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Federal

Mar 3, 2010

When dead workers weren't quite so important

Thank goodness the press gallery is now focused on ministerial responsibility for workplace safety. It wasn't always that way.

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What a shame that the media has only recently discovered that people die in workplaces affected by Federal Government.  One can only wonder what might have been if we’d had similar levels of media confected fury in previous years.

Here’s an example.  The Howard Government’s response to the Cole Royal Commission into the building industry had been stymied by the Senate, but in September 2005 the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act, which tightly curtailed union activities and rights of workers to take industrial action in the construction sector, was passed by the Government’s new majority.  The Government also extended its National Code of Practice for the Construction Industry so that any firm wishing to tender for Commonwealth contracts had to apply the code across all their operations and to any sub-contractors they employed.

The legislation was effectively a declaration of war against the CFMEU and you didn’t have to be a Howard supporter to feel the union deserved what was coming to it.  Some of its branches had become a byword for industrial lawlessness and thuggery.

One of the criticisms of the Cole Royal Commission was that the CFMEU officials used safety concerns as a pretext for entering building sites and threatening industrial action.  Kevin Andrews’ Act and Code addressed that by severely limiting the circumstances in which union officials could act on safety issues, or in which construction workers could take industrial action over safety issues.

The only problem was that safety was not merely a pretext for union activity.  Construction is up with road transport and mining as one of the most dangerous occupations in the country.  And following the imposition of Andrews’ legislation and the extension of the building industry code, deaths in the constructions industry increased massively, from 3.14 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2004 to 3.86 in 2005, 5.6 in 2006, 4.48 in 2007 and 4.27 in 2008.

Andrews had insisted after his Bill was passed that safety in the industry was important.  He established a Federal Safety Commission for the industry, but gave it no significant enforcement powers, in contrast to the ABCC, which was given extraordinary powers to systematically violate the rights of those whom it targeted.

While unions naturally warned about the safety consequences of the Howard Government’s new regime, others did too.  In fact, an employer group, the Australian Industry Group, warned a Senate committee inquiry into the Bill in 2004 that “the incorporation of health and safety requirements within the Building Code (s.26(2)) and the application of the Building Code to all incorporated building contractors, has the potential to establish competing occupational health and safety standards and, accordingly, to compromise the OHS of employees …”

AIG was tragically vindicated in subsequent years. If workplace fatality rates had remained at 2004 levels, 50 fewer lives would have been lost in that period.

Despite clear warnings to the Minister that the changes would endanger safety, there was no media outrage or claims of a debacle.  Indeed, in mid-2007 The Australian was lauding the Government’s reforms.  The only mention of safety by The Oz was to note that fewer days had been lost due to “abuse of occupational health and safety issues”.  More dead workers didn’t get a mention.

But more deaths in the construction industry didn’t suit the media’s or the Howard Government’s narrative that the CFMEU was out of control, a latter-day BLF holding an industry to ransom.

So let’s try another example without the moral complexity of a much-reviled union.  Like the ADF’s decade-long inability to establish a credible and fair military justice system, or act to prevent s-xual and other forms of harassment and bullying in its ranks.

There were four substantial inquiries into issues relating to either flaws in the military investigation and justice system and/or the ADF’s handling of harassment and bullying — a 1998 Ombudsman’s Report, a 1999 Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade inquiry into military justice processes, a 2001 inquiry by the same committee into instances of military justice problems, and Justice Burchett’s 2001 inquiry into military justice. This time the press paid more attention, particularly to instances where ADF personnel had committed suicide following harassment or bullying.  Some of those incidents were investigated by state coroners as well.

That was all before the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee undertook a major inquiry that reported in 2005.  It was only after this inquiry, which heard harrowing evidence from families of soldiers driven to suicide by bullying, that the Government initiated major reforms.  The reforms included its decision to ignore the committee’s recommendation for a permanent court outside defence legislation, in favour of a military court.  That remains one of the Howard Government’s greatest bungles.

In 2006, the ADF revealed that, to its knowledge, 76 personnel had taken their own lives since 1998.

Again, no demands for ministerial resignations or political accountability from the press, from Robert Hill or his replacement, Brendan Nelson.  But that wouldn’t have fitted the narrative that one of the Howard Government’s strengths was its national security credentials and its mystical communion with Australia’s armed forces.

Fortunately, that’s all changed.  Now ministers, even if they substantially enhance the safety of an industry through the introduction of training and accreditation like Peter Garrett did, are responsible for deaths that happen in that industry and get pilloried for them.

Good thing the press gallery is finally on the job, eh?

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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