By Professor Michael Barry, Griffith Business School

The Howard Government is (in)famously remembered for introducing radical industrial relations changes (known as WorkChoices) that profoundly diminished aspects of workers’ long-established rights, and led that Government to its electoral loss in 2007. Nevertheless, an enduring and profound effect of the Howard Government was to take control of industrial relations away from the states under the power granted to the Commonwealth to regulate corporations (s20 of the Constitution).

The outcome is that Queensland’s industrial relations system now regulates only unincorporated entities and public sector industrial relations. Therefore, the Government’s own pay bargaining outcomes, and increases in the size of the public service as forecast in the Budget, are key employment issues affecting overall government expenditure.

Aside from this, the Queensland Government’s main responsibility for employment relations is through its regulation of occupational health and safety. OHS regulation and workers’ compensation are vital features of any employment relations system, and require substantial resourcing. This endeavour requires a mix of regulatory techniques, including educating and involving the direct parties in OHS, monitoring and enforcement of safety standards, and punishment for serious breaches.

In 2017, the Government commissioned a best practice review of OHS, which was in part a response to the tragedies that occurred at the Dreamworld and Eagle Farm worksites and that led to a new legal provision for industrial manslaughter. The review recommended that OHS regulation be re-focused to prioritise the role of inspection and compliance. The employment of new inspectors and upskilling of existing staff were key recommendations.

Indeed, given the geographical size and diversity of the Queensland economy, and a lack of other enforcement mechanisms such as a strong union presence in most workplaces, the magnitude of this task is not to be underestimated. Given all of this, it is curious that the Government has not included substantial investment for this activity in the Budget, preferring instead to focus on other employment-related initiatives, such as boosting employment of health services workers, and generating employment associated with major infrastructure spending.

Looking forward, the growth of non-standard forms of employment in the new economy, through platforms such as Deliveroo and Uber, also presents challenges for the Government in work and safety regulation. Currently it is the case that platform workers are not classed as employees, and importantly are not covered by Queensland’s workers’ compensation system. If the health and safety implications for these workers are all too real, it also means that health and safety regulation will need to keep pace with new forms of work and employment, and be firmly on the Government’s agenda.