OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY AMENDMENT BILL 2007
Agreement in Principle
Debate resumed from 29 November 2007.
Mr BARRY O'FARRELL
(Ku-ring-gai—Leader of the Opposition) [10.03 a.m.], in reply: Given that this bill was introduced on 29 November 2007 it is extraordinary that no Government member has spoken on such a significant issue to business within this State. That approach perpetuates the lack of action by the Labor Party on workplace issues since the State election 11 months ago. The Premier and the Minister for Industrial Relations, the Hon. John Della Bosca, gave firm promises to introduce this very bill to try to provide a fairer and more workable occupational health and safety system in New South Wales that would have delivered safer workplaces to employers and employees.
We know the State is mired in crisis. We have a Premier asleep at the wheel allowing car crash after car crash regarding workplace safety. The State's existing occupational health and safety system is dysfunctional and is a barrier to investment and employment growth in this State. It is an impost on business and, most importantly, it fails to deliver safer workplaces for which we should all be aiming. I do not intend to reprise at great length the failings of the existing system, but we know we have an unduly adversarial occupational health and safety system in New South Wales. Instead of a system that aims to make sure that employers and employees alike do everything practicable to ensure safety within workplaces, our system seeks to impose undue responsibility on employers, encourages prosecutions and legal action, and delivers rates of accidents within our workplaces that are above the national average.
Despite having the largest number of occupational health and safety inspectors and the highest number of fines and prosecutions in the nation, New South Wales maintains an accident rate above the national average. This State's occupational health and safety system demonstrates that more regulation does not mean a better outcome. It is not necessary to just take my word; John Della Bosca agrees with that thesis. The bill I introduced, to which the Government has not responded, is the same as legislation that John Della Bosca prepared after a year's consultation with unions and employers. This bill represents the State Government's position to put back into the system a degree of fairness. It represents also the Government's attempts to ensure improvements in occupational health and safety in New South Wales.
Despite repeated promises from the Premier before and after the last State election campaign to introduce this legislation by the end of last year, nothing happened. That inaction prompted me to introduce this bill to give those opposite a chance to put up or shut up on an important issue to every New South Wales workplace. Government members had an opportunity to show their commitment to every worker in this State to improving workplace safety across New South Wales. Workplace safety should not be geared towards fines and prosecutions. It should be geared towards changing behaviour by ensuring dual responsibility of employers and employees. Above all, it should be a system designed to decrease work accidents in New South Wales to a rate lower than the national average.
Last Friday the shadow Minister for Industrial Relations and I hosted a forum in the Jubilee Room involving representatives from a number of employer groups across the State, all of whom expressed concern about the way the current system operates and their difficulty in getting even the simplest of advice from the WorkCover Authority. They described, for instance, attempts to have education programs and materials approved by WorkCover and indicated WorkCover's unwillingness. They said that WorkCover is keen to prosecute—keen to enforce black-letter law on employers—but is not prepared to work with industry groups and employers to try to impart ways to improve occupational health and safety.
The Liberal Party and The Nationals are firmly committed to occupational health and safety reform. We understand the disadvantage in which the current system places this State. We understand the significant regulatory load it places on business. We understand the unfair obligations and responsibilities it places on employers and directors of companies. One needs only to speak with the people running trucking companies across the State to understand the pressure they are facing. One needs only to speak to employees about this State's accident rate, which is above the national average, to understand why reform is necessary.
The Liberal-Nationals are determined to deliver that reform, to ensure we have a fairer system and to make both employers and employees responsible for delivering and maintaining safe workplace environments. We are also determined to ensure that prosecutions are determined in a court, consistent with other criminal matters. We are determined to restore the right of appeal against convictions and to make the prosecution in criminal matters prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, as applies in other jurisdictions. We are also determined to ensure that responsibility for all enforcement, education and prosecution issues is vested in a single independent authority—the WorkCover Authority of New South Wales.
It is upon that basis that the Liberal-Nationals will move to implement our policy on occupational health and safety and seek reform. This bill does not represent the ideal solution to this issue, although it is moving in the right direction. To co-opt a phrase, there is more to be done. What must be done first and foremost is to offer employers and employees across New South Wales hope of fewer workplace accidents and hope that this Government understands the problem and that it will support this legislation. The election of a Liberal-Nationals government will see the implementation of policy changes to ensure that the existing system is reformed in the way that I have outlined. Beyond that, the Liberal-Nationals are determined to shift the approach to occupational health and safety.
Occupational health and safety is ultimately a matter of behaviour. To change behaviour we must educate and train people. We should not have an occupational health safety system that is judged not on the delivery of safer workplaces but on the number of prosecutions launched and fines imposed. We need fundamental change of the basis upon which the legislative arrangements are implemented. We should be working with industry groups to give them best possible practice. We should ensure that those who work in and manage industries have a better understanding of and are better educated about the way in which they can practically assist to avoid accidents of the type that cause distress to families and others and to this place from time to time.
This issue will not go away for the State Government. It is a disgraceful performance on the part of a State Government that professes to have a commitment to small and large businesses and to improving the economic interests of this State that not one member opposite has contributed to the debate on this issue. This issue affects every employee and employer in this State. The Liberal-Nationals will continue to highlight the State Government's hypocrisy, embarrassment and refusal to address this issue. The Premier's latest excuse—apparently he woke from a nap a few weeks ago and decided to say something—is that he wants harmonisation and the Federal Government to take the lead. As a result, our system will not change.
The Premier can deliver harmonisation by supporting this bill, or by introducing into New South Wales the system that operates in Victoria. If that were to occur, almost three-quarters of the country would be operating under the same system. The Victorian system is a significant advance on the system that operates in this State. The Premier's usual inaction is only making problems worse and delivering the crises we see on a daily basis. Business and employers are dealing with an occupational health and safety system that is driving people out of business and businesses to other States. It is also not guaranteeing workers the safe workplaces that we have a responsibility to provide for them. I commend this bill to the House, and I urge members opposite for the first time in their lives to put public interest ahead of politics.
Question—That this bill be now agreed to in principle—put.
Division called for and, pursuant to standing orders, deferred.