Grab the political OHS opportunity

Yesterday, Australia’s Parliament opened for its Winter session. As per protocol, the Governor-General officially opened the process with a speech (page 13) about his government’s agenda. It is no surprise that it is heavy on economic reform but there was a few lines about lawlessness that are of interest.

The Governor-General’s words are aimed at the lawlessness of certain trade unions but we could impose occupational health and safety (OHS) on the statements as well. On the issue of Regulatory Reform and Industrial Relations, the Governor-General said the government:

“… will partner with businesses in identifying the barriers, blockages and bottlenecks to investment. Confidence to invest relies on productive and harmonious workplaces. This means tackling lawlessness in workplaces whenever and wherever it may occur…….

This work will be evidence based. It will protect the rights and entitlements of workers and identify a way forward that will benefit our economy and, most importantly, the workers who rely on it.”

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Beware any politician talking about the coloured tapes of bureaucracy

Some of the Australian media on May 8 2019 began quoting the current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, over his concerns about the “green tape” of environmental laws and something called “the expansion of union “red tape””. (Nine Australia’s papers, paywalled) Crikey’s Bernard Keane asks “Does Australia really have a ‘green tape’ crisis?” (paywalled) and proceeds to answer, No we don’t. But where there is Green Tape, the Red Tape of occupational health and safety (OHS) follows.

What Morrison means by “union red tape” is unclear. The newspapers included this quote from him:

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The politics of safety

Bill Shorten third from the right at the 2012 Safe Work Australia awards in Parliament House Canberra

There is little doubt that Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, believes that occupational health and safety (OHS) is important. His interest was on show, perhaps most significantly, during his time as a union leader at the Beaconsfield mine disaster but he has spoken at various OHS awards, the opening of the National Workers Memorial, local memorials, and was a participant in the Maxwell Review of Victoria’s OHS review in 2006.

OHS has not appeared yet in the current Federal Election campaign. It rarely does. But there is an opportunity to argue that the Australian Labor Party (ALP), of which Shorten is the leader, will not only create more jobs for Australian but that they will be safe jobs. To an OHS professional, it seems to be a simple position, a position that is extremely difficult to argue against. However, the politics of safety in Australia cannot be separated from the role and activities of the trade union movement. Yet, OHS is not just a union challenge, it is relevant to all workers and their families, but only the trade unions seem to have an OHS voice. Letting this situation continue is not sustainable.

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The dicks are swinging over OHS

A couple more election campaign publications and statements have appeared in relation to occupational health and safety (OHS), one by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and another in response to some advertising by the Construction Forestry Mining Maritime and Energy Union (CFMEU) released by the Master Builders Australia (MBA).

Institute of Public Affairs

There is nothing in the IPA report “20 policies to fix Australia” that directly relates to OHS, but there is a continuance of the desire for less “red tape”, a desire that has often mentioned OHS regulations and licencing as examples. The IPA says:

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In an industry where there are no employers, who is responsible for workplace health and safety?

The Victorian Government has been running an inquiry for a little while on the “on-demand workforce”, a term which seems to be a synonym for the gig economy. The government recently extended the deadline for public submissions. This is often a sign that inquiries are struggling for information which is almost an inevitable consequence if you schedule an inquiry over the Christmas/New Year break.

This inquiry has direct relevance to occupational health and safety (OHS) and vice versa.

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