Media reports on the 13 April 2012 Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting say that harmonisation of occupational health and safety laws in Australia has died. Some say this is the fault of the Victorian Government with its economic justification for inaction but the process was struggling as soon as the West Australian Government flagged its major concerns, principally, with increased union powers, as reiterated in the Australian Financial Review on 14 April 2012 (not available on-line).
WA Premier Colin Barnett is quoted as saying that:
“There are three or four sections we don’t agree with and the principle one of those relates to right of entry [for trade unions]… We see that as an industrial issue. Right of entry, it is was applied to OH&S, in all probability would be used by the unions to shut down the Pilbara iron ore operations…”
This is further evidence of the political dominance of the mining sector in Western Australia, if it was ever needed.
Victoria does not have the same excuse as the right of entry has existed for many years and almost totally without any industrial relations problems.
Victoria’s Premier, Ted Baillieu, said [the full response is below] that:
“…he wanted to see a national OH&S system, but it had to be based on the best system.”
But the harmonisation process has been using the Victorian OHS laws as the basis for improvement from the very start. Indeed, Victoria was to some extent complacent (other States often perceived arrogance) in its involvement in the process because it was the State that would have experienced the least change.
Baillieu also reiterated his claims of increased business compliance costs to justify his decision but the cost estimates from PricewaterhouseCoopers raise the question if it costs Victorian businesses $A3 billion over five years and Victoria has the best OHS laws, how much is the new Work Health and Safety laws costing those States who have already introduced the WHS laws?
The Communique released on 13 April 2012 said:
COAG agreed that the current occupational health and safety laws will be reviewed by the end of 2014.”
Reviews are good but what happens in the States in the mean time? How are harmonised Codes applied? Do the OHS systems support the occupational licensing changes agreed to by COAG?
Although many hoped for decisive action on OHS laws at the COAG meeting, this was not realised as the Prime Minister Julia Gillard saw easier wins in the National Disability Insurance Scheme and other matters. The media gallery at COAG asked only two questions on OHS, one to the PM and one to Ted Baillieu:
“JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you’ve put a lot of effort into occupational health and safety, by the look of the Communiqué I think you’ve got six of nine jurisdictions.
Are you disappointed that you can’t get all of it done? And also I’d be interested in the views of State Premiers on that as well.
PM: Well, we have worked hard on occupational health and safety reform and I continue to believe that completing the current harmonisation is in the interests of the Australian nation and in the interests of Australian businesses.
Jurisdictions, some of them have taken a different view from that. You will see in the Communiqué that there will be further work looking at occupational health and safety laws, but I would hope over time we can find our way through here to end up with a truly national system.”
“JOURNALIST: I just want to ask the Victorian Premier, Mr Baillieu, you had objections before the meeting to the move on occupational health and safety regulation. Have you still got those objections and also I think you had objections to the quality regulator in the vocational education system?
PREMIER BAILLIEU: Well let’s just deal with the occupational health and safety. I think everybody at this table and everybody at the business forum yesterday wants to see nationally based occupational health and safety laws and they want to see them based on best practice and that’s certainly our view.
The Victorian system is widely regarded as best practice, the safest, the most efficient and the lowest premiums and indeed when the decisions were made to move to a national system, the Victorian system was the model which it was hoped other jurisdictions would move to.
So that’s the starting point from as far as we’re concerned. The Commonwealth did an impact assessment of the new laws that was fuzzy at best about the application to jurisdictions. We, in turn, have done a very detailed assessment and that assessments suggests very clearly that the costs for Victorian businesses over the first five years will be more than $3 billion. And as far as we’re concerned that is the application of the model laws which now have been applied in some jurisdictions.
So, as far as we’re concerned, we’re doing (sic) to stick up for Victorian businesses, stick up for Victorian jobs and we’re not going to sign up to the model laws and we will continue to prosecute the case for the application of the Victorian based laws on other jurisdictions and I’m conscious that other jurisdictions that have implemented the model laws, they are already experiencing some pushback and of course Western Australia have not yet implemented it either and we look forward to working with jurisdictions to introduce best practice, not average practice.”
OHS professionals and regulators can pore over these words for a long time looking for hope. There is precious little.