WorkSafe Victoria “launched” its Work Safe Week on 17 October 2011 with a lacklustre seminar about the future of OHS in Victoria but the quiet tone reflected the peculiar approach to OHS law reform taken by the government. Disappointingly the Victorian Minister responsible for WorkSafe, Gordon Rich-Phillips, failed to use Work Safe Week as an opportunity to introduce himself to the State’s safety professionals. His profile is almost non-existent other than his recent media release calling for a 12-month delay to OHS harmonisation, a decision that is likely to do more harm to OHS in Victoria than good. Perhaps he is waiting to appear at the upcoming WorkSafe Awards dinner.
WorkSafe’s first speaker, Lisa Sturzenegger, provided the, now expected, summary of WorkSafe Victoria marketing statistics and stakeholder perception surveys that we became so familiar with from John Merritt’s tenure as Executive Director, but without the spark. The message was that Victoria is leading the country in low workers’ compensation premiums and injury rates. Sturzenegger did continue to tell us what WorkSafe intends to do for the next 12 months but without new legislation, the message was “business as usual”, and the other States will be applying a harmonised OHS enforcement policy, anyway.
The second speaker, Carol Bullivant of the Australian Industry Group, provided the harmonisation process summary and urged companies to continue managing their workplace safety and not be distracted by the harmonisation delay. However, her earnestness illustrated the fragility of the harmonisation process when the political support is missing.
Cathy Butcher of the Victorian Trades Hall was the standout speaker in the seminar, partly, because she was well aware of the political elements of the harmonisation process and acknowledged these to the audience. Her frankness showed the audience that OHS reform can NOT ignore the political realities.
Indeed when the panel was asked later on what should people do now that the Victorian Government has called for a delay, they had no answer other than the banal “keep doing what you are doing”. Given that the Model Work Health Safety Act and laws call for a positive duty for safety management, the shrugs were telling.
It is understandable for speakers to be cautious about political statements if they are representing their respective organisations but the harmonisation process IS political and has become moreso with the Rich-Phillips action. The panelists seemed unsure of the standing of the Rich-Phillips media release. The media discussion on the call has been non-existent except for OHS news websites simply reproducing the media release. Some labour lawyers are accepting the statement as the reality, others are urging people to analyse the text of the statement.
SafetyAtWorkBlog contacted the Minister’s office and was advised that Rich-Phillips sent a letter requesting the delay to the Federal Workplace Relations Minister Chris Evans prior to issuing a media release on 28 September 2011. SafetyAtWorkBlog was advised that no response tot he letter has yet been received. Of course Minister Evans may be waiting for the next Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council meeting (unscheduled) in its new configuration of the Select Council on Workplace Relations, to take address the issue.
Tomorrow evening, 19 October 2011, is what some call the highlight of Work Safe Week, the annual WorkSafe Awards. The significance of the Minister’s delay is likely to be a major talking point. Most workplace relations ministers make the effort to attend the awards night if nothing else.
By Victoria proposing the 12-month delay on the new Work Health and Safety Act and related regulations it has given up the legislative lead that its 2004 Act provided. Victoria will now be seen as parochial and a spoiler to the business cost savings that the harmonisation process was intended to provide. Although Rich-Phillips states that he continues to support the “principle of OHS harmonisation” [emphasis added] his claim that “we need to be able to assess the benefits and costs to Victoria, to ensure that the proposed package is in Victoria’s interests” is a shallow rationalisation. Their may be inadequacies in the national Regulatory Impact Statement but the harmonisation process was never about businesses within single jurisdictions. The biggest financial gains were always expected so to come from those companies operating in one or more State jurisdictions. The process was about national harmonisation and not about improving the safety regimes in a single States.
Rich-Phillips seems to have forgotten one of the commitments made in the original 2008 Inter-Government Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in Occupational Health and Safety:
“The Parties have agreed to work cooperatively to harmonise OHS legislation.”
The Minister seems to think this translates as placing Victorian interests over the National interest, reducing the cost and administrative effectiveness of the harmonised legislation already being introduced by other States’ Ministers, and allowing Victorian OHS obligations to slip behind those of other States. It is hard to identify the sector of the Victorian community that Gordon Rich-Phillips’ decision to delay will benefit. There is a difference between being Conservative and self-serving.