New political challenges for OHS in Australia

This weekend the Australian people voted for the conservative Liberal Party to be the next Federal government.   Workplace safety has been largely absent from the pre-election campaign but when it has been mentioned it has almost always been couched in terms of productivity.  In the next few years, workplace safety issues must be couched in terms of productivity to have any hope of gaining the ear of the new government and, particularly, the ear of Senator Eric Abetz, the most likely candidate for the ministry of workplace relations.

Workplace Bullying

Recent changes to workplace bullying laws which provide a prominent role of the Fair Work Commission are unlikely to be rolled back but Abetz has promised changes.  In an interview in the Australian Financial Review  on 29 August 2013 (only available through a paywall), Abetz was reported as promising to introduce a

“filter process” so bullying complaints cannot be taken directly to the Fair Work Commission.”

Abetz believes that the recent changes can allow a workplace bullying claim to bypass the employer and he is “open to suggestions” on how to avoid this.  He suggested that the State-based OHS regulators could have a stronger role in this but he fails to understand that these regulators are struggling to cope with the time and resources required to investigate workplace bullying claims.

Abetz wants workers to avoid “forum shopping” over workplace bullying which could lead to the

“scourge of bullying [becoming] a joke and people won’t take it seriously.”

But this focus remains on the remediation of workplace bullying and not on prevention.  Yet it is by focusing on prevention that this government will have the best chance to address the productivity and cost impacts of workplace bullying.

Productivity Commission

The Liberal Party is putting great faith in Australia’s Productivity Commission to provide an independent context to its workplace relations agenda.  It needs to do more than that.  The government is still quoting the cost of workplace bullying in Australia as anywhere between $A6 billion and $A36 billion but this is a dubious best guess.  As I pointed out in June 2012:

“There is little, if any Australian evidence of the costs of workplace bullying specifically. The Productivity Commission estimate was based on international studies and the estimate was already ten years old when published by the Productivity Commission.”

The Productivity Commission estimated on the available data but the Commission or the government has done little to establish a more accurate estimate of the cost of workplace bullying.  Even the recent Parliamentary inquiry into workplace bullying could do no better than reiterate the Productivity Commission’s estimate.

cover - Pages from ohs-report - performance benchmarking March 2010It is important to note that the Productivity Commission also identified a range of related indirect and direct costs from workplace bullying:

“Direct costs result from absenteeism, staff turnover, legal and compensation costs, and redundancy and early retirement payouts. Hidden direct costs include management time consumed in addressing claims for bullying, investigating allegations of bullying through formal grievance procedures and workplace support services such as counselling. Other costs include the loss of productivity resulting from: reduced performance of victims who continue to work; replacing victims with initially less experienced and so less productive staff; and internal transfers, and loss or absenteeism of co-workers (Sheehan 2001). [note the 2001 date of this research]

As well as the costs imposed on employers, victims of bullying also bear significant costs. These costs can include: isolation and withdrawal; fear of dismissal or loss of job promotion opportunities; stress and anxiety; low self esteem; other mental health symptoms; and a number of physical symptoms. Other costs to the economy include public sector costs such as the health and medical services needed to treat bullied individuals; income support and other government benefits provided to victims of bullying who become unemployed; and the legal costs associated with pursuing formal complaints.” (page 288)

These costs only relate to one manifestation of psychosocial hazards at work, bullying.  The discussion of bullying exists in the Productivity Commission report alongside work-related stress which has its own cost estimates.

The Liberal Party’s focus on workplace bullying, mostly through Senator Abetz, does nothing to address the plethora of cost impacts listed above.  The narrowness of this focus needs to be contested.

Workplace Mental Health

The government has the opportunity to bring these workplace costs under the purview of mental health generally but the Liberal Party’s attitude to mental health has been all about public health with work-related mental health issues hanging tenuously off to the side.  There have been several suggestions in the past for workplace mental health strategies to move from the OHS regulators to the various health departments but none have been acted upon.  The new Liberal Government could look at this strategy as part of its streamlining of the public sector, minimising “waste” and reducing red tape.

The quotes above mention productivity impacts of workplace bullying.  These seem logical as most believe that an engaged, happy workforce is likely to be more productive.  This logic jump needs analysis particularly as there are several different elements in productivity.  The element that is most relevant to OHS is labour productivity and labour productivity appears very healthy.

How can it be that mental health stress claims seem to be increasing and yet people are being more productive?  Shouldn’t the increased stress be lowering labour productivity?  It is this type of question that demands analysis of workplace mental health and bullying so there can be a reduction in harm at the same time as increased productivity.  It is this type of question that the incoming government, probably through the Productivity Commission, needs to address, and not “based on international studies”.

Political Challenge

The political challenge for the Liberal Party in the area of workplace safety and productivity will be very difficult as it is committed to an agenda of less regulation and it would fight hard against any potential accusations of supporting a “nanny state” or compounding business-related red tape.  The new government will have to demonstrate how it will “govern for all Australians” when some of its strategies – reducing red tape and regulation – could negatively affect worker’s health and safety.

