Grab for IR power not move to ‘a nation state’, says Andrews

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Grab for IR power not move to ‘a nation state’, says Andrews

The Federal Government’s setting up of a national IR system by taking power from the States is not part of a move towards a ‘nation state’, a senior Federal Minister has stated.

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The Federal Government’s setting up of a national IR system by taking power from the States is not part of a move towards a ‘nation state’, a senior Federal Minister has stated.

Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews was yesterday asked by a major employer representative whether the new national IR system had such ramifications.

‘Matters relating to the national economy are appropriately regulated at the national level,’ Andrews told a meeting of Australian Business Industrial (ABI) in Sydney.

‘There is not some grand objective. We are dealing with political pragmatism, not a grand plan that will run into obstacles.’

Exclusive interview

In an exclusive interview with WorkplaceInfo, Andrews also stated that Australia will definitely not have a national OHS system under the current Coalition Government.

‘We have no intention of establishing a national workers compensation or health and safety system,’ Andrews said.

States' jurisdiction

He also told the meeting of ABI meeting yesterday that he knew this decision would ‘disappoint some employers’.

‘We recognise that these are areas which have been traditionally subject to State and Territory legislation', Andrews said. 'We think though there ought to be greater harmony and consistency and reciprocity between the States and Territories and that is what we are seeking to through the Australian Safety and Compensation Council.’

‘Effectively the ball is in the court of the States and Territories to address what has to be as much a problem for them as it is that we recognise - and that is that we are increasingly operating across State and territory boundaries and it makes sense that there be greater consistency.’

IR different from OHS

WorkplaceInfo put it to Andrews that the Government had often stated that having State, Territory and Federal IR systems was not good for the country or for business, yet there is no move to set up a national OHS system even though there are eight OHS systems.

Why the difference to the national IR system?

‘Well, in IR there was considerable overlapping between the national system and the State and Territory systems, which varied from State to State as to what coverage there was under the federal system and under the State systems,’ Andrews said. ‘It differs in that regard.

‘And you had, for example, in WA after the Gallop Government came in and undid the more productive regime which the Court Government had, there was a mass migration from the State system into the Commonwealth system.

‘So there had been movement into a Commonwealth system occurring throughout Australia so far as industrial relations is concerned.’

Andrews said another factor is that regulating the employment relationship is ‘something which we believe is closer to regulating the affairs of corporations [than OHS is]’.

‘We’ve got uniform corporations power in Australia and if the employment relationship is one aspect of that then it makes sense to have a national approach,’ he said.

Criticism of union prosecuting

Andrews has on a number of occasions criticised the system in NSW where unions can launch OHS prosecutions and receive a proportion of any fine if they are successful.

It was put to Andrews that: ‘If WorkCover declines to prosecute and the union takes up the matter and wins, isn’t that a successful outcome? That something that should have been prosecuted and wasn’t has now had its proper conclusion?’

‘Well, that begs the question: if the matter should have been prosecuted and the State WorkCover authority was doing its duty, then it would have prosecuted,’ Andrews said.

‘I think it is a perverse situation that provides a financial incentive for the unions to prosecute these matters.

Conflict of interest

‘The danger is there is always the incentive that there is going to be financial reward for prosecuting, rather than what I think ought to be the approach, which is that a prosecution should be launched because there is, on the face of it, a breach of whatever legislation or regulation obtains, and it is the broad public interest a prosecution be launched.

‘The danger is the perception, if not the reality, that can arise that prosecutions are being launched not for matters of public interest and better OHS outcomes, but because there is a financial incentive involved.

‘I think there is a perception of a conflict of interest there that is better off not being in existence.’

Resources

WorkplaceInfo: ‘Isn’t there an assumption in what you say that the State WorkCover system has got sufficient resources in personnel and finance to launch the prosecutions?’

Andrews: ‘Well, if we are concerned with health and safety as a general public good, then it is incumbent upon the Governments of the State and Territory to adequately resource that.’

WorkplaceInfo: ‘That is the exact criticism that is made of the Office of Workplace Services (OWS); that each officer of OWS is potentially covering 50,000 employees.’

Andrews: ‘We will be trebling the number of OWS…it will take it up to over 200 - 250 or 270 or something like that. But we will monitor the need and obviously if there is a need for more then there is a case to be made for more people to do it.

Independent body

‘But the principle here is that there is an independent body established to have as its primary objective the investigation of complaints, the education of parties, the prosecution of matters without there being a financial incentive for that organisation to be able to do it. It is doing it because it has got a public duty it is fulfilling.

‘Surely [it is] good public policy would seek to avoid conflict of interest.’

Independent contractors and OHS

Andrews said he expected no particular OHS consequences from the introduction of new legislation for independent contractors late this month or early June.

‘In broad terms OHS obligations fall on all people who are in a particular workplace, employers, employees, independent contractors and their employees as well,’ he said.

‘They may arise generally from State legislation, so the fact that you recognise independent contractors, of which there are by some estimates almost two million in Australia, doesn’t mean that this is some negation of any OHS requirements.

‘The responsibility of OHS is actually a State responsibility and the State OHS laws operate in parallel or in a complementary way to federal legislation.

‘The passage of independent contracting legislation is not going to change the number of independent contractors overnight, I mean we have got hundreds of thousands operating now under OHS duties and obligations they will continue to do so.

‘Any piece of legislation it makes sense to continue to monitor the operation, but largely it is a matter for the States to ensure that the obligations are being met.’

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