Two controversial bills opposed by business have been passed into law by Parliament. The Health and Safety in Employment Amendment Bill takes effect on May 5 and most of the Local Government Bill takes effect in July. Local Government Forum chairman Rob McLagan said businesses would see the bills, with a boost in the minimum wage revealed this week, as negative and not helping New Zealand return to the top half of the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development (OECD). The forum, which comprises Business New Zealand, the Business Roundtable, Federated Farmers, the Property Council and the Forest Owners Association, has fought the Local Government Bill, which it claims will let councils get into non-core activities at the expense of businesses and the country. It had wanted a fresh start on revamping local government law.
Business groups spent a year opposing the health and safety law changes, which increase maximum fines five-fold, extend coverage to the maritime, aviation and rail sectors, and explicitly make stress and fatigue workplace hazards. The campaign failed to substantially alter the bill, which Business New Zealand called "anti-growth". Labour Minister Margaret Wilson said she was confident the bill was the best Christmas present many New Zealand families would ever get. "The bill marks the beginning of a new workplace culture designed to put an end to unnecessary injury, illness and death.
"For far too long, unhealthy and unsafe workplaces have put a toll on New Zealand families". She told Parliament on Friday that good employers and those treating health and safety as a priority had nothing to fear. The cost of workplace accidents was far too high in New Zealand, she said, and it was disappointing that opposition parties had insisted on scaremongering about the bill. Businesses have complained the bill has no definition of stress, increases the maximum fines, introduces instant fines, and allows workers greater participation in health and safety issues. They have also complained the stress and fatigue provisions will thwart efforts to boost productivity. But CTU president Ross Wilson called on employers to stop the rhetoric and work to make New Zealand workplaces safe.
"It is time we send a consistent message, from political, business and union leaders alike, that the present appalling death toll is not good enough and that urgent action must be taken by employers and employees to clean up unsafe workplaces. "And that must be backed up by strong laws". The constant stream of public attacks by employer spokespeople, Act and National had sent the wrong message to workplaces, he said. The Local Government Bill grants councils new powers and goals, which the forum says will end up costing business. McLagan said the concerns of businesses, which pay half of all rates, had been ignored. Reviews of the law promised for 2004 and 2007 were only a slight comfort.
The Government had failed to recognise the impact the law would have on its aspiration to return New Zealand to the top half of the OECD, McLagan said. he predicted councils would come under increasing pressure from special interest groups to fund new activities. The bill empowers councils to promote "social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being" without defining what these mean. Farmers have put the Government on notice that they would not tolerate funding the "dreams and schemes" of largely unfettered local authorities. Federated Farmers has already threatened a rates revolt if the bill is passed. Vice-president Charlie Pedersen said all farmers, and particularly the 8600 ratepayers who petitioned against the bill, would ask Local Government Minister Chris Carter to take personal responsibility when his assurances about the law were "found to be hollow".
In a speech in Parliament on Wednesday, Carter said the bill would not give councils unbridled power, as suggested by some commentators. "But it will bestow on communities the flexibility to act for themselves". Carter said the bill's passage was a great day for communities everywhere, which would now have more voice in local government. "An overhaul of the previous Local Government Act was long overdue and I am confident the new bill will have an immensely positive impact on New Zealand. "It will allow communities to express their differences rather than restrict them in a one-size-fits-all approach.".