Release type: Speech

Date:

ACTU Annual Occupational Health And Safety And Workers' Compensation Conference

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Thank you for that introduction and to everyone here for that kind welcome.

I want to begin by acknowledging the original inhabitants of the land on which we meet, the people of the Kulin nation.

INTRODUCTION

It’s terrific to be here, not as an opposition spokesperson, but as a minister in a Labor Government.

And it’s my great privilege to be the minister with the responsibility for ending John Howard’s extreme Work Choices laws.

There’s no doubt whatsoever that Work Choices was one of the key reasons for the outcome of the last election.

The vote to get rid of those unpopular laws was about bringing balance to our workplaces; it was a reaffirmation that the Australian people still value fairness and want a fair deal for working families.

And since our election – including in the recent Budget – fairness is no longer a dirty word in Canberra. It was behind our decision to say sorry to the stolen generations; behind our education and social inclusion agendas and behind our workplace relations agenda.

I want to thank all those Australians from all walks of life who worked so hard before last year’s election to reveal what Work Choices really meant for working people across this nation and who made fairness finally possible after more than 12 years of Coalition rule. We are honoring the mandate we received on November 24.

As you know, the Transition to Forward with Fairness Act commenced on 28 March and AWAs have been consigned to the rubbish bin of history – where they belong. I admit that it’s taking us longer to dispose of the mountains of Work Choices mouse pads, pens and other paraphernalia but we’re working on that too.

And later this year we will be introducing our substantive reforms to ensure that employees will have a genuine safety net in the form of 10 National Employment Standards and modern awards that will protect a further 10 important conditions.

Enterprise-based collective bargaining, aided by rules to ensure good faith bargaining by all, will help deliver fair and productive workplaces.

And we will create Fair Work Australia – a new independent umpire that will assist in the resolution of workplace disputes and ensure that everyone complies with their obligations in the workplace.

Unfortunately, the Liberal Party remains committed to Work Choices. If re-elected, the Liberals would re-introduce Work Choices and AWAs. The Leader of the Opposition confirmed this recently when he said John Howard got it right on workplace relations.

Keeping Work Choices in the bin and off the statute books will require continuous campaigning because the Liberal Party will always be the Work Choices party.

WORK CHOICES AND OH&S

Work Choices was not just about industrial relations.

Those of us who have seen the sometimes tragic consequences of workplace accidents know that accidents and unhealthy work practices are far more likely when workplace cooperation and trust are replaced by conflict and suspicion.

It was exactly this sort of workplace culture that Work Choices encouraged.

Employees should not have to worry about the consequences for their employment or their next individual statutory agreement if they raise health and safety issues in the workplace.

The culture of Work Choices had the potential to make unsafe and unhealthy working practices more common and to nullify some of the gains made since the beginning of the National Occupational Health and Safety Strategy.

A NEW APPROACH – COOPERATION

The Rudd Government’s approach to our workplaces is different.

We believe co-operation and collaboration in the workplace is fundamental to ensuring workplace health and safety.

For any occupational health and safety system to work properly, employees need to be confident that they can raise issues of concern, free from fear of dismissal and free from the fear that doing so will affect negotiations over their individual pay and conditions.

And similarly, employers need to be free from the suspicion that occupational health and safety is being used as a bargaining tool. By putting conflict instead of good faith into workplace relationships, the Howard Government's workplace laws served only to allow such suspicions to flourish.

Replacing conflict with cooperation is just one part of our bid to get accidents, illnesses and compensation claims down.

Because we need to do better.

WE NEED TO DO BETTER

Despite the best efforts of so many people over recent years – unions, employers and employees – there are still far too many workplace-related injuries, illnesses and deaths in Australia.

It’s true that in recent years most industries have improved their records.

Work-related deaths have dropped by 36 per cent since 1996 – and compensation claims by 13 percent in the same period.

But it hasn’t all been good news.

Comparatively, we’re still well behind the world leaders.

In 2004 the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission estimated that Australia had the seventh-lowest workplace fatality rate of 20 comparable established market economies. We may be in the top seven, but our rate is still 71 per cent higher than in Sweden and 62 per cent higher than in the U.K.

The rate of improvement needs to be increased significantly if we are to meet our goal of reaching the same level of workplace fatalities as the U.K. by 2012 when the current National Occupational Health and Safety Strategy expires.

In a prosperous society like ours, illness, injury and death rates like these are totally unacceptable.

And while our focus will always be on human life and health, it’s also worth noting that workplace injuries still cost our economy some $34 billion per year.

THERE IS MUCH TO BE DONE

So there is much to be done.

Our health, safety and compensation systems remain unnecessarily complex and costly.

Because of a lack of action, inconsistencies are being created among all of the jurisdictions and putting some employees at risk of poorer safety standards and lower rates of compensation than those of comparable workers.

At the same time, these inconsistencies are also increasing complexity, paperwork and costs for the 39,000 Australian businesses that operate across state boundaries.

Rising costs due to lack of adequate reform must not be allowed to lead to the lowering of health and safety standards because lowering standards is totally the wrong way to address the problem.

The safety of workplaces should never be compromised by corner cutting.

And it’s a false economy anyway, because the inevitable increase in accidents and unhealthy working conditions will push up compensation and premium costs in the longer run. There is a statistical inevitability to the tragedies this will lead to.

