The tally of workers killed last year in industries the Abbott government is deregulating raises ominous questions. Not just about workplace safety, but also about hypocrisy in politics. The figures are grim.

Backgrounding this is the vigorous campaign by Tony Abbott himself — both in opposition and in government — to reduce constraints on businesses’ profit-making. “Australia is open for business” and “Australia is under new management” and “red tape is feeding into poor multi-factor productivity” and “a more productive economy is a less-regulated one” were mantras repeated endlessly.

Abbott insisted many times that “excessive regulation creates greater costs than benefits and discourages investment and the willingness to have-a-go”. He repeatedly promised, “every year, there will be a Deregulation Report tabled in the parliament and two sitting days will be dedicated to the repeal of redundant legislation and review of regulations”.

There were no caveats, no exemptions. Regulations safeguarding the environment were not exempt. Neither were regulations shielding consumers or preventing fraud. Nor those protecting workers’ wages, conditions and lives.

Preliminary figures for 2014 — still subject to some category tweaking — confirm the long-term trend of declining fatalities is continuing. But only barely, with 185 total deaths in 2014, compared with 187 in 2013. Outcomes are disastrous, however, in the two sectors the government has spruiked most aggressively: mining and construction.

Abbott told the Australia Israel Chamber of Commerce in July 2013, “there’s no reason why Australia can’t again be the world’s premier destination of mining investment once uncompetitive taxes and regulations are removed”.

Following many assurances that the compliance regime in mining would be relaxed, what happened to fatalities? Deaths rose in 2014 by 50% over the 2013 number, from 10 to 15. That is the highest tally since 2006, and is almost double the average of 7.8 per year for Labor’s last five years.

Construction is the second area Abbott has vigorously promoted. “I hope to be an infrastructure prime minister who puts bulldozers on the ground and cranes into our skies”, he said launching the Coalition’s 2013 federal election campaign. Construction deaths in 2014 increased a staggering 70% over 2013, up from 17 to 29.

It ought be noted that the figure of 17 construction deaths in 2013 was abnormally low. The average for the last five Labor years was 33. The average for the last five years of the Howard government was 39. But, it also needs to be noted that the rise in workers killed in mining and construction in 2014 was despite significant contraction in workforce and activity.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ figures on drilling metreage in mineral exploration show that, for the first three quarters of 2014, metres drilled in new and existing deposits declined 16%. Expenditure on that drilling, which includes labour costs, declined 30%. ABS engineering construction figures show that for the first six months of 2014 activity contracted 4% from a year earlier.

So have the construction and mining industries responded to Abbott’s gung-ho urgings and promises of reductions in red tape and relaxed their vigilance? We will find out in a few months when we see the coroners’ findings, data on prosecutions for breaches, penalties imposed and, of course, company profits. The initial figures for workers killed suggest this may be the case.

Why this is a raw area for many practitioners in workplace safety and observers of government hypocrisy is that the Abbott team, when in opposition, gained great political advantage from the shameless exploitation of the deaths of four young workers on the home insulation program (HIP), part of the Rudd government’s 2009-10 stimulus spending. The names of those men and the circumstances of their deaths were well publicised by the mainstream media and an opposition out for blood. Government ministers were directly blamed.

Less well publicised were the facts that the HIP insulated more than a million homes, that overall construction fatalities decreased in 2009 and, arguably, that the stimulus saved Australia from a devastating recession. So what will be the reaction of the media, the opposition and indeed the government to the additional 17 mine and construction workers killed in 2014 while those industries contracted markedly?

Royal Commission, anybody?

Peter Fray

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