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Thursday, 12 February 2015
Page: 703


Senator LINES (Western Australia) (19:21): Tonight I will speak about deaths in the construction industry in Australia, the number of which is very high. Last year 28 deaths occurred and this year, as we just go into February, one death has already occurred. That is 29 people in the past year who got up, went to work, kissing their families goodbye, and never came home. It is 29 lives gone and countless families, friends and work colleagues grieving for a needless workplace death and a life cut short.

And what has the Abbott government had to say about these deaths in construction? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. You would think for a government that has such a focus on the construction industry that these deaths and preventing future deaths would be at the forefront of its thinking. The construction industry is a high-risk industry, as described in the Getting them home safely report—a report of the ACT government. It is tough, dirty and dangerous. But the safety of workers in this industry is not the Abbott government's priority.

The point made in the Getting them home safely report about construction being tough, dirty and dangerous is reinforced by Dean Hall, a CFMEU official, in an op-ed piece that he wrote which was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and entitled 'Bad language is not the issue when people's lives are at risk'. In this piece, Mr Hall talks about these serious safety breaches in relation to maintenance standards for machinery and plant equipment. Mr Hall, when on site, has observed machinery and plant equipment that he believed would be a risk to anyone. He saw pool fencing panels wired together that any worker could have fallen through, as well as breaches of basic electrical safety putting workers at risk of electrocution.

Mr Hall talks about sites where every rule in the book is broken when it comes to safety: where corners are cut, risks are taken and safety laws are ignored. What Mr Hall wrote about and sees as part of his daily work was confirmed by the independent panel that wrote about and investigated safety in the ACT. Their report, Getting them home safely, has a number of key findings. What they said about the ACT construction industry—and the ACT construction industry is simply a microcosm of the industry across the country—is that it appears that no-one recognises that the safety record in the construction industry is so bad: that there is some kind of sense of inevitability about the occurrence of serious injuries; that people do not necessarily identify, assess and mitigate risks; that workplaces must adopt a safety culture, but that they have very little knowledge about how to do it—what the fundamentals are; and that the current 'can-do' culture that is responsible for many accidents certainly must change.

Of course, all of those attitudes and culture must change if more people working in the construction industry are to get home safely. And whilst the Abbott government demonises unions at every opportunity—particularly the construction union, the CFMEU—it is turning a blind eye to the real issues in the sector: issues that relate to the deaths of workers and issues that need urgent attention and solutions right now. But, unfortunately—or, perhaps, deliberately—the Abbott government has created so much political spin and so much hype about unions, that these urgent issues and the tragic deaths of workers—significant numbers of workers—are just being ignored by a government consumed with hatred for the trade union movement. Nothing is happening.

Whilst some may argue that the Getting them home safely report is just an ACT report, and has no bearing on the rest of the country, nothing could be further from the truth. The report outlines a range of safety issues which are echoed across the construction industry right across the country. And 29 deaths are something which should make all of us sit up and take notice; 29 deaths should tell us there is something seriously wrong in the construction industry around safety.

The Abbott government sinks millions each year into the Fair Work Building Commission and, indeed, in its first budget the Abbott government, which had all of us in Australia believing that it had to be on some kind of tight fiscal management, gave that agency an additional $5 million. Their budget is around $34 million each year. To do what? Certainly, not to pursue safety.

As Mr Hall outlined, the Fair Work Building Commission should be examining and resolving sham contracting, because in the ACT report sham contracting was the No. 1 recommendation that needed to be addressed to try to resolve some of these deaths and to try to fix some of the appalling safety records. The report also called for looking at phoenix companies, examining their flagrant disregard for safety. Yet, for all those millions of dollars of taxpayer's money going into the Fair Work Building Commission—and let us not forget the $5 million increase it got from the Abbott government—the Abbott government, in their anti-union spin, has made such a to do about nothing about bad language—bad language!—while ignoring 29 deaths. And the Abbott government is on the record as claiming that somehow safety issues were being used by unions as some kind of front to get on sites. That just shows us the ignorance of the Abbott government when it comes to understanding and appreciating the safety issues on construction sites. Twenty-nine deaths are nothing to be laughed about; 29 deaths are nothing to be ignored and 29 deaths are a long way removed from pursuing people for bad language.

And whilst the Getting them home safely report destroys that myth, so do the high number of deaths in the construction industry. It is long overdue for the Abbott government to take safety seriously in the construction industry, and it could start by looking at the 28 recommendations that are part of the Getting them home safely report

That report talks about setting goals, reducing serious injuries, building positive workplace cultures and creating cooperative workplaces. Never have I heard the Abbott government—not once!—since it has been in office talk about those sorts of positive outcomes. It continues to demonise unions, particularly the CFMEU, while these deaths go unnoticed. Well, the families of those workers are watching. They do want governments to do something about it. The time is long overdue for the Abbott government to get over its right-wing, Tea Party agenda and its hatred of unions and look seriously at the issue of safety on construction sites.