An article in the Australian Financial Review (not available on line) on 16 October 2009 provided some additional legal opinions on the implementation and aims of Australia’s draft Safe Work Bill.
Other than Michael Tooma’s well established thoughts on the draft law, Liberty Sanger of Maurice Blackburn, a law firm with strong trade union links, is said to support the capacity for jurisdictional variations in the harmonisation process. She is quoted as saying there
“need to be regional difference in a country as vast as ours and with such a different industry composition as ours…”
This position is supported by a call from the CFMEU’s General Secretary, Andrew Vickers. In a media statement released on 15 October 2009, Vickers uses the aftermath of the Gretley mining disaster of 1996 as an indication of the need for OHS laws specific to the mining industry. He says
“Under the Federal Government’s National OH&S Harmonisation Review, there is a growing view among lawyers and bureaucrats that industry specific safety laws – laws that protect coal and metalliferous miners for example – ought to be scrapped.
The trouble is miners and their families and their union have been left in the dark. We still do not know if the new laws will be tailored to meet the safety needs of our industry. Despite this, the Federal Government is pressing on with its changes.
Yet the reality remains that the safety of miners and their families and the future of our mining communities are too important to ignore. And we have fought too long and too hard for tough safety standards in our industry to give them up now.”
The AFR article also quotes Miles Bastick of Freehills. The article says Bastick believes that the jurisdictional changes that have so alarmed some are likely to relate to only peripheral issues. The article says that although Bastick generally supports to the Safe Work Bill
“….he said, that in practical terms, OHS laws were likely to be enforced differently across Australia, even if laws were nationally consistent because of the different prosecution policies of OHS authorities and the approaches of different courts and tribunals that would hear prosecutions.”
SafetyAtWorkBlog would argue that the variations Bastick identifies provide very strong reasons for the Government to take the big step forward of one national OHS law supported by a nationally consistent enforcement policy through a single national safety authority and a coordinated court system. This may be a fantasy but it remains an option for the Federal government. Some lawyers believe the Government has not dismissed the application of the Corporations Act in the OHS field as it has already unified the IR system through a similar process.
Such a national system would achieve many of the aims of the government by
- reducing red tape across States, businesses and Courts,
- reducing the number of OHS regulatory authorities saving considerable expenditure from many areas of duplication from administrative staff to publications and advertising,
- providing a single focus to business for clarity and consistency of information; and
- still allowing for industry-specific variations that can be coordinated consistently with the general OHS principles.
If Australia is looking for an OHS regulatory system that it expects to last as long as the previous system, all stakeholders may need to look in a slightly longer term and broader perspective than they are currently.