Occupational Health and Safety

I spoke to parliament this week on the topic of work health and safety. Due to the intervention of a quorum call and members' statements, the speech was broken into three parts, but I've sewn them back together in what follows.
Work Health and Safety Bill 2011
25 August & 12 October 2011

I rise to speak in the debate on the Work Health and Safety Bill 2011.

Five workers die aboard an unseaworthy vessel in the Torres Strait. Six motorcycles used for work are found to be unroadworthy in the Northern Territory. Camp food containing peanuts is fed to a camp attendee with a severe peanut allergy in Victoria. Two members of the public die on a rail access road and bridge in South Australia. The thing that each of these situations has in common: they are all part of the Commonwealth's health and safety jurisdiction—the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Australia Post, the Department of Defence and the Australian Rail Track Corporation, respectively.

It is far too easy to cast the Commonwealth health and safety jurisdiction as one populated by Canberra public servants working at their desks day in, day out. But the truth of the matter is that there are a diverse range of jobs undertaken by Commonwealth public servants and in the Commonwealth's health and safety jurisdiction. The Commonwealth jurisdiction is unusual. It is not geographic. Commonwealth public servants perform important work all across Australia. They perform their work, in many cases, side by side with people covered by state and territory health and safety laws. The way that Australia's health and safety laws operate now makes things confusing for workers and for businesses. What laws apply when? Who is covered? Who is owed an obligation?

The Gillard government is moving towards a harmonised system of health and safety legislation and regulation to remove the duplication and confusion that exist when there are 10 separate pieces of health and safety legislation.

The Gillard government has been able to work productively with the states and territories, employer and employee representatives to achieve historic reform in working towards a seamless national economy. The Work Health and Safety Bill 2011 and associated legislation that we are debating today ensures that the Commonwealth sticks to the agreement that it has made with the states and territories. This bill honours that deal.

As a Labor government committed to reform that is in the interest of the entire nation, employee and employer representatives have been involved in the process throughout. I am excited that workers moving between the ACT Public Service and the Commonwealth Public Service or between the private sector and the Commonwealth public sector will now be able to expect the same standards of work health and safety in their workplaces.

I particularly support this bill because of the additional protections that it provides for workers who are performing work for the Commonwealth. Many of my constituents in the electorate of Fraser work for the Commonwealth, whether as an employee, a contractor or in another type of arrangement. This bill introduces rights for workers in the Commonwealth jurisdiction that have never existed as an entitlement under Commonwealth health and safety laws before. For example, union officials are now able to enter Commonwealth workplaces to speak with workers about health and safety matters.

The Work Health and Safety Bill significantly increases the penalties and the penalty regime for breaches of duty of care. The bill removes Crown immunity. It extends the requirement to consult with workers. It changes the person to whom a duty is owed from an 'employee' to a 'worker'—encompassing a broader type of working arrangement and type of person that might be in a workplace. All workers will have the right to cease unsafe work. It was a Labor government that first provided statutory health and safety protections for its own workers and it is a Labor government that continues this legacy. It continues the tradition of Labor being the party that cares for employees in the Commonwealth public sector.

I know that many would not consider the work of your typical public servant to be particularly risky. But there are many workers performing all sorts of different work for the Commonwealth in all sorts of different workplaces. Take, for example, the situation that workers at Centrelink or the Child Support Agency may find themselves in with an aggrieved or upset customer. Similarly, public servants working for the Department of Defence, for Customs, for immigration or for the Australian Federal Police might find themselves in high-risk situations.

The Commonwealth also has the unusual situation where many employees in this jurisdiction may be working outside of Australia. These workers may be in the Australian Antarctic Territory, or a foreign embassy. The bill ensures that work health and safety duties continue to be owed to these workers. Just because they might be performing work in some other place, it does not follow that health and safety duties are no longer owed.

