OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY (COMMONWEALTH EMPLOYMENT) AMENDMENT (EMPLOYEE INVOLVEMENT AND COMPLIANCE) BILL 2002: Second Reading
Mr CADMAN (Mitchell) (6.24 p.m.) —The Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002 is a real change to the ethos of occupational health and safety and follows further efforts by this government to bring to the workplace environment genuine consultation between employers and employees.
The consultation envisaged in this legislation extends to the area of occupational health and safety and offers real choice for employees. The attitude of the previous speaker and the Australian Labor Party seems to be that the choice must be a choice for the union. What we are saying is that it must be a choice for the employee—the person who is actually in the workplace should have a choice of who helps them prepare an occupational health and safety program.
As always, this government looks at the role of the person in the workplace. It does not matter what the industry is—it does not matter whether it is in the Public Service or in the private sector—this government is insisting that the individual employee is the most significant person that is covered by provisions of workplace conditions and occupational health and safety. Under these proposals, what would happen is that employers would be required to develop a safety management arrangement in consultation with their employees. Those employees, if they wished, could involve the union movement. It would be a choice for the employee; it would not be a choice for the union.
Why is there this fetish in the Australian Labor Party that the union must be involved no matter what? Whether the employee wants it or not, the union has to be in there: they want a mandated approach—so that unions are mandated in there. That is their objection to this legislation. Reading through the provisions of the bill and the proposed amendments put by the Australian Labor Party, the proposed amendments require that the union be involved. This has, I might say, been quite an unusual approach to legislation and I have been chasing through pages of these lines: instead of a generalised objection to the legislation, they say:
(2) Schedule 1, item 8, page 5 (lines 1-14)—Omit the item
(3) Schedule 1, item 11, page 5 (lines 28-29)—Omit the item
—and it goes on and on like that, saying `Omit the item' over and over again.
But when you come to analyse the items that are being omitted by these proposed amendments, you find that it is all the freedom clauses—the clauses that allow freedom for the employee—that are being removed. The definition is being removed—the definition of who may be involved in a process and what associations and groups can be used to consult to establish an occupational health and safety plan. All of the provisions that specify freedom and choice for the individual in the workplace—the people that are actually on the job—are being removed. The impact of all of the amendments proposed by the Australian Labor Party—and there are 40 of them—is simply to restore the union movement's mandated control.
Despite consideration of the bill in the Senate, where senators, including Democrat and Labor Party senators, have had a chance to look at it, all these proposed amendments really do is prove that the union movement is back running the Australian Labor Party. Since 1996 the union movement has donated nearly $40 million to the Australian Labor Party. The union movement and Centenary House are the greatest supporters of the Australian Labor Party. One is the result of a rort; one is in exchange for manipulation and control of the Labor Party organisation. It is a tragedy that in this legislation, where the safety of individuals and their workplace conditions are so critical—things about which they should have a say— the Australian Labor Party wants to hand all those conditions right over to the union movement and preclude the individuals from having a say. The experts are outside the workplace, sitting in an organisation called a union, which will come in—mandated, according to the Australian Labor Party—and tell the employees, the people actually doing the job, what is best for them with regards to occupational health and safety provisions. Now that is just not on.
I quote Dr Emerson, who said on 31 January this year at the national conference of the Australian Labor Party:
The Labor Party and unions are in partnership once again.
That summarises the Labor Party's approach to significant legislation. One can look at the building industry and look at the CFMEU and their involvement in the building industry and one can say, `There is absolute control of occupational health and safety provisions by the union movement, but accidents are still happening, bills are not being paid and employers evidently are not doing what they should do'—and that is with absolute union control. So what is the benefit of the CFMEU in that industry? The same applies to all involvements of unions. It should be a choice of the individual employee, judging the quality of the service and advice they can get from the union movement—or from anybody else, for that matter—to help them to understand and to design workplace occupational health and safety provisions.
