The Liberals, currently lead by Tony Abbott, are the Australian equivalent of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom and the Republicans in the United States and follow many of the free market principles that support capitalism. In terms of workplace safety, commitments are less obvious than those from the Left side of politics. Often workplace safety is wrapped in other concepts and there is an expectation that benefits to workers will somehow flow on from those benefits granted to employers and business, benefits frequently termed as part of productivity.
The Liberal’s policy document entitled: Our Plan, Real Solutions for All Australians lists the following productivity improvements:
- Boosting workforce participation (page 20)
- Improving government services (page 21)
- Cutting government green and red tape (page 22)
- Improving competition policy (page 23)
- Building more modern infrastructure (page 23), and
- Reducing union militancy in workplaces (page 23)
Both major political parties in Australia profess to place job creation above all else. There are sound economic reasons for focusing on jobs. Labour is the foundation for productivity, it reduces the social services burden, and creates an additional taxation base, amongst other benefits. But what seems not to be accepted and stated by these parties is that to achieve those economic benefits workers need to be free from physical injury, and to achieve peak productivity workers need to be mentally fit for work in a workplace that is free from physical and mental hazards. If the physical and mental wellbeing of workers is not valued and factored into the economic thinking, injuries and illnesses can occur and THEN workers can become an economic burden.
The Liberal Party believes it is essential to
“address Australia’s growing workplace militancy, flexibility and productivity challenges.” (page 10)
Elsewhere, the Liberals specify that workplace militancy is primarily union militancy but there is an implication in the policy document that speaking up for individual rights, such as those that relate to occupational health and safety, may be interpreted as militancy, if speaking up is contrary to business ideologies. This is where flexibility becomes a curious discussion of whose flexibility and flexibility for whose benefit.
The Liberal Party is a strong supporter of families. The ALP regularly refers to “working families” but the Liberals add no qualifications. Yet there has been debate for decades on just what is a family, particularly in Australia since the inception of the Family Law Act in 1975. As family is a core concept in the Liberal Party strategy it may be worth investigating what the party means by family, in the same way that the party is being asked what they understand marriage to be.
The issue of red tape is of particular OHS concern as one of the first government departments to be required to report to Victoria’s Red Tape Commissioner was the Victorian Workcover Authority. The increased attention to Due Diligence on OHS matters introduced, or emphasised, through the recent Work Health and Safety legislative changes only works if the diligent actions can be verified and that requires paperwork. There is an assumption in the Liberal Party document that red tape is generated by bureaucracy when it can be argued that bureaucratic red tape is often a necessary, if unexpected and unwelcome, consequence of legal and economic changes.
The Liberal Party states that it will replace some “burdensome regulatory reporting requirements with independent audits” (page 22). This may be a valid suggestion but it is important that any change does not result in a diminution of service or the quality of that service. It could also be argued that various State OHS inspectorates already undertake such verification and compliance audits but that argument is unlikely to result in additional resources when there is a political focus on economic austerity and budget surpluses and a fear of debt.
“While we support the harmonization of Occupational Health and Safety laws, and initially suggested a national approach, it is vital that we do not burden the community with unnecessary red tape that would have negative lead-on effects to the economy.”
This stance implies that, should the Liberal Party gain government in September 2013, the OHS profession is unlikely to gain much of a hearing if OHS cannot be seen to provide positive economic benefits. Focusing on the cost of safety will be less attractive than proving economic benefits. That economic research needs to be started now.
As the 2013 federal election campaign becomes formalised, one can expect more specificity from the various political parties, hopefully, including occupational health and safety. This is unlikely which is partly due to the fact that the OHS profession has rarely been interested in asking politicians questions about OHS. If it believes it is a profession of national significance the questions need to be drafted and a strategy written for their use.