Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Questions without Notice
Occupational Health and Safety
My question is to the Minister for Education, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister for Social Inclusion. Will the Deputy Prime Minister advise the House on the progress in creating uniform occupational health and safety laws for the nation? What are the impediments to this much needed change?
I thank the member for Hasluck for her question. I know she is interested in occupational health and safety, particularly in having uniform standards around the nation. Obviously there are no quick or easy solutions to the global financial crisis, but the last thing you should do in difficult times is down tools on reform. This government is continuing to deal with necessary reform in this country, and there is no bigger item on the agenda of the business community for regulatory reform than having harmonised occupational health and safety laws around the country so that whether you are running a business in Melbourne or in country New South Wales or in the north-west of this country you know what your obligations are, and those obligations will be the same. In a nation of 21 million people, with more businesses trading across state lines than ever before, obviously having uniform laws is a reform worth striving for. This is something that was not done by the former government. It was talked about, constantly. The Liberal Party talk, but when you examine their actions not much happens—and nothing productive happened on harmonising occupational health and safety laws.
This government in the middle of this year entered into a historic agreement through the Council of Australian Governments to deliver occupational health and safety laws around the country that would be the same. We are on track to deliver those model laws, so that people can see what they will look like, in May next year. In order to drive this work, the agreement between states and territories and the Commonwealth included an agreement to a new national body to lead this work—Safe Work Australia. The membership, structure and voting arrangements of Safe Work Australia were specified in the intergovernmental agreement. As is the nature of negotiations, not everybody got everything they wanted and there were diverse views about how this organisation should be structured. But, with the best of goodwill, people sat around a table and worked their way towards a consensus. The Prime Minister and premiers signed the agreement off, and we have been attempting to implement it. The thing that has stopped us implementing it is the Liberal Party, which continues to seek amendments to this legislation in the Senate which are different from the intergovernmental agreement and which would cause the whole process to go off the rails because we would have to go back to COAG and back to the Workplace Relations Ministerial Council and seek to renegotiate, losing many vital months in the meantime.
The Leader of the Opposition is someone who likes to style himself as understanding the needs of business. But, of course, when it comes to the Leader of the Opposition you cannot listen to what he says; what you have to watch is what he does. Whilst he says he is interested in the needs of business, he is holding up this vital legislation in the Senate. Can I refer him directly to what business has said about this question. The Chief Executive Officer of the Business Council of Australia issued a media release in which she said:
“In the current climate businesses need every help to get on with the job. The amendments sought by the Senate jeopardise moves to make business operations and employment of workers simpler across our jurisdictions …
“The amendments sought by the Senate in the last sitting are inconsistent with the agreement by all governments at COAG to deliver a uniform national system of … (OHS) laws.”
The Australian Mines and Metals Association has called on the Liberal Party to get out of the way. And then we had a Workplace Relations Ministerial Council meeting last week. The Liberal Party was trying to pretend to this parliament that the amendments it sought would be acceptable to workplace relations ministers around the country so this was no problem. Well, that claim is not true, and no-one can pretend that it is true after the Workplace Relations Ministerial Council last week. It was attended for the first time by the new Liberal workplace relations minister in Western Australia. Whilst he did not join with his Labor colleagues on every aspect of the communique, he joined with his Labor colleagues on the following aspects of the communique. He and every other minister from around the states said:
Ministers highlighted that Senate amendments to the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 were inconsistent with the historic commitment of all governments to uniform national OHS legislation …
And it went on—so the Liberal minister in WA is saying this:
… Ministers noted with much concern that the amendments threatened the harmonisation of national OHS legislation, thereby delaying a significant and long overdue economic reform which would enhance OHS outcomes, reduce red tape for business and strengthen Australia’s productive capacity.
The Liberal Party needs to make a decision here. We will present this legislation to the Senate again. The business community around this nation is calling on you, the Leader of the Opposition, to instruct your senators to get out of the way. Workplace relations ministers around the country, including the only Liberal workplace relations minister, are calling on the Liberal Party and the Leader of the Liberal Party to show some leadership and to get out of the way so that we can get on with this vital task of national reform. In the midst of an economic crisis, the last thing we need is an economic wrecker. We are calling on the Leader of the Liberal Party to get out of the way so we can deal with this important national reform.