Australia’s Federal election campaign has reached the halfway point but the political parties have yet to officially launch their campaigns so the policies that may relate to occupational health and safety (OHS) are unclear. Even the Australian Greens have yet to launch their campaign but some of their long-held policy positions are clear. The Safety Institute of Australia (SIA) has received the workplace safety campaign policies of the Australian Labor Party. More discussion on policies will occur when more are released.Although the Australian Greens’ did not respond to the SIA’s request their existing workplace relations policies have several OHS principles.
- “All people must have the right to pursue their wellbeing in conditions of freedom and dignity, economic security and equal opportunity.
- Every Australian worker has the right to work in a safe and harassment-free environment.
- People have the right to a safe workplace free from occupational hazards.
- Industrial manslaughter is a crime.
- The objectives of profitability and efficiency should not override social and ecological objectives.
- Workplace laws should provide better work-life balance, with people having more control over their working arrangements and enforceable rights to flexible working practices, balanced against the legitimate operational needs of the employer. People should also have legal protection against working excessive hours.
- Workplace safety should have an overriding importance over all other aspects of work and workers’ compensation schemes should prioritise rehabilitation at no charge to the injured worker and full compensation.”
Specific aims include:
- “The introduction of strong, nationally consistent industrial manslaughter laws.
- The introduction of strong, nationally consistent workplace health and safety laws.”
The mechanics of achieving these aims and applying these principles will always be problematic due to political circumstances but their clear statement indicates continuing commitments and reduce the need to reissue policy platforms prior to each election. As long as the policies remain contemporary, their longevity indicates commitment.
Also the Australian Greens has been in a political position that has meant the introduction of any of its policies relies on the support of either of the major parties, the ALP or the Liberal/National coalition. To a large extent this renders its workplace relations policies as of academic interest unless they can be amended to other legislative changes. The Greens seems to be increasing its influence in the House of Representatives but not to the extent that it will govern in its own right. If this situation changed, perhaps the policies would also.
- Asbestos awareness
- Chemical safety
- Certification of health and safety professionals
- Harmonisation of WHS legislation
- The OHS Body of Knowledge
Many of these areas will be of no surprise to many Australians but the ALP support for SIA initiatives like the OHS Body of Knowledge, Certification and the Accreditation of tertiary OHS courses is unusual and maybe the ALP playing for support from the SIA. On certification, the ALP says:
“Labor believes certification is an effective mechanism to set standards, develop and maintain skills, and provide high quality advice to industry. This in turn assists in providing the highest level of protection for workers. “
On Accreditation, it states:
“Labor believes it is critical to have a strong, evidence-based accreditation system in place to ensure the highest possible standards in OHS professional education programs. Labor therefore supports the accreditation program delivered by the Australian OHS Education Accreditation Board that seeks to improve higher education in WHS.”
The endorsement of the SIA/AOHSEAB strategy is a feather in SIA’s cap but a potential conflict area may be coming in the SIA’s criticism of the Vocational Education Training (VET) sector where the trade unions have considerable influence and investment. In a May 2016 media release the SIA described the OHS training in the VET sector as being “of poor quality”. How the SIA intends to address the quality of training remains unclear.
It will be interesting to see what emphasis the ALP gives to these two areas when it releases its election policies formally.
The ALP’s comments on harmonisation are in some ways odd.
“Labor has a strong track record in advancing WHS legislation. Starting with the Whitlam Government which commissioned an inquiry into a federal accident compensation scheme to replace State and Territory workers compensation schemes, through to the Rudd Gillard Government which saw the introduction of Safe Work Australia and oversaw all Australian governments becoming signatories to the Intergovernmental Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in Occupational Health and Safety and all jurisdictions committing to adopting the model work health and safety legislation.”
The commitment to OHS is difficult to argue against as the ALP has always promoted itself as the party of the workers ideologically and structurally through its heavy trade union membership base. Whitlam did begin a review of workers compensation, an initiative written about elsewhere, but Whitlam’s political miscalculations led to his Government’s downfall and the significant workers compensation changes have never been revisited. The Australian Government intended to harmonise the workers compensation system after OHS was harmonised but the failure of the first stage nobbled any chance for the second. That in 2016 the ALP would hark back to a failed 1975 initiative is peculiar.
Also peculiar is the reference to the “introduction of Safe Work Australia”. Safe Work Australia was a continuance of the work undertaken by the National OHS Commission (NOHSC) and the Australian Safety and Compensation Council and other bodies with a pedigree back to 1984 (a detailed history can be found in this article by Eric Windholz). The ALP would have been on much stronger ground by arguing that it provided institutional security to Safe Work Australia be reinstating some of the massive budget cuts that NOHSC suffered under the Conservative leadership of Prime Minister John Howard (refer to Windholz, footnote 35).
The ALP also mentions the commitment by all Australian State governments to harmonise OHS laws but fails to mention that the only State that refuses to introduce the harmonised laws is Victoria. The dodgy rationalisation for the refusal was put forward by a conservative government but has been perpetuated by a labor government ever since.
Another feature of the ALP election policies is its reiteration of the importance of tripartism in OHS negotiations. Sure, there is a legislative base for this focus but it excludes organisations exactly like the Safety Institute of Australia which has always struggled for a seat at any of the decision-making tables. OHS tripartism is increasingly as much about protecting the influence of the ALP’s trade union partnership as it is about progressing the OHS policy agenda.
The Safety Institute of Australia should be commended and supported in taking the initiative in approaching political parties for their policies and speaking about the political context of safety. In the past the SIA has been ridiculously shy of being publicly associated with politics in any way even though it always claimed to be a safety advocate. You cannot be an advocate without dealing with political parties, politicians and parliamentarians. This does not mean that the SIA should take a political stance. The SIA’s mission has always been to promote the importance of safety and by keeping this focus it can take the high moral ground whilst occasionally dipping its toe in the murky waters of party politics.
A federal election campaign is the perfect time to starting asking questions of the political competitors as they are desperate for an audience.