Victoria is relinquishing its position of OHS leader in Australia

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.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

16 thoughts on “Victoria is relinquishing its position of OHS leader in Australia”

  1. It\’s old topic that is possibly boring people nuts, but I needed to vent somewhere! I hold-fast to the view that this has been the most cumbersome, time-wasting way to get so-called \”harmonisation\”, but I tell ya, it\’s all very frustrating.

    It\’s 3am on a Sunday morning and pushing hard to help an online trainer enhance a course they offer. Is there scope for good to come of it? Roger. Am I pulling my hair out because hours are being wasted finding a simple way to explain to the trainee what the hell is going on with this WHS stuff. Roger, in fact bloody double roger! If only I could just say \”Look if you are wondering about the so-called \”harmonisation\” of Australia\’s OHS stuff, just go to your local OHS regulator\’s website – let them explain the dog\’s breakfast they have dropped us in!\” Aaargh!

    If only the regulators had chosen to take control and co-ordinate their approach like big grown-up people. But then again, if they had done that right from the outset, we wouldn\’t be in the mess we are in now.

  2. Very sad to hear that Safety continues to be in the bottom drawer of politicians (and others)!!

    Harmonisation (for all its benefits) is sucking the life out of the real OH&S debate.

    Our focus should quite rightly be on innovation, excellence, and leading transformational change. How do we solve issues of engagement, measuring OH&S efficacy, safety culture, SME\’s and the plethora of other worthwhile issues?

    For Victoria to stand up and say we are leading the way because we are the best of a bad bunch is rubbish. Or do we really believe we have gone about as far as we can in Safety?

    It is time for the Safety community (including business and political leaders) to move on and put more energy into working out what excellence should really look like and how we go about achieving it!!

  3. Andrea I am not concerned as to who is driving the discussion, I am just glad that we are having the discussion.

    In truth I am not interested in Party politics as far too much resembles follow the leader regardless of intelligence.

    What does concern me is the names who are attached to the Harmonisation Legislation.
    These people do not want to engage in the possibility that another point of view not only should be heard, but another point of view is required within the discussion so as there is true discussion.

    While I did not get to the conference that Kevin is reporting on, I do go to as many conferences as my health and funds will allow.
    After a while it is not possible to define one lot of blah blah blah from another blah blah blah.
    The reason as I see it is the presenters all use the same base information and never seem to want to introduce something that may be nothing more than food for thought.

  4. Hi Kevin, The Festival of safety needed some lively questions and none were forthcoming – we last chatted at the steps of the Sherlock Holmes pub in Melbourne after the Safe Work Australia National OHS Strategy forum (I went into the pub, you didn\’t)! Next time we should sit together and bombard the panel like Statler and Waldorf (The Muppets Show). There are too many important questions not being asked let alone answered. If politicians were plumbers we would be knee deep in ####, oh, we are…

  5. Jennifer, there had been years of discussions and consultation over these national laws so it defies my sense of logic that we are debating the topics that are being debated now.

    The questions being posed by the Liberal party are being driven by industry groups — rather powerful lobby groups to be precise — those that might gain the most from the weakest laws. Incidentally, these are the same lobby groups that were invited to consult on national harmonisation laws in the first place.

    No I\’m afraid the topic of workplace safety has become far removed from safety in the workplace and very much focused on politics and a campaign to set seeds of doubt that have little substance.

  6. Hi Kevin
    Excellent article as usual. The atmosphere at Day one of Safety Week (The Festival of Safety apparently) was flat and muted. The new tag line being delivered at each presentation I attended was Victoria – the safest state so maybe Ted Baillieu will have that on the car rego plates?! I agree that we need to hear much more from Hon Gordon Rich-Phillips about his safety credentials and more detail on what is likely to happen over the next few months.
    I only managed to get to ask one question at the very end of the opening seminar. It was to do with the state of knowledge in Victoria now we have proposed legislation including due diligence and \”national\” codes of practice that provide more detail in some aspects than WSV have at their disposal where does that leave us where there is a shortfall? I did not get a satisfactory answer and the microphone had moved on! I was also surprised at the lack of probing questions from the audience.
    Why is model legislation being implemented in NSW (Liberal Government) with due diligence actually incorporated into existing legislation but not in Victoria (yet)? I understand about making the business case and keeping us all safe and healthy but why wait until October to confuse the issue, what has the Victorian Government being doing previously?

    However safe and healthy Victoria is we need to improve and model legislation is just one component of continual improvement. I left the \’Festival\’ feeling let down. I hope that Wednesday night provides a greater insight and I hope that you have booked your seat Kevin!

    1. Richard, I was in the audience of that seminar and almost asked a question but I have done so at every WorkSafe Week for years and wanted to see who in the audience would ask challenging questions. The audience seemed as flat as the speakers which may indicate complacency in the safety profession, an issue that should be of great concern.

  7. Here in South Australia the current Minister has dropped the ball on the move to a national OHS system.
    I agree with Ms Maddley that talk back radio has filled the airwaves with the legislation, however I don\’t agree that the Liberal Party is holding anything up, what the Liberal Party is doing is called \”questioning\” a document that is rather lengthy and complicated.
    I understand that OHS is an immensley important topic to all who work in any capacity.
    I also understand that what is needed is cool heads and concise thinking of the long-term impact of the move to a national system.
    Big is not always better, sometimes big is just big for the sake of the people who spend their time writing the big legislation.
    What I do know is that it was not a breach of the workplace safety that injured my own son, it was a member of the public who was where she should not have been.
    Not one word of the Harmonisation Legislation protects workers from members of the public.

    The truly tragic part in all of this is that the process of bringing in changes has been left to the politicians who are briefed about the good aspects leaving the opposition to find the bad aspects.

  8. \”self serving\” – the key two words in this post. However I think the government fails to realise how many people, powerful people, are behind this harmonisation and how many will not forgive the government for dragging the chain. So in the end it may in fact be \”self destructive\”.

  9. Arrgh! The media attention to the WHS Bill has been very busy here in South Australia too Kevin.

    The Liberals are arguing the new laws are frought with problems. Talk back radio in the last few weeks ran with strong views on increased costs to business and consumers (housing) and of course the word UNIONS and their role in this has created some angst.

    There will be a very aggressive lobby now in the lead up to the Bill heading through the hallways on North Terrace. All just in time for safe work week too.

    It would be just super if these new laws were about safety and saving lives as I\’m thinking they were intended … alas I fear they\’ve already become a new political hot potato.

  10. As you\’ve pointed out Victoria are leading the way in OHS. The numbers in the recently released Comparative Monitoring (CPM) Report 13th Edition certainly reflect that. Perhaps there\’s a case for looking at what Victoria have doing. I\’m in NSW and we\’ve got some catching up to do. Maybe the Queensland approaches aren\’t all they\’re wrapped up to be. I don\’t understand the differences between regimes however the numbers do tell part of the story. Interestingly the Serious injury data and graphs in the RIS show different numbers than those in the CPM report. A bit like government costings in the lead up to an election. Anyway numbers are only part of the story.

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