These reforms stand in stark contrast to the actions of opposition who seek to remove the protections and rights of workers at every turn. The opposition consistently talk about red tape and regulation, ignoring the records of countries with lax attitudes to health and safety and the dangers posed to workers with underregulated health and safety systems. It was the Liberal Party under John Howard who encouraged employers to move into the Comcare self-insurance scheme, placing pressure on the stretched resources of the hard-working people at Comcare and not properly resourcing areas for high-risk work. There were simply not enough inspectors to make sure that work was performed safely.

The laws that had previously developed for the Commonwealth jurisdiction were simply not equipped to cover high-risk industries. This meant that the Liberal Party put pressure not only on the workers who were forced into a new health and safety scheme but also on the public sector employees forced to cope with the additional pressure placed on an ill-equipped system.

The Liberal Party's expansion of the Comcare system also made things more confusing and less streamlined for employers and employees alike. The push to get employers to opt out of state and territory laws led to confusing situations with workers in the same workplace working side-by-side under different health and safety systems. It was a thinly disguised attempt to get more and more employers away from the state and territory systems and their well-developed involvement of unions in health and safety. All of this was because of their ideological opposition to worker representatives playing an active role in the development and enforcement of health and safety arrangements and their ideological opposition to union members being able to have an advocate to help them with a safety concern on short notice.

The Liberal Party cannot even stand by their claim to be operating in the interests of employers when it comes to health and safety. Their reforms increased confusion and made compliance more difficult, particularly in those high-risk industries that they had fought so hard to get away from state and territory schemes. Their industrial relations record also reduced the health and safety protections for workers. Meetings with unions to discuss genuine health and safety concerns became banned in agreements under Work Choices. The relationship with the Work Choices regime also meant that workers feared for their ongoing employment if they dared stop unsafe work. These reforms were all part of the extreme, ideologically-driven workplace agenda of the coalition.

We have seen evidence that the opposition continues in their ideologically-driven campaign against cooperation in the Australian workplace. The member for Bennelong recently said:

'We have many examples in our region of coffee shops and the like not trading on weekends because of penalty rates.

'It is something that must be addressed and it must be addressed without the position of the worker is king and must be given these rights.'

The member for Bennelong is only concerned with the rights of businesses and employers. He has absolutely no regard for workers and no regard for the careful balancing act that is health and safety—that is, good industrial relations. The Leader of the Opposition has done absolutely nothing to silence those extreme voices in his own party demanding a return to the Work Choices era. Some of the main champions of Work Choices sit inside his own shadow cabinet. It demonstrates the Leader of the Opposition's commitment to continued ideologically-driven extremism within the Liberal Party, a tendency we see on every issue in modern politics from the mining tax to climate change.

The Labor Party has long known the confusion that arises when workers and employers need to get across 10 separate pieces of legislation. It is a confusion that it is all too evident in a place like the ACT, where a move from working in Queanbeyan or a switch between the private and the public systems might mean an entirely different health and safety system. A business operating out of the ACT but also servicing Queanbeyan has to be aware of compliance with two separate pieces of occupational health and safety legislation. These complexities add to the paperwork and costs for thousands of Australian businesses that operate across state and territory boundaries. This legislation is a historic change, supported by unions and employer organisations and which has had their input the whole way through the process. It has delivered a reform that the coalition was desperate to achieve but unable to do because of their extreme attempt to shut down unions and keep them away from members.

The Prime Minister has said time and time again that the Labor Party is the party of work and the party of workers. We have the interests of those workers in the forefront of our minds in everything we do. Whether it is protecting jobs, introducing paid parental leave, reinstating workplace rights or, in this case, guaranteeing safety in the workplace, the Gillard government has time and time again demonstrated its commitment to workers.

In closing, I would like to thank Louise Crossman, who deeply understands the issues of workers' health and safety and whose work in the union sector, in the public service and now as chief of staff in my office demonstrates her lifelong commitment to a quality workplace for Australian workers.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.