Labor unveils OHS policy

by 04 Sep 2007

A LABOR federal government would seek to accelerate harmonisation of OHS and workers compensation regulation through a more empowered national body and financial incentives to the states and territories to adopt reforms, according to shadow workplace relations minister, Julia Gillard

Speaking at a recent seminar in Melbourne, she proposed the concept of ‘cooperative federalism’ as opposed to the Howard Government approach of ‘aspirational nationalism’.

Gillard also referred to the “slippery slope of migration to Comcare” as a move by stealth towards a national system, without addressing the fundamentals needed to make such a system work.

Speaking at the same Safety Institute of Australia seminar, Jarrod Moran, ACTU workers compensation officer also said that the ACTU is not against a national system in principle, but that Comcare is an inappropriate vehicle for it. The ACTU would want to see a national system built ‘from the ground up’through a lengthy consultative process, he said.

Commenting on the policy, Barry Sherriff, a partner with Freehills in Melbourne, said that Labor’s policy will not require legislation to implement other than as necessary to empower the central body. It will, however, rely on cooperation between all governments, supported by all stakeholders – industry, unions and the professions.

“Political and parochial interests will need to be subdued for this to work. Current slow progress through the Australian Safety and Compensation Council suggests that this will not be easily achieved,” he said.

Processes employed over the last decade or more towards harmonisation have demonstrated that there is considerable ‘devil in the detail’ and the process of tripartite consultation can be a lengthy and unfruitful one, according to Sherriff. “This policy does not suggest a move toward the more blunt instrument of legislation, although it does not close the door on that.”

Labor’s policy confirms there is bipartisan agreement in principle to the need for harmonisation, to reduce confusion and administrative burdens on employers. Sherriff noted that the parties effectively differ only as to the means by which this will be achieved.

Importantly, Sherriff said true harmonisation cannot occur without a softening of the more severe elements of some legislation, most notably overturning the reverse onus of proof in New South Wales where companies and officers are guilty unless they prove themselves innocent.

Key elements of Labors OHS policy

• Building a model for uniform legislation and regulation, with the fundamental elements agreed through an appropriate consultative process

• Achieving uniformity in state and territory workers compensation legislation, particularly in definitions of employee, disease and other common terms and mutual recognition between jurisdictions of meeting process requirements

• Harmonising OHS regulation by consistent definitions, procedural and reporting requirements in each jurisdiction

• Empowering an independent body to direct policy and process development, rather than to merely 'coordinating, monitoring, promoting and recommending'

• Providing financial incentives to reward state and territory governments that implement reforms, while using the Productivity Commission and COAG Reform Council to ensure accountability of the federal and state governments

• Taking a strong stance against the use of OHS to pursue unrelated industrial relations matters

Source: Barry Sherriff, a partner with Freehills in Melbourne

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