Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to be rising today to speak to the bill before us, Bill C-5. It has a very long name, which I will not repeat.
Members will have heard my caucus colleagues who rose before me to affirm their support for this bill at second reading. I rise to affirm mine as well. However, like my colleagues, I do so not without reservation and not without the promise to do better when we get the opportunity in 2015.
Let me first deal with the positive. Bill C-5 represents the culmination of over 12 years of negotiations between the federal government and the provincial governments of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. It addresses a longstanding gap in legislation, one that has existed since 1992, related to occupational health and safety in the Atlantic offshore oil industry, by placing into the Atlantic accord's authorities the principles relating to occupational health and safety. In doing so, this bill effectively takes current occupational health and safety practices in that industry and codifies them in the form of legislation to be administered by provincial regulatory agencies.
The bill does a number of important things, but first and foremost it outlines the duties of occupational health and safety officers, and provides these officers with enforcement powers, warrant provisions, and inspection and investigation and other measures, in dangerous circumstances.
I mention that, notwithstanding my colleague's commentary earlier in this debate about the apparent conflict between those provisions and the budget implementation bill. It provides employees with the right to refuse to perform an activity that they have reasonable cause to believe is unsafe and affords the employees protection from reprisal for reporting unsafe conditions. This is the keystone to any occupational health and safety legislation. Further, the bill authorizes the relevant federal ministers to develop necessary regulations for both offshore work and the transit to and from that work.
All of what this bill would accomplish the NDP has called for in all relevant jurisdictions for many years. This bill stands for the benefits of a collaborative governance model, one that the government has not put into practice before, but one that sees the federal government and provincial governments working together to solve real problems and make meaningful change.
The bill leaves certain important work undone. The bill does not provide for either an independent stand-alone safety regulator or an autonomous safety division within the regulating petroleum boards.
The recommendation for an independent stand-alone safety regulator was made by the Hon. Robert Wells, as we heard this morning, as the result of his inquiry into the crash of the Sikorsky S-92A helicopter in March 2009, about 30 nautical miles from St. John's. That crash had but one survivor; there were 17 people who died.
Of this proposal, the Hon. Robert Wells wrote:
I believe that the recommendation which follows this explanatory note will be the most important in this entire report.
In making this recommendation, Wells looked to other jurisdictions and found that independent and stand-alone safety regulators were in place in Norway, the United Kingdom, and Australia, with a similar concept being developed, at the time, in the United States for offshore oil production in the Gulf of Mexico.
The oversight role which I am recommending would not conflict with the roles of other regulators, but it would when necessary enhance other regulatory measures. [...] Worldwide, the thinking and practices of safety have developed and changed greatly in the past quarter-century. In the C-NL offshore [Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador offshore oil industry], it is time for a new and comprehensive approach to offshore safety regulation.
He also suggested that should an independent safety regulator not be considered feasible, an alternative along these lines should be implemented: a separate, autonomous safety division of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board with a separate budget and separate leadership, an organizational structure designed to deal only with safety matters, and a mandate and the ability to engage expert advisers to assist in its regulatory tasks; and an advisory board comprising mature and experienced persons who are fully representative of the community and who are not connected to the oil industry.
My deep concern about the omission of action on either the recommendation for an independent, stand-alone safety regulator or its proposed alternative is not informed by my knowledge of the offshore oil industry or of the particular hazards to health and safety related to the work or workplaces of that industry. Rather, it is from a number of years representing workers and workers as supervisors, as broadly understood and defined under occupational health and safety legislation, in an industry with its own particular hazards, the electricity industry.
For those of us who do or have done this kind of work, there is a single principle that governs and motivates what we do, say, think, and propose. That principle is prevention. It is taking all opportunities to ensure that tragedies do not happen, and when they have happened, to prevent them from transpiring again.
The work is always about identifying hazards and risks and removing the hazards, or if removal is not possible, mitigating the risks posed by those hazards. The reason for that approach, that principle, is simple. We talk about workplace or occupational health and safety, but what we are really talking about when we talk about workers are moms, dads, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters. We cannot lose sight of that essential truth, because when understood in these terms, when it is understood that what we are doing is ensuring that mom or dad, son or daughter go home from work alive, then the value of prevention becomes, I dare say, obvious.
That responsibility for getting moms, dads, brothers, and sisters home every night falls on all of those in the workplace, most certainly. Occupational health and safety is a shared responsibility. Workers must care for each other, and part of doing so is sharing their knowledge and expertise with all parties in the workplace.
Fundamentally, this is an ethical issue. From knowledge of hazards and risks and knowledge of how to remove or mitigate those hazards and risks flows a duty, a legal duty, yes, but more fundamentally, an ethical duty, to save others from harm. That duty also falls on us here in the House and in all legislatures across this country at least as if not more heavily than it does on anyone or anything else, because we are uniquely privileged to have the power to respond.
That is indeed what this process is about in the House today: the bill and our ability to debate it, identify its shortcomings, and amend and improve it. In all of this is found our ability to do so much to ensure that moms, dads, brothers, and sisters make it home from work.
While we may all embrace the principle of the supremacy of Parliament, that does not obviate or in fact diminish in any way the onus on those who reject the very strong and clear recommendation put forward by the hon. Robert Wells to provide reasons for ignoring or rejecting that recommendation.
Therefore, we will send the bill forward, because in a sense, we have an obligation to. However, there is a question that remains outstanding, unanswered, which is why leave out that important recommendation? The onus to answer that question in a clear and compelling way, the onus to reject convincingly the arguments put forward by Justice Wells in his report, continues to rest on the shoulders of the government, at least until it becomes moot because a better government comes along to put in place that independent, stand-alone safety regulator that will make workers safer, because a mom, a dad, a son, or a daughter is more likely to come home from work because of its existence.