Writing recent articles on workplace bullying and harmonisation reminded me of an interview I conducted in 2003 with the then head of the National OHS Commission, Robin Stewart-Compton. NOHSC was a predecessor to Safe Work Australia.
The extract below reminds us that National Uniformity, a cousin to harmonisation, started over twenty years ago.
SAW: In the early 1990s there was a strong push for National Uniformity of OHS laws and a recent conference of the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction industry discussed this issue at length. Will the National Strategy achieve the aims of National Uniformity over 10 years ago?
RSC: The language has changed and you are more likely to hear of National Consistency than Uniformity but although this change has occurred there exists a paradox. Ten years ago we spoke commonly of the objective of National Uniformity and made very little progress toward achieving it. We now speak of National Consistency but are probably making much greater strides to national uniformity than what could have been envisaged at the height of the National Uniformity debate.
There are two reasons for that. The first is that all of the jurisdictions have come to a greater understanding of how OHS should be regulated. Secondly, just the pressures of the national and international markets have had the same effect on OHS regulation as they had on all other regulations. It is harder and harder to justify differences between jurisdictions where there are all sorts of practical pressures. Whereas, 10 or 20 years ago we wouldn’t have given a second thought to justifying differences of approach. Now, where there is a difference, there is clearly an onus on those promoting any variation from the common approach to put forward a particular justification. Those justifications are becoming fewer.
Some of the differences one sees in regulation in my view reflect differences in a kind of historical hangover and in the way laws are presented. When you look at the analysis, sometimes the difference is in presentation rather than substance.
An important effect that we will see when the regulations become increasingly alike across the country is that we are beginning to get into the cycle of revision of core national standards. In the early 1990s the Ministers said there were 7 priority areas that they wanted covered in NOHSC standards. We are getting to the review stage of those standards and I expect that as we do that there will be much better and speedier pickup of the outcome of the revision of the standards. More jurisdictions will be doing the same thing at the same time.