing sufficient resourcing to regulators and industry and employee groups.

This is the subject of a review by the National Transport Commission at the moment but these are the sorts of industry-specific issues that Safe Work Australia—should this bill pass through this place—needs to consider in formulating national occupational health and safety policy.

Again, this bill is the height of cooperative federalism and is a big step in the right direction for worker’s occupational health and safety rights. It replaces the toothless Australian Safety and Compensation Council and provides a unique opportunity to build strong, national standards for workplace safety.

Colleagues, it is with great pleasure that I commend this bill to the Senate.