The Labor Party has said already that it would again mandate union control in this area in the Public Service. One only has to look at the situation in New South Wales with the building industry, where WorkCover comes in and runs a building site and ad hoc decisions can be made on health and safety, to see what is proposed by the Labor Party's amendments. On the other hand, since coming to office we have had some of the best improvements in workplace conditions ever: a 13 per cent real improvement in wages and salaries and fewer strikes; with 1.3 million jobs created, it is better for everybody. So here we have better conditions and better opportunities for everybody in the workplace, and the Australian Labor Party wants to roll all that back. This is roll-back in another arena. `Roll-back' used to be the Labor Party's catchcry for the GST, and it has dropped that; but this is roll-back to where every aspect of the workplace will be union controlled. That will diminish the intelligence and the capacity of those in the workplace to understand what the needs are and to translate them into a plan for occupational health and safety.
Nobody in Australia would doubt the capacity of Commonwealth public servants to do this for themselves. Above all others, they would be better equipped to understand what their needs are and to devise a plan with their manager and put it in place—calling on the union only if they want to and not having it mandated. The reforms in this bill focus on two key issues of improved employee involvement: first, getting employees concerned about occupational health and safety; and, secondly, introducing a new innovative compliance process which is a mixture of the legal processes that until now were part of the compliance process. It is really significant that we make those changes.
The specific requirements in this bill are for employers to comply with their duty of care with workplace arrangements and then there are the compliance and enforcement processes. The current monopoly of unions will be removed by this legislation. There will be greater opportunity for all employees to be actively involved in occupational health and safety matters. Employers will be required to consult all employees, not just unions, about the development of occupational health and safety arrangements. Safer workplaces will be achieved with a practical knowledge based program. Also, employees will have access to the type of representation they want—not what the union wants, not what the Australian Labor Party wants, but what the employees actually want.
When the Senate last looked at this—and it was booted out of that place, of course, by the Australian Labor Party; but we have come back with more changes and more negotiation—Democrat Senator Andrew Murray commented on the useful advances contained in the bill and remarked on union misuse of power under occupational health and safety. And the abuse of power by unions in connection with occupational health and safety issues is rife throughout the building industry and many other industries. It would not matter if they were actually getting results, but they are not. Last year the accident levels in New South Wales were up by 14 per cent. The control and involvement of the union movement are not having any impact, so why not change things and ask the people who are actually employed how improvements can be made and develop employee-driven, employee-employer cooperative arrangement changes to occupational health and safety? That would get results.
The minister in his second reading speech on the 2002 bill said:
This bill includes some additional changes to provide further protections for employees. Some amendments are also included to strengthen the compliance provisions.
That is what has happened and that is a very sensible approach. In my home state of New South Wales not only is occupational health and safety an absolute disaster—with people walking on to the job and conducting inspections whenever they wish, holding up sites, stopping work on sites and producing terrible results—but also in the whole of the workers' compensation process there are further problems with companies having to pay back the whole of the workers' comp claim within a period of three years. With regard to what is really happening with workers comp—and that is an occupational health and safety factor which is remote from the consideration of this chamber but it impacts on the way people behave in the workplace and on what the provisions for occupational health and safety are—it is more as though an insurance company is making a loan to the company involved and then, over a threeyear period, gathering that back and charging a fee for allowing the company to use their services.
I think this whole area needs careful attention and I commend the government on the changes that it has made and is making. This is a most important bill and a most important change in workplace culture and the way that safety in the workplace is looked at. The government's determination to have safe workplaces has not changed, but this legislation is saying that what it has been doing up until this stage has not worked. No matter how many unions are involved, no matter how strengthened their powers may be, until you have employees involved with employers nothing will work.
Mr Emerson, the opposition spokesman on these issues, has said that union involvement is crucial and is the most critical part of the whole process. It does not seem to matter which union it is. Any union, any occupation, any job—one size fits all: `Get the union in there and everything will be right.' That is not so. The funding process, as I have already mentioned, is the critical factor in why the Australian Labor Party wants to have the union movement involved in occupational health and safety. The union movement—and Andrew Ferguson, I know, is related to people here in the chamber—
The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Barresi)—Order! The member for Mitchell will refer to other members by their correct title or their seat.
