Over the last few weeks the Australian print media has published several articles based on the expressions of concern by some business and employer associations about Safe Work Australia’s code of practice on workplace bullying. The latest article was in the Sunday Herald-Sun on 28 October 2012, “Bullying blueprint attacked” (not available in its original form online), which opens with the inflammatory paragraph:
“Workers in cushy jobs will be able to claim compo for being left idle, under national laws drawn up to combat bullying.”
The later online version of the article, by the same writer, Natasha Bita, has a much less aggressive title, “Plan to ban work pranks”, and a revised text. The “new” opening paragraph says:
“Workers will be able to claim compensation if their boss does not provide them with enough work and office pranks would be banned under national laws to combat bullying.”
“like something out of the socialist playbook whereby personal responsibility is thrown out the window and everyone is bound in bubble wrap.”
Senator Abetz is known for these types of colourful statements but the question that should be asked is, why raise these concerns now?
Abetz refers to a “revised National Code on Bullying” but any revised Code, although initially scheduled for release in late 2012, due to the instigation of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Workplace Bullying, most are forecasting the revised Code for early 2013. Confirmed today by the Senator’s spokesperson, the document the Senator is referring to is the draft workplace bullying code that has been under review since December 2011!
The original Sunday Herald-Sun article refers to the code as “draft” repeatedly and states that
“the code has been put on ice pending the outcome of the Parliamentary inquiry…”
Senator Abetz fails to mention the draft status of the Code.
The Senator also refers to inquiries in the recent Senate Estimates Committee. Departmental officials repeatedly stressed that the code was a draft and that all the concerns expressed by business groups and Opposition politicians are being considered through the review process.
The newspaper articles are an alarmist beat-up over workplace bullying issues raised, originally, over 12 months ago. The Government agreed not to proceed with the draft code until there was much more consultation. Part of that consultation was the announcement by Prime Minister Gillard of a parliamentary inquiry which would take submissions and conduct public hearings around Australia. The conservative parties, of which Senator Abetz is a member, held three of the seven committee positions. The Government decided to delay the release of a revised workplace bullying code in order to incorporate the valuable information garnered by the Parliamentary inquiry.
A considered reading of the publicly available submissions and the Hansard transcripts of the public hearings clearly illustrate the complexity of the issue, the magnitude of the challenge for any regulator but, more importantly, opportunities for improvement through innovative initiatives.
Senator Abetz and his ideological colleagues on the conservative side of politics continue to ridicule workplace bullying and other workplace psychosocial hazards instead of looking for reform opportunities. The Parliamentary inquiry committee members heard first-hand accounts of the social and personal damage that can result from workplace bullying and, of equal importance, the poor management of bullying incidents.
The Parliamentary Inquiry was at great pains to try to determine the severity and spread of the workplace bullying issue. They sought as much data as possible to increase the likelihood of making recommendations based on evidence and not speculation or anecdotes. There is no doubt that trying to regulate interpersonal communication and relationships through regulation will be enormously difficult, if not impossible. It may be that the inquiry’s recommendations and any resulting Code of Practice may be so general in the hazard control measures to be next to useless however the Inquiry heard several innovations that could streamline the assessment and resolution of workplace bullying issues, should there be the political will to implement.
It seems since the OHS harmonisation process commenced many years ago, after the initial actions of the Conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, and encouraged and managed by Prime Minister Gillard and Workplace Relations Minister Shorten, that workplace health and safety has never been so politicised on the national stage. Sadly this has come at a cost, in some sectors, of forgetting the purpose of OHS laws, the reduction of physical and psychological harm on Australian citizens, workers and their families.