In 2008, the Federal Government sought to harmonise State and Territory occupational health and safety (OHS) and workers' compensation systems by introducing the Safe Work Australia Bill 2008 (SWAB). SWAB was first mentioned by the Labor Party during the 2007 federal election campaign and it was introduced into Parliament in September 2008.
The Government's intentions behind SWAB are to replace the fragmented State and Territory systems and the Australian Safety and Compensation Council (ASCC) with a body called 'Safe Work Australia' (SWA).
SWA is to be charged with, amongst other things:
- Developing national policy on OHS and workers compensation in accordance with advice from the Workplace Relations Ministers' Council1 (WRMC).
- Preparing and monitoring a model OHS Act and regulations, and a code of practice, to be adopted by all States and Territories.
- Establishing and monitoring developments in OHS issues through research and the collection of data, to prevent an increase in workplace injuries.
- Develop and continue the work of ASCC and the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission in accordance with the Occupational Health and Safety Strategy 2002-2012.
SWAB, however, has had a difficult start:
- It was introduced into Parliament on 4 September 2008.
- Passed the House of Representatives on 22 September 2008.
- Passed the Senate, albeit with amendments, on 14 October 2008.
- The amendments were, however, deemed unacceptable to the House of Representatives and SWAB was consequently laid aside on 4 December 2008.
So, what caused SWAB's difficulties? It was not a Roman-like overexpansion taking on too many responsibilities, but in fact political disagreement.
The initial blue print for SWAB stated that there were to be two representatives for 'workers' and 'employers', with the Minister empowered to make the final decision on the appointments to these positions. The Opposition, in agreement with the Greens and Senator Nick Xenophon, introduced amendments to SWAB in the Senate so that there were to be three representatives for 'workers' and 'employers', plus additional amendments to increase the independence and credibility of SWA.
These amendments had the effect, amongst other things, of:
- Decreasing the powers of the Minister appointed to SWA, so as to make it more democratic in its process.
- The Minister would no longer be able to direct the Chief Executive Officer of SWA (CEO) in relation to the professional direction of the SWA, nor would the Minister be able to sack the CEO for unsatisfactory performance.
- Limiting the power of the WRMC to influence and direct the operational and strategic plan of SWA albeit while retaining the ability to reject or approve any proposed operational or strategic plan at the final hurdle.
- Removing a requirement that the model OHS legislation and codes of practice must have majority approval from Federal, State and Territory members and a two-thirds majority of the full membership.
- Inserting a clause in SWAB setting out the objectives of SWA.
The Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, cried foul and stated that the Opposition arrogantly sought to disrupt SWAB and the implementation of SWA by proposing the amendments. Ms Gillard further stated that these amendments were not supported by people or businesses across Australia, and implored the Opposition to remove the amendments and accept SWAB as it was initially proposed. Unfortunately for Ms Gillard, on 4 December 2008, with the Opposition refusing to remove its amendments, she sent SWAB to the equivalent of the legislation elephant graveyard.
Ms Gillard has, however, recently resurrected SWA. On 12 February 2009, she called a meeting of the WRMC to discuss the way forward for SWA. In a public statement released after this meeting, Ms Gillard said that SWA will be established as an executive agency prescribed under the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 (Cth). The administrative set-up of SWA also needed to be considered so as to ensure that the harmonisation of national OHS and workers' compensation issues are not further jeopardised.
At the WRMC meeting on 3 April 2009, Ms Gillard called for nominations for members of SWA. The appointments are likely this month with the first task developing an exposure draft of the model OHS laws by August 2009.
1. The WRMC is a council of Federal, State and Territory ministers responsible for workplace relations in their respective jurisdictions. Under the initial SWA plan, SWA would then act to advise the WRMC on all new or developing OHS issues, and seek to establish a cooperative relationship.
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