Ken Phillips, executive director of Independent Contractors of Australia, wrote an opinion piece in The Australian on 6 October 2009 that demands attention.
Phillips supports the Federal Government’s program of harmonisation of OHS laws in that it will remove what he sees as the injustices of the OHS legislation in New South Wales.
“The situation is different in NSW, which has OHS laws unlike any other in Australia. OHS prosecutions elsewhere are criminal matters, but in NSW prosecutions are conducted in industrial relations courts, not criminal courts, with no right to a jury or to appeals……
This has led to the layering of gross injustices on top of workplace tragedies in NSW. Take one example. A NSW plumber has a criminal conviction against him after a hot water valve he installed in an aged nursing home failed. An elderly woman was scalded and tragically died. The court found the plumber had properly installed and maintained the valve. The valve failed because of a microscopic fracture in an internal sealed component. Yet NSW OHS law required that the plumber be declared guilty.”
Phillips sees the union movement’s response to harmonisation as short-sighted. He describes the union advocacy of the NSW laws in terms of class, a concept rarely voiced in Australia outside academic sociological circles or the basements of Trades & Labour Councils.
“It’s a law and process based on old-fashioned political notions that employers always put profits above worker safety and that employers must be threatened with harsh legal retribution to make them heed safety regulations. This is class obsessed, hate-filled labour at its worst, embedding its hatred in law. It selectively destroys the application of criminal justice to achieve its tribal ends.”
The language is inflammatory but reflects the level of concern felt by many business operators in New South Wales who are fearful of OHS rather than engaged in positive safety management. The absolute level of safety demanded by the OHS law is indicative of what can happen when an aspirational concept is realised.
It is not so long ago that one employer association director in New South Wales stated on national television that OHS laws are not needed because employers do the right thing.
The harmonisation process, as SafetyAtWorkBlog has said previously, is intended to be a process of negotiation towards a common goal of safer workplaces. The union movement is undoubtedly in the ascendant having helped the Australian Labor Party (ALP) break the conservative governments of the 1990s, and believes that the ALP owes it.
Trevor Cook, writing in The Australian, estimates that the union campaign in the 2007 election generated a 2% swing to the Labor Party. He succinctly describes the achievement after years of the Left’s political parties placating the business sector:
“They treated unions as just another interest group. Against that background, the 2007 election in Australia was a rare and remarkable event. It had been decades since a social democratic party anywhere in the world had fought and won an election where industrial relations was a leading issue.”
From the union perspective, the Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, needs to “pay the piper” after the unions rid the country of the conservative rats. The substantial challenge for Gillard is to avoid the second phase of the Hamelin story, before the entire union movement rescinds its support and takes her “children” – the future industrial relations structure.