Address to the National Safety Council of Australia Awards Luncheon, Sydney

Speech
  • Leader of the Government in the Senate
  • Minister for Employment
  • Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service
  • Liberal Senator for Tasmania

[E&OE transcript]

Introduction

Congratulations to those corporate sponsors that enable this council and this event to take place. You display a corporate citizenry that should be emulated by a lot more companies around Australia. So to those of you that have sponsored this event, can I say on behalf of the Government, thank you for your corporate citizenry. It is appreciated.

Secondly, I am delighted to be here as a minister, albeit my title has been cropped now from both ends. If I may say, it was part of a focus that we get away from issues relationship, and concentrate on employment as the major goal of the relationships that might exist in workplaces.

So it's a delight to be here with you, in my new capacity as the Minister for Employment, with responsibility in this area, and in particular being with you in Safe Work Month, which used to be a Safe Work Week. So it's been multiplied out by four. Now that it's a Safe Work Month, let's multiply it out by another 12 and we'll have the whole year covered for good, and hopefully everybody will be a lot better off for it.

Work Health and Safety

It'd be fair to say that often matters of workplace relations and workplace health and safety are discussed, especially by my side of the politics, in relation to matters economic. But can I tell you we fully understand and appreciate that there is a fundamentally important social dynamic to this as well.

I still recall in part of that history that was read out to you, as a barrister and solicitor in Hobart getting a phone call from a distraught widow who told me that her husband, who was a mate of mine, had just been killed in a workplace accident at the Electrolytic Zinc Company in Tasmania, and to meet with her. In circumstances where she was expecting their first child that had not been born yet, and then going through all that trauma, meeting with family, you understand that there is a huge, huge social aspect to work health and safety as well as the economic cost, which is a matter of concern as well.

So from my own personal experience I can assure you, amongst others, but that is I suppose the stand-out one because he was a mate of mine, that I do understand the importance of this area of workplace health and safety.

Mr Hoy and his staff I'm sure, have provided some of the detail here. A whole host of statistics. The chances are you people know better than I do, in relation to the number of deaths. Let me simply say that my approach will be that zero tolerance should in fact be our approach in relation to industrial deaths and injury, like it is to drug trafficking and other things.

We know that at the end of the day chances are we won't be able to achieve a zero in the columns that we have for the statistics. But if we set out with that in mind I think it will assist and help motivate us to achieve the ends that we so desperately need.

Commonsense

Can I also make a few observations that I believe we need a practical and commonsense approach to a lot of the occupational health and safety issues. I have been advised and as I was indicating to Mr Hoy from Safe Work Australia earlier this week, everything was so simple in Opposition. It's a bit more complicated in government. But we do need to have a look at the regulatory regimes that are stifling some business activities, without actually delivering the dividend that we want at the end of the day, which is occupational health and safety, work safety. That is something that we will be looking at. 

I might just use two examples where I would encourage the judicial and other bodies of our country to consider where they are going with the issue of occupational health and safety. It is a very, very important issue, but if I might say, its currency is demeaned when we get some of the decisions that we have of late, and I'll just quickly touch on two. 

One was in relation to a worker that was finally dismissed for, amongst other things, continually refusing to wear safety goggles. It was a requirement, he was told time and time and time again, he had to wear them but he decided instead to give the middle finger salute—both physically and verbally to the boss in relation to this requirement. He continually refused and refused and refused. He was finally dismissed. Keep in mind that this happened in this state here, in New South Wales, where there could have been criminal sanctions for the employer if something did get into this worker's eye. 

We had a situation where then Fair Work Australia determined that the worker should be reinstated. That sends a message to the workforce that the only person ultimately responsible for these things is the employer? It is a two-way street, workers do have a responsibility. If employers want to show how serious they are about having workplace safety, that after a number of injunctions and encouragements to employees about workplace safety which are deliberately not followed, they are then dismissed, I personally say well done. You are upholding within your workforce, the need for absolute compliance with workplace health and safety. So suffice to say when I read that case coming out of the Fair Work Australia some time ago I was not too pleased.

There is another case that is currently before the High Court, so I'd better be careful what I say about it, but it's one that has made the news somewhat. It's a celebrated case about a public servant who engaged in a frolic of her own, if you get the drift, during a work trip and during some rigorous activity in that frolic of her own, a light shade fell somehow and caused an injury. As the current state of play is, that is actually now in the statistics of workplace injuries in Australia and that—what does that do? It impacts on the cost. Premiums have to go up because of those sorts of decisions. As a result the cost of employing has to go up. As a result less people will be employed and they are some of the practical consequences of these types of decisions that if I might say, need to be taken more seriously. 

I'm just wondering what I would say to an international visiting minister who might come along and say look, Eric, tell us about workplace relations in your country, tell us about occupational health and safety. What sort of things are covered in your statistics? And I would think Australia would become the laughing stock of the world, if I were to describe that particular case that I have tried to describe to you somewhat delicately this afternoon, without wanting to spoil your lunch. It does seem to me that the currency of occupational health and safety, which is just so vitally important, can be demeaned by trying to grab everything into it and it then becomes a laughing stock within the workforce as well. 

So I would encourage those bodies within Australia that are empowered by the Australian community to sit in judgement on some of these decisions, to consider the long-term consequences of their decisions.

Rex Hoy

Can I move right along and acknowledge the work of a gentleman that is in our midst today. I've already mentioned him by name and that is Rex Hoy of Safe Work Australia. Just the other day he advised me that after 46 years of dedicated service to the Australian public through the public service, he would be retiring on 1 November. Can I just acknowledge you, Rex, for the wonderful work, a lifetime of achievement. As I look around the room I suspect most of us—I'm not in that category—but most of us weren't born at the time that Rex started his public service career. Can I tell you there is that stereotype of a public servant that just warms a seat. Can I assure you if that stereotype is correct and I don't believe it is, but if the stereotype is correct, Rex Hoy was the exact opposite of it. He has lived a life of dedicated service to the Australian people through his roles and I for one want to take this occasion to publicly salute you, Rex, for your wonderful career of serving the Australian people and in its last iteration as being in charge of Safe Work Australia. So congratulations on a fine career.

Conclusion

Can I simply close by wishing all the finalists every success, thanks for being part of it, thanks for taking seriously this important issue and in the words of the winner from last year, let's ensure that all of us, and all the workers that are within our charge, get home to the ones they love. Thank you very much.

[Ends]

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