A patronising disposition of unaccountable power
An educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern
In November 2017, the former executive director of SafeWork South Australia, Marie Boland was appointed by Safe Work Australia to review the model work health and safety laws. The subsequent report was released in February 2019 and concludes the model laws are operating largely as intended and support for the harmonisation objective remains strong. It is quite an extraordinary statement given the primary object of the model Work Health and Safety Act is to provide for a balanced and nationally consistent framework and secure the health and safety of people at work. 2–8
After almost two decades, the chimera of harmonisation and national uniformity resembles a dog’s breakfast and has become increasingly complicated and vexatious. Several jurisdictions have embarked on a race to the bottom and implemented distinct health and safety statutes covering their mining and resources sectors, which are administered by alternative state government authorities. This can generate potential conflicts of interest and significantly increase the risk of regulatory or policy capture. It is further exacerbated by the minefield of industrial manslaughter legislation, which is fraught with complex legal technicalities covering the burden of proof pertaining to negligence and recklessness. Moreover, the International Labour Organization C176 Safety and Health in Mines Convention 1995 remains unratified by the Australian Government Department of Jobs and Small Business. 9–19
In Queensland there are currently 99 confirmed cases of mine dust lung diseases and a recent parliamentary inquiry revealed a catastrophic breakdown of a regulatory system that was intended to secure and protect the health and safety of coal miners. It is somewhat enigmatic but the disease uncannily disappears in New South Wales coal mines although absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. More recently, media reports confirm almost 100 tradesmen involved in the fabrication of engineered stone benchtops throughout Queensland have been diagnosed with silicosis. Some victims are categorised as terminally ill and an additional 800 employees are undergoing diagnostic testing at a cost of almost $1.5 million. Many patients will require lung transplants and it will place enormous strain on a struggling public health system. A senior physician has predicted the problem will escalate and the crisis could be become much worse than asbestos related diseases. 20–25
Any estimation of expenditure covering workplace injuries and disease requires consideration of an extensive range of direct and indirect parameters and it is quite a complex exercise. However, since 1993 the allocation of costs endured by incapacitated employees has increased by a staggering 157% with a corresponding decrease of 88% for employers. It suggests other exogenous risks such as the gig economy, contingent labour hire and the exploitation of vulnerable workers may be significant contributory factors. 26–29
After almost five decades it appears the legislative framework may even be irrelevant and the current structure can hardly be described as operating as intended unless it inadvertently advocates androcide or democide. Indeed, it is underpinned by the precautionary principle or Vorsorgeprinzip, a German sociolegal term that reflects the medical profession maxim…..First, do no harm. 30–34
Substantive evidence, which includes significant issues such as, silicosis, the home insulation program, asbestos related diseases, the F-111 deseal reseal program and the resurgence of black lung indicates health and safety performance across Australia is rather abysmal. Moreover, if the current framework is operating as intended industrial manslaughter legislation is an unnecessary encumbrance. This raises serious concerns about the structure of Safe Work Australia, especially its leadership, tripartite arrangements, alleged independence and excessive ministerial influence. Any patronising disposition of unaccountable power must always be challenged and ministers, senior executives, public serpents or any other spineless panjandrums holding positions of economic, social and political influence must be asked the following five questions: 35–42
2) Where did you get it from?
3) In whose interests do you exercise it?
4) To whom are you accountable?
5) How do we get rid of you?
Any leader or minister who is unable to answer the final question does not live in a democratic system or believe in the process.
Tony Benn (1925 – 2014) 43
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Bernard Corden says
Q: Why don’t public serpents look out of their office windows in the mornings?
A: They would have nothing to do in the afternoons
Peter Collins says
Perhaps the review of the legislation should have started by asking the question “how did the legislation fail to prevent the Black lung, stone bench-top and mine dust incidents?” Or “if the legislation doesn’t need revision because it is working as intended how is it that the diseases were not prevented?” But of course then they would have had to address the elephant in the room, that you cannot legislate zero.
Great article Bernard.
Rob Long says
Well written Bernard.
It is telling that when Safety wants vision to look to the future in safety, that peak bodies look to regulators??? Like asking and engineer to give some expert commentary on art history or semiotics.
When I was in government we always knew that the scope of an enquiry and the agency we selected to conduct it gave us the ‘independent’ outcome we wanted. Smoke and mirrors and bingo, miracle, you get the everything your confirmation bias and sunk cost requires. It’s so easy to do and of course, one can fall behind any enquiry to ensure you do nothing.
The fact is, there is no vision coming out of the safety sector because it determines its definition of vision through the ideology of compliance (absolute zero) so that any questioning of orthodoxy is deemed demonic. and because there is no vision we see all these splintering factions and groups rising up in safety because they can’t find visions from within.
It is important in orthodoxy that nothing must move those things made sacred and made taboo in the temple of safety. These are regulation, legislation, standards, checklists, pyramids, bow-ties, matrices and a host of mumbo jumbo that get torn apart in the courts when safety actually has to give account of its delusions and mythologies in belief.
Meanwhile back in delusion land you can take any number of reviews needed to ensure that nothing changes and all the vested interests that really drive safety maintain their authority to administer harm as required under the guise of zero. It’s just that this harm is hidden from the non-discerning who don’t understand real risk, trade-offs and by-products. They are too busy filling out hazard registers and countless checklists as indoctrinated by a qualifications framework that supports the circular motions of orthodoxy so that nothing changes. and this methodology is working quite well as outlines by your paper.