For many years the Safety Institute of Australia has been uncertain in its media relations. On most of the important OHS issues in the last 10 years the SIA has either been silent for the fear of being “overtly political” or been too slow to react. Its past media releases have almost always been to promote upcoming conferences. Finally, the SIA has made a media statement within 24 hours of an OHS issue AND it was a political issue. Perhaps the SIA is finally showing some understanding of how to work with the media instead of being suspicious.
On 15 October 2010, The SIA issued a media release on the matter of NSW Premier Kristina Keneally’s refusal to play to the rules on harmonizing OHS laws. In a carefully worded statement, the SIA has come out on the side of the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. No surprise there as Keneally’s government is considered by almost everyone as a certainty to lose power in the March 2011 election. But the SIA’s inherent conservatism is on show when it says the proposed federal law changes remove “any justification for a union’s right to prosecute.”. The SIA has always been uncomfortable with the OHS role of unions and has had a fractious relationship with the union movement.
The SIA also lists the very issue that should be of most concern to Australians and which presents a major challenge to the SIA. The SIA says that the OHS reforms are so broad that they will affect everyone and that the issue is of “national interest”. The laws do need to be seen in the broader social context but, from past indications, the SIA is poorly placed to be the social advocate, unless the upcoming national elections results in a clear-out of existing committee members or the committee undertakes an ideological bypass.
Significantly and coincidentally the SIA has emerged from its introspective shell at the same time that a shortsighted review of OHS in England is presented to the Conservative Cameron government. If the SIA wants to see the future of OHS it needs to closely examine Lord Young’s report. If it wants to see how strong an organization it can be, it needs to look at how the Institute of Occupational Safety & Health has been an integral part of England’s OHS debate, particularly over the last 12 months.
There are two fronts in the current OHS sector – legislative and organisational. Both require very different strategies from professional bodies. The future worth of the SIA will be seen in how it involves itself in these two fronts. The media release is a positive sign but if the SIA is going to be an agent of social change on a matter of national interest, it needs to be more inclusive, less frightened of its own expertise and understand the needs and priorities of all its members and not just the favoured few.