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.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

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?

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

19 thoughts on “When dead workers weren’t quite so important

  1. Jim Reiher

    Our current leader of the Opposition was the Minister for Health under Howard. There were numerous unnecessary deaths in hospitals during that time. Did he think he was responsible? Should he have resigned?

    I don’t like Garrett. I don’t like his environmental compromises. (Maybe he is hamstrung by the Labor party… maybe he is just a shallow hypocrite). But on this insulation issue? He has been made a scape goat in a ridiculous argument that Labor should NEVER have entertained.

    When have ministers ever accepted responsibility and resigned because of deaths down the ladder of their portfolios? Maybe they all should. Or all shouldn’t. But to say some should and others don’t? Please….

  2. SBH

    And who gave us the Cole Commission? that would be Tony Abbott, the bloke bellowing about industrial manslaughter.

  3. klewso

    Yes it does seem a recently noticed novelty to the media, and it’s during a Labor tenure of government too.
    Just how “recent” can be judged by running a time-line of events over the last 12 months on this “hot (taking “8(?)” months from tepid to boiling) issue”, and the last 6 weeks in particular.
    The first of “those deaths” didn’t rate much “media” notice, nor the second, third or fourth, for a few days anyway, and in that meantime between that poor kid’s death and when Abbott and co; did take up their “righteous cause”, about the only thing of note happening politically was Barnaby Joyce, “Alternate Finance Minister”, running around drawing flak and embarrassing questions about the “economic management skills” of the Coal-ition – for so long “a given” in much of their media PR machine, coupled with the added embarrrassment of the way the country had actually fared in the GFC under Rudd Labor – if his mob got in again!

  4. Keith is not my real name

    But what would you know Bernard? you’re just an ex Public Servant. You are NOT a journalist remember? and don’t forget that the fact you have never filed a news story = lack insight process. 😉

  5. Silver BB's

    Abbott was Minister for Health 2003 – 2007 under which an ‘area for need’ program bought us this warning in 2004 :

    Hiring foreign doctors a worrying proposition, study finds
    By Mark Metherell, Political Correspondent
    October 4, 2004
    “The Federal Government’s “Strengthening Medicare” scheme to recruit foreign doctors may be weakening Australia’s medical standards, according to new research.”

    And through this program we got someone by the name of Jayant Patel, where Abbott managed to avoid scrutiny for a Federal program his department was responsible for.
    “Overall, Patel is linked to at least 87 deaths out of the 1,202 patients he treated between 2003 to early 2005, 30 of whom died while under his care in Bundaberg.”

    Well done to Australia’s media for a fair and balanced witch hunt politically motivated by News Corp. There is a pattern with this outfit :
    Van Jones, the US environment minister responsible for similar efficiency initiatives was smeared and vilified over trumped up and subsequently withdrawn charges by Fox News in September of 2009 which led to his resignation.

  6. Tom McLoughlin

    Delivery work driving down George St mid morning Sydney CBD. Must have been about 2007. Behind wire gate and wood panel facade an industrial bin was being lowered to ground from a serious height on heavy wire lines, in a confined sort of work site. It had metal scaffolding poles in it. The bin somehow started spining around maybe once every 2 seconds or so, too fast. A worker was standing mere feet from it’s trajectory – presumably to settle it when it landed. Only it landed with a thump and a skid and the scaffolding rods rattled around.

    I kept on driving, shaking my head. Not that queasy. Done a bit of mountaineering. Trekking up Kokoda on my own and stuff. To me that situation looked way dangerous and avoidable.

    Another time, driving down Bellevue Hill, with scaffolding 4 levels high on a residential flat building renovation. Strong fit tradesman/builder is swinging level 3 to 4 with bare hands, no harness, like on a monkey bar. That’s what’s known as easy grade but high exposure 80 feet over concrete in climbing parlance. Where was the harness, steps, rail, anything? It might be easy start of day. What about some moisture gets on the rail. Tired at end of session? Dangerous? Ought to be a law about it. Drive on shaking my head.

  7. Cuppa

    We will never know how many people lost pay, conditions, even their jobs under the Coalition’s SerfChoices, and how many of them took their own lives out of desperation.

    The Coalition and their cheerleaders should hang their heads in shame.

    Good article, Bernard. Your work is a refreshing breeze of difference to the dumbed-down groupthink drivel of the mainstream media.

  8. Kristian Karamfiles

    Hi Bernard. Love your writing. Seriously.

    However, when did “confected” become your word-of-the-week? I lost count, in Monday’s piece on Rudd’s self-flagellation and it popped up again today.

    What were you reading on the weekend?

  9. Vincent Matthews

    Why didn’t Rudd, Garrett, Combet and others in government and Labor and unions point out this distortion and deceit in the outburst of Abbott and Team? Why was Abbott pantomime allowed to run full time by media and pollies without being demolished by Bernard’s evidence freely available?

  10. michael crook

    Good article Bernard. I became radicalised to the left by spending 30 years in the construction and mining industry and seeing the complete absence of any interest in construction safety from employers in that time. I started as an administrator, then became a labourer (more money) and gradually worked myself up to project management roles on major construction projects, mainly mining and process plants.
    The point I would like to make though, is that it is the states that have been responsible for the regulation and enforcement of construction safety, not the feds. The states have never taken this role seriously and it is just as bad under Labor, especially in Queensland, as it ever was under the conservatives. This is why the role of visiting union organisers was so important for safety and why when those visits were stopped the accident and fatality rates increased. Ideologies can and do kill.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details