Hard lessons in Canberra's safety laws

The states may often squabble but that doesn't mean the Commonwealth is better placed to determine what is right for the nation, as the current OHS debate shows.

The Scouts Association has suddenly shown that Canberra is not prepared to face up to its own mistakes.

When people spend too much time in Canberra it often affects their judgement. This applies to politicians on both sides of the House, public servants and lobbyists.

Last week, The Australian revealed that Prime Minister Julia Gillard was threatening to revoke $450 million in payments to the states as punishment for stalling on national reforms.

And the biggest national reform was uniform occupational health and safety laws, which everyone agrees that, in principle, is a wonderful move that will improve productivity. So why would you need to threaten to punish states like delinquent school children for not doing something that was in their interest? It’s as though the prime minister thinks they are all stupid and will only do what is good for them if they are threatened with punishment.

The prime minister does not stop to ask why this ‘sensible’ proposal is being held up by the states that seem to want to be punished.

The simple answer is that the combination of third generation Canberra public servants and politicians who do not understand business and voluntary organisations made a mistake in the drafting, which I set out yesterday (Staving off an OHS catastrophe?, January 17). Ken Phillips showed how it will endanger volunteer bodies like the scouts and football clubs (OHS law tied in knots, January 17).

The scouts have shown up the flaws in Canberra’s OHS laws. Queensland and NSW (plus the territories) who have foolishly adopted these laws will find their scouts, football clubs, churches and a host of voluntary bodies under unnecessary pressure. The same will apply to businesses in NSW and Queensland.

The great advantage of the email sent to scouting bodies is that it highlights that Canberra is not always right. And indeed, when it meddles in state affairs it is often wrong.

Australia needs a lot of measures to improve overall productivity. The knowledge of what is required is usually in the states but, in fairness to the Commonwealth, the states often squabble. But the OHS debacle may teach the states that if they cooperate together they can achieve far better outcomes than those dictated by Canberra.

Watch this space.

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