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August 2006   

Interview: A Life And Death Matter
Macquarie Street and Canberra are squaring off over safety in the workplace, NSW Minister for Industrial relations, John Della Bosca, explains what's at stake.

Unions: Fighting Back
When John Howard's building industry enforcer started threatening people's homes, one couple hit the road. Jim Marr met them in Sydney.

Industrial: What Cowra Means
The ruling on the Cowra abattoir case highlights the implications of the new IR rules, according to John Howe and Jill Murray

Environment: Scrambling for Energy Security
Howard Government hypocrisy is showcased in its climate change manoeuvring, Stuart Rosewarne writes:

Politics: Page Turner
A new book leaves no doubt about whether the faction came before the ego, Nathan Brown writes.

Economics: The State of Labour
The capacity of the state to shape the political economy and thus improve the social lives of the people must be reasserted, argues Geoff Dow.

International: Workers Blood For Oil
A new book by Abdullah Muhsin and Alan Johnson lifts the lid on the bloody reality of US backed democracy for Iraq's trade unions

History: Liberty in Spain
Worker Self-Management is good management. The proof in Spain was in Catalania, Andalusia and continues in the Basque Country, as Neale Towart explains.

Review: Go Roys, Make A Noise
Phil Doyle thought he'd find nostalgia, but instead Vulgar Press' new book, Maroon & Blue is a penetrating insight into the suburban mind under stress.


The Locker Room
Ruled Out
Phil Doyle plays by the rules

Tommy's Apprentice
Chapter One - Tommy and "The Boy"

Westie Wing
Ian West wonders what might happen if the NSW Coalition actually did win power next March at the State elections.

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A Life And Death Matter

Macquarie Street and Canberra are squaring off over safety in the workplace, NSW Minister for Industrial relations, John Della Bosca, explains what's at stake.

In March COAG said it was determined to "harmonise" laws over occupational health and safety. Does this mean that occupational health and safety would go backwards in NSW if we shifted to a national system?

Certainly the main concern of the Iemma Government and myself as Minister is that the Howard Government, when they talk about harmonization, are really talking about a code for lowering standards, and one of our great concerns is to make sure that any attempt to obviously do the right thing - it makes it easier to do business across state boundaries, and that is obviously something that is a legitimate objective is not used by the Howard Government to start a race to the bottom in occupational health and safety.

They have used the claim of harmonization, or unitiary consistency in industrial relations, to start a race to the bottom in industrial relations and workplace relations.

So when John Howard, and more specifically Kevin Andrews talk about harmonization they really mean a reduction in standards.

Apart from COAG, the Federal Government appears to be listening to players like the Small Business Taskforce which has called for a "Public Benefit" to be displayed in any occupational health and safety regime, and also outfits like the Productivity Commission have weighed into the OH&S debate. Would you like to comment on their contributions to this looming federal regime?

Well, I think it is very important to understand that we are deeply suspicious. The Iemma Government and I are deeply suspicious that, as I said, the Howard Government is trying to use the leverage involved in saying that we want to have a more harmonized system of occupational health and safety. They are the means of undermining standards and we won't cop it and we won't stand for it. But as I say, players like some of the industry groups who claim to be able to comment on occupational health and safety are really well wide of the mark.

It really does reflect the depth of the ignorance of the organization that they can talk in terms of net public benefit when talking about occupational health and safety regimes. It is not simply something that they can come up with an equation to establish.

The other thing I would say about the intervention of some people who claim to be business advocates - small business associations at the like - are often people who have never actually employed someone in their life.

They are simply corporate spokespeople, and I'm growing increasingly worried that these sort of people are claiming to speak on behalf of small business people. My perception of small business people is that they want to make a safe environment for their employees. The vast majority of decent small business people want a safe business for their employees, themselves, their families and their customers.

So we are out there, and the Government trying to make it clear, along with the union movement, and responsible employer organizations, that good safety is good business. Not only is it good for the workers' health and safety, it is also good for the long-term prosperity of society. So, it is of great concern to us that some of these advocates that might get the ear of the Prime Minister the same way as Peter Hendy and the Melbourne Club got the helm in the debate over industrial relations, unfortunately, and we have seen consequence that had. The disastrous consequences of these advocates getting control of the occupational health and safety debate, is that it is literally a life and death matter for ordinary Australian families.

