An OHS look at the Australian Labor Party’s National Platform

Cover of National Platform 2011 ALPThe leadership squabbles in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) have diminished  for the moment, and the next Federal election is set for September 2013.  Most everyone is tipping the ALP to lose the election.  The verb “lose” is specifically chosen, for the opposition Liberal/National coalition will probably win “by default”.  Whatever the electoral outcomes, the major political parties in Australia have current positions and policies on workplace safety.  Six months out from an election, it may be worth looking at those policies, as they currently stand. The first is that of the ALP.

The ALP has an extensive National Platform that was presented at its National Conference in 2012.  Below are some of the statements from that document as they pertain to occupational health and safety (OHS).  Some commentary is offered on these statements.

“The Labor Government places the highest priority on worker safety, particularly miner worker safety.” (page 42)

“Labor will continue to work towards a single national system for each of rail safety regulation and investigation, maritime safety regulation and heavy vehicle regulation.” (page 62)

It has always seemed odd that the ALP holds to a single national system on rail and maritime safety yet refused to pursue this in workplace health and safety. The ALP is finalising its rail safety legislative program in less time than it took for its haphazard Work Health and Safety harmonisation.

“Labor will work with industry stakeholders and state and territory governments to examine safety issues and to work towards solutions which will underpin a new safety culture in the industry. Where the Commonwealth already regulates private sector Occupational Health & Safety and Workers’ Compensation in the shipping, offshore oil and gas, and stevedoring industries, Labor will make further efforts to eliminate regulatory uncertainty and dual jurisdictional involvement including through cooperation with state and territory  governments.” (page 63)

It is worrying when a political party or government discusses “safety culture” as it comes across with the same sincerity many use for “zero harm”.  Safety is too important to be aspirational.  It should be defined with clear performance targets and a realistic estimation of the resources required to achieve those targets.  Those targets should be enforceable or punishable.  The vagueness of “safety culture” does not fit evidence-based policy but its terminological political attraction is obvious.

“Labor will advance its workplace safety agenda through Safe Work Australia, the national body overseeing the development of model Occupational Health and Safety laws.” (page 102)

This is a curious statement of faith in Safe Work Australia (SWA) when the government close to ignore SWA on its workplace bullying strategy.  Many eyebrows were raised by the placement of workplace bullying reforms within Fair Work Australia (FWA).  If the ultimate aim was to prevent and reduce workplace bullying, a reformed and strengthened SWA should have been the first option.  FWA often operates an adversarial system based on harm that has already been generated.

“Labor believes that every workplace injury is preventable and is committed to the highest possible standard of workplace safety and will support industry, employers, trade unions and workers to reduce workplace risk, hazards and injury.” (page 103)

This statement is clearly the most relevant and powerful in terms of OHS.  Few would argue that every workplace injury is preventable but there remains many who believe some industries, occupations and workplaces are inherently dangerous and, therefore, cannot improve on safety.  A test of this commitment to the highest possible standard of workplace safety will come from the government’s own response to the physical and psychological needs of its own workforce, and the degree of support it provides to the stakeholders listed.

“Labor will support the productivity and development of Australian primary industries by……. improving safety in the workplace and on the farm.” (page 64)

Interestingly, there is no mention of safety culture in this context, even though  the strong familial and community base of farming may provide a better opportunity of attaining it.  It would be interesting to see if there is any correlation between mentions of “safety culture” and unionised workplaces.

The ALP’s action on quadbike safety is a positive example in support of its farm safety commitment.

“In relation to mining and milling, Labor will… ensure the safety of workers in the uranium industry is given priority.” (page 69)

This extends to ” the health and safety of employees and affected communities, particularly Indigenous communities.”(page 69)

“In delivering a modern workplace relations system, Labor will… work with trade unions and employers to ensure that employees have access to adequate information on their workplace rights, relevant industrial agreements, occupational health and safety and other employment information.” (pages 100-101)

The ALP continues to follow the tripartite consultation process advocated by Lord Robens and others many years ago.  Sadly the blockage of its OHS harmonisation strategy came from neither the unions or the employers but from several State Governments.  It may be working with this level of government that needs to be reasserted throughout the National Platform.

“Labor will work cooperatively with the states and territories to harmonise Occupational Health and Safety frameworks, including the Commonwealth’s own activities, to reflect best health and safety practice within Australia consistent with the best international standards.” (page 103)

Understandably this continues to be included in the platform even though the Victorian Government has ruled out any possible harmonisation and the West Australia government continues to prevaricate.

“Labor will redouble the national efforts to prevent the tragedy of suicide including….  focus on direct suicide prevention and crisis intervention through identifying and addressing the causes of suicide, ensuring crisis counselling services are available and improving safety at suicide ‘hotspots’.” (page 142)

This statement follows the dominant perspective that the prevention of suicides is best achieved through education and crisis intervention but “improving safety at suicide ‘hotspots'” presents a particular challenge.  For instance, most in the rail industry would state that fencing of the metropolitan rail corridors is too expensive and therefore not worth considering.  However it is difficult to understand “improving safety” as anything other than some form of physical barrier.  These have been installed on the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne, a notorious suicide location, and are the preferred control measure on cliffs, bridges and high-rise buildings.

Every election I obtain a copy of the pledges of the winning political party, laminate the list and post it on our fridge.  In this way I can be easily reminded of the promises for social improvement.  It usually does not take long for the form to attract its first red pen cross out after a promised is broken.  Over three years, there are usually more red crosses than blue ticks but the exercise is very important to remember what is said, what is pledged and the intended outcomes.  This blog post is part of that process.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

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