Business commentator is concerned over OHS and IR overlap

Respected business commentator, Robert Gottliebsen, has commented on the political and ideological challenge that Julia Gillard, Australia’s Minister for Workplace Relations, faces over the introduction of OHS model legislation.

Gottliebsen says there is a risk that the combative OHS structures in New South Wales could spread to the national context and that resisting this movement, funded and promoted by the trade unions, will be a substantial test for the Minister. In his Business Spectator article he says

“To make it tougher for Gillard, the draft [legislation] has clauses that will give unions around Australia NSW-style prosecution powers and clauses that water down training requirements.  This will mix IR issues and safety and may well increase the injury rate.”

There is a persistent debate about the IR context of OHS and vice versa, which is the tail and which is the dog.  Gottliebsen clearly sees the NSW experience as illustrating IR having too much influence over OHS management.  (For those readers outside Australia, NSW is seen widely as a failure economically and politically)

“The sad thing is that once occupational healthy and safety becomes merely a tool of industrial relations, it is politicised and linked to wage claims and is not taken seriously.  More workers go home injured or worse.  So not only do we need English-style law, but we need law that isolates safety from industrial relations skirmishes.”

This is reminiscent of the days when industrial employment awards provided allowances for dangerous or unhealthy tasks, what was universally considered “danger money”.

Robert Gottliebsen is no fool and the significance of his article is the fact that the issue was covered by a finance and business commentator at all.  It indicates the significance of what the Federal Government is proposing, politically, industrially and socially.  the foundations of OHS legislation have remained basically the same since Lord Robens’ recommendations in England in the 1970’s.  Australia has had OHS legislation since the early 1980’s.  The new model OHS legislation should similarly be seen in such longevity and broad impact.

OHS may be a niche consideration for most people but how the government handles the negotiations leading to this law’s implementation will be a good indication of their political nous and their commitment to Australians.

Kevin Jones

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