Mr CADMAN —No, he is the union rep—a brother to these two members here. He is in the CFMEU in New South Wales. The attitudes are very similar; the family is the same, but he does not happen to be in the chamber. In his role in New South Wales, he is very happy to have union involvement and union control.
This bill retains the current institutional mechanism of designated work groups, health and safety representatives and health and safety committees. It does not take that away. But the amendments would provide for more direct relationships, and that is what we are on about: more direct relationships between employers and employees. Civil proceedings for breaches of the act are introduced, including new remedies such as remedial orders and civil pecuniary penalties, and new measures such as injunctions and enforceable undertakings are also available. The Australian Labor Party say they do not mind the improved compliance and enforcement procedures but they just want to have the union movement there as well. I just do not see the logic of that process unless they are captured by the union movement. The criminal offences would be retained for the most serious breaches of the act and for those breaches most appropriately dealt with by the criminal justice system, and that is proper. If people are going to abuse employees in matters such as the safety of their environment and what the employees are asked to do then there should be a criminal justice system available to people pursuing these matters. The penalty levels for the breaches of the act are also significantly increased.
In conclusion, I repeat that this government have created 1.3 million new jobs. We have increased real wages by 13 per cent. That has been brought about by bringing a new ethos to the workplace, by bringing about the opportunity for employers and employees to work together. The Minister for Transport and Regional Services, the Deputy Prime Minister, spoke today about the improvement in the productivity on the waterfront. That is also an indication of the way in which improved relationships in the workplace will get great results, both for the employer and for the employee.
This is another area that has not worked in the past. Under the old systems of occupational health and safety, we have not succeeded in getting a better result. The increase in accidents and the deaths and disasters in New South Wales under the CFMEU show that the old way does not work. Bob Carr has tried for years to improve that system in the building industry there, and it has not happened. The accidents are still happening. What a hopeless arrangement that is. Why would you persist and want to put into federal legislation a system that is patently wrong and which patently disadvantages employees? To me that is an incomprehensible approach. It is a dark-age approach. It is an approach that says we are captive to the union movement, right or wrong. With bad results, we are captive; with good results, we are still captive. The Australian Labor Party approach on this bill is just another example of their dog-in-the-manger union control—right or wrong. The member for Rankin was right when he said in his speech earlier that they will be back to the union movement. The Labor Party are demonstrating it time and again.
This government will continue to put in place a framework in workplace relations and occupational health and safety which will create real advantages for employees. We have done that. Nobody can dispute that. Instead of wages going backwards as they did under the Australian Labor Party, we have improved wages. We have better job opportunities. We have created more jobs. We have given people real salary increases and there have been fewer strikes. So that is the process that this legislation continues. It is proposing a new and a different way. It is something that we will keep arguing for and something that we believe will ultimately be beneficial to everybody in Australia.
The union movement does have much to offer, but it should only be there—it should only be part of a process—if the employees genuinely think that there is an advantage in that happening. It is time for the union movement to look at itself and decide whether it is meeting the needs of its members. It does not have an automatic right to be there. It must demonstrate that it has the ability, the understanding and the knowledge to make a contribution to occupational health and safety. If the union movement can do that, it will be invited in by the employees because the value of that process will be patently clear.
I completely support this legislation. I think it is excellent. As I have outlined, there are problems in my home state in the building industry, where subcontractors are deemed to be employees and suddenly huge bills are dumped on contractors for workplace things that they have never even contemplated—where these people, who are self-employed and should be seen as self-employed under Commonwealth law and state legislation, are being penalised. It is no wonder that the state of New South Wales is in such a mess and going backwards so fast. We as a Commonwealth do not want to follow that pattern. We believe there is a better, more wholesome way—a way that gets results. Our track record after this time in office has demonstrated that this will be a solution. Just as there have been solutions in other areas, changes to occupational health and safety will also get great results.
Author: Hon Alan Cadman MP
Source: House Hansard - 29th March 2004
Release Date: 30 Mar 2004