construction industry economy

The recent Bureau of Statistics construction data was disastrous enough on its own. It showed building and construction investment has now declined for three financial years in a row. For the first time ever. 

When we match construction work done with fatalities in the sector, the hypocrisy and dereliction of duty of the Turnbull government reach new levels.

For the first six months of this year, construction deaths soared to 19. Equivalent to 38 in a calendar year, that is one of the worst outcomes on record. It is vastly worse when we look at the dramatic drop in actual construction output.

We know already that the rate at which construction workers were killed increased alarmingly straight after Tony Abbott became prime minister. We can now see the rate is accelerating under Malcolm Turnbull.

The disastrous data

For the first six months of this year, construction activity increased very marginally relative to the same period last year, though it remained well below the level for the first six months of all previous years since 2010.

The spike in fatalities, however, is vastly greater than can be explained by the puny 2.2% increment in activity.

The 19 fatalities to June 30 represent more than 44 deaths per 100,000 chain volume units of construction. That is up from 35.8 for all of 2016, 31.3 for 2015, 25.5 for 2014 and getting close to doubling the 24.7 average for Labor’s last three years.

In February, Crikey revealed the data from 2011 to 2016. With updates to some of those numbers from the ABS, this is the full picture to June 30 this year:


Engineering construction activity, seasonally adjusted, is found in ABS file 8755.0, Table 01 in column P. The chain volume estimates have eliminated the effects of price so reflect only volumes. Work Safe construction fatalities are located here and here.

Federal responsibility

There is no doubt the Coalition accepts that construction is a commonwealth area for claiming credit — and, hence, also copping the blame. Many times before the 2013 election, Tony Abbott promised: “There will be modern infrastructure under the next Coalition government. We want to see cranes over our cities. We want to see the bulldozers at work improving our roads.”

And again: “My friends, I hope that in a few years’ time people can say of Tony Abbott, he was an infrastructure prime minister.”  

The Coalition has also proclaimed that the federal government is culpable for any failure in duty of care in construction. In 2009 and 2010, MPs in the then-opposition, now the Turnbull government, made enormous political capital out of the tragic deaths of four young insulation workers. Tony Abbott blamed Kevin Rudd and his environment minister Peter Garrett personally for those fatalities. In February 2010, Abbott insisted that if Garrett had been a New South Wales company director, “he would be charged with industrial manslaughter”.

How has this come about?

While spruiking their ambitions to expand the construction sector, Coalition MPs explained how this would be achieved: by relaxing regulations that made life tough for construction bosses.

Tony Abbott specifically said: “Excessive regulation creates greater costs than benefits and discourages investment and the willingness to have a go.”

And: “They (Labor) want to put on new regulations and build new bureaucracies, we want to take the regulations off.”

Malcolm Turnbull has repeated and reinforced this mantra: “Deregulation, enabling businesses and individuals to pursue their own dreams, their own freedom, is the way to deliver the prosperity upon which all depends.”

It seems these have been taken as signals by construction corporations that it’s OK to relax their vigilance with regard to onerous regulations.

If this sounds harsh, what other explanation is there?

The cost in lives to June this year was 19. It is already up further to 20, with four months to go. There is no campaign from Canberra to address this accelerating tragedy. Nor, with most of Australia’s craven mass media steadfastly refusing to report these realities, is there any sign the Turnbull government is even aware it is unfolding.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey