I rise to speak in support of the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008. This bill is very near and dear to my heart, as I am not only a former union official but also a former union official who did copious amounts of training with regard to occupational health and safety in the workplace. The purpose of this bill is to establish Safe Work Australia, an independent Commonwealth statutory body to improve occupational health and safety outcomes and workers compensation arrangements in Australia.

Safety in the workplace is of paramount importance. It is important to ensure the health, safety and welfare of workers while they are at their places of work. There are rights and responsibilities for both employees and employers in maintaining a safe workplace. In my previous role as a union official I saw the results of accidents and incidents and the on-costs that these events caused not only to the worker and their family but also to the employer and to the community. Safe Work Australia will be a reform focused body with the power to make recommendations directly to the Workplace Relations Ministers Council. It will be empowered to develop national policy relating to occupational health and safety and workers compensation. It will be empowered to prepare, monitor and revise model occupational health and safety legislation and model codes of practice. It will be empowered to develop a compliance and enforcement policy to ensure nationally consistent regulatory approaches across all jurisdictions. It will be empowered to develop proposals relating to the harmonisation of workers compensation arrangements. It will be empowered to collect, analyse and publish occupational health and safety and workers compensation data and to undertake and publish research. It will also be empowered to drive national communication strategies to raise awareness of health and safety at work, further develop the National Occupational Health and Safety Strategy for 2002-2012 and advise the Workplace Relations Ministers Council on occupational health and safety and workers compensation matters.

Safe Work Australia will comprise 15 members, including an independent chair: nine members representing the Commonwealth and each state and territory, two members representing the interests of workers, two members representing the interests of employers and the chief executive officer. The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations will make appointments to Safe Work Australia based on nominations from each body. The tripartite nature of Safe Work Australia’s membership ensures that this body will have input from major stakeholders in Australia’s occupational health and safety systems. It means that employers, employees and government can work together to pursue their common interest in improving occupational health and safety. But if we are serious about occupational health and safety, there is a real need for government to lead on this issue.

Safe Work Australia will replace the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, commonly known as the ASCC, which was established by the Howard government to advise on the development of policies relating to occupational health and safety and workers compensation matters. The ASCC has been badly in need of reform for some time. As an advisory rather than a statutory body, it has no requirement to report publicly. In other words, it essentially has no teeth. The ASCC has effectively been contained to coordinating, monitoring and promoting national efforts in respect of occupational health and safety issues. Its advice could easily be ignored by the government of the day.

Unlike the previous government, the Rudd Labor government has taken a serious approach to improving Australia’s occupational health and safety arrangements. That is why we are undertaking a review of the Comcare scheme and setting up an independent panel of experts to conduct a national occupational health and safety review, as we have already heard from previous speakers. The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, announced the review on 4 April 2008 and tasked the expert panel with developing model occupational health and safety laws. That three-person panel will review occupational health and safety legislation in each state, territory and Commonwealth jurisdiction and make recommendations on the best structure and content for a model occupational health and safety act. The model act will be capable of being adopted in all jurisdictions. When the panel’s report is handed down, Safe Work Australia will be responsible for developing national policy relating to occupational health and safety and workers compensation. It will prepare model occupational health and safety legislation, model regulations and model codes of practice based on the findings and recommendations of the review report.

This is a first in Australia’s history. The Rudd government has taken the unprecedented step of entering into an intergovernmental agreement to harmonise occupational health and safety arrangements throughout the Commonwealth, states and territories. The intergovernmental agreement on harmonising occupational health and safety arrangements is a demonstration of the Rudd government’s commitment to cooperative federalism. It is also a great example of what the aspiration towards cooperative federalism can achieve. The Howard government, by contrast, never believed in cooperation with state and territory governments. Their approach to dealing with the states was about dictating policy to them and then threatening to deny funding if the states did not follow their way of doing things. Of course, the states and territories were never asked for their input on national measures, even though they were expected to provide matching funding. It was usually a case of: if we want your opinion we will give it to you.

It was convenient for the Howard government to take a big stick to the state and territory governments because they happened to be of a different political persuasion. They never saw it as being in their political interests to seek the adoption of consistent, nationwide regulations for occupational health and safety. For Labor, it is at the very core of our philosophy that the best outcomes can be achieved for Australia when Commonwealth, state and territory governments all work together in the common interests of the nation. That is why we have entered into an intergovernmental agreement, and with this legislation we are setting about implementing that agreement. The establishment of Safe Work Australia is a product of this agreement. The states and territories have agreed to provide 50 per cent of the funding, with the remaining 50 per cent to be provided by the Commonwealth. The total contribution from the parties will be $17 million in the first year, increasing each year by, at a minimum, the consumer price index. For the Commonwealth, that is $8.5 million in 2008-09.

The result of our approach to harmonising occupational health and safety arrangements will be to reduce regulation. This will free up businesses to focus on the important business of making real improvements to occupational health and safety. There is no more compelling reason to make sure we get our occupational health and safety systems right than the potential costs of getting it wrong. Workplace accidents and injuries result in phenomenal costs to businesses, workers and society. In the 2005-06 financial year there were 139,630 serious workers compensation claims. These claims involved either a death, a permanent incapacity or a temporary incapacity with an absence from work of one working week or more. Compensation claims do not account for the full extent of work related illnesses, since many work related diseases do not result in a claim.

A more recent report by the Productivity Commission estimated the number of serious injuries to be more than 140,000 per year. Tragically, more than 300 Australian workers are killed each year. According to an Access Economics report, 8,000 Australians die each year as a result of work related incidents or illnesses. These figures are staggering when we start to consider what these incidents and illnesses cost Australia. A 2004 report by the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission identified the direct and indirect costs of work related illness and injury for employers, workers and the community. It found that the total costs of work related illness and injury were roughly four times the indirect costs. The costs of a work related injury or illness include such items as lost productivity; the cost of overtime and overemployment; employer excess payments; loss of current income; recruitment, training and staff turnover costs; loss of future earnings; medical and rehabilitation costs; investigation costs; legal fines and penalties; legal costs and overheads; travel expenses for attending courts or tribunals; social welfare payments; and loss of government tax revenue. The report estimated that the total cost of work related illness and injury was $20 billion in 1992-93, rising to $31 billion in 2000-01.

The Productivity Commission’s report now estimates the direct cost of supporting work related injuries and illnesses to be $34 billion a year. In addition to these financial costs there is the cost of the personal pain and distress caused to the injured worker as well as to their family and coworkers. In my home state of Tasmania, statistics from WorkCover Tasmania show that there were 9,873 reported workplace injuries in 2007, or 27 Tasmanians injured per day. The most common types of injuries in 2007 were soft-tissue disorders due to trauma, which accounted for 3,428 of the injuries reported, followed by wounds, lacerations, amputations and internal organ damage, which accounted for 2,355 injuries. The majority of these injuries were caused by body strains—3,336 injuries; falls, trips and slips—1,863 injuries; and being hit by moving objects—1,825 injuries. Just to give you some idea of the cost of these injuries, WorkCover reported that, in the 2006-07 financial year, $99.5 million was paid in compensable claims for workplace injuries. For the same period, four workplace fatalities were reported in Tasmania.

I want to give some sense of perspective on these figures, because we are talking about people’s lives and livelihoods. For example, the 300 or more work related deaths each year mean that, almost every day in Australia, someone heads off to work and does not return home. For each of these deaths there are many more injuries that affect workers for life. Imagine being in an accident at work that did not kill you but left you crippled for life. Imagine dealing with the daily trauma of the accident and the pain of its lasting effects. Imagine the mounting medical expenses and the legal struggle you would have to go through to obtain reasonable compensation. Imagine losing not only your job but also your future career as the accident causes you never to be able to work again. This is why it is vital to have a cooperative approach between the Commonwealth, states and territories on occupational health and safety arrangements.

This issue is too important to be treated as a political football. That is why I support this bill. Implementing these arrangements is about improving people’s lives. It is about making sure that the workplace hazards that threaten the quality of life and the livelihoods of ordinary Australian workers are minimised. It is about Commonwealth, state and territory governments working together and doing their utmost to make our workplaces injury and illness free. Every avoidable injury and every avoidable disease that occurs costs us. It costs us in lost productivity, in medical and legal expenses and in the pain and suffering caused to those affected. It costs our economy, it costs our society and it costs our families. However, this bill is not just about improving lives and it is not just about minimising the incidence of illness and injuries. The most important thing this bill is about is saving lives. I reiterate that this bill is about making sure that ordinary Australian workers are safe. This bill will save lives. I urge all senators to support this very important bill.

Debate interrupted.