Australian governments have all missed the solid, positive support that workplace safety can provide in pushing through useful OHS, and industrial, initiatives. It would be a courageous employer who argued against any initiative that is intended to imporve the level of safety in any workplaces.
The Deputy Prime Minister and IR Minister, Julia Gillard, reminded me of this when she spoke about the intoriduction of the government’s Fair Work Australia authority. I have written elsewhere that the time is right for the Minister to also announce a “Safe Work Australia” authority which can arise out of ashes of the Australian Safety & Compensation Council. I would suggest that Safe Work Australia could also use the structure of the Workplace Ombudsman, have Comcare for the paperwork, establish a dedicated OHS stream in the justice system and use the moral authority of a new independent OHS Ombudsman. This would be my mix for a strong, fair, independent and national OHS process for Australia.
In Gillard’s speech on Fair Work Australia though, she provided little hope of such an achievement. This government continues to consider OHS as a separate discipline (or perhaps a subset) to Industrial Relations except when business accuses the unions of gaining IR advantage through OHS actions. OHS could be legtitimately used to present consultation and consensus in a united IR strategy but there is little indication of that, indeed the gulf is widening.
In Gillard’s speech on industrial relations she mentions “promoting workplace flexibility” as an important part of the platform. This appears a couple of lines after a mention of “business flexibility”. These are not interchangeable terms and seem to be included to soften the message, as there is no further mention, or expansion, of these concepts.
In HR and OHS terms we are looking at flexible work structures that can reduce workplace hazards, improve staff retention, increase career longevity and provide sustainable productivity. Whether this is workplace flexibility or business flexibility seems to depend on which end of the management structure you come from but there should be no ambiguity in government statements on the issue of flexibility. Then again maybe staff health, safety and welfare is only a distraction.