South Australia’s Industrial Relations Minister, Rob Lucas, stated in the Adelaide Advertiser on 3 October 2011 that
“The Liberal Party has always supported strong work safety laws which protect workers at work sites.”
This may be the case within the limitations of that sentence but the conservative political parties have not always been supportive of the basis for safety management, the creation of evidence through authoritative research. According to a 2003 submission by the Australian Council of Trade Unions
“After the election of the Liberal/National Coalition in 1996, the Federal Government decided that:
- the NOHSC budget must be cut by $5.9 million each year;
- a further 5% cut was imposed across the board; and
- redundancies had to be covered from within the NOHSC budget.
This represented a cut of $6.6 million (35-40%) to the NOHSC annual budget……
The April 1996 NOHSC decision on allocation of its $14 million budget cut OHS research and information, and education and training. National standards work was also decreased. These areas are central to a national approach to OHS.” [emphasis added]
Around the time of these severe budget cuts Australia had begun moving to a system of national uniformity in OHS. The impact of this political decision hamstrung the research efforts of NOHSC just as the uniformity momentum was increasing. As the National Research Centre for Occupational Health and Safety Regulation has written
“A notable development in standard setting in Australia during the 1990s was the movement towards national uniformity in standards in regulations and codes of practice. The process was overseen by the former NOHSC, which in 1991 established a tripartite National Uniformity Taskforce, which identified several key first order priorities for achieving national uniformity: plant, certification of users and operators of industrial equipment; workplace hazardous substances; occupational noise; manual handling; major hazardous facilities; and storage and handling of dangerous goods.
NOHSC developed standards in the first six of these areas, and the jurisdictions were well on the way towards adopting these standards by the end of 1996, although it should be noted that jurisdictions were quite inconsistent in their adoption, particular in choosing whether to implement the standards in regulations or codes of practice, in their drafting styles and, in some cases, the substance of provisions. The national uniformity process was not complete when the Howard government came to power in 1996, and that government first significantly down-sized and then abolished NOHSC, with the result that the move towards national uniformity slowed dramatically after mid-1996.”
Rob Lucas seems to ignore the history of his own party’s decision.
He also continues to quote the extremely dubious cost claims of the Housing Industry Association. Curiously, the claims that OHS harmonisation will add substantial costs to domestic house building have existed since 2008 yet made no appearance in the HIA’s submission to Safe Work Australia on the Exposure Draft Safe Work Act lodged on 9 November 2009. It is difficult to understand why such a crucial piece of “evidence” was not provided in argument against the harmonised OHS laws at that early stage of consultation.
Lucas tries to make an argument against OHS on the grounds of industrial relations by referring to the recommendations of the 2003 Cole Royal Commission. The OHS world in the construction industry has moved on considerably over that period and the Cole Royal Commission only dealt with one industry sector, a sector with a large union presence which is now atypical of the Australian economy and workforce. It is also a sector that is almost totally excluded from the vast majority of Australian companies, small businesses.
Lucas is critical of increased powers of health and safety representatives (HSRs) in South Australia. This increase makes South Australia consistent with most other States. His sophistry and bizarre logic is on show in the newspaper article when he says
“These health and safety representatives have significant powers and can stop workers from working in an unsafe work site. They also have the authority to bring in a properly trained and approved union officer as an adviser if they wish.
They can also bring in independent inspectors from SafeWork SA to help resolve any safety issue at the work site.
So why should union bosses be allowed to interfere in a situation where the workers might not be union members and might not want them there?”
Should work on an unsafe site NOT be stopped? Most OHS legislation says it is an offence not to stop unsafe work tasks when these are observed.
Lucas says that additional resources can be invited onto site but fails to mention the “properly trained and approved union officer” should be trained in OHS and that approval comes through the Courts, as it does in Victoria. The experience in Victoria is that “union bosses” do not attend worksites over OHS matters, union OHS specialists are despatched.
He does acknowledges the option of inviting a SafeWork SA inspector on site for advice, but this weakens his “union bosses” argument. Safework SA’s availability is a major advantage to businesses and one that is highly recommended. In fact, if any business was not comfortable with union OHS advisers, SafeWork SA (and regulators in other States) provides access to OHS inspectors at no charge. Many States provide OHS specialists to small business on OHS matters at no cost for up to 6 hours so there is a further non-union option.
However the biggest issue on Lucas’ agenda is revealed in the final paragraph:
“This Bill will now be a major test for incoming Premier Weatherill – will he cave in to the wishes of union bosses or will he listen to the many concerns being expressed about the Bill and put the interests of struggling home buyers first?”
Lucas is using the OHS laws as a very blunt and obvious political pawn, one that is even blunter in his 29 September 2011 media release on which his Adelaide Advertiser opinion piece is based. He invokes the fear of “union bosses” although unions are not relevant to the vast majority of businesses in South Australia and Australia.
He talks of “many concerns being expressed about the Bill” but the Bill is based on a Model Work Health and Safety laws developed through broad consultation over many years. His arguments have been well expressed and dismissed through the harmonisation process.
Lucas also tries to scare the “struggling home buyers” by quoting cost estimates of highly questionable validity and that were not presented to the Federal Government at the earliest opportunity in the harmonisation consultation.
Labour lawyer, Andrew Douglas, wrote on 4 October 2011, that
“The approach of state governments around the WHS Act and the federal government and opposition to industrial relations leaves much to be desired. Governments must cease acting for political tactical advantage and must invest strategically in building and growing Australia.
The senseless uncertainty that has engulfed Australian OHS and industrial relations during the past six months must stop.
Please, on behalf of Australian business, step up and endorse the WHS Act that begins throughout Australia on January 1 and federally let’s see what the strategy is industrially so that we can all plan, manage our risk and develop appropriate IR infrastructures to go forward into the future.”
If the politicians were truly concerned about the safety of Australia’s citizens, the new OHS laws would be passed and business owners could start negotiating with their workforce to reduce injury and illness.