While it is right to seek to lower costs, it is wrong to do so at the expense of health and safety.

A NEW GOAL – BETTER, SAFER WORKPLACES

There is a better way. It requires proper reform.

Sadly, the Howard Government showed a distinct lack of interest in making positive reforms over the last decade.

This was amply demonstrated by the fact that the former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Joe Hockey, never attended a single Ministerial Council with his State counterparts to discuss how to keep Australian workplaces safe and reduce red-tape for business.

The former Government's focus on occupational health and safety was limited to tinkering at the margins with Comcare.

The new Government has another, better, approach and it started with taking immediate action on Comcare.

A REVIEW OF COMCARE

As you would be aware, in December last year I announced a moratorium on declaring any more corporations eligible to self-insure under the Comcare scheme.

The Comcare scheme, which was originally designed primarily for white-collar public sector workplaces, had seen significant expansion and serious questions were being raised about its capacity to properly deal with industries that have a very different injury profile and to properly compensate workers suffering those injuries.

The Rudd Government is particularly concerned that all employees covered under the scheme are protected by rigorous OHS safeguards and appropriate workers’ compensation benefits.

In January I released the terms of reference for a review of the Comcare scheme and invited submissions from interested parties.

The purpose of the review is to ensure that Comcare is a suitable OHS and workers’ compensation system for self-insurers and their employees and it seeks information and recommendations on issues such as whether Comcare provides:

  • appropriate OHS and workers’ compensation coverage;
  • effective rehabilitation and return to work outcomes; and
  • appropriate consultation mechanisms for employees affected by an employer’s application for or variation of a self-insurance licence.

The review has received eighty submissions from workers, businesses and employer representatives, unions, state governments, the legal profession and the not-for-profit sector. Additional consultations with key stakeholders including unions, businesses and state governments have also been conducted.

An initial draft report of the review will be completed by the end of July.

But as we announced in the 2008-09 Budget, we are taking immediate steps to increase the amounts of compensation payable to families of those workers who, tragically, die on the job.

BETTER AND SAFER WORKPLACES FOR ALL AUSTRALIANS

We have a long-term goal: better and safer workplaces for all Australians. We believe that the path to this goal lies in giving a greater emphasis to prevention as well as national cooperation.

The Government’s policies will be based on two fundamental, non-negotiable rights:

  • The right of all employees to a safe and healthy workplace; and
  • The right of employers to expect that workers will cooperate to produce a safe and healthy working environment and not abuse such goals for unrelated industrial purposes.

THE FOUNDATIONS FOR CHANGE ARE NOW BEING SET

The foundations for our changes are now being set.

We’ve made them a priority part of our National Reform Agenda.

In the wake of the 2020 Summit, the Government has set itself the task of creating a seamless national economy unhampered by unnecessary state duplications, overlaps and differences.

Occupational health and safety is a prime candidate for this sort of reform.

To get the ball rolling, occupational health and safety harmonisation was raised at the new Government’s first Workplace Relations Ministers' Council on 1 February 2008.

At that meeting, all ministers noted the Federal Government's commitment to harmonise relevant laws and agreed that the most effective way to achieve our harmonisation goal was through the creation of model legislation.

The state and territory ministers supported the Commonwealth's intention to initiate a review to develop such model legislation.

Further progress is expected at the follow-up Ministerial Council meeting tomorrow [23 May]. Of course reform is never easy. Different views will be put and arguments will be thrashed through. But we will drive the agenda to its conclusion.

In the wake of the first WRMC meeting, a 3-member occupational health and safety review panel was created – you’ve already heard from its members: the Chair, Robin Stewart-Crompton, Mr Barry Sherriff and Ms Stephanie Mayman.

The Panel met for the first time on 15 April and has already commenced the process of consultation with stakeholders and will be visiting every State and Territory in order to do so.

They will be reviewing relevant legislation in each State, Territory and Commonwealth jurisdiction for the purpose of making recommendations on the optimal structure and content of a model occupational health and safety Act that is capable of being adopted right across the country.

The Panel will make its recommendations in two stages.

By 31 October 2008, it will report to the Ministerial Council on duties of care (including the identification of duty holders and the scope and limits of duties) and the nature and structure of offences (including defences).

And by 30 January 2009, it will report on the range of remaining matters.

An issues paper is expected to be published shortly and submissions will be invited.

We are determined to speed up the process as much as possible. And to this end, the Council of Australian Governments agreed that all Australian governments should aspire to a reduction of the five-year harmonisation timeframe. This will be on the agenda for the COAG meeting in July this year.

CONCLUSION

In recent years occupational health and safety has become the forgotten element of national workplace relations policy.

It’s now time to focus on its importance – to protect lives and livelihoods and to ensure the future strength of Australia’s workers compensation schemes.

There’s too much in the balance to let the system decline in effectiveness and increase in cost.

Lives are at stake.

So is our economic strength, because occupational health and safety reform is also an important micro-economic reform.

The right policies will reduce cost pressures on employers, self-insurers and taxpayers alike and increase profitability, wages and productivity.

The best approach is through national cooperation.

By working together, the Commonwealth and the States and Territories can get injuries down, costs down and safety up.

It’s another example of what we can achieve through a national reform agenda and concerted action through COAG.

We’re committed to national reform. We’re following through.

The sort of cooperation we want depends on full consultation and I urge you to continue to participate and make your contributions every step of the way.

Thank you.