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Safe Work Australia

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 7 Sep 2009

The Australian Greens strongly believed in the position that we took to this debate the last two times that we debated this bill, and we maintain our position. We support the government's intention of working towards harmonising Australia's occupational health and safety laws. We support the establishment of Safe Work Australia as a replacement to the Howard government's Australian Safety and Compensation Council.

However, the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 [No. 2] has the same significant flaws as the first bill. We believe these must be remedied if Safe Work Australia is to work effectively in the best interests of the community in occupational health and safety matters. We strongly believe that we should be building on best practice in occupational health and safety in this country and around the world and ensuring that our occupational health and safety laws and regulations are developed and implemented by a body with genuine tripartism and independence.

On these criteria this legislation, we believe, is too skewed in favour of governments to the detriment of other key stakeholders in occupational health and safety regulation, that is, employees and employers. When the first Safe Work Australia bill was before the parliament the Senate passed amendments to address these deficiencies by restoring genuine tripartism in the membership in Safe Work Australia and ensuring an appropriate level of independence from government in its operation.

I want to briefly discuss these amendments and why we still consider them important and why we believe they should be adopted. Firstly, there is the issue of membership of Safe Work Australia. The bill inexplicably reduces the representatives of employers and employees to two. The previous national OH&S bodies had three representatives from employees and employers. There is no rationale behind dropping the members except that it is in the intergovernmental agreement, and decreased representation gives government more control of that body. The best occupational health and safety practice has been shown to be achieved through a genuine tripartite approach. We believe that this is best realised through keeping three representatives for employees and employers on a body such as Safe Work Australia. Stakeholders have also told us that there is significant work involved in adequately consulting employees and employers on the range of issues that come before such bodies, and a reduction in numbers will be to the detriment of managing the workload.

We are also concerned that the bill gives the minister particular powers in selecting the representatives from employees and employers. They can only come from organisations authorised by the minister, and the minister can veto a nomination from an authorised organisation. It would be possible under the formulation of this bill that Safe Work Australia could have no union representation at all depending on what the government decided. We have got to remember that while we are legislating for the bill, it is not just about this government but also governments into the future and the approach they may take. This level of interference is contrary to principles of a tripartite approach. We note the minister has no such veto powers over representatives nominated by the states. The Senate agreed to amendments to remove this power when we debated the previous bill.

Another set of amendments removed the provisions in the bill giving the Workplace Relations Ministerial Council the power to change the operational and strategic plans for Safe Work Australia. The provisions in the bill granting such a power to the ministerial council undermine the independence of Safe Work Australia and, in our belief, give governments an inappropriate level of direct influence over the body. As I mentioned previously, independence along with the tripartite approach are internationally acknowledged as being vital to ensuring effective occupational health and safety regulation. Similarly, the Senate supported amendments to remove the additional voting rights of governments-that is, Commonwealth, state and territory-in agreeing to model legislation, regulations and codes of practice. These provisions are another example of the bill's provisions favouring governments over key stakeholders. While we appreciate the governments are funding Safe Work Australia and will ultimately be responsible for implementing the model laws, we see no rationale for those extra voting rights. The ministerial council still needs to sign off on any proposed model laws. Extra voting rights do take away from the tripartite nature of the body which we see as vital in working towards effective OH&S processes.

It is important to stress that all non-government senators voted in favour of these amendments, as Senator Abetz articulated earlier. I remember that we had a number of comments around feeling like we were in the Twilight Zone because we were agreeing on what we considered were very important amendments. It is disappointing that the government is bringing the Safe Work Australia Bill back to parliament with no consideration of the amendments moved in the Senate last time the bill was before this chamber. We are also disappointed that it appears, from what Senator Abetz articulated in his speech on the second reading debate, that the opposition, although still supportive-as I understand from the comments he made-of the idea of the amendments that we tabled in this chamber will be supporting this bill going through without those amendments. It was rather peculiar and scary to see me agreeing with Senator Abetz on industrial relations legislation. I am not sure that it is going to happen again in the future, but how strongly all this side of the chamber felt about these amendments was shown in the opposition, the Greens, Senator Fielding and Senator Xenophon supporting those amendments. When there is such fierce agreement you have to sit down and think that maybe they were reasonable and sensible amendments that addressed what we thought were deficiencies, and we still consider are deficiencies, in the bill. We believe they would have ensured that Safe Work Australia operates in a more effective way to create and maintain what we consider to be essential, which are robust occupational health and safety laws. However, we can read the numbers in the Senate and, if the opposition is going to support this legislation without the amendments, we know that we are going to go down in a screaming heap with any further amendments. Therefore, I do not intend to introduce the amendments and redebate those matters that we previously debated on two occasions. We believe that we had very sensible amendments and we are disappointed that the governments of Australia-both federal and state and territory-refused to engage in what we considered should have been a constructive debate on genuine improvements to this bill. We certainly came to the debate on this bill with a very genuine intention of improving the bill and we listened very closely to the stakeholders in the debate.

I want to take this opportunity to reiterate something that I said in my contribution to the second reading debate, and that is about the role of intergovernmental agreements. We acknowledge that many of the provisions of this bill that we took objection to came from the intergovernmental agreement, but we do not believe that that puts this piece of legislation beyond the normal and appropriate processes of this parliament. Intergovernmental agreements, such as the one dealing with achieving a national harmonised OH&S regulatory system, are important in our Federation, but these agreements can never take away the role of this parliament in making laws. We believe that laws can be improved, particularly when we have taken the trouble to extensively listen to key stakeholder comments that would contribute to achieving a better outcome. Because of that, we argued for these amendments long and hard. We do not believe that it is appropriate that the government hide behind these agreements in parliamentary debate and say, ‘That's what was agreed with the states and territories and therefore you can't amend this legislation.'

In this case, we believe the desired outcome is not merely harmonised laws that state and federal governments are happy with but harmonised laws that robustly protect the health and safety of workers. We believe that such laws are best arrived at through a genuine tripartite and independent process, which is why, as I said, we fought so hard for those amendments and got the support of this place twice for them. We welcome this government's stated commitment to occupational health and safety outcomes and we look forward to this government as soon as possible introducing legislation to rectify the measures of the previous government which we believe lessened the rights of employees and the responsibilities of employers in occupational health and safety matters. The Australian Greens are keeping a close eye on the process towards the harmonisation of occupational health and safety laws across the country. I note that, when legislation developed through that process comes before the Senate, we will be taking our role in the legislative process very seriously and will subject that legislation also to the appropriate level of scrutiny.

I take this opportunity to indicate the support of the Australian Greens for workers who took to the streets last week to campaign for strong, effective occupational health and safety laws. The Greens, like those workers, do not want to see any deterioration in our occupational health and safety standards as a result of the harmonisation process. Let us not forget that the paramount reason for occupational health and safety legislation is to protect the health and safety of persons undertaking or affected by work. We have a duty in this place to make sure we get those laws right. Robust and effective occupational health and safety laws and practices are vital for the social and economic health of our workplaces and, more importantly, for Australians and their families.

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