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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 1999 Week 7 Hansard (30 June) . . Page.. 1890 ..

MR BERRY (continuing):

In October 1995 an Assembly committee of inquiry was established to look into workers compensation provisions. In the course of that investigation, the committee's attention was drawn to occupational health and safety matters. Mr Speaker, the committee heard "strong arguments", to quote from the committee report, for the establishment of statutory independence for WorkCover.

It also received evidence on the differing standards of accountability which applied between private employers and ACT government workplaces. An example of that was an inspection at an ACT government office, where it was found that major safety issues had not been communicated by management to health and safety representatives or employees for some months. Subsequently, Mr Speaker, the committee recommended that the Government legislate to establish a statutory authority, a key recommendation of the committee, which was later rejected by government.

At the last ACT election, Labor promised that it would legislate for the statutory independence of WorkCover and this legislation, if supported by the majority of members, will deliver that promise to ACT workplaces. The centrepiece of this legislation is the appointment of an Occupational Health and Safety Commissioner, in section 25A. The appointment, functions, resignation, retirement, removal and suspension and ministerial directions provisions of Part 2A set out a framework which guarantees the Occupational Health and Safety Commissioner freedom from government interference in the performance of his or her duties.

In addition, provision is made for an acting commissioner and the employment of staff, provided that they are employed under the Public Sector Management Act. The remaining provisions and the transitional provisions of this Bill provide the necessary features to ensure that this new statutory position dovetails into the existing law. The consequential amendments and schedules attached to the legislation make the necessary adjustments to other Acts affected by this Bill.

As I said in my opening remarks, occupational health and safety is a fundamental issue for the Labor Party and for me personally. Members will know that a substantial part of my former life was in the fire service, potentially a very dangerous occupation, and as a union official. During this period it was my misfortune, in one way or another, as a senior supervising officer and as a union secretary to deal with the impost of injury and illness on workers and their families. Reliance on the old adage that accidents do happen is the most inadequate defence in workplace injury cases, in my view. Most, if not all, workplace injuries can be avoided if appropriate standards of occupational health and safety are observed.

The aim of occupational health and safety legislation is to reduce the impact of workplace illness and injuries on individuals and those dependent upon them. It has an important impact and effect on the cost to the community in terms of lost work and health expenses. These result in mountainous costs across Australia and a serious loss of life. It is our job as legislators in the first place to protect workers and their families from the impact of workplace injury, but equally important is our obligation to ensure that the community generally is not burdened as a result of the financial impact of workplace injuries.

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