With the Federal agenda, it appears that Comcare is pretty central to both their legislative programme and their idea of rolling out a Federal OH&S structure. Is the growth of Comcare weakening state-based systems like our own WorkCover?

Look, I think there is a potential and perhaps some signs of a deliberate strategy on behalf of some players in the Commonwealth, that they want the option to use Comcare as a basis for undermining occupational health and safety regimes across the States - particularly our occupational health and safety regime here in NSW. So I am very worried that Comcare is in fact being used for that purpose, or may be used for that purpose by the Federal Government, and clearly some employers mistakenly believe, in my view, that opting out of a system that has appropriate compliance and proper safety nets, like the WorkCover system in NSW, into effectively a self regulating environment like Comcare, will provide good outcomes for them. It won't.

It will provide bad outcomes for their employees, and in the end Comcare, which is designed as both an occupational health and safety system and a workers compensation system for public servants, many, many categories of employees in the private economy and across the board won't find that the arrangements of Comcare are at all suitable to their working life. So, I think the Commonwealth does have the idea they can undermine the WorkCover framework by attracting employers into Comcare, with misplaced incentives that Comcare represents a federal system.

If Comcare enables people that are self-insured to opt out of the State OH&S laws - could we see two OH&S standards side by side in the same workplace down the track?

Well, this is the other point here, and this is why you have got to take a dose of reality. The Commonwealth and the Minister, Kevin Andrews, are always raving on about red tape inconsistency, and here's a government - the Howard Government, since they gained control of the Senate - is the single Government that has put the most new red tape in the shortest span of time into the employment relationship across the board.

So they are all about red tape, they are all about inconvenience to business, they forcing business to collect information that nobody knows what it is for, but what it seems to me they are also doing, is their strategy is wrong-headed, that it won't deliver consistency, and what you will have is major inconsistencies. Where, as you're alluding to, one employee could be a contractor in a workplace covered by a different set of safety laws to someone else beside them who is working for another contractor who is using Comcare, or the site employer who is using Comcare. That is absurd. It is ludicrous, and in any modern society would be unacceptable.

Now the curly one. We have seen, especially with the letter that was recently sent by the Premier to Andrews, a strong stand taken by the NSW Government over this issue of OH&S and the relationship with the Federal Government to NSW OH&S laws, but what about other areas of the industrial relationship. I'm thinking about the State Government's relationship with State Owned Corporations and agencies of the State Government. What will the State Government be doing to ensure that people's rights at work are protected in those areas?

Where the Government effectively stands in as a shareholder in those corporations on behalf of the public of NSW, we will be absolutely consistent. It is absolutely contrary to the public interest and the decency to have any corporation owned by the government opting out of our own safety regulations. So I think I am in a position to say with some certainty, that it is not possible to envisage any situation where the Iemma Government would tolerate the state owned corporations getting out of the safety obligations that we think are the best practice safety obligations in the country.

But getting into more industrial practices that might be engaged by State Owned Corporations or agencies, or even looking at areas like procurement policy by the State Government. What will be the Iemma Government's response there?

All those issues you raise are ones we are working through with the union movement. A lot of them are complicated, and particularly when they are applied to a soft model they create special difficulties. But difficulties are there to be overcome; difficulties are there to be worked through, and on procurement we have had protracted negotiations to get a procurement policy in place that delivers for the taxpayer, but also protects the workers, and we have also worked hard to make sure that the industrial arrangements that we have put in place are in fact an insulation from the worst effects of WorkChoices, including employees that work in State Owned Corporations.

There are always a couple of unique sets of circumstances, and I won't cite particular examples, but we do have one or two well unionized, well organized workplaces and working systems in NSW where the workforce and the unions have traditionally used the Federal system. Now, we are prepared to work through those issues with the unions involved, even Unions NSW to come up with solutions if they become necessary. So, if they are still in the State system we are going to work to keep them in the State system by the various agreements we have undertaken already. If there are some special anomalies, we are going to continue to work to secure them, because we believe fundamentally, not only in the legal framework, we believe actions should reflect our policy intentions and we want to see State Owned Corporations deal with their employees on a decent basis.


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