Second Reading

Mr D O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (15:00): I am pleased to rise to say a few words on this omnibus bill, the Workplace Safety Legislation and Other Matters Amendment Bill 2021, and to follow up the comments of the member for Lara on the issue that everyone is entitled to come home safe from work at the end of every day. That is what our workplace safety legislation intends to achieve. I acknowledge the work of the member for Lara and what he has done in the past as a representative of workers and I guess support the principle, but we sometimes come at these matters from a different perspective.

I note that this legislation expands the circumstances in which prohibition notices can be issued, which may in some situations lead to overzealous application by WorkSafe Victoria inspectors, and that is certainly an issue that businesses raise with me from time to time. Obviously it is in the eye of the beholder, but I would hope that as WorkSafe goes about its business it does recognise the need to work with employers and employees and ensure that our workplaces are as safe as possible. As the member for Lara said, humans are prone to accidents, and sometimes they simply do happen. Sometimes workers make mistakes. I had a case last week where an employer rang me—not actually about a workplace safety incident; his complaint was in fact about the health system and the treatment that his worker received after an accident. In this case he said his employee acknowledged that it was simply a mistake, a lapse in judgement on his part, that this accident occurred, and the employee was, sadly, injured. I do not know where that will end up in terms of WorkSafe, but I would hope that an employer who has done the right thing will not be charged for something that was beyond his capability to address.

Certainly I hope that is the way that WorkSafe operates to ensure that yes, people come home safely but also that businesses have the opportunity to ensure they can afford WorkSafe premiums, that they are not penalised unnecessarily for accidents that do happen and that WorkSafe works with employers, not against them, and works on a basis of trying to ensure that I guess there is carrot rather than stick—that there is encouragement and that there is an opportunity for all employers to rectify any safety issues that may be identified rather than simply facing fines or prohibition notices or the like from the start. We certainly advocate a more collaborative approach between inspectors and businesses to that end, so that is what I would hope to see.

This legislation, as I said, is omnibus legislation. It also makes some changes to the situation for victims of crime with a prohibition introduced that ensures that alleged offenders are not notified of or attend any hearing related to family violence or sexual offences in the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal. And, as the member for Lara and previous speakers have indicated, the change to the Firefighters’ Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Act 2019 will ensure that vehicle and equipment maintenance employees who attend fires are also covered by the presumptive rights legislation that has passed this chamber. These employees will now be provided with a rebuttable presumption that if they are suffering from a specified form of cancer it is presumed to be due to their employment.

We know this is an issue for both career firefighters and also our volunteers in the CFA. I will just take a moment to congratulate our local volunteers. We had a fairly significant fire in the Darriman area on the weekend. It started by a lightning strike, we think, on Friday night and burnt about 140 hectares in the Darriman area. Twenty-five trucks responded to that, and I thank the volunteers who came out and got that one under control. There were helicopters involved, and I am not sure but I suspect Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning firefighters were also involved because it was at one stage racing towards the South Gippsland Highway, from which it was a jump across the road to the Mullungdung State Forest, and of course no-one wanted that fire to get in there.

I rang one of the local landholders this morning who was directly affected, and she advised that other than some fencing—probably a couple of kilometres of fencing—thankfully there was no stock or building damage or anything. So I thank the volunteers who do such a great job, and I encourage the government to continue to remember the CFA.

My concern continues about the changes that have been brought in, not only since the presumptive rights legislation but since the FRV legislation as well. I know in my area, district 10, and in district 9 there have been some significant issues with the commander vacancies. In district 10 at least just before Christmas there were still a number of vacancies that had not been filled—had not been filled for months and months and months—and it is a concern that FRV is not prioritising these important positions in the CFA. So I call on the government to act on that—I have done so before—and I also call on the government to provide better support. I am very pleased that the CFA board has finally allocated capital funding for a number of stations in my electorate that I have been fighting for, but they have done so without any support from the state government for the CFA. So that is an issue that I will continue to fight for, and I am sure that the member for Gembrook may have more to say about it, because he is very passionate also about the CFA and the work of our volunteers right across the state.

There are also some other changes in this omnibus bill to the legal profession’s involvement in the Victorian Legal Services Board. There are stricter requirements introduced for the appointment of lawyer members to the Victorian Legal Services Board, ensuring that appointees are not the subject of any actual or potential disciplinary action at the time of their appointment and further that lawyer members will be able to be removed from the Victorian Legal Services Board if they are subject to disciplinary action during their term of office. That is appropriate and I guess is tidying up a loose end. Often when we establish these organisations, boards and commissions there are minor things such as this that are overlooked, and it is important that they are cleared up and dealt with.

I do just make a comment in passing on the nature of this omnibus bill. It makes sense to have an omnibus bill on a whole range of different things, for example, that affect workplace safety. It is a bit weird for us to be debating in this chamber an omnibus bill with so many different, apparently unrelated parts. It is a little odd. This is probably a rare occasion where one of those odd parts is not something designed to be a wedge for the opposition, given that we are not opposing this legislation and all the elements of this bill are agreeable to the Liberals and Nationals. But it is a little odd that these different things have been lumped in separately on issues that are relatively unrelated.

As I said, we have always a little concern as to how workplace safety is dealt with by WorkSafe and whether that is done in a balanced way. The member for Lara talked about the need for balance, and again I agree with him. I suspect we probably come at it from different perspectives when it comes to balance, but there is a need for balance in terms of ensuring that our employers are encouraged and incentivised to ensure that they are doing the right thing and that where there are mistakes they are identified and rectified rather than simply hit with the full force of the law. And absolutely, if there are wilful or extremely dangerous situations, then yes, of course prosecutions need to occur. But we hope, as the member for Lara indicated, that WorkSafe can get the balance right.

We will continue to advocate for that collaborative approach between inspectors and business to make sure that there is an incentive and understanding for employers and employees to make safety a priority. It is important that no-one is at risk when going to and coming home from work. It is critical that we do so. So the opposition is, as I said, not opposing this legislation, and I look forward to its passage through the chamber.

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