The political challenge for the OHS profession is to reinterpret its activities and interests to match the new political environment.  The union movement, the traditional advocate of OHS, will not get a sympathetic audience from the conservative government.  The unions may even boycott tripartite discussions if the government goes through with its promise to reinstate the much-hated Australian Building and Construction Commission.  OHS must convince the new government that safety generates productivity levels beyond the cost of implementation, yet this is almost impossible without evidence.  Evidence will trump logic every time, at least in politics.

Safe Work Australia, an agency of the Australian government, developed a national OHS strategy that included productivity as a core reason for the strategy.  It stated that:

“It has been shown that good work health and safety improves long-term business productivity.”

Now it must not only show this to its new masters but convince the political masters of its truth.  An earlier incarnation of the the agency was neutered by an earlier conservative Prime Minister, John Howard.  Howard has offered very high praise for incoming Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.


Over the next few months as the Liberal Party settles into its new role, it will be fascinating to watch how issues left over from the previous Labor Government will fare.

What is the future for Quadwatch?  Will the quad bike manufacturers be able to stifle possible product design changes and win the argument by placing safety almost wholly in the hands of the quad bike rider?

What of the draft code of practice on workplace bullying?  It is on its second draft but the finalised code will owe its successful implementation to a government that has not be enamoured with the code’s development.  Senator Abetz has been one of the draft Code’s loudest critics and is likely to be the minister in charge of it,

In broader terms, the work health and safety harmonisation process remains incomplete with two conservative State governments holding out.  The new Federal government may remove any remaining urgency for this process and may embolden State governments to wind back some of the law’s elements even further.

The Senate structure will be crucial to this government’s reform strategy but the record number of candidates has complicated the Senate remarkably.  Some newly created parties that have existed on the fringe of mainstream politics may now have a voice in the Senate.  Australian miner, Clive Palmer, has one of his party’s candidates in the senate.  The Palmer United Party has five policies – none that affect workplace relations.  Other single-use parties, such as the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, never intended to have a broad range of social policies.  Yet these types of parties may hold the balance of power in the Senate and need to vote on workplace relations and OHS topics.

All of this means that Australia’s OHS professionals and their associations need refined political antennae and to revise their strategies (if they had any) to accommodate the new political approach – safety through productivity, safety without bureaucracy, safety without waste and, perhaps the most challenging, safety with minimal implementation cost.  Or the profession can keep its head down until the Labor Party regains power.  In that case, make sure the ergonomic chair will be comfy for the next two terms of a Liberal Government.

Kevin Jones

4 thoughts on “New political challenges for OHS in Australia”

  1. I largely disagree with Merv above. Its great to see Kevin how your trying to predict the way the OHS field will change as a result of the political change. Thanks for helping to get us ready Kevin. I also note that you have political science qualifications along with your H&S experaince. Please keep this fantastic blog up. The time and effort you put in is appreciated. Fantastic article Kevin.

  2. This article sounds more like a rant against the \”conservative\” politics of the Liberal Party gaining the People\’s vote to form Government, than addressing the real issues in a balanced and unbiased manner.

    The People of Australia in the majority voted for the Liberal Party in order to save what is left of the country and the economy, damaged and destroyed by what history will show as the most destructive, divisive and incompetent Labor government since Federation.

    For the last six years Labor beggared this country with its incompetence. Was it not KRudd himself that issued the order to proceed with the Home Insulation program, despite being given clear and unambiguous advice as to the risks (especially the physical risks to workers) by his own staff and recognised professionals? Do you need reminding that this ended in the tragic deaths of 4 installers?

    If you wish to follow the Union\’s petulant reaction to the ABCC being reinstated, by \”keeping your head down until the Labor Party regains power\”, may I suggest to you that this is not the behaviour of a leader in OHS.

    There is no doubt that OHS in Australia is going to experience a changed dynamic on all levels – however this does not automatically mean that this is negative or adverse.

    Senator Abetz has neither the knowledge, nor the ability, nor the motivation to deliver anything remotely practical and balanced in terms of OHS. He will do what big business wants – which is less red/green tape and a lowering of the bar on compliance.

    To Abetz \”productivity\” equates to how many widgits can be made for the least cost. Abetz\’s battleground will be IR, not OHS.

    Don\’t waste your time trying to convince either Abetz or those motivating him (big end of town) that safety contributes to productivity, simply because (a) you\’re not in the big end of town, and (b) which model of safety are you so convinced will contribute to productivity – the current one?????

    The Liberals are now in government – Get used to it. Lamenting the Labor loss or putting your head in a hole will not solve any OHS issue whatsoever.

    The best way forward is not to try to convince anyone that you are right about safety being a positive in productivity. The best way forward is to deliver to the likes of Abetz a solid plan, underpinned by irrefutable proof by way of empirical evidence, with full costings attached, and do it in such a manner that he takes ownership of it and believes that he designed it himself. Do this, and whatever you wish for will become legislation.

    Putting your head in a hole will not.

    1. I agree with your suggested strategy in your last paragraph Merv. There does need to be a plan based on evidence but I am not sure who will take the lead on this. as it requires time and money to obtain local, solid evidence. Any suggestions?

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