Harmonisation timetable stoush

The Australian newspaper has reported serious threats to the Australian Government’s timetable for the harmonisation of OHS laws.  A threat to the government’s strategy was always possible from the fact that State government’s were likely to change from predominantly Labor Party States to Conservative parties over the period of harmonisation.  The Australian says that the threat is becoming a reality.

Western Australia, an unhappy participant in harmonisation, has begun questioning the deadline of 1 January 2012 for the introduction of harmonised OHS laws.  The WA government has been a consistent critic of some of the element s of the process but, to some extent, the latest statement from West Australia’s Commerce Minister Simon O’Brien could be interpreted as a willingness to sign up to the changes if more time for implementation is granted.

O’Brien and the WA government may be receiving some support from political colleagues in Victoria going by the comments from the Victorian Government.  In an almost unique acknowledgement of the harmonisation process a spokesperson said:

“The focus of developing a national OHS framework should be not on harmonisation for harmonisation’s sake, but rather on achieving beneficial outcomes, both for the nation as well as Victoria…..In addition, any harmonised national OHS framework must not result in increased compliance costs and more onerous regulations.”

The mention of national interest aligns well with WA’s objections.

Many have criticised the timeline for the introduction of harmonised laws in the past but the Federal Government has adamantly stuck to the timetable identified at the beginning of the process.  As the process progressed it would seem that many participants began to realise the magnitude of the task.

This was clearly the impression given by the Victorian government in various seminars.  Not only did each State need to introduce laws by 1 January 2012, but the ancillary documents, processes and policies also required harmonisation.  The application of the harmonised laws will only operate effectively if each State OHS regulator has a similar enforcement policy.  Each State’s independently developed guidance material not only must go through a localised editing and consulting process but be nationally applicable.  All of these processes need a huge amount of coordination and the closer this process gets to the January 2012 deadline the greater the pressure for concession, both regulatory and politically.

Examples of that political pressure are coming from organisations like the NSW Minerals Council, and Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.  The union movement is also frustrated by the process but is maintaining the faith that harmonisation will also bring improvements in safety for workers, and has long experience in protracted negotiations.

The complaints from some industry players and conservative governments may indicate that the promised business cost savings from harmonisation are unlikely to be as big as expected.  And cost savings was always the principal reason for entering into the harmonisation process.

The United Kingdom is undergoing a similar campaign against red tape but it has an economic imperative that Australia does not.  The UK endured a global financial crisis where Australia was able to continue to trade its hugely popular mineral resources.  Australia retained a market for its goods.  Cutting red tape in Australia is about increasing profits, particularly in the mining and export sectors, whereas the UK is trying to resurrect its economy.

The debate is also an interesting test for the OHS commitment, leadership and understanding, of each of the